Disclaimer: Wes, his father and Eric don't belong to me, nor does the idea of Billingsley Prep School. They're borrowed from BVE without permission; no harm, no foul, no money made. Everyone else belongs to me, and while I can't imagine why you'd want to borrow most of them if you do, please ask me first.

This is a part of the Identiverse, but it's set ten years prior to the start of Identity/PRTF so you don't need to have read any of that to get this.

With extremely grateful thanks to Gamine for patiently picking out the nits and to Cmar for the inspiration, feedback and patiently putting to the sword my English-isms...

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

~*~

School Daze

Wes wandered somewhat aimlessly through the Billingsley grounds. The new school year didn't officially start until the following day. Today was a day for administration and unpacking -- but as Wes had been in Santa Barbara since Monday (his father was taking a two week business trip to Europe and he'd wanted to make sure Wes was safely ensconced at school before he'd left), he'd long since dealt with his unpacking and the administrative tasks, which left him at something of a loose end.

"Wes!"

Turning round, Wes spotted one of his classmates frantically trying to catch up to him. He stopped and waited for the other boy, Evan Smith, to reach him. "Hey -- 'sup?"

"Blofeld is looking for you," Evan answered.

Wes blinked. "Huh? Me?" Blofeld was Principal Fredricks. Some wit, in the dim and distant past of the school, had noted that Fredricks was not only bald but also owned a white cat -- the two trademarks of the classic James Bond villain -- and the nickname had stuck. "Why does he want me?"

Evan shrugged. "God knows -- just asked me to find you."

"I can't be in trouble already," Wes mused.

"Well, perhaps if you go to his study, you'll find out," Evan retorted. "No good asking me -- I'm just the messenger."

Wes rolled his eyes. "And gee, I hadn't figured that out for myself." He shook his head. "Guess I'd better be going."

Evan gave a grunt and headed off on his own concerns. Wes, meanwhile, headed for the main school building and Principal Fredricks' office. There tended to be only two reasons people got called to the principal's office. One was if they were in trouble -- and with the school year not officially begun yet, Wes knew that wasn't the reason. The other was if there was a new pupil who needed looking after. As much as possible, though, that sort of thing went to people from the same area as the new pupil. Given the social circles that pupils came from they normally knew one another already, which -- as far as the school authorities were concerned -- made life easier. But it couldn't be that either, because none of the people Wes knew from Silverhills were coming here.

He knocked on the door.

"Enter."

Wes opened the office door and stepped in. Principal Fredricks was seated at his desk, arms folded, while in front of the desk, with his back to the door, was a dark haired boy. New kid? Wes wondered, instantly curious.

"You wanted to see me, sir," Wes said.

Fredricks smiled. "Yes. This is Eric Myers," he began, nodding to the other boy. "He's new here this year -- and from Silverhills. I'd like for you to show him the ropes, please."

"Yes, sir." Wes nodded.

"Eric," Fredricks continued, "this is Wesley Collins -- he'll show you where to go and what to do."

"Thank you, sir," Eric answered, his voice soft. He half turned to look at Wes. "Hi."

The expression on Eric's face, paired with the soft volume of his words, told Wes the other boy was shy. Putting his most reassuring and friendly smile on, Wes said, "Hi -- pleased to meet you." He glanced at Fredricks and judged that the interview was now over. "Lemme show you around."

A few moments later and they were both out in the hallway. "Have you done your unpacking and stuff?" Wes asked. Eric nodded. "Well -- that case..." he glanced at his watch. "Lunch is in about an hour. How 'bout I give you a quick tour...have you picked up your class schedule?" Eric shook his head. Wes grinned. "You don't say much." Eric shrugged -- though there was something of a smirk to his expression this time. "OK. We'll pick up your schedule -- then I can show you where some of the classes'll be...the common rooms, library -- stuff like that. Sound OK?" Eric nodded -- grinning this time. Wes rolled his eyes. "You had to be a joker."

Eric offered a slightly apologetic shrug. "Sorry."

