Chapter 55: Her Whole World's Come Undone

Take English classes, I said. It'll be easy, I said. UGH, that's what I get for taking on two majors.

So, yeah, this chapter took forever because of school and my home life taking another downward turn (this time relatively minor, thankfully). I'm really sorry about the wait, but life hates me. Not to mention this chapter got SUPER long so I had to split it up. I'm currently on spring break now, so if homework and procrastination don't get to me I should be able to make up a buffer chapter or two.

By the way, I've noticed that Omi and Valerie don't have a lot of good interaction with each other. Like, they're friends and care about each other but they don't really show it that often? I tried to add a more friendly dynamic in this chapter.

Also, a warning about this chapter: Valerie goes into shock for a while here. It's based off my own experiences so it might actually be triggering for some people, so just watch out for it. And I won't lie, this chapter is a serious case of mood whiplash and I honestly have no idea how you guys will handle it.

Anyway, on with the chapter!

"Valerie, what are you doing?" Omi popped his head into the archives and waited expectantly.

"Just scouring the scrolls again for any information on my element," Valerie answered back instantly, quickly rolling up a scroll and setting it aside. She then pulled another one up and began to read, lips moving as she slowly scanned the paper.

Omi walked into the room and peered over her shoulder. "I thought you were working on the Book of Alexandria?"

Valerie gestured to the chair next to her where the magical tome was. "Needed a break and thought studying something else would help me crack the code."

"And how is that working out for you?"

"Not well," Valerie admitted, blowing some hair out of her face. "I've basically studied everything the Temple has on past Aether Dragons. There's just not a whole lot of information on them for some reason." She leaned back in her chair and stared up at the ceiling, closing her eyes dejectedly.

Omi made a thoughtful noise and said, "Yes, that is the reason why I have not particularly studied them closely. That, and they pop up so randomly that I did not think I would meet one." Valerie didn't have to look at him to know the little monk was smiling sheepishly.

She turned her head and gave him a half-smile. Opening an eye she quipped, "Bet you weren't expecting me, did ya?"

Omi looked at her, confused. "Yes, that's what I just said."

Valerie opened both eyes just to roll them. "It was a joke from one of Kim's shows. Or at least part of one." She pursed her lips. "Modern references are hard."

Omi nodded sagely. "I know the feeling." Both made a thoughtful noise, the silence afterwards comfortable. Valerie looked back up at the ceiling and contemplated going back to reading when Omi suddenly asked, "Didn't a past Dragon of Aether have powers over sound?"

Startled, Valerie sat properly in her seat. "Uh, yeah, I remember reading about that earlier." She picked up the scroll she had discarded just minutes before and unrolled it, searching for the passage about that particular monk.

A pudgy finger poked at a wall of text. "Here it is! Apparently a monk named Chang-Min could control the very sound vibrations in the air. How exactly did he use it to fight?" Omi raised an eyebrow and rubbed at his chin.

Valerie furrowed her brow in thought. "Maybe he raised the volume of sound so loud he shattered eardrums? And maybe he could pinpoint it so it could only affect the person he was fighting. And let's face it, it'd make a great murder weapon."

Omi paled considerably. "H-how so?"

"Where there's sound, there's life," she said solemnly. "And if there isn't sound, no one can hear you scream."

The little monk gulped audibly. "I often forget you are fascinated with crime."

Valerie shrugged. "Hey, it's interesting to read." She pushed aside that scroll and picked up the one she was reading when Omi came in. "This one Aether Dragon, Aoi, could temporarily see through the eyes of any animal on the planet. Like, she could actually live the life of a cat or a dog or a squirrel or something." She beamed. "That's so cool, I'd love to be a cat."

Omi shuddered. "As long as it is not squirrels. Perhaps a tiger instead?" he asked hopefully.

"Why not?" Valerie answered before picking up another scroll and searching through it. "This one guy, Asim, could teleport short distances- oh, that'd be awesome," she gushed. "I could go from the shower to my room without having to use the hallway."

"How lazy of you," Omi admonished her.

"Oh, what, like you wouldn't abuse your teleportation powers?"

He maturely stuck his tongue out at her.

"Not a whole lot of scrolls, as per usual," Valerie said regretfully. "Why can't things ever be easy for once?" she muttered under her breath.

Omi, who had been rubbing at his chin again, suddenly piped up, "I remember one Dragon of Aether with powers similar to yours…"

Valerie perked up considerably. "Do you remember their name?"

"No, I can't at the moment," he said honestly, brow furrowed. "I remember the monk being a female who lived about a century or two ago. She could do the same shields you can and apparently more, but half of that scroll was burnt."


Omi shrugged his shoulders. "The Temple has been here for fifteen hundred years. It probably survived a fire or two."

"Well, damn, guess we'll never find out about that one girl," Valerie said, rolling up the scroll in her head. "Maybe I should hit the death records?" she asked rhetorically.

Omi gave her a look. "That is a particularly odd subject change."

Valerie shrugged. "Hey, I'm bored and don't wanna go through the Book of Alexandria right now. Might as well check it out." She stood up and made her way across the library, heading to a little corner where more yellowing scrolls lay. Some hurried footsteps followed her.

"Eager to learn more, young grasshopper?" Valerie joked as she pulled out a few scrolls.

"Of course I am," Omi said haughtily. And then he gave her a sly smile. "And perhaps I do not feel like washing dishes at the moment." Valerie snorted with mirth before turning back to the paper in her hands. Setting herself down close to the younger monk, she began pouring over the records, mouth moving slowly along as she sounded out the characters. It only took about twenty minutes before Omi began talking again, his voice filled with trepidation.

"I'm beginning to see a pattern here," he said, setting down his scroll so Valerie could see.

Furrowing her brow, she did the same. "So am I." Pointing to some text, she asked, "Why is it that all the other Dragons not only have a date of death but a brief description of how they died, but the Dragons of Aether only have a death date?"

"That is a very strange thing to overlook," Omi agreed, pursing his lips slightly. "And this does not seem like it was lost to time; this was done deliberately."

"And check out the time stamps," Valerie said, ice appearing in her veins. "All of the Dragons of Aether died younger than the other ones. Like, way younger."

Omi pointed to a few familiar names. "Chang-Min died when he was twenty-one while the other four Dragons died in their forties. Aoi died when she was nineteen while the others lived to their late thirties, Asim when he was twenty-two while the others when they were in their fifties…"

"If this happened often to all the Dragons, I would have chalked it up to living and sanitation conditions of the day," Valerie said, a note of fear in her voice. "But the Dragons of Aether were all dropping like flies while the others lived on."

"Something is very wrong here," Omi said anxiously. "Perhaps Master Fung will have the answers."

"I dunno, little dude," Valerie said pessimistically. "I don't think Master Fung can tell us anything we couldn't find out for ourselves." She gestured to the rest of the archives. "The monks told us that all the information on the Temple, including its history and the Xiaolin Dragons, is in this room. Anything he would say would just be speculation."

Omi sat there glumly. "There must be an explanation."

Valerie nodded. "There is; it's just that no one knows it." She sighed tiredly and started putting scrolls away. "Just when I think I have all the answers, even more questions pop up. I wish my element was as straightforward like yours." She sighed again, this one heaver and more drawn out. She could feel ice creeping up and down her arms, and suddenly it felt like she was dissociating, but then the feeling passed and it felt like the world was trying to crush her.

Omi patted her on the shoulder and offered her a smile. "I'm sure if you just keep training the answers will come eventually. I noticed your Repulse the Monkey often includes unnecessary stumbling. You should work on that," Omi said earnestly. "We are only as strong as our weakest link."

Valerie rolled her eyes- she was used to Omi's well-meaning if backhanded compliments. And he was genuinely trying to make her feel better about her powers and the mystery surrounding them, so she couldn't complain too much. She rubbed his head like one would ruffle a little brother's hair and said, "Sure thing little dude, I'll get on that. In the meantime, we should probably finish up on our chores. I've been sitting in this room for hours now."

"I find that most unhealthy."


The kitchens were a bit far away, but the exercise was worth the pins and needles Valerie temporarily felt in her legs. Omi was chattering on about his leopard strike and some other martial arts moves with Valerie occasionally giving comment ("I thought you already had your leopard strike down pat?" "I thought so too, but apparently not."); the conversation kept going once the two made it to the kitchen and helped to prepare dinner.

Valerie had been washing the rice and preparing them for the dated rice cooker when she heard the familiar siren call of AC/DC bounce against the walls of the hallways. She looked up and shared a look at Omi right before the two of them rushed out the door, abandoning their work.

The two of them burst into the dining room just as the opposite door opened, the truly epic hard rock of 'TNT' filling the room. Valerie took a look at the three bodies wearing dark sunglasses and tried not to bust a gut laughing.

Kimiko was sitting on one of Clay's shoulders, foot popped into the air while an arm curled around her head in an exaggerated model pose. The other was securely wrapped around Clay's neck. Raimundo was next to them, boom box perched on his shoulder, his body bent like he was about to drop a beat in a rap video. And Clay was just standing there, attempting to look stoic and model worthy but instead looked constipated.

And one of the oddest things was that a strong wind was blowing against them, whipping their hair and clothes back to give them a movie star look. But there was no way for wind to blow that way indoors. Omi gave Valerie a bewildered look before turning back to his goofball friends.

And then Clay and Rai moved forward in slow motion while Kimiko tried not to fall off Clay's shoulder and Valerie just lost it. Bending over to hold her stomach, she laughed and laughed as her friends slowly walked across the room in a parody of an action scene. Soon she found herself a gasping mess on the ground, her obnoxious chuckles choked off and silent as she flailed her arms uselessly.

Her lungs burning for air, Valerie coughed long and hard as the music finally died down. She could vaguely make out Omi asking what the hell that was all about ("It's because I'm dynamite, Omi." "Like with your element? Why not just use that?"), but Valerie was too happy and mentally exhausted to do anything but flop on the ground like a limp fish.

"You okay there, partner?" Clay asked as he offered a hand. Valerie took it and allowed herself to be pulled up, her body still shaking slightly from mirth.

"Yeah, yeah, I'm fine," she said in between giggles, "but what was all that about?"

"Just a joke," the cowboy said as he tipped his hat. His sunglasses were perched on the brim, making it seem like his hat had its own set of eyes. It was adorable enough to nearly set Valerie off on another peal of laughter. "We would have included you and Omi, but we couldn't find you."

"He was helping me with the archives," Valerie answered, wiping away stray tears.

Clay hummed thoughtfully. "Still looking up more info on your powers?"

"You know it."

"And how'd that work out?"

Valerie shook her head sadly. "Nothing I didn't know before. We did find some disturbing facts on past Dragons of Aether, but we couldn't find any answers for that either."

Clay gave her a confused look. "Disturbing how, exactly? End of the world, or is it something unique to you and your element?"

"Something unique to Dragons of Aether," Valerie said honestly. "And trust me, it's not exactly something I like finding out."

"I can imagine," Clay noted. "But what is it, exactly?"

She opened her mouth to answer, but then there was a knocking noise on the wooden doorway. Everyone turned to see Master Fung giving them all an amused glance before announcing, "Eric has been trying to get a hold of you for some time now, Valerie."

Valerie raised an eyebrow. "He knows I don't normally have my phone on me during the day."

"Yes, that is why he has been calling us," Fung said drolly, obviously talking about the Temple itself.

She gave him a soft smile and said, "I should go check and see what he needs to talk about so badly. Lead me to the phone, Master Fung." The master gave her another amused look before walking out of the room, Valerie in tow. She did spare a reassuring smile to her friends before leaving though.

The room where the phone was could have been described as a glorified closet: twice as large as one with a small desk in the back with stationary on top. The light was bright at least, so it didn't feel so claustrophobic. The phone itself was a silver-black home phone that wouldn't look out of place in early 2000 America or Europe. It sat on the desk not too far from the papers stacked neatly in one corner, and a red light flashed innocently, signifying the waiting caller.

Sitting down and steeling herself, Valerie put the phone to her ear and asked, "What happened Eric?"

"Your father's wife is dead."

She stopped breathing. Pins and needles ran up and down her arms before a numbing sensation took over. It took her a moment to croak out, "W-what?"

"Your father's wife, Gabrielle," Eric explained needlessly, his voice cracking slightly. "She's dead. She's been fighting lung cancer for a long time."

Valerie swallowed dryly. Her thoughts had stalled, but one thing kept beating itself against her skull: Why had no one told her? Her mom was-

It felt like someone had dumped ice water on her head. In the back of her mind, perhaps even in her subconscious, she had known. The separation from her entire family, the near constant moving around Europe, the fact that no one- not her parents, not her brothers- ever bothered to call her.

It made perfect sense. Valerie had long since suspected it, ever since the Sands of Time had first activated, or perhaps even before then. She had known. But like the stupid, naïve little girl she was, Valerie had hoped otherwise. She had needed to, if only to think that her parents loved her despite the radio silence. That she wasn't a complete waste of space to the Ashford family.

Well. That little part of her innocence had crashed and burned quite soundly, hadn't it?

Valerie turned her head around to make sure the door was closed and locked. It was, and she highly doubted anyone was listening in. Her body still numb, her mind slowly beginning to work again, she asked in a small voice, "I was illegitimate, wasn't I?"

A short pause, and then an unnecessary, "Yes."

Valerie tried to choke back a laugh but it flowed out of her hysterically. It bounced off the walls of the closet, echoing back to show just how demented she sounded just then. Valerie quickly cut it off, the pins and needles sensation returning, her blood beginning to circulate again.

"Why tell me then?" she asked hollowly. "If she's not my real mom, why bother calling me?"

"Because your father wants to talk to you," Eric told her quietly. "All the secrecy- it's just-!" he fumbled around for the words to say it only to sigh harshly. "Honestly this entire situation is a fucking mess and I'm sorry you're a part of it. You never deserved any of this bullshit and I'm sorry I've kept this from you so long," he said bitterly, his voice cracking again. It took Valerie a moment too long to realize that he was near tears.

"Then why did you?" she asked quietly, her vision blurring.

"Because your dad was my best friend in college and he asked me to," Eric said helplessly. "And he kept telling me he was trying to find a way to bring you into the family properly but it was taking too long and at some point I just didn't know how to tell you," he rambled before a sob broke out.

Valerie wanted to act shocked but fat tears were falling from her eyes, hitting her curled hand and splashing on the desk. She sniffled despite herself and covered her mouth, body wracking with stifled sobs. She closed her eyes and begged to stop crying, but it was all just too much, from learning about her too limited time on Earth to the truth of her parentage, it was all just far too much-

"Valerie." Eric still sounded like he wanted to cry, but the solemnity of the situation was taking hold. As the adult he couldn't break down completely, and Valerie understood this. So mustering up the last of her strength and dignity she stopped sobbing, breathed deeply and held her breath to stop hiccupping, closed her eyes and pushed back any more tears that threatened to spill out.

"What happens now?" Valerie forced out.

"You're leaving the Temple for about a week," Eric explained mechanically. "We'll take a private jet to Canada where I'll finally explain all this to you. From there we'll meet up with Victoria to find you proper funeral attire- she's got some family in Canada, she actually planned this trip long before Gabrielle died," he added breathlessly. "You won't actually attend the wake or funeral, but it never hurts to look the part. A day or two afterward you'll meet up with your father and… we'll see how things go from there," he finished weakly.

Valerie bit her dry lips. She closed her eyes and nearly cried again at the burning sensation- they were suddenly too dry. "When do I leave?"

"Tomorrow afternoon. We don't have much time."

Valerie opened her mouth, closed it, and then opened it again. Never before had she felt like such an inept child. "What's gonna happen to us, Eric?"

Eric didn't say anything for a moment but then, with conviction, he declared, "We're gonna be fine, Val. Your dad won't do anything to hurt you, and I'm sure as hell not giving you up so easily."

A weak chuckle escaped despite herself. "So eloquent," she teased, the threat of tears imminent once more.

"Yeah, yeah," Eric said, snorting lamely. "Just get some rest kiddo, and remember to pack. Right now… no, this next week is gonna be hell."

"Yeah, I can imagine," Valerie said softly. "I love you Eric."

"I love you too."

The dial tone ringing in her ears, she set down the phone in its holder. Valerie then stared down at her clenched hands, vaguely aware that little bloody crescent moons marred the skin on one of her palms. It didn't compute; it was like she was seeing all this from an outside perspective, that this couldn't possibly be happening to her, not now.

But it was.

And so Valerie put her head in her arms and cried.

Sometime later, when Valerie felt completely hollow, she untied the Shroud of Shadows she had hidden on her person and activated it. Wrapping it around herself, she quickly made it back to the dorms without seeing anybody. From there she drained bottle of water she had stashed away and quickly went to work on fixing up her face. Her eyes were red and bloodshot and dry, red tear tracks carving a path on her pallid cheeks.

She looked like a wreck- she felt like a wreck, but Valerie couldn't show the others. That would lead to explaining why, and just how was she supposed to explain? That she was a bastard? That her own father had cast her aside to preserve his reputation?

No. No one could know.

So Valerie quickly went to work on covering up the truth. She mentally thanked every single one of Eric's past girlfriends for at least making an effort to teach her to wear makeup. All of them had taught her to apply cover up and the lessons had stuck despite how rarely she used them. It didn't take long for Valerie to decide that she looked like she normally would. Her eyes were still a little bloodshot, but no one would notice that unless they were standing close enough.

From there Valerie changed into a clean uniform and began packing. Eric had been right; she really didn't have anything appropriate for a funeral. Quickly folding some pants and T-shirts into carry on, Valerie went on with her work, mentally preparing herself for the inevitable conversation with her friends. She would have to make something up, but then again, the best lies were the ones found in truth.

By the time Valerie had thrown some shoes in a bag and tossed it into a suitcase, she could hear her friends walking down the hallway. Breathing deeply and forcing herself to relax, she pasted on a smile when Kimiko poked her head in and said, "Hey, I thought you might be in here. Dinner's almost ready."

"Good to know," Valerie told her, her stomach in knots.

"Whatcha packing for?"

"Oh, just… okay, this is going to sound really callous but it's a funeral for someone I don't know," Valerie said in a rush, hoping that she didn't sound like she was lying, or worse, guilty.

It was at that point the others poked their heads in as well. "Um, what?" Raimundo voiced for everyone.

Valerie sighed. "Okay, so you know how you sometimes have to go to funerals for family members everyone except you remembers fondly? And you only barely knew this person so you feel like you should care but you really can't? That's what's happening here."

The others said, "Ooooh!" in understanding, Omi even adding an, "I guess that makes sense," for good measure. "When do you leave?" Clay asked curiously.

"Tomorrow afternoon," Valerie said. "It was kind of sudden, and I'm gonna be gone for a week. I think. Depends on how things go."

"Well at least you're not leaving permanently, like Clay almost did," Raimundo teased playfully.

"That was one time!" Clay retorted good naturedly.

The others quickly went to ribbing at each other, and Valerie did her best to join in. She didn't know if she was getting better at acting or if the others honestly didn't notice, but no one tried to make her open up, to make sure she was okay. Perhaps, in the beginning, they had been forced to because Valerie had been so closed off, so now they figured they could trust what she said at face value. She was closer to the others now, so they had no reason to distrust her.

That was good. That would make lying to them about all this easier.

The next day

Saying goodbye to her friends and the Temple, even temporarily, had been much harder than Valerie had thought. It had become a home to her, even if she would always consider her true home the place where Eric was. He was her true family in the end. But there was safety in her friends' embrace; for a moment Valerie could believe that she could go back in time to yesterday morning and pretend the next twenty-four hours didn't happen. But all things came to an end, and Valerie had stepped into the car like a dead man awaiting his trial.

The ride to the airport was silent as a tomb and the tense atmosphere persisted until the airplane was well into the sky. The inside of the jet was luxurious, with plush burgundy carpeting, a well-stocked mini bar, a large flat-screen TV with a cozy couch in front of it, and a set of small bedrooms to retire in. Shrubs in pots decorated the small space, and a small eating area filled with European dishes was near the very front of the cabin. A table that was attached to the white wall was pulled down, and Valerie delicately sipped at her tea as she waited for Eric to begin.

"You know how lots of people think arranged marriages have died out?" Eric started, looking ready to dump his coffee into the nearest overpriced plant. At Valerie's nod, he went on: "Well, that's a lie. Rich people like to keep money with the rich; they don't like the common folk getting their hands on it. So, your father Matthew was forced to marry Gabrielle. That wouldn't have been so bad, but they had to be married once they graduated high school."

"So my dad fucked my mom because of teenage rebellion," Valerie said flatly. "Wonderful."

"I want to chastise you for using that language, but at this point I can't be bothered," Eric said wryly. His small amount of good humor dropped. "But rebelling against his controlling parents was on Matt's mind, yeah. But he did genuinely love your mom, I don't doubt that."

"How did they meet?"

"The three of us went to college together," Eric explained. "Gabrielle went to some fancy school in Europe, had a few affairs that no one can blame her for-"

"Especially since there's no evidence they happened," Valerie said caustically, fingers nearly breaking the slender china of her mug.

"…probably, yeah," Eric allowed. "Anyway, the three of us went to college together, and I actually became friends with your mom first. Amber and I met in a required history class that was actually a lot of fun. We were often partners together because we happened to sit next to each other a lot, and that's honestly how it started.

"I didn't actually introduce Amber and Matt until our second year, and I guess Matt was smitten by her. Amber was a bit of an imp, kind of like you when you're with your friends. Matt was used to the straight-laced, stuffy society types, so your mom was a breath of fresh air. They started dating before the school year ended and stayed together when the three of us graduated."

"If you knew Gabrielle and Matt were married, why did you let my dad have an affair?" Valerie asked stoically, eyes turned to her jean-clad lap.

Eric sighed heavily. "I thought the marriage was unfair on both their sides. I was friends with Gabrielle too- that's how I knew about the affairs she was having- so I was basically both their secret keepers. Neither of them wanted to be married to each other and I thought they both needed someone else in their lives. And I guessed that if their parents knew their kids were in love with other people they would annul the marriage."

He looked Valerie in the eye. "It's not something I'm exactly proud of, but you came out of all this so I don't regret it. Not one little bit."

Valerie didn't know what to say to that. She closed her eyes to stop herself from crying again and quickly drank some more of her tea. "What happened next?"

Eric took a sip of his coffee, grimaced, and dumped it all on the plant next to him. "Well, when Gabrielle came back from Europe she had broken things off with the guy she was with. I thought Matt had broken things off with Amber, but they were still seeing each other in secret. Matt didn't tell me until two years later, after his and Gabrielle's first son was born.

"That was when you came along, by the way, and that's when I knew the three of us were pretty much fucked."

"Let me guess, Amber couldn't take care of me on her own?" Valerie surmised dispassionately.

"She had a job that paid well and she had friends who could watch over you, but society at the time didn't think well of single moms so things were really tough on her," Eric said, wincing at the memory. "She was estranged from her own parents- they were kind of horrible people, I don't blame Amber from never wanting to talk to them again- and Amber really needed some money. And Matt freely gave it to her.

"Matt often disappeared during that time; I later found out he had been to visit you. He apparently was looking into formally adopting you into the family, but Amber wanted him and Gabrielle to divorce. Which was perfectly understandable, considering how much Matt was stringing her along."

"Yeah, the guy who helped create me has a tendency of disappointing the people he loves," Valerie said bitterly.

Eric looked like he wanted to defend his friend, but then he just gave up. "Yeah, he really does." He shook his head and then looked sheepish. "Not too soon afterwards Matt's parents find out about you and Amber and, well."

"They're reactions were apoplectic."

"That's putting it very mildly. They basically ordered Matt to cut off all ties with the two of you or you'd suffer the consequences. And Gabrielle agreed with them to an extent. She had to give up the love of her life back in Europe, and it wasn't fair that Matt hadn't done the same. Matt was actually preparing to just walk out on all them when…"

Valerie took a look at the exhausted, haunted expression Eric had. His eyes were clenched shut and he seemed as hollow as she felt. "Eric, what happened to Amber?" she asked softly, fearing the answer.

"Car accident," Eric finally choked out. He rubbed at his bloodshot eyes and he mirrored Valerie's horrified expression. "At least that's what the reports say. I didn't find this out until after you were born, but your grandparents were insanely controlling, almost to the point of abusive. So when Eric told me your mom's death was sabotage, I wasn't surprised."


"I guess they hired someone to cut the brakes in her car or something. Either way she didn't stop in time and she died," Eric spat out, this time nervously scratching at his arm. When he accidentally pushed up the green sleeve of his button-up, Valerie could see the red scratch marks littering his tanned flesh.

"You weren't involved in the crash and I thank God every day for that," Eric went on to say. "I was actually watching over you when it all went down. After the initial shock and funeral, it was like a part of Matt died with Amber, and he became… colder, more hateful. I think he had a hand in his parents' deaths- one of a heart attack, another in a hospital, and if he did I honestly can't blame him.

"When Gabrielle found out about you, she honestly didn't want anything to do with you. She never knew Amber, and like I said she left true love behind, so taking you in would be a constant slap to her face. It was a terrible thing to do and I told her that repeatedly, but it's understandable. And your grandparents tried to give you to Amber's parents, but they wanted nothing to do with you either, and your grandparents wanted to put you in foster care…"

Eric took a deep breath and looked Valerie in the eye. "Matt tried everything to get you adopted into the family, but no one listened to him, so I took you in. Your dad made it so that you were always provided for- sent you to the best schools Europe had to offer, made sure you would never, ever want for anything. With you out of the picture no one would come after you like they did Amber, but now that all the opposition is dead, I think Matt wants to induct you into the family properly."

"You think," Valerie parroted back, her tone icy. "You said my father had become cold and hateful after my mother died."

If Eric was hurt by the coldness in her voice, he didn't show it. He took another fortifying breath and replied, "Back when Matt and Amber were together he was like the moon to her sun, as sappy as that sounds. He often seemed cold due to his background but once he was around close friends he was like a little hyperactive ball of happiness. That only grew stronger when Amber was around. And I wasn't kidding when I compared Amber to the sun; she was extroverted and fun and could light up a room just by entering it. Considering how dour Matt could be, it's no wonder he fell so hard for her.

"But when your true love gets taken away from you… you change, and not for the better. He was alright with Gabrielle before, but he hated her before she died because she refused to take you in. He's got three sons he can't really relate to because he's so closed off and most of the time I can't see my best friend in him anymore." Eric ran a hand through his thick black hair and leaned over the table, looking ready to collapse on it.

"But you stuck with him so you could take care of me," Valerie said with more than a little feeling.

"None of this was your fault," Eric told her seriously, eyes steely. "It's all on the adults here. I'll admit I've thought about what would have happened if I tried to stop all this, if I hadn't been so naïve and believed that your grandparents had any good in them, but I think things would have played out the same regardless. And I can't really regret it in the end."

"Why not?" Valerie begged, feeling like her body was going to collapse in on itself. All she wanted to do was tuck herself into the tiniest space and cease existing entirely, for the universe to just forget about her and give her a break. "You lost your best friends and had to take care of me. If anything you should be furious."

"My best friends made their choices. Nothing I could have done would have changed anything," Eric told her honestly. "And you act like taking you in was a terrible idea. And don't you imply it was," he said hotly when Valerie tried to interrupt. "None of this is your fault. And I'll be damned if anyone says otherwise."

Valerie looked him in the eyes and saw the sincerity in them. And that was then she knew, without a flicker of a doubt, that Eric was her true father in all but blood.

Smiling softly, she said, "Well, that's that then. I'm just here to pick up the pieces."

Eric gave her a sardonic smile back. "Unfortunately yes." He then reached underneath the table and took out his laptop bag. "I figured you should probably see what your dad looks like so you'll know him when you see him." From one of the pockets he produced photographs.

There were many of them- quite a few depicted Matthew in magazines or tabloids, sporting an expensive suit, an athletic build, and a stony expression. More recent photos showed him with a salt and pepper beard, but what Valerie was most interested in was an old Polaroid, smudged fingerprints and tear stains distorting the colors.

It was three young people set against a metal park bench. Valerie could instantly tell which was Eric- the slightly oval face and shaggy black hair was a dead giveaway. Vibrant green eyes were hidden behind thin wire glasses. Valerie could tell he was beginning his career as a mixed martial artist- Eric had always been fairly slender, but there was mammoth strength hidden underneath those wiry muscles and she could see them through the Joan Jett t-shirt Eric was wearing in the picture. He was the picture of lackadaisical youth, arm held loosely around a young woman's shoulders, his legs crossed to show off his ripped-at-the-knees jeans, and a lazy, content smile on his face.

Valerie deduced the other man was Matt. He too had a slender build, but his shoulders were broader and tapered down to a thin waist. He was wearing khakis and a red polo shirt, a black watch around one wrist. Dark eyes stared into the camera, matching his fluffy-looking dark brown hair cut just below his ears, giving the harsh cut of his face a softer look. Matt seemed so happy in the picture, smile wide as he all but cuddled the girl next to him.

And then there was Amber, right in the middle. She looked less like the sun and more like a storm, petite body clad in black jeans, gray shirt, and a black leather jacket. Her light brown hair was sheared into a pixie cut, thick eyebrows raised like she was about to share a biting remark. Her face was heart shaped, her dark blue eyes boring into the camera. Amber looked satisfied in the picture, but something in her expression told Valerie that she was perfectly willing to take on the world.

"I'm a dead ringer for her, huh," Valerie mused out loud, setting down the picture.

"Physically, yes. As for personality, I think you mainly take after your father," Eric told her honestly, expression wistful.

She took a deep breath and pushed the picture away from her. "I don't think I like photographs very much," she said, clenching her hands tightly. "Too many what-ifs and what-could-have-beens."

Eric sighed heavily. "Yeah, I know the feeling."

Eric is the real MVP.

So, thoughts anyone?