A/N: Another chapter! The more I write, the more I really want to finish this. It's been such a labor of love. There's a whole lot more story to come, so be patient with me. All will be revealed... in time.
I just wanted to say that I appreciate your reviews so, so much. It means a lot that so many of you have stuck with me through that horrible hiatus. Thank you!
Donna's front door was painted red, and Eric studied it carefully while he waited for her to answer the door bell. It wasn't lipstick red, or fire truck red. More of a nice, warm barn color. She had hanging baskets of flowers, too, on her patio. It was a far cry from how the Pinciotti's used to decorate and he was surprised that it looked nice. Homey. Décor hadn't been Donna's forte in the past.
"It's open!" came her call from inside.
Eric hesitated – he knew she wasn't expecting him – and then pushed the door open.
Donna was hunched over her kitchen sink, her long red hair tied back with a bandana and one arm somewhere down the drain. She straightened up when she saw him, a look of surprise and then annoyance briefly flashing across her face. He tried not to notice, but the tank top she was wearing was a little bit too small, and it hugged her curves. She didn't look like she'd had a baby. No siree.
"Uh. Hi." Eric eyed her as she pulled her hand from the mouth of the sink. It was streaked with something brown, and he chuckled a little at the absurdity of the situation. "What are you doing?"
"Tap dancing." She rolled her eyes, but he could tell she was masking a smile. Her eyes darted around, searching for a hand towel. The nearest one was on the counter by Eric, so he tossed it to her. "Thanks." Their eyes met for the briefest of seconds, before she cleared her throat. "Something's wrong with my garbage disposal."
"Oh." He rubbed his ear with one hand, awkwardly. "Do you, ah, want me to take a look at it?"
"No." Donna snorted. "You're terrible at this stuff."
Her smile belied the harshness of her words, and Eric blushed. She was right, of course, but that line might've worked on a New York girl.
"Plus," Donna continued, "I think there might be spiders down there."
"Shit." Eric waved his arms in front of him and took a step backwards. He made his voice waver. "Y-yeah, never mind. You look like you've got it covered." They shared a look, and he watched a giggle form on her lips and then burst free. It fluttered between them, and Eric felt it settle at the middle of his chest. His eyes shot to hers, wondering if she felt that spark, too. But her smile was gone as quickly as it had come, and she'd folded her arms across her chest.
"So. What are you doing here?"
Eric swallowed. "Just wanted to talk."
"Well, actually, I wanted to know how you'd feel about calling a truce." His eyes searched hers, waiting for them to soften again.
"A truce," she repeated slowly.
"Yeah. I just… it looks like I'm gonna be around for a little while, and my mom needs help at her daycare, you know? So I was gonna… help her," he finished lamely. Donna stared at him, silently waiting. She looked like she was getting impatient, so Eric hastily continued. "And so, you know, I figure for Natalia's sake, you and I… we should – we should call a truce. At least promise to be civil. Like neighboring countries," he added, with a small smile.
Donna didn't smile back. "It's hard for me to be civil when you keep harassing my daughter and I."
Eric winced. "About that. I – Donna, I'm gonna back off from now on. I promise."
Surprise flashed across her face. "Really?"
"Yeah." He spoke sincerely. "I'm sorry, okay? I'll stop bothering you about this."
"Well, thank you." She still held the hand towel in her hands, and wrung it thoughtfully.
It was true – he planned to back off. Last night on his cab ride home from the bar, he'd realized that making Donna defensive was not the way to get his answer. When she felt cornered, she lashed out. Even if he really was Natalia's father, she'd say he wasn't until she was blue in the face, just to spite him. So he needed a new plan. He was going to have to take the long way rather than a shortcut, and spend his time building her trust, and really getting to know Natalia. This conversation was step one.
"So. Truce?" He offered his hand, but Donna just looked at it.
"How long did you say you were staying?"
Eric dropped his outstretched hand back to his side, and sighed. "Indefinitely?"
"Hm." She lifted an annoyed eyebrow, and returned to her garbage disposal without another word.
"What?" Eric protested. She glared into the basin, at the pile of chopped food she'd apparently pulled from it, rather than at Eric. "I mean that I'm staying."
"Sure you are," Donna mumbled.
"No, really. I am."
"To do what? Volunteer at your mom's daycare?" She scoffed, and dug her arm back into the mouth of the sink. "Do you even have a job, Eric?"
"Ye –" he faltered. "Well… no." She gave him a pointed look, and Eric drummed his fingers against the counter, thinking. "Why? Is that what it will take to prove to you I'm for real? That I'm not leaving this time?"
Donna moved her head from side to side, but she still didn't look at him. "It'll help."
He grinned victoriously, though she couldn't see it. "Okay. Well, then the search is on."