Wes grinned and started to lead Eric along the hallway, making for the faculty office. "Don't worry about it." They walked on for a few moments, then Wes' innate curiosity got the better of him. "So...you're from Silverhills?"

Eric looked amused. "Yep."

"Which part?"

"Southside."

Wes stopped and stared at the other boy. Southside was not a particularly well heeled part of Silverhills. Not as rough and sleazy as the dockside area, it was an area that was -- as his father might put it -- decidedly lower middle class. How on earth is someone from there affording the fees for here? Wes found himself wondering.

"It's a scholarship," Eric admitted quietly. "I'd still be at the public high school otherwise."

Wes found himself staring again, this time, though, in admiration. "You got a scholarship? Wow. My dad wishes I was that good." Eric looked slightly puzzled by this. "I'm not good at academics. I'm not bad, either -- I'm just...average. But you -- wow!"

Eric blushed. "I don't think I'm that good. I just work hard," he mumbled.

"Take it from me," Wes advised. "If the board here've given you a scholarship, you're good." Eric was now almost crimson. "It's true."

"Maybe."

At that point, the conversation was forced to halt as they'd reached the faculty office. Wes knocked on the door. There was a pause -- long enough for Eric to regain his normal colour -- then a voice from within told them to enter.

Wes led Eric into the office, then stepped back to allow the faculty administrator to speak to Eric and deal with the schedule, which gave Wes some time to assess his first impressions. Eric seemed like a nice guy. Bit on the quiet side and obviously fairly shy, but a nice guy. It wasn't much to go on, but Wes had a feeling that given a little time they were going to be good friends. And with Eric, it would have nothing to do with who Wes' father was.

Then something the faculty administrator was saying caught his attention: "...you have two sessions a week scheduled with Master Matuso -- one on a Wednesday afternoon and then again, on Saturday mornings. Wednesdays is one-on-one coaching; Saturdays is a group training session."

Wes' appreciation of Eric went up another notch. Master Matuso was a member of the Phys-Ed faculty and the school's irascible martial arts teacher. He taught several forms and for you to be given a one-on-one coaching slot with him meant you had to be very, very, very good -- or show the potential to be. No amount of money or pull would make him waste his time with someone who had simply opted to do martial arts because it was the 'in' thing. And generally speaking, it was unheard of for a new boy to be automatically given one of the much coveted coaching spots, good or not.

Wes himself had been studying with Master Matuso since he'd started at the school, but there had been no suggestion of any one-on-one coaching so far -- and Wes doubted there would be. He was no slouch, but Wes didn't have the drive -- or ambition -- to be the best of the best; it was just something he did because he preferred it to football or basketball. And yet, for all that, he couldn't help but feel a solitary stab of jealousy at the knowledge that Eric was being just handed that spot -- and if he felt it, what would some of the others taking martial arts feel when they learned of it?

Wes shivered. Looked like this could prove to be a very interesting term.

~*~

The first few days of any term were a shakedown period. Classes were little more than introductory sessions to ease newcomers into the routine while assignments were kept to a minimum.

Wes looked after Eric as much as was possible -- making sure the other boy didn't get lost in the sprawling grounds between classes -- and given they were in many of the same classes, it became increasingly apparent to Wes that Eric was going to have problems.

Eric was extremely hard working. He was also, as Wes had already guessed, extremely good academically. Which shouldn't have been an issue -- except that it was painfully obvious that Eric was going to be leading most of the grade lists when the serious work began, and that fact set a few noses out of joint. Many of the previous leaders had been unchallenged since fourth grade and they'd come to consider it their position of right.

Then there was the martial arts issue.

Though, Wes mused as he reviewed events, that should have been laid to rest yesterday.

'Yesterday' had been the first Saturday of term -- and the first group training session. If the rest of the staff were prepared to ease the new school year in, Master Matuso was emphatically not.

"You are here to work," he had snapped out when someone had dared to complain at the hundred sit ups they were required to do at the start of the session, "and work you shall."

