Disclaimer: Characters not mine; back-story is mine. I'm not making money out of either, although if you want to use the latter, please ask me first.

This follows up While You Were Sleeping and Mother's Boy and will be followed up by Mother's Love.

Muchos gracias to Vanessa and Gamine for beta'ing.

Please offer feedback, it tells me how I've done.

~*~

Seventeen Again

Eric slowly eased down onto the couch, relieved to be home. Some of that relief was just from being discharged from hospital -- never Eric's favourite place to be -- but most of it was the relief of being around to be discharged from hospital. Being trapped in the rubble of a collapsed hotel had been bad enough, but the last thirty-six hours, trapped in a hospital bed with barely the energy to blink had been worse. That was over now, thankfully. The doctors had deemed him recovered sufficiently from the dehydration and physical burn out that he could go home.

Provided I take it easy and don't do anything 'stupid'. Eric pulled a face.

"OK?" Kimberly asked, presumably catching the grimace.

From the way she was standing, in the doorway of the living room, Eric knew she was trying desperately hard not to coddle him. It was role reversal -- she was viewing him as if at any moment he might break, as if he was made of glass. It was irritating, but what was more so was the fact that it wasn't so far from the truth. He sighed and forced himself to smile. "I will be."

Kimberly, for her part, smiled faintly. "Do you want a drink? Sandwich? Anything?"

"No -- thanks. I'm good." Kimberly chewed her lip. "Kim -- honest. I'm OK."

She smiled, although it did little to banish the shadows in her expression. "I need to go to the market and pick up some groceries. Ellie will be back in an hour, with Alice. Will..."

"Yes, I will be fine." The words sounded frustrated and slightly petulant and Eric instantly regretted the tone, particularly as Kimberly winced.

"I'm just... You scared me, Eric. You scared everyone."

Eric hung his head. "I know. I'm sorry."

"So you're going to have to deal with people mothering you."

He winced at the phrase. "Not something I've ever had a huge amount of."

There was an electric pause. Eric could sense Kimberly frowning at him. He knew she'd heard about the conversation -- if you could call it that -- between himself and Annie the morning before the attack on East Plaza, which probably meant...

"I've met her."

Three words that stunned Eric completely. He looked up and stared at Kimberly. "Huh?"

"Insightful," she commented, a slight smile on her face. "Your mom -- I met her. We talked."

"Oh." Eric hesitated. "What about?"

"You. East Plaza. The joys of being a single mom with no family support."

"She knows, then."

Kimberly gave a huff of laughter. "If you mean she knows who saved her life, yes."

"Oh." Eric wasn't sure how to take that piece of information.

"She understands why you lied about who you were," Kimberly continued.

"I couldn't do anything else," Eric admitted. "Not after...after being such a complete asshole."

Kimberly came to perch on the arm of the sofa. "Why did you react like that? You reacted better to meeting Frank Peterson than that..."

"And I'd had twenty-eight years of demonising him to overcome," Eric finished with a sheepish shrug. "It's complicated." Kimberly just gave him a steady look that said 'uh-uh -- you're not avoiding this one'. "When..." He sighed. "When all that shit went down with bel Abis and Lemont...and Peterson...when the dust settled after it, I found myself with a completely new life. No shadows, no ghosts, no..." Eric hunted for a way to put his thoughts into words. "I knew who I was, where I'd come from, and I didn't need to drag it around any more. It was a fresh start. I didn't want her...mom...to show up and drag everything back up again."

"And you didn't have any unanswered questions?"

"I didn't say that." Eric sighed again.

He stood up, suddenly restless. He found himself standing at the window looking out over the front yard without really knowing how he'd got there.

"Eric?" Kimberly's voice contained a note of query and more than a hint of worry. "What's wrong?"

He stared out at the yard, not seeing the little square of grass bordered by a gaily-coloured flower border. Instead he saw the neatly manicured lawn that lay just outside Billingsley Prep School's principal's office. "I was seventeen."

"What?"

Eric passed a hand over his face, as if to try and scrub away the memories. "I was seventeen when Billingsley kicked me out." He turned to see Kimberly looking puzzled. "I was accused of cheating. Someone had planted exam papers in my locker." She looked both stunned and appalled. "They weren't mine -- they were for Advanced Math, and my worst enemy couldn't accuse me of being that good at Math." A faint smile passed over Kimberly's face at that. "The principal believed me when I said they weren't mine."

"So where was the problem?"

"The problem was," Eric answered, "the school governors wanted to get rid of me." He turned back to the window.

"Over exam papers that weren't yours?"

"That was the excuse. Mud sticks. That sorta crap."

"But...?"

Again the memory of the view from the principal's office loomed large. It had been a sunny day. "But I didn't fit there."

"My hands are tied, Eric." The principal looked ashamed and dejected. "I argued for nearly a full hour on your behalf, but..."

"Eric? I don't think I follow."

He blinked. "Huh?"

Kimberly's hand came down on his shoulder and gently forced him to turn back towards her. "Eric?"

He sighed. "The governors didn't like the fact that I was a ward of the state. They didn't like the fact that I was from where I was from. They didn't like that I was mixed race. But they put up with all that because I was slated to be one of their top students."

"Honey, you're not making sense."

"No. I suppose I'm not." He offered a faint smile. "Never really sorted through it all in my head." He allowed Kimberly to lead him back to the couch. "Back then because it hurt too much. Later because it just didn't seem worthwhile. Why drag it all up?"

Kimberly took his hand in hers as they sat down again. "Start from the beginning," she coaxed.

"Mom walked out on me." He paused, collecting his thoughts. "We had nearly a year of something that verged on a normal mother-son relationship...more or less from the time when I got the letter about the scholarship to Billingsley. She...she really made an effort when I went for the interview -- she had to accompany me...forget why, exactly. And afterwards...it was like she'd just suddenly snapped out of whatever it was that had been going on for the first fourteen years of my life. She got a job -- just a flipping burgers kinda thing, but it was the first time I'd ever seen her earn a pay cheque. She actually remembered my birthday for the first time in...I don't know how long. She came to a karate tournament. We went to a Star Wars marathon," at that, Kimberly smiled. "It's all really minor stuff..."

"No it isn't," Kimberly cut in gently. "Not if it's important to you."

He stroked his thumb over the back of her hand. "Maybe."

"No, not maybe. Definitely."

Eric offered a faint smile. "And then she walked out on me. Not as straightforward as that, I know -- she did her best to make sure that I would be OK...but she still left. It wasn't the straw that broke the camel's back -- that was probably Kosovo -- but it sure didn't do that ol' camel's back much good." He looked down, feeling Kimberly's gaze dissect him.

"What did you do?" she asked, in the tone of voice she reserved for when she suspected he'd done something particularly dumb.

He looked back up and met her gaze. "You're right. It was dumb." She lifted her eyebrows as if to say 'no surprise there'. "I...closed myself off from everyone. If they couldn't get close to me, they couldn't hurt me."

To his surprise, Kimberly smiled back. "You know, that isn't dumb." He just stared, stunned. "What I mean is, yes -- it's not exactly a good idea, but it's understandable." He felt her squeeze his hand a little.

He smiled. "It might be understandable, but even I know, now, it was dumb. As Wes'll tell you, I turned into someone no-one in their right mind would like or want to know. I'd heard the sniggers and the jibes and the...the name calling from the other kids in the school. The Welfare Kid, they called me. I tried to tell myself that I didn't care. But the night I heard about what mom'd done..."

"You aren't fit to be here."

"You're beneath this school's standard."

"You're a mongrel."

"You're a Chink."

"You're a half-blood bastard no-one wants, least of all this school."

"Eric?"

He jumped, barely aware he'd stopped talking. The memory was so strong.

"Eric, what happened?" Looked up and saw concern in Kimberly's face. "What did they do?" she asked softly.

"All they did was talk. It landed them up in the emergency room." Eric tried to smile but the expression wouldn't come. "Four of them. I put two of them into hospital, put the other two into plaster. After that, they just talked behind my back. Didn't mean I didn't know it was going on, just meant I wasn't likely to pound the snot out of them."

Kimberly winced. "That's..."

He shook his head. "I knew then that beating the crap out of them was wrong. Hideo Koto had drilled that into me. I felt as guilty as I've ever done afterwards. But I'd do it again in a heartbeat. Even knowing what it ultimately led to." He sighed.

"What did it lead to?"

"There and then, a week's suspension and a bunch of permissions being revoked -- stuff that wouldn't mean a great deal to anyone who wasn't actually at Billingsley." At that Kimberly nodded. "Would have been worse but there were a bunch of people who word-for-word reported what'd been said to me before I hit the four of 'em. Principal judged it was provoked. Maybe it should have been worse. If they'd kicked me out then..." He shook his head. "I had time to think during that week. I decided that I was going to show them. I came back to school and focussed on work. I'd gotten there by hard work, I was damn well gonna prove that."

The restlessness was back and he moved to stand up, but Kimberly didn't let go of his hand. "What happened, Eric?"

"I made enemies." There was an understatement. "I didn't kow-tow to the popular crowd. I didn't obey the law of the jungle. I cut my own path and to hell with the rest. I pissed off probably just about every single member of my class and probably most of the kids in the whole school. Daddies' boys told tales and I missed out on things that should have been mine. I should have been awarded a place on the honour roll for my academics in freshman year. Didn't get it because of a 'poor disciplinary record'. Should have got one at the end of sophomore year too -- didn't, though. I can't remember what the excuse was that year. I didn't care, though." He smiled faintly. "Because I was doing what I set out to. I was showing them."

"But you'd made enemies." It was a statement, not a question.

Eric nodded. "I'd put it down as being paranoia, and I've had plenty of that, except that Wes and I talked about it all...well, he talked, I listened." Kimberly smiled at that. "And it wasn't just in my head. He saw stuff -- heard stuff -- that I didn't know about. They tried to drag him into it." At this, Eric found himself smiling genuinely. "I don't know what his actual words were, but knowing Wes, I'm betting they were creative."

Kimberly giggled. "I can imagine, somehow."

Eric's amusement died. "I don't know why he didn't take their side. Not as if I didn't give him enough cause to hate me."

"You were his friend." He had no answer to that. "You might not have seen yourself as that, but you were. And are."

"Can't argue about that now. Though don't think I didn't try."

"That figures." Kimberly squeezed his hand again, smiling to take away any sting there might have been in her words. "So what happened in your junior year?"

"The Daddies' Boys caught up to me. One of the ones I'd put in plaster, his daddy became a governor. I can't prove that Mitchell Laurie was the one who planted the Math paper in my locker -- in fact, I'm almost positive it wasn't him. He'd have had a lackey to do it, in case they got caught. He was sneaky like that." He tried to smile, but again it wouldn't come. "Particularly after I broke his wrist."

"This was revenge for that?" Kimberly asked.

"Amongst other things," Eric agreed. "Three weeks after my seventeenth birthday, Billingsley kicked me out."

"But you didn't do it!"

"And that mattered?" He shook his head. "Between John Laurie and one or two others on the board of governors, there was no love for the welfare kid on that body. Sure I got good grades, I was raining on the parade of their one-and-onlies. More to the point, I was a complete asshole. The only people who didn't get shit off me were the teachers -- and not all of them. They had themselves a cast-iron reason to get rid of me with that exam paper, why let a few facts stand in the way?" He shook his head again. "I knew it was coming. I probably knew it before the principal did -- nice guy, he was. Way too nice for the politicking and ass-licking that went with that scene. I knew it was coming...and knew it was one more thing in my life that had gotten screwed up." He looked down at their joined hands. "And I blamed mom for it. Everything that went wrong in my life, it was her fault. But that...being thrown out of Billingsley...that was the worst."

He waited, expecting Kimberly to say something. When she didn't, he looked up and saw a speculative expression on her face, as though a few things were finally beginning to make sense.

"I know that it wasn't really anything to do with mom. I got myself kicked out," he continued. "But at the time...it was just easier to blame her. And I guess I never stopped." He looked down again, memories of a much more recent confrontation loomed large. Seeing the fear on Annie's face. The fear, shock and determination on Gina's. "Seeing her again brought it all back. Brought back everything that I'd tried to leave behind. Made me feel like I was seventeen all over again."

"You and she really need to talk," Kimberly observed.

"I know." Eric sighed. He itched to pinch the bridge of his nose but that was a habit he was doing his best to break.

"Can you forgive her?"

"I don't know."

"More to the point," Kimberly continued, standing up and releasing his hand, "can you forgive yourself?" She bent down and dropped a tender kiss on his lips. "I have to go to the market. Sure you'll be OK?"

It was a subject change -- one he was more than ready for. Eric smiled. "Yeah. I'll be fine."

Kimberly nodded. A moment later and she was gone, door banging behind her. A moment later still and Eric heard the sound of the SUV starting up and pulling away. She wouldn't be gone long, he knew, but as a wave of tiredness swept over him, probably more than long enough for him to doze off.

Could he forgive himself?

He shook his head, this time at himself.

No, he'd still be awake when Kimberly returned. Now that his mind had latched onto that question it wasn't going to let up and he knew it was the sixty-four thousand dollar question. Forgiving Annie was easy. Even as he'd offered his uncertain response to Kimberly, he had realised there was only one solution to that question, and that was in the positive.

Forgiving himself, on the other hand, would be tough.

Could he do it?

Could he finally, truly let go?


~ENDS~