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Epilogue -- Facing the Future
East Mall, Silverhills
15th April 2002; 12:13pm
Eric couldn't quite believe that was all it had been. So much had happened. So much had changed. He had changed. As he slowly made his way through the mall, he half wondered if Wes and Jen would actually recognise him. The millstone of a past unknown that he'd been dragging around for as long as he could remember was gone. Shattered forever by meeting Peterson.
Eric privately doubted that he and Peterson could ever be anything more than acquaintances. While he might have finally cut loose the years of bitterness and anger, he was well aware there was equally no way to have that time over again. Much as he might wish there wasn't, there was always going to be a small amount of irrational hostility at the back of his mind. Then there was the fact that he and Peterson were very clearly cut from the same cloth. Both stubborn, hard-headed and quick to anger -- too long in each other's company and Eric knew the chances of bloodshed would be good.
As for Kosovo, the experience was still there -- still lurking at the back of his mind -- but the immediacy of it all had finally dimmed. Maybe because I finally realised I had friends waiting for me, too, he mused, spotting his first destination.
That was perhaps the strangest part of the whole three weeks. Realising that he wasn't alone. Ben and Gina had been worried about what had happened to him. Rocky had dropped everything to help... Eric shook his head. Foster, Hines and Cawdron had risked their careers and a jail term to help him.
As it had turned out, all three had avoided the serious consequences. Foster and Hines had both been demoted -- Eric suspected that when their respective tours of duty were up in the fall both would apply for positions within the Silver Guardians. In fact, the last time he'd spoken to Foster, the other man had as good as said that was what he would be doing. As for Cawdron, he too had escaped a jail term -- although he had been required to accept a dishonourable discharge. Eric wondered where the justice in that was, but Cawdron had been philosophical about it when he'd told Eric the outcome:
"It was my choice. You got screwed over once -- I didn't want to see it happen again."
Eric sighed. Life was definitely weird.
At least I don't have to hunt for a new place to live, he mused. Or a new job.
Somewhat to Eric's surprise, Mr Collins had come to see him while he'd still been in hospital. Initially, Eric had figured it was so that he could be fired in person, but it had very quickly transpired that firing him was the last thing on Mr Collins' mind.
"Why on earth would I want to do that?" Collins had asked. "I have no grounds for dismissal. Granted, you didn't turn up for work on Wednesday, last week -- but when members of the US Armed Forces show up and commandeer my staff, I figure there's a good reason for it."
And while Eric had been trying to wrap his mind around that, Collins had dropped another bombshell in the shape of a set of keys. Eric had only been able to stare stupidly at them and say,
"What are these?"
"Keys," Collins had answered, amused. "For your new apartment."
And that was when the pieces started to drop into place. Collins had rented him an apartment in the same block as Jen's.
"Just until you get back on your feet," Collins had said. "Perhaps that's a little more literal than I originally intended!"
Then there had been the responses of all his friends -- a phrase that still took him a little by surprise after so many years spent considering himself to be alone -- to his release from hospital. Little things. Gina had insured that the apartment was fully functional by the time he was released from hospital. Rocky and Aisha had helped Gina with arranging furniture. Ben had all but insisted on acting as chauffeur any time Eric needed to go out of the apartment. Foster and Hines had been unable to do much in the way of helping -- both being confined to base -- but they phoned on quite a regular basis... And all of that was on top of the help that Kimberly provided.
It's a little like being surrounded by seven mother hens. Maybe I should be glad Wes and Jen haven't been around. He shook his head. He didn't really mind. Sure, it took a little getting used to, but it was nice to know that people did care.
At that point in his thoughts, Eric finally reached his first destination. He was on his way to meet Kimberly and Alice for lunch, but he had to pick something up first. Looking through the shop window, he spotted just what he was looking for. Smiling he made for the shop door.
Now if they've only got them in the right sizes...
Kimberly sipped her drink and tried not to glance at her watch. It was only just gone half past twelve and Eric was not exactly quick on his feet at the moment, but she couldn't help feel nervous.
You're being ridiculous, she tried to tell herself, but it was hard to think that way with the events of three weeks earlier still very fresh in her mind. There's not going to be another bel Abis. But she couldn't be sure.
Alice's excited squeal brought her out of her reverie to see Eric arriving at their table.
"Sorry I'm late," he apologised. "I'd forgotten how big this place is."
Kimberly smiled. "Not used to the crutches yet, huh?"
He smiled ruefully as he eased himself down into the empty seat. "If it's all the same to you, I'd rather not get used to them -- and never have to use them again when the plaster comes off."
Kimberly's smile turned to a grin. "I can understand that."
"So have you guys been having fun?" Eric asked.
"Yes!" Alice started to babble about the morning's shopping, going into great detail about how exciting it had been.
Kimberly got the feeling Eric wasn't much of a shopper if he had any choice in the matter but as Alice chattered to him about their various purchases, she could see him getting more and more into Alice's story. She wondered if he was even aware of the delight stealing across his face.
"Sounds like you've had a busy morning," he finally said as Alice wound down.
"It was OK," said Alice. "Would have been better if you'd been here."
Eric looked apologetic. "I'm sorry -- but I had stuff to do this morning."
"Did you get it sorted out?" Kimberly asked, rejoining the conversation, knowing that he had spent much of the morning talking to loss adjusters and insurance companies to try and at least get some money for the things he lost in the fire.
Eric looked up and grimaced. "Yes and no. They're sending 'investigators' out to 'check my story'." He shook his head.
Kimberly smiled in sympathy. "The investigators will have to back up your claim," she replied. "After all, it's not as if you have no witnesses."
Eric smiled wryly. "True."
"Do you want something to eat?" she continued.
He offered her a sheepish smile. "I'm going to have to skip that part."
Kimberly looked at him sharply. "And why is that?"
"Because I have to go give my deposition at Lemont's pre-trial in half an hour. Lawyers!" Eric rolled his eyes. "They couldn't have called me yesterday to give me a day's notice. Nooo!"
Kimberly had to laugh at the sarcasm. "They phoned this morning, huh?"
"Yeah." Eric grimaced. "Which means, I've pretty much got to get going to meet Ben in the next five minutes."
"It sucks to be you, huh?"
"Put it this way," Eric replied, "I can't wait to get out of plaster and be able to drive myself around instead of having to rely on other people. It's not even as if that was something I had to do as a kid!"
"Can't you stay this afternoon?" Alice put in, pouting.
"I'd like to, sweetheart," Eric answered, "but I've got to do this stuff this afternoon."
Alice pouted again.
"But...before I go...there's something I need to do first."
"What?" Alice asked, puzzled.
Kimberly stared, wide-eyed, as Eric produced two ring boxes from his jacket pocket. "I'd get down on one knee but right at the moment, that's a little tricky so..." He swallowed and Kimberly could see his hands shaking. "Kim...Alice -- I feel as if we've become a family in the last three weeks...and I'd like to make that official. I love you both, very much. Will you marry me?"
Kimberly felt the breath catch in her throat. She'd guessed that was what he was going to say when he'd produced the ring boxes but she was still surprised. She was even more surprised by the way he was effortlessly including Alice in this. Most guys would have just proposed to me, she realised. He's proposing to both of us...and I get the feeling that if we don't both say yes he'll back off...
"Mommy?" Alice said in a stage whisper, looking confused. "What do I say?"
Kimberly smiled, both at her daughter's question and at the deeply nervous expression on Eric's face. "Do you want Eric as your daddy?" Kimberly answered.
"Then answer Eric's question 'yes'."
"Is that it?" Alice asked, doubtfully.
"That's it," Kimberly replied. "Go on, tell him," she prompted.
Alice swivelled in her seat until she was facing Eric. "Yes I will," she said earnestly.
Kimberly felt Eric's gaze on her as she slowly got to her feet. She moved around the table until she was standing beside him.
"Mommy?" asked Alice. "What are you going to say?"
Kimberly smiled at her daughter and then fixed her attention on Eric. She could see he still looked nervous. Taking one of his hands in her own, she leant in and kissed him deeply. It was the kiss she'd wanted to give him when he'd told her he loved her for the first time. As it finished, she could hear a few people applauding.
"Kim...?" Eric looked stunned, although she could see a growing realisation in his expression.
Kimberly smiled at him. "Yes, I'd love to."
TO BE CONTINUED IN ALMOST UNREAL...
of you wondering, here's translations of the assorted bits and pieces of Serbo-Croat
and/or military-speak that I've used during the Hide and Seek:
SNAFU-Situation normal all fucked up
Istekao - up
Kleknuti - kneel
There are a number of people who have helped me during the course of writing this story who deserve special mention. So, in no particular order:
Gamine -- for being a sterling individual and a wonderful beta reader AND a great cattle prod when I'm not doing it right...
Irina -- for helping me out, eliminating English-isms and for being my guinea pig on certain sections of this story. Also for putting up with me when I was writing Hallucinations, a couple of days when I was NOT fun to be around.
Ekat -- for providing me with all kinds of information, reading and rereading certain chapters of this story and generally putting up with me.
Chris -- for listening to me, offering feedback and very helpful suggestions (along with occasionally less helpful suggestions, and suggestions that just flat out make me laugh).
You, the readers, for reading and enjoying this story. This story is possibly my favourite out of all the Identiverse stories, so that people have read and enjoyed it means a lot to me.
Three months, fifty thousand words; book three of the Identiverse is now complete.