Eric had already provoked a few raised eyebrows by being a black belt -- something that was almost unheard of for a member of the freshman class; at least at this end of the school year. There were a few people with purple belts -- Wes amongst them -- but nothing higher and some wit had been moved to suggest Eric had stolen the belt from someone else.

If that accusation had been levelled at Wes, Wes was well aware that he would have at the very least hotly denied it. Eric had simply shrugged.

"If you say so," had been his response.

With the sit ups, a few more eyebrows were lifted. Eric was, Wes decided, obnoxiously fit. When the whole rest of the class were groaning and complaining over them, Eric had simply got on and done them -- without breaking a sweat. And then, when they'd been paired off for sparring, it became readily apparent that no, the black belt wasn't stolen. Eric really was that good.

By the end of the session, Eric had the respect of most of the class. The talent and skills weren't backed up by any form of arrogance but by a very obvious, hard work ethic. Also there was a sense of approachability to the way Eric worked, and more than one person had, after the session, asked if they could spar with him the next week.

On the basis of the skills demonstration, Wes could completely understand why Eric had been handed one-on-one coaching with Master Matuso. So could anyone who'd been in the class and who cared to think about it.

Unfortunately, there was a minority, headed by Peter Vincent and Matt Elliott, who refused to be swayed. And seeing as one or two of that minority already had their noses out of joint thanks to Eric's academic skills, there was little chance of them being quiet in their discontent.

Wonder if Eric can be as cool under their brand of pressure as he was over that black belt thing, Wes mused. Guess we'll see...

~*~

As the first full week of term ran through, things unfolded much as Wes had expected. Peter and Matt were thoroughly obnoxious; Eric did his best to ignore them -- and their entourage. Unfortunately as the week wore on, it was increasingly obvious that the loudmouths were getting to the new boy.

He had started the week with the same kind of shy, but essentially happy demeanour that Wes had noted on their first meeting. By the time Friday rolled around, most of that happiness had evaporated, leaving behind a resigned air. As if this was something he'd gone through before.

"I've never been Mr Popularity," was Eric's response when Wes asked. "Don't worry about it -- they'll quit eventually."

But Wes did worry about it. Having been a target for Peter and Matt himself, he had a pretty fair idea of how the duo worked and he had a nasty suspicion that Eric's background was probably going to provide the duo with many more targets. And even if Eric didn't seem to be particularly sensitive about it, Wes didn't see why anyone should have to put up with it, least of all someone Wes was rapidly considering to be a good friend.

Sure enough, by Friday afternoon, the jibes had taken on a much nastier tone and Wes' temper with Peter and Matt was dangerously frayed. The final straw came when Peter walked by the table Wes and Eric were sitting at in the library making a start on one of the weekend's assignments.

"I hear," he said conversationally, "your mom'll screw anything on legs and doesn't have the brains to charge."

Eric looked utterly poleaxed by the accusation and turned so white, Wes was almost sure he was going to faint.

Peter's snicker drew Wes' attention away from Eric and back to Eric's tormenter. As Peter turned to walk away, Wes found himself on his feet, confronting the bully.

"You know," Wes snapped, "you'd think you'd have gotten brains some place in the last three years. Guess you haven't."

"Collins, butt out," Peter shot back. "This isn't your business."

"I've made it my business."

"And what're you gonna do?" Peter wanted to know. "Run to daddy?"

Wes loathed that accusation. It was the last course of action he ever took, because generally, if it took his father's intervention for him to be able to do something, he didn't want to do it. He wanted to get through on his own merits. Before he'd even consciously thought about it, he was stepping towards Peter, intending to put the record straight.

A hand clamped itself on his shoulder, stopping him. Looking round, Wes found himself staring at a still pale-looking Eric, who was shaking his head.

"Don't," he said quietly. "Not worth the effort or trouble."

"You should listen to the Jap," Peter put in.

Wes heard a low growl and for the first time, he realised Eric wasn't in danger of fainting, he was simply very, very angry.

