Happily Ever Eventually
"What on Earth is that?"
Greg peeked out from behind the giant box he was carrying into Sara's hospital room. "Gift," he grunted. "From Liz. I'm starting to think she likes you more than she likes me. Now open it; I want to see what's inside." He put another handful of ice chips into his mouth while staring at her expectantly. It was his fifth cup of ice chips.
Sara didn't even spare him a glance as she applied a car key to the UPS tape on the package. Inside were a number of smaller, tastefully wrapped boxes, as well as a large and exotic fruit basket. She oohed.
"Open 'em, open 'em! I wanna see what you got!"
Sighing, she started to pull off the paper and bows. A beautiful terrycloth robe and lavender toiletries from Crabtree Evelyn. An actual silver spoon, with a small note about the TV show attached. A pink cashmere blanket. An extra large down pillow. A leather-bound baby book. A huge assortment of gourmet chocolates. And some tin with Greg's name on it. She handed it to him.
"Ooh! Homemade cookies! I bet they go great with ice chips."
On the verge of tears, Sara looked at Greg. "You have the kindest sister I've ever met. I mean, this must have cost a fortune and Three's not even yours." She stopped suddenly, embarrassed by what she had said. Greg veiled his eyes. Fortunately, Dr. Miller entered to break the uncomfortable atmosphere.
"Ms. Sidle, Mr. Sanders. All ready for today?"
They only glanced at each other. Ready? No. Excited, nervous, happy, terrified, shocked, and trepidatious? Of course.
The doctor gave her a little pat on the tummy and smiled. "Will Mr. Sanders be coaching you? I think he'd make a fine coach"
Greg looked anywhere except at the other two in the room, but Sara glared coldly at Dr. Miller. "We already discussed this."
"I thought you might have changed your mind."
"Do I look like the kind of person who changes her mind? I don't want a coach—not the father, not my friend, not my mother, not Bobby Knight. If it's all the same to you, I'd like to limit the number of people who will be staring at my vagina as a child comes through it. It's humiliating enough that I have to lay spread-eagle in stirrups in front of you and God-only-know how many other people—I have no intention of adding to the list. And if you try to tell me one more time how to have my baby, I will fire you and hire somebody off the street. Do we have an understanding?"
He could only nod and walk meekly away, tail between his legs. "Don't worry," they told him in medical school. "These women will look up to you and appreciate the great service you're performing. You're the one who will safely bring their children into the world; you'll be a hero in their eyes." Bunch of lying, no-good, dated morons. Women stopped feeling that way about their OB-GYNs at about the same time that they started burning their bras. Which, by the way, made absolutely no sense; were they gonna burn their underwear next?
Inside the room, Greg stared at Sara. "Geez," Greg whispered, "give the guy back his manhood." He walked over to the bed and sat down, then spoke in a hushed tone. "I should probably tell you that, uh, the pushing will produce more than the baby." She only stared at him. "And more than the placenta." More staring. "Y'know how when you go to the bathroom and you push…and it's not urine…"
She caught on, then fixed him with her patented icy stare. "I hate men."
He nodded gravely. "Don't worry; that's obvious. Ice chip?"
Oh, God! Eve couldn't have sinned this badly against you! Please have mercy…please, please, please…
The contraction ended and Sara heaved a sigh of relief as a nurse wiped her brow and offered ice chips. She sagged against the pillow, physically and emotionally drained, as well as completely ready to give up. If the kid didn't want out—fine. Let her stay. Obviously this whole pushing thing made no sense; if the baby had to be pushed, it must not be ready, right? Was she the only person in the room thinking logically?
"Sara, we're coming up on another contraction."
Like she needed to be told. Dear God, please make this be the last one. I swear, if this is the last one, I won't kill my mother for talking me into a "natural" birth. Please, the last one! Or kill me! Either, I don't care which. At least wounded soldiers got bullets to bite on! Greg's experience, she thought anxiously, was nothing compared to giving birth. I would much rather get shot.
"'Ata girl, let's give it another push."
"What "we"? There's no we! There's me! And if you call me "girl" one more time, I'll kill you."
"Just a little more," Dr. Miller whispered, not for his patient's benefit. A moment later he yelled, "Head's crowning! We're—er, you're—almost there. Now you have to really focus; I need you to push harder."
"I hate you!"
"Okay, then hate me and push harder."