She pulled her hand from the sink, once again covered in brown goop, and gave him a tight-lipped smile. "Super," she cheered sarcastically.
"And then maybe we can be friends."
Donna eyed him wearily. "Friends?" Eric nodded hopefully, and she sighed. "Eric. I think we'd better start with being civil."
He opened his mouth to respond, but the sound of heavy boots on the patio silenced him. Donna's eyes met his in a panic before the front door opened, seconds later, and Casey stepped inside the house. He was holding a tool box, and his eyes quickly crossed to Eric.
"Foreplay," he exhaled, his voice flat. "What. A. Surprise." Casey ambled through the door and Eric practically flattened himself against the wall, looking to avoid the meaty fists that swung at his side. But surprisingly, after only one hard look at Eric, Casey turned his full attention to Donna.
"I heard there's a garbage disposal gone wild?" His tone was jovial, and he slung an arm around Donna's waist while he talked. Eric's heart sank a little when she smiled – a genuine smile.
"Yeah," Donna told him. "I tried to fix it, but…" she shrugged. Casey grinned and lifted her dirty, bare arm in his hands.
"'Swamp thing' is a good look on you, Pinciotti," he teased, and she giggled some more.
On the other side of the kitchen, Eric tensed. He would be lying to himself if he didn't admit that he was listening carefully for any sort of tension, but they laughed easily and seemed comfortable, familiar in a way that made Eric ache. Suddenly, he felt very out of place. He moved towards the door and had his hand on the knob, hopeful he'd make a quiet escape, when –
"So. Is this gonna be a thing now, huh Foreplay? I come over, and you're here?"
Casey had opened up the cabinets underneath the sink and was working on a pipe with his wrench. He didn't look away from his work, but his menacing tone rooted Eric to the spot.
"N-no," Eric stammered. "Definitely not." He knew he should offer some sort of explanation, but his mind went completely blank. "Uh…"
"He was trying to help me with the disposal," Donna offered, from her perch on top of the counter. Her eyes darted to his, making sure he'd play along. "I, um, called Kitty and she sent him over."
"Is that right?" Casey set down his wrench and eyed Eric carefully, deciding if he bought the story or not. Eric gulped. He felt like a deer, caught in the crosshairs of Red's hunting rifle. Thankfully, Casey's furrowed brow relaxed into a smirk. "Well," he patted Donna's leg, "thank god you have a real man here, now. I'll take care of it." He shot another hard look Eric's way. "You can be leaving now," he said, and returned to his work.
"Great," Eric breathed, lifting his eyebrows in relief. Donna caught his eye before he stepped out into the morning air, but he couldn't read her expression.
A few hours later, Eric sat at his parents' kitchen table, several newspapers splayed out in front of him. He had each paper open to the 'Help Wanted' section, and he chewed the end of his red marker thoughtfully, ready to circle any potential jobs he could apply for. The problem was, none seemed to be jumping out at him.
Sitting down to write out his resume had been a painful process. It turned out that all he'd really done in five years was write a novel and help produce a movie – impressive digs if he were in Hollywood, but here in Point Place he wasn't sure how far that would get him. Most of the jobs he was looking at required a college degree, and he was lacking one of those. His year in Africa had been enlightening and the program was the very first thing he listed under 'Education'… but unfortunately he'd used the money they'd given him upon completion to pay for his apartment in New York, not a college education. It had seemed like a good idea at the time – what use did a famous novelist have for a degree? – but now he felt like, well, kicking himself in the ass.
Eric had just crumbled up another useless page of the paper into a ball when Red ambled into the kitchen. He stopped at the fridge and poured himself a glass of orange juice before turning around and heading for the door to the living room, without a word. Since Eric had returned home, Red had mostly crept around, like he was hoping Eric might not notice his presence. This behavior was only slightly preferable to what their relationship had been when Eric was in high school.
"Hey dad." Eric lifted one hand in a half-hearted wave, foiling Red's plan to leave the kitchen undetected.
Red paused, one hand on the living room door, and turned around. "Son."
"Mom told me you have a doctor's appointment today. Is everything, ah, alright?"
Red set his glass of juice down on the counter and sighed, defeated. "I'm fine. Just a check-up. Ever since my heart attack, your mom makes me go in for every damn little thing."
"Oh." Eric nodded, and really looked at his father for the first time since he'd been back. On the surface he was still the same – grumpy look on his face, plaid shirt stuffed into a pair of jeans. But the subtle signs of aging were there. His hair was thinner. Barely even there, really. He looked like he'd lost weight, too. Eric wasn't sure if it was intentional – the result of years of Kitty's nagging – or not. He'd been spending an awful lot of time upstairs in bed, too. Probably hiding from his mom's daycare kids – or maybe from Eric.
Red noticed the papers, and finally came to sit at the table with Eric. "You looking for a job here?"
"So you're actually staying, then." Surprise flitted across his face.
"Yeah," Eric nodded. He looked up from the newspapers and capped his pen. "I told you I was."
Red gave a shake of his head and took a sip of his juice. "Okay, then."
He had the same guarded look Donna had today, and even his mother when he'd announced his plans to stick around. It was like they weren't getting their hopes up – but that was a strange sentiment coming from Red. Eric knew he'd hurt Donna when he'd gone away, and his friends, and especially his mother. His absence wasn't easy on them, but he'd never thought about hurting Red.
"One of my friends from the war," Red cleared his throat, shaking Eric from his thoughts. "Skip. His wife, ah… Margaret? Marla?" He shook his head. "She started some fruity private school in Rockford. It has a funny name." He paused for almost a full minute, entranced with swirling his juice around his glass. He looked anywhere but at Eric. "It's one of those schools where the teachers don't have to be smart. I guess I could make a phone call, and see if you could apply there."
Eric gaped at him. Was he offering to help? "Uh. Wow. Thanks, Dad." He furrowed his brow. "Did you… d'you mean that I don't have to be certified to teach there?"
"That's it," Red nodded. He shrugged. "They hire hippies. They'll probably hire you."
"That's… awesome." Eric folded the newspaper shut and nodded, unsure if he was touched or not by his father's gesture. "I'll take an interview as soon as possible."
Red had finished his glass, and he tipped it back and forth in his hands carefully, watching the left over droplets of juice skirt across the glass. "Why'd you decide to do this, anyway?"
Red nodded. "Your mother wants to know."
Eric blew out a breath. "I don't know. There's just some… unresolved conflicts I need to wait out."
Red looked ready to make a break for it, so Eric hastily changed the subject. "Hey, you know Natalia?"
"Donna's kid?" Red looked up, surprised.
"Yeah," Eric nodded. "I-I think she might be mine."
Red shook his head right away. "That's not what Donna says. Some guy from –"
"Yeah, a rich doctor she had a one night stand with," Eric finished for him. "I've heard that story. But considering the timeline…" he trailed off. "I just, I think there's a chance."
Red was silent. He stared at his hands, which seemed more gnarly and wrinkled than Eric had ever remembered them. In all his years, Eric had never thought of Red as old. He was too strong to be old. But now, that presence seemed gone. Had Red changed, or had Eric? "I don't know, son. I would be mighty careful." He met Eric's gaze, and his green eyes held a softness Eric hadn't seen in them in years. "That might not be what you wanted to hear."
Eric felt a surge of anger overtake his chest. Sometimes when he was a teenager, he had imagined that Red sat up at night, thinking up the one thing he could say to agitate Eric the most. "Look, I'm not asking for your opinion, Dad. You asked why I'm staying, and that's why. Because if she is mine and I missed out on these five years…" he shook his head, his mouth set in a firm line, unable to finish his thought.
"Yeah," Red stood abruptly, his chair scraping against the linoleum loudly as he made his exit. "Missing out on five years with your kid. Nothing easy about that."
Jackie turned in front of the full-length mirror in her bedroom, and eased her hands down her sides, smoothing over the shiny, black fabric. Steven was going to swallow his tongue when he saw her in this.
She spun around and clamped a hand over her chest, startled by the dark skinned man leaning against the door frame. Fez held a block of solid chocolate in his palm, and he bit into it casually, as if it were an apple. "You are going out? Again?"
"Um. Yeah." She smoothed a hand over her taut stomach, suddenly aware of how skin-tight her outfit was. "Jenni, from work? It's her bachelorette party tonight. Remember? I told you." She hadn't, but it was a good lie. It seemed like all of her friends were getting married these days.
"Oh." Fez's face relaxed. "I thought that was last weekend."
"Last weekend was Allison's bridal shower," Jackie reminded him, turning back to the mirror to apply some bright red lipstick. "Allison" was a friend she had made up entirely.
"Forgive me," Fez set down his chocolate and licked his fingers clean of the residue before sidling up behind Jackie. He wrapped his arms around her waist and smiled at her in the mirror. "You have so many friends, it's hard to keep track."
His accent of the word 'friends' made Jackie's blood run cold. Did he mean…? She stood statue still, her lipstick poised in midair, but Fez still held his easy smile.
"Your girlfriends get to have you in the evening," he continued, mischievously, "As long as I get you after dark." Jackie relaxed – he was still oblivious – but tensed again when he pressed a soft kiss to her neck.
She bit her lip, and forced herself not to wriggle free from his grasp. "I – I might be late tonight, actually."
His face fell, and he stepped away from her when she smiled sympathetically. "How late?"
She shrugged and applied a little more blush. "You know how these things go, Fezzie."
He frowned and flopped backwards onto their bed. "Someday soon I'm going to surprise you with a romantic getaway," he insisted. "To Chicago, or maybe Minneapolis."
"Or Mexico," Jackie offered from across the room, still primping in the mirror. One good thing about Fez was that he genuinely listened to her – and he didn't shy away from her expensive tastes.
"Anything you want, my pet."
"That sounds nice," she spoke softly, gazing at his forlorn form in the mirror. He was stretched out across her pillow staring at her wantonly, appreciating the bounce of her hair and the shape of her dress, carefully put together for someone other than him. It almost made her feel guilty for where she was about to go – made her want to reconsider her plans. Almost.
The next day, Eric stood in the Hershel School's head office, his best blazer from high school tight around his shoulders.
"I'm still a bit confused." Dean Marcene Willis leaned forward, her elbows propped against her heavy oak desk. "Why would you like to teach here?"
Eric cleared his throat and tried not to be intimidated by the dean's deep voice, tight bun, and wood-paneled office. She'd agreed to see him during her fifteen minutes for lunch, but it appeared Red's name wasn't going to go as far as Eric had hoped. She stabbed a few pieces of lettuce from her salad onto her fork, popped it in her mouth, and stared at Eric expectantly.
Hesitantly, he held up a hardcover copy of his book. "I wrote a bestselling novel," he offered. The dean's expression didn't change.
Eric stretched his arm out, silently offering to let her take a look. She shook her head.
"Oh, I've already read it. And truth be told, I wasn't impressed."
"Oh." Eric's shoulder slumped. That ace in the hole was all he had.
Carefully, the dean set down her fork and wiped her mouth with her napkin. She looked at Eric, not unkindly, and folded her hands on top of her desk. "Mr. Forman. Why don't you tell me the real reason you want a job here."
"Um." Eric cleared his throat, and began his rehearsed rhetoric. "Well, I'm looking to return to Wisconsin for the long-term, and I need something to anchor me here. I taught some in Africa, and I think I can be good at it. Relating to kids, making connections… I want practice with that."
The dean stared at him, and twirled a pen between her fingers. "Okay," she spoke slowly. "But why should I hire you?" Eric reached for his book again, and she shook her head. "Nuh uh. That isn't a reason. Not a good one, anyway."
Eric faltered. Suddenly the dress shirt and tie he wore felt much too constricting. Was he sweating? Nervously, he pulled at his collar and the dean frowned sympathetically.
"Look, I'd like to hire you. Your father is a dear friend. But I am responsible for the education of my students, and I need to know if I can entrust that education to you. What wisdom do you have to impart?"
Eric swallowed. "Well, I can write. And, um. Read," he finished lamely.
Eric's shoulders slumped, defeated. "Okay, look," he admitted. "I've never done this before, and I don't know if I'm gonna be any good at it." The dean raised a manicured eyebrow. "But I really do want to try, and I'd love to help kids. Plus, c'mon, don't you think 'Mr. Forman' has a nice ring to it?" She stared at him oddly. "I – okay," he hastily continued. "I never thought I could write, but it came out in me when someone made me realize that I had something to say."
The dean leaned back in her chair and peered at him over the top of her glasses, looking intrigued for the first time. She picked up his resume and glanced at it again. "One of your professors in Africa?" she guessed. "It says here that you took some adult-education courses while you were there."
"No," Eric shook his head. "I mean, yes. That writing course was the beginning of my career. But it was someone else who… who inspired me. Who taught me that I have a voice." He swallowed, making this realization for the first time. "And I would love it if I could reach even one kid the way I was reached. It empowered me, and it… it changed my life," he finished sincerely.
The dean studied him closely, her pen perched between her lips. Finally, she raised her eyebrow. "That's the first earnest thing you've said since you walked into my office."
Eric smiled hopefully, and she sighed, shuffling some papers.
"I suppose I could give you one class. The sixth grade creative writing elective."
"That's perfect. That's all I need," Eric insisted.
"It doesn't pay much," she cautioned, and Eric shook his head.
"I'm not in it for the money, Dean."
"Fine, then." She pursed her lips. "I've been looking for a way to pay back your father for years now. He pulled my husband out of a sinking tank in Korea."
Eric pressed his hands together. "Well, thank you. Really. I'll – I'll tell him." He gave the intimidating woman an awkward bow of sorts, and headed for her office door, eager to get out of there before she changed her mind. She stopped him with his hand on the knob, though.
"Your book," she called to him. "Does it have a sequel?"
Eric turned around. "I thought you didn't like it."
She shrugged. "I didn't care for the writing style, but your characters were so real. I want to know what happens to them."
"So do I," Eric mumbled.