"I'm going to give you a piece of advice," Eric said, no trace of the shyness now. This was someone not to be messed with. Even Peter winced. "Say what you want about me. But if you ever, ever talk trash about my mother again and you can kiss your ass good bye. And, not that it's any business of yours, I'm part Chinese, not Japanese. If you'd like to breathe out of the back of your head, you just keep up the racist slurs."

"Are you threatening me?"

"It's not a threat," Eric retorted turning to leave. "It's a promise."

Leaving a completely stunned Peter standing open mouthed, Wes followed Eric out of the library.

"Eric -- wait up!"

Eric paused, though every line of his posture screamed that he was maintaining a grip on his temper by only the narrowest margin. "Wes, I don't need you to fight my battles for me."

Wes shrugged. "You're my friend -- it's what friends do."

"Maybe." Eric sighed and the tension suddenly bled from his shoulders, leaving them to slump dejectedly. "You don't need to." He turned to look at Wes. "But thanks." He managed a semblance of a smile. "Take it you have a history with Tweedle Dum too?"

"I handed his ass to him in sixth grade."

Eric looked amused. "Maybe I should have left you to hit him."

Wes managed a faint smile. "Like you said, he's not worth it. Man was my dad pissed."

Eric gave a quiet chuckle as they started to walk once more, heading in the direction of the common room, but as Wes took a sidelong look at Eric it was obvious the anger was still simmering.

"You want to talk about it?" Wes offered.

"Not really."

"Want to go beat the crap out of something?"

"Yeah -- unfortunately, that would probably get me expelled."

Wes snickered. "I meant did you want to maybe spar or something."

A thoughtful look crossed Eric's face. "You'd be up for that?"

"Sure." Wes nodded. "No holds barred."

"Are you sure?" Eric sounded doubtful.

"I'm sure." Wes smiled. "Be fun."

Master Matuso, for all his grouchiness, was willing for his high ranking students to have out of hours access to the martial arts studio so that they could practice. Keys were available to the students once they attained their purple belt, and provided Master Matuso was convinced the privilege wouldn't be abused. Wes was one of the trusted few -- though he had little doubt Eric would soon number amongst them -- so fifteen minutes later they were both in the martial arts studio, ready to have the impromptu sparring match.

"Are you sure you want this to be no holds barred?" Eric asked as he stretched in preparation.

Wes grinned. "Yes -- already. Though if it'll make you feel better, I'll wear a head guard."

Eric nodded. "It would."

Wes selected one of the head guards stored in the small closet just off the main studio and started to fit it. "Figure," he said, "that I'll learn more if you're not holding back."

Eric's eyebrows lifted. "Learn more?"

"In defeat, there is knowledge," Wes replied. "One of Matuso's favourite mantras."

"Y'know, if you go into this thinking you're gonna lose..."

Wes grinned as he checked the head guard was secure. "I'm an optimistic realist. I'd like to think I'm going to be able to get you -- I also know I'm gonna eat a lot of mat."

Eric shook his head, grinning all the same. "You're nuts. You know that?"

"Yup." Wes moved to stand ready. "Set?"

"Ready when you are."

They turned to face each other and bowed, then settled into mirror-image defensive stances. For a moment, neither of them moved.

Wes' only clue the attack was coming was a minuscule shift in Eric's balance. It was a warning, but as Eric lashed out with a vicious kick designed to separate Wes' head from his shoulders, it was barely enough of one. Wes managed to block the kick, but even as he defended that, Eric was following through with a hard left hand-right hand combination and while Wes managed to block the left, the right snuck through to connect firmly with his chest, knocking him back several paces.

Round one to Eric.

They both settled back into their respective stances. Not prepared to wait this time, Wes made the first move, darting forwards and throwing a combination of punches that actually forced Eric to fall back. Not willing to give up what small advantage he had, Wes continued to press forwards and was rewarded for his persistence as one of the blows crept through Eric's defences to crack the other boy on the jaw.

Round two to Wes.

"Son of a..." More startled than angry, Eric trailed off and wiped a hand across his mouth, obviously feeling for damage.

"OK?" Wes asked.

Eric nodded. "Busted lip." He smiled. "Good one."

"Well -- figure I gotta get one good one in," Wes shot back.

Grinning, Eric settled back into his stance. Wes followed suit, but he was barely ready when Eric came at him using an almost identical combination of punches as Wes had just used, except that they were delivered at twice the speed. Unable to defend properly, Wes found himself being driven back and frantically trying to retain his balance under the force of the blows. One, a vicious left, caught him on the side of his ribcage, then another, a hard right, caught him on the point of his chin, snapping his mouth shut and making him see stars.

Eric dropped back as Wes blinked, trying to clear his vision.

Round three to Eric.

"You OK?" Eric asked, even as Wes gently worked his jaw a couple of times, testing to see if it was broken.

Judging it wasn't -- thanks to the padding in the head guard -- just very bruised, Wes nodded. "Remind me never to bust your lip again!"

Eric smiled, though there was, Wes noted, a certain amount of relief in the expression. "That's why you wear a mouth guard."

"You sound like Matuso on a bad day."

"But you still have all your teeth."

"You wanna talk or you wanna spar?" Wes shot back, smiling and preparing once more.

"Spar."

Eric lunged forward even as he spoke, presumably hoping to catch Wes off guard again, but Wes had been expecting the move and this time, he was more able to defend. Punch met block. Kick met block. And the longer the exchange went on, the more confidence Wes had. He started to return fire with some offence of his own. He fired off a round-house kick that forced Eric into a hurried duck, then followed up a right-left combination that sent the other boy back a couple of paces.

"Playing tricky, huh?" Eric muttered, a ruthless smile creeping onto his face.

Wes didn't bother responding. Instead, he followed up with another hard right hand blow. This time, Eric caught the punch. Before Wes could react, Eric tightened his grip and twisted. It was a quick jerk, and combined to a carefully placed ankle hook, Wes found himself somersaulting through the air and landing on the mat.

Match to Eric.

"Ow," said Wes.

"You OK?" Eric asked, looming over Wes, the expression of concern somewhat at odds with the ruthless look that had been in place barely moments before.

Wes smiled tiredly. "Just winded." He summoned the energy to sit up. "Good match."

Eric dropped gracelessly to the mat beside him, grinning now. "Yeah -- yeah, it was."

"Of course," Wes continued, smile turning to wry grin, "there was never any danger of you not winning."

Eric chuckled. "Don't put yourself down. The last person who got close enough to me to bust my lip's the current State champion."

"Y'mean you're not?!" Wes exclaimed.

"Not what?" Eric looked puzzled.

"State champion -- I sorta figured..." Wes shrugged.

Eric shook his head. "Lost in the final -- though he got lucky with his semi-final opponent. My match went the full distance; his barely went two minutes thanks to his opponent falling badly and breaking his ankle." Eric shrugged philosophically. "Still no bad achievement I guess."

"You guess!" Wes snorted. "No guess about it."

"Maybe."

"No maybe about it." Wes shook his head. "I'd love to have a shot at the championships -- but there's no way Matuso would ever put me in for it."

At that, Eric's eyebrows lifted. "Why not? You're easily good enough."

"I'm a dilettante. I do this because it beats the hell outta football," at which Eric grinned, "but I guess I don't work at it -- it's not..." Wes shrugged. "Guess it's not my life."

"Well, for a dilettante," said Eric, "you ain't half bad."

Wes smiled. "Thanks." There was a pause in conversation while Wes undid the head guard and took it off before spitting out his mouth guard. "Can I ask you a question?"

"Sure -- and you can have another one, free, if you like."

Wes grinned. "Thanks." He looked down at the mouth guard. "I guess, I'm a little confused. You said to Peter you were part Chinese..."

"M'mom's at least half Chinese," Eric stated quietly. "She might be the whole way -- I don't know. She changed her name...and mine...when we moved to Silverhills." Wes nodded. "I don't know the full story...guess she and her parents argued. Probably about me."

Wes winced. "I'm sorry -- I didn't mean to pry."

Eric shook his head. "De nada." He rolled back to his feet and held a hand out to Wes. "From you, I don't mind."

~*~

Things didn't get any better. Peter and Matt stepped up their campaign; Eric retreated into himself. Wes wished he could do more to stop this whole mess, but there didn't seem to be much he could do.

That didn't prevent him from doing what he could.

By the middle of the second week of the school year, the entire freshman class was split into three camps. On the one hand, there was Peter and Matt and their entourage of airheads and elitist idiots who considered Eric trash with no right to be at such a hallowed place as Billingsley Prep School. On the other were Wes and Eric. Between the two sides was the remainder of the year, who had decided that Peter and Matt held most of the power in the struggle. Some of them, Wes suspected, probably disliked Peter and Matt almost as much as he did, they just didn't want to risk becoming targets.

If their reaction was understandable, Eric's was emphatically not. As the second week progressed, and things got even worse, the other boy said,

"Why are you still here?"

Wes looked puzzled. "Not sure I know what you mean."

"I mean," said Eric softly, "why are you still talking to me?"

"Why wouldn't I be?" But then the penny dropped. Wes shook his head and wondered, not for the first time, just what had happened to Eric in the public school he'd been at before Billingsley. "Eric, you're my friend. Friends stick by one another." At that, Eric stared. "What?" A sudden, horrible thought occurred to Wes. "You've had other..." But the pain in Eric's expression told the whole story. "Oh." Wes felt awkward.

Eric did too, to judge by the awkward shrug he gave. "'Sok." Then he smiled. "I guess I really mean that -- it is OK."

"It is?" Wes echoed, puzzled.

"Someone told me it would be different here," Eric explained. "And...I guess it really is -- I'm not facing this shit on my own."

Wes smiled in return. "No -- you're not."

~*~

Just as the week reached its conclusion, and as things built towards something serious and explosive, Wes found himself once again summoned to Principal Fredricks' office. Still with a clear conscience -- despite Matt and Peter's better efforts -- Wes was puzzled by the summons.

When he arrived at the principal's office, though, he learned the reason: His father had arrived for a visit.

"Hey, dad," Wes said, smiling, even as Fredricks exited the office to give them a little privacy. "How was Europe?"

His father smiled in return. "It was successful -- but I can tell you about it tonight."

"Tonight?" Wes echoed.

"You're coming home for the weekend. I'm away again from Tuesday -- the Japanese deal is reaching a critical point."

Wes stared, open mouthed. Going home for the weekend? He couldn't! He had a feeling that everything was going to come to a head. He couldn't leave Eric to face that alone.

"It's all arranged," his father continued, oblivious. "Principal Fredricks has said you can leave now -- as long as you're back by seven o'clock on Sunday night. So, shall we?"

"Dad...I..." Wes began.

"I know it's unexpected," his father said.

"I can't," Wes finally managed.

"Nonsense. It's all arranged -- there's no school tests you'll be missing out on, and if you're worried about missing your martial arts class tomorrow, you know you can always train at home."

"But I..."

"So, shall we?"

~*~

Wes finally managed to convince his father to let him at least tell his 'friends' he was going away for the weekend. As far as Wes was concerned, the rest of the class could spend the weekend wondering, but Eric was a different matter. Wes couldn't just leave the other boy to wonder.

Unfortunately, Eric was nowhere to be found. It finally occurred to Wes that Friday afternoon was one of the time slots when Eric had extra math coaching -- for all his academic prowess in other subjects, Eric, on his own admission, sucked at math -- and that would last until four o'clock. It was half past three now.

"Wesley we really need to be going," said his father impatiently. "I want to avoid getting stuck in rush hour traffic, if at all possible."

Wes sighed. It was hopeless. Please let this all work out right...

~*~

At six-thirty on the Sunday evening, Wes returned to Billingsley. After signing in at the faculty office, to make sure that the school authorities knew he was back, he made his way to the freshman common room, but what he found there left him stunned beyond belief.

Of Eric, Matt and Peter there was no sign. Mitchell Laurie, another of the chief tormentors, had his wrist in a plaster cast, while Evan Smith, who had been a late but vicious addition to the group after Eric had comfortably taken his spot at the top of the English class, was sporting two black eyes and the sort of bandaging around his nose that suggested it had been broken.

Seeing Wes look around the room, Mitchell said bitterly, "Your 'friend' Myers went nuts. Completely whacko. He..."

"Oh shut the fuck up," snapped a non-aligned freshman by the name of Paul Winters, before Wes could so much as open his mouth. "After the crap you and the rest of the clown posse have tossed in his direction I'd say you got the least of what you deserve."

Wes blinked. "What happened?"

Mitchell opened his mouth to say something else, but Paul got in first: "Myers got some bad news yesterday morning. Dunno what -- he wasn't talking to anyone about it. The clown posse decided that was the ideal time to start getting racist." Paul snorted. "Myers beat the crap out of 'em. Can't say I blame him. Vincent's got a busted knee, Elliott's got concussion -- they'll get out of hospital tomorrow morning."

This really was beyond his worst nightmare. "Oh God..."

"Myers should be expelled," muttered Mitchell.

Wes looked to Paul, who seemed to be a reliable source of information. "Where is he?"

"Ask Blofeld," Paul suggested. "Don't think he's been expelled, but we haven't seen him since." Wes turned on his heel and started out of the common room. "Collins, where're you going?!"

"To ask Blofeld."

"I was kidding!"

"I'm not." I'm gonna do what I should have done when this first came up. With that, Wes headed out of the common room and headed for the principal's office.

Principal Fredricks operated an 'open door' policy -- meaning that pupils could come to him between certain times of the day, if they had something they wanted to talk to him about. Wes knew he was going to be arriving just inside that time frame, but, as he knocked on the office door, he wondered if Fredricks would talk to him about this. After all, it wasn't really as if this was anything to do with him...

"Come in," Fredricks called. Wes let himself in. The principal was sitting behind his desk, a small pile of papers in front of him. He looked up and smiled. "I thought you might come in to see me." Wes could only stare in something approaching shock. "Have a seat." Wes sat. "Now, I think I know why you're here, but, for safety's sake, perhaps I'd better hear that in your own words." Fredricks' words were kindly but brooked no argument.

"I..." Wes swallowed. "I was...that is..." He swallowed again. "What's going to happen to Eric Myers?"

Fredricks nodded. "That rather depends. By rights, what went on yesterday is an expellable issue. Fighting is seldom excusable, and he successfully put four pupils into the emergency room, on his own, with his bare hands." Put that way, Wes felt his heart sink. "But," the principal continued, "I am extremely well aware that there was a degree of provocation involved. Paul Winters and several other members of the freshman class have, word for word I suspect, reported exactly what Messers Vincent, Elliott, Smith and Laurie had to say prior to the attack. It doesn't make for pretty reading."

It wouldn't, Wes realised.

"That alone, however," said Fredricks, "doesn't entirely mitigate the response..."

"It's been going on longer than just yesterday," Wes blurted out.

Fredricks gave him a steady look. "I had a feeling that might have been the case." The principal sat back in his seat, arms folded. "I know that you've struck up something of a friendship with Eric. That in itself is one reason I suspected I would be seeing you when you returned today. Now, from the beginning, what has been going on?"

Wes had all the normal abhorrence of getting his classmates into trouble of any average school pupil, but with Fredricks gazing steadily at him there wasn't an opportunity to avoid 'telling tales', and in truth, Wes wasn't sure he wanted to avoid it, either. It felt, to him, far more important that Eric got a fair trial. Besides, this was what he'd come to do. Carefully, he recited what had gone on, from the very first day. He didn't miss anything out -- not the scene in the library, not the snide remarks, not the little gestures that Peter and Matt probably thought he hadn't seen. And as he spoke, Fredricks' expression grew grimmer.

"That," the principal stated as Wes finished, "is quite a catalogue. It certainly puts a different light on yesterday's events." He sighed. "In that light...well. I still need to officially conduct a disciplinary hearing, and Eric cannot get off completely scot-free -- fighting is something I will not tolerate -- but...he will remain a pupil here."

Wes sighed in relief.

"This needn't have happened at all," Fredricks pointed out gently. "You could -- and should -- have come to me, or to any member of staff. Bullying -- and this has been bullying of the very worst sort -- is also something I will not tolerate."

Wes shifted uncomfortably in his seat at the rebuke, gentle as it was. "Yes, sir."

~*~

The fallout from that weekend started to fall as the third week of the school began.

Fredricks had the entire freshman class gathered together and proceeded to give them a lecture that had anyone with a guilty conscience squirming.

The first piece to land was the news that Eric was officially suspended for the week, pending a disciplinary hearing. Wes already knew what the upshot of the hearing would be, but that didn't make hearing about the suspension any better. Wes knew that was something that would be a permanent blot on Eric's record.

Following that came the announcement that the whole freshman class would be 'audited' over the behaviour in the lead up to the weekend. A few on the periphery of Matt and Peter's gang looked decidedly blue at this as they realised that, while they might have avoided Eric's outburst, they weren't going to avoid all forms of justice.

Then came the real bombshell: The quartet Eric had attacked would be on report for the rest of the term.

"Racism," Fredricks stated as he completed his lecture, "is not something that I will tolerate in any form in this school. It is not the colour of someone's skin that is important. It does not matter where they come from. What is important, what does matter, is what they can do and who they are. I had hoped for better from students at this school."

The rest of the week passed in subdued fashion. The only other excitement, as far as Wes was concerned, was some of the dorm rooms being shifted around. The quartet were separated out and moved so that they were no longer sharing dorms -- Fredricks presumably thinking they would be less likely to cause trouble that way. In the process, Wes found himself gaining a new roommate. Eric.

That was something Wes was pleased about. For one thing, he hadn't really liked his previous roommate. For another, he did like Eric. For a third thing, Wes suspected that while the overt abuse would by default stop, the covert abuses would probably continue and he wanted to be in a position where he could help Eric better.

~*~

Eric returned to school on the Sunday evening, a week and a day after everything had blown up. Wes knew the first order of Eric's return would be a meeting with the principal, to tie off any last loose ends, but even he was surprised by how long that meeting took.

It wasn't until fairly late in the evening that Eric finally arrived in their dorm room. Wes opened his mouth to say something welcoming, but that stuck in his throat as he saw the set of Eric's shoulders.

"Friends, huh?" Eric snorted and shook his head. "Some 'friend'. Should have figured it was all just a bunch of hot air." And before Wes could entirely process that, Eric continued, "Well, just so's we're clear on this: Now I know what your 'friendship' means, I don't want any part of it." Wes could only stare, open mouthed. "I might have to share a room with you, you might be in my classes, but that is it. You got that?"

Shock at the reaction finally loosened Wes' tongue. "Why?"

Eric's expression tightened into a sneer. "Because you're just like the rest of them. Sure. Make nice with the guy from the wrong side of the street. Set him up then walk out so that the rest of the gang can get rid of him. Well, bad news. I'm still here."

"I..."

But the slam of the room door told Wes how far protesting was going to get him. Maybe he'll calm down... He shook his head. The chances of Eric calming down any time soon looked fairly minimal. I should have left him a note...or something... But the trouble with that was Eric's former room-mate had been Shawn Phillips. Not a hardcore member of Matt and Peter's gang, but someone who'd disliked Eric enough that any note Wes might have left would have probably vanished. The only way this could have been avoided would have been for Wes to have been here. The one thing I couldn't do. Wes sighed. Well, I can be stubborn. I'm not going to give up until he knows the truth. Even if it takes me the next ten years...

~The Beginning~