She bore down with all her might and pushed, determined to get the blasted thing out. In that moment, she didn't care how many people were in the room, looking at her vagina, or how much blood, mucus, and feces were involved, or even about the blood vessels rupturing in her face. All she cared about was ending the pain. She grunted, strained, and cried out as Three's head emerged.
"Excellent, Sara! Excellent job! Now, breathe; the baby's gonna do the rest."
She fell back against the bed as Dr. Miller brought out one shoulder and then the other. She felt the unique sensation of an entire person exiting her. Then, a couple seconds later, the most incredible sound: Her baby cried.
Dr. Miller, looking very pleased and proud, held up the infant. "Ms. Sidle, you have a beautiful baby girl. Congratulations," he said softly as he placed Three on her stomach to be viewed.
Sara gasped and choked back her cries, even as tears fell. This was her daughter. She watched them clean Three up quickly and the slightly bluish tinge faded as her face unsquished itself. Meanwhile, the doctor put his hand on her stomach and felt quietly for a moment as the contractions continued, less severe, to expel the placenta.
"We're almost done, Sara," he said as he sat back down between her legs.
She felt pain, and then fluid began pouring out of her. She prepared herself to push when Dr. Miller held up a hand. "Too much blood," he told a nurse. "Sara, don't push. I'm gonna press on your stomach to help detach the placenta; you're expelling too much blood to force it out on your own."
"Where's the baby?"
"The nurses are taking care of her. She's just getting her Apgar scores and some silver nitrate for the eyes. We'll have you together again in a couple minutes." He looked at her and smiled warmly. "She's healthy, you're healthy, and we all got through this without killing me. You did a great job, Ms. Sidle."
"So, um…big week for you."
Gil glanced over at the person he'd thought was the baby's father. "That's a radical understatement."
Greg shrugged, but never took his eyes off the door where, eventually, someone was bound to come through and tell them the baby had been born. "I figured it'd be better than, "So, what's it like to be a father less than a week after you found out Sara was pregnant?" I'm not exactly known for my way with words—especially around you."
"That would seem to be a continuing trend. I never regarded myself as difficult to talk with, considering I've elicited my fair share of confessions."
"You're an imposing figure."
Greg had spent the past three hours getting up, pacing, sitting down, and repeating the process about every five minutes. Grissom, however, sat in the exact same seat, reading the exact same magazine, and glancing expectantly at the door, while hoping nobody noticed his hands trembling slightly when he flipped pages. Finally, Greg decided to sit down again.
He turned to face Grissom. "Are you angry?"
"Yes." He didn't need any sort of pause to indicate thinking out his answer. Everyone knew, despite outward appearances, that he was angry. Still, he decided to elaborate. "I wouldn't have been angry if she had told me from the beginning. Surprised, yes. But she was no more responsible for creating the child than I—only for lying."
"She made a mistake. But she came clean, too. She's sorry, boss. I was there for the whole eight months of guilt and worry. You have no idea how scared this whole pregnancy made her—I mean, Sara can be pretty stoic, but I could see it eating at her." Greg's shoulders slumped. When had he last slept? Why had nothing about the past eight months been simple? "At least she told you. You missed morning sickness, crying spells, and midnight cravings. Now you've got a beautiful baby to love for the rest of your life."
"I also missed doctor's appointments, watching it kick, and all the preparation that comes with expecting a child." Gil didn't add how incredibly awkward his conversation with Heather had been, nor that she suggested putting their relationship on hold until things settled down. "It's not as simple as you want it to be."
Quietly, Greg responded, "It's not as complicated as you want it to be, either. Do you know how lucky you are? That's yours. You're daddy."
Grissom blinked once—as close as he came to an outward show of surprise. Why hadn't it dawned on him earlier? "You're jealous."
"Greg, I'm in no mood to be lied to further."
He looked up to the ceiling, as if seeking divine help or simply noticing the water stain. Then, closing his eyes and pretending he was talking only to the air, he replied. "I have strong feelings for Sara and, I think, the baby, too."
There. Why couldn't Sara have been that honest from the get-go? All she had to do was walk into Gil's office, close here eyes, tell him about the pregnancy, and then walk out with her eyes still closed. If she had planned it correctly, Greg could have been waiting outside with a truth getaway car to speed them from Grissom's presence.
"It sounds like we all have some stuff to work out."
"Yeah. Let's hope we can work it out to the best advantage of Three."
Gil's brow furrowed. "Who's Three?"
"That's kinda what we called the baby before we knew her gender. Y'know, "And baby makes three." I didn't like calling her "it" all the—"
Dr. Miller walked through the door. Grissom and Greg stood immediately.
"I'm pleased to report that Ms. Sidle gave birth to a lovely, eight-pound girl. She and the baby are resting comfortably. Both are healthy. She told me to tell you that you're welcome to visit them. Please remember, however, that she's extremely exhausted. You can come with me if you'd like."
The two men looked at each other, then back at the doctor. Greg held his hand out towards the door. "After you. Daddy."
Greg hugged Sara, held the baby, then left quietly to give she and Grissom an opportunity to talk in private. Gil sat down and watched her struggle to breastfeed. She glanced over at him. "Not as easy as it looks."
He nodded. Goodness, she was radiant. And the baby? Absolutely gorgeous. He couldn't take his eyes off either; as soon as he felt like he'd got a good look at one, his gaze darted to the other. Wasn't he supposed to be angry? Was that really his very own daughter?
"She's beautiful," he whispered.
Sara blushed and quit trying to figure out how the whole breastfeeding thing worked. "Would you like to hold her? I mean, she's half yours. Although, if we went entirely on her looks, you'd think I had nothing to do with it."
Tentatively, Grissom took the proffered baby and held her awkwardly. At least she didn't cry. That had to be a good sign. He couldn't believe how tiny her body felt in his arms; her little hand could barely fit around his finger. And so unbelievably soft! Ever so gently, he touched her bald little head and cupped it in his hand. "The likeness," he finally said, "is uncanny. She would have been an awfully difficult secret to keep."
"I know. She's you, sans hair."
"Do you have a name in mind?"
"No." She fidgeted with the robe Liz sent her and tried calm her pounding heart. Not because of Grissom. No, she'd sort of made peace with that after being nearly torn apart from the inside out. The problem was with not having her baby in her own arms. Three had been safe inside the womb, where Sara could protect her. Now, God only knew what could happen. "Any ideas?" she asked after a moment.
"I've always liked the name Jeanine."
EW! Now, how could she phrase that nicely? "It's too bad she doesn't look like a Jeanine."
He smiled faintly, taking the hint. "Well, I suppose it's more your prerogative than anyone else's; after all, you went through all the trouble of delivering her. Speaking of which, I hope you're feeling well. Greg said you decided to forego any drugs."
"Yeah, I'm—could I have her back now? Thanks. It was certainly not an experience I'd like to relive. I mean, you try squeezing one of the department's SUVs through a rubber band and see what happens."
They sat in silence, staring contemplatively at the baby. The same thought ran through both their minds: I can't believe I'm a parent! I wonder what Sara/Grissom is thinking. They broke the silence simultaneously with, "I'm sorry—what? Go ahead. No, please."
Sara decided to take the initiative and just say what she wanted to without regard for politeness. "What do you mean you're sorry? I'm the one who didn't tell you about the pregnancy until less than a week before the delivery. I lied. What did you do?"
"I didn't take the time to consider what you'd been through and how it, as well as your fluctuating hormones, affected your judgment. Besides, I'm partially to blame myself," he admitted, prompting her to raise both eyebrows in surprise. "After all, I'm the head of one of the nation's top forensic labs and I had no idea; that hardly speaks well of me." Again, he failed to mention Lady Heather's involvement. In a burst of unusual annoyance, she told him to stop with the self-pity and try putting himself in Sara's maternity clothes, metaphorically speaking. She could be extremely eloquent, as well as decidedly to the point.
"I appreciate that. But it doesn't really matter who's to blame; there's a life in this world and we have a responsibility to her. All I want to know that you're willing to be not just her father, but her dad."
"I take my responsibilities very seriously, Sara."
"I'm not talking about spending three straight days and nights working to solve a case. This is from now until we're dead, cries in the middle of the night, potty training, preschool, puberty, boys, dating, college—everything." For a moment, a bout of anxiety hit her over what the next 25 years would bring. She shoved it down as quickly as she could. "I know you once talked to Warwick about being like a ghost; you said you'd just disappear one day without a goodbye party at the lab or even a word to any of us. She isn't that. She's your daughter and she'll need you forever."
It didn't phase him for a moment. Probably because the reality wouldn't set in until long—possibly years—after their conversation. "You know how dedicated I am with our work. Imagine how much more with my own child."
She could see that he meant it entirely. And so did she. They were two stubborn, diligent, hard working people who would care for, nurture, and raise their daughter well. Both of them felt it, sitting there looking at Three. Gil even reached out to touch her bald head again. He could do right by this child. They smiled courageously at each other.
Three, knowing full well that brand new parents have a way of building themselves up because they haven't got the first clue of what will happen, took that opportunity to start crying shrilly. It only seemed appropriate.
He went through the name book, calling out suggestions as they struck him. "Cordelia?"
"What's the matter with you?"
"Haley—there's a good Scandinavian name."
"I hate that name."
"Ann, Mary, Debbie, Sue, Jane, Billie Jo, Gregoria?"
"No, no, no, no, no, definitely no, and, for the last time, I am not naming my daughter after you, Greg!"
He stuck out his tongue and flipped over a few more pages. "Hmm…oh, I've got it! Dora."
"Dora? I don't think—"
"It means gift of God. Certainly not what you first thought she was, huh?"
Sara stopped, then sat Three on her stomach to get a good look. She didn't look like a Dora. Well, she didn't look like an anything, except a tiny, bald Grissom. "Dora. Dora Sidle. Dora Grissom. Dora Sidle-Grissom. I doesn't sound bad," she remarked noncommittally. "It kinda reminds me of that kids' show, though."
"We could name her Moira; it means wished-for."
Sara frowned. "No," she said, biting her lip. She gave the name some thought and realized that, despite the fear, worry, anxiety, and terror that had accompanied the past eight months, she couldn't deny her absolute love for Three. She truly was a blessing. "Dora's a pretty good choice, I guess." She put the girl back to suckling, which was slowly becoming less complicated. "Dora it is."
Greg began offering choices for middle names when Catherine, Warwick, and Nick walked in carrying cards and gifts and a fruit basket. Warwick and Nick promptly walked right back out. The sound of nervous murmurs could be heard in the room, while its occupants looked at one another, confused.
"Could—could you cover it up or something?" Warwick finally asked.
Catherine rolled her eyes and sat down. "Oh, grow up, you two. It's a breast. You've seen a million of them at crime scenes alone."
"Yeah, but none of them were Sara's."
Sara removed Dora from her feeding. She didn't feel the least bit ashamed to bare her breast in front of them, mostly because they were in her hospital room. However, she didn't have then energy to argue. "All right, you can come in; the scary boob is gone. Geez, were you guys this prudish when your mothers were nursing you?"
Warwick frowned. "My mother was a saint. As far as I'm concerned, I was immaculately conceived and had a wet-nurse. How's the kid? D'you pick a name yet?"
"Dora. She's fine. Nick, get your hands off of my chocolate; if you want some, have a baby."
Everyone talked for a little bit and held Dora. Nick kept eyeing the candy, so Greg finally took him and Warwick to the cafeteria for some ice-cream which, while they had to technically get it from a vending machine, still contained vast amounts of sugar. For his part, Greg looked somewhere between a proud father, a proud friend, and a guy not at all sure of his position.
"So," Cath began, sitting back and holding Dora with the practiced ease of a mother, "How're you holding up?"
"Okay, I guess. I keep vacillating between happy and sad, nervous and peaceful, hopeful and terrified, excited and anxious. One minute I think I'm gonna do a great job as a mother and then I think I'll accidentally do something to hurt her. Is this normal?"
"Perfectly normal. Part of your job as a mother is to be an emotional, nervous, paranoid wreck for the next…oh, 30 years, I think. For you, however, it's probably compounded by your relationship with Grissom." She put up a hand to keep Sara from asking any questions. "Nick overheard something and the entire lab knows. Don't feel bad; the guys are confused but all the women understand completely. I mean, nobody blames you."
Sara sighed. "Well, I guess it had to come out eventually."
Catherine held up the baby, as if to emphasize the poor likelihood of her parentage being kept a secret. She smiled as she did it, then turned serious. "Since the boys aren't here, I'm gonna give you three pieces of advice and then I'll shut up: First, don't take anybody's advice; people are gonna tell you that you have to do it this way or that way, when you ought to be doing it your own way. Second, don't marry anybody just because you had a baby; that's why I got married and we both know how well that turned out. Finally, don't be afraid to ask for help; you'll be one crappy mom if you don't reach out." She grinned again. "There, that's all I have to say. Just remember that part about not taking anyone's advice."
"I will certainly keep it in mind."
"Y'know," Catherine said as she reluctantly handed back the baby, "It's a lot nicer to be visiting a colleague in the hospital who isn't here for getting shot. I just wish we could find the guy who did it. I swear, it's like he disappeared off the face of the Earth. Is Greg—is he angry that we haven't made any headway?"
"Greg? No, of course not. He is itching to get back to work and help, however, but he understands that cases don't always get solved."
Cath nodded. "So, where are your parents?"
"Oh, my dad got food poisoning from some two-week old lunchmeat and he's still throwing up. He ate it right in front of my mother to spite her and I could practically hear her gloating over the phone."
After a few minutes, the guys walked in with the ice-cream. They each carried four bars per ravenous male appetite. Greg sat himself on the edge of Sara's bed and played with the baby while he ate. In between bites, Warwick and Nick managed to update Sara on every case they could think of. Greg wasn't the only one itching to get back to work.
When she yawned, the visitors made to excuse themselves and left with lots of congratulations and promises to be back, although two of the three added the stipulation that no breastfeeding be taking place upon or during their visit. This left Sara and Greg alone again, with the newly christened Dora.
"Nick's got a big mouth."
"Sara…what's gonna happen?"
She looked up to meet his eyes. How could she possibly answer that? Grissom didn't seem to be holding any grudges and that meant they could share a common interest in Dora. Did that necessitate more? What about the feelings for Greg she had long since stopped denying? Why did everything have to be so complicated? Dora was a blessing; Sara's choices and actions were not. "I don't know," she replied finally. She couldn't possibly give him a more honest answer. "When I get out, I'd like to move back into my apartment; I think it's appropriate. Beyond that, I haven't got a clue. I think we're just gonna have to take this one issue at a time."
He nodded sadly and let Dora cling to one of his fingers. "I'll move your stuff back today. I can set up the crib before I leave."
"Greg, you don't have to—"
"S'all right. In fact, I think I'm gonna go do it now." He took a quick breath, like he was trying to fight something, gave Dora a peck on the forehead, and squeezed Sara's hand. "Get some rest. I'll see you later."
He left them alone.
Sara lay in her room with Dora that night after crying for most of the day. Grissom visited, of course. She tried not to cry around him but it didn't work, so she brushed it off as postpartum emotions. All of the problems made her want to run away. Could she just stay in the hospital for good? What if she simply refused to leave? No. Sara Sidle was many things, but never afraid to face a problem. Well, unless that problem was explaining to Grissom that she was pregnant with—oh, never mind!
She hugged the little girl close and looked at Dora's peaceful face, blissfully unaware of the trials surrounding her conception, gestation, and birth. That was when a thought occurred to Sara: Catherine was right. She needed to stop agonizing over her relationships with men and focus on the infant. Yes, Greg was kind and amazing and ridiculously helpful, not to mention increasingly attractive as time passed. And Grissom was forgiving and the child's father. But the most important person was the one lying right beside her. That would simply have to be good enough for everyone—Greg, Gil, and herself.
Besides, who knew what the future held? Maybe she would wind up with one or the other. Maybe neither. She couldn't even hazard a guess. Heck, if anyone had told her she'd be lying in a hospital room with her and Grissom's baby nine months ago, she'd have frozen them on the spot. Sometimes life goes in the oddest direction, despite anyone's best precautions.
Closing her eyes, she listened to her little one breathe.
Gil sat in his house sipping cold tea and staring at the picture he'd taken of Dora. He toyed with the idea of going back to see his daughter.
If somebody had told him just a couple weeks ago that he'd be holding a picture of his own daughter—by Sara—he'd have raised one of his eyebrows nearly off his face. But there she was, in perfect digital imaging. At least he no longer felt angry. Dora's infant charm won him over immediately, as well as a micro-lecture from Catherine:
"Look, she gave you one of the, arguably, greatest things on Earth. You have a child by a beautiful and highly intelligent woman; with the combination of your IQs, this baby could grow up to rule the world, or at least solve the Jack the Ripper case. Be understanding, Gil."
That secured Dora's future as the first forensically trained Commander-in-Chief and Head of State of the United States, but where did it leave him and Sara? Friends? Was he expected to propose or something? Did she want him to? Did he want him to? What about Greg? The whole situation easily rivaled his most difficult cases for frustration and uncertainty.
Sighing, he decided to simply let things play themselves out, like any good scientist would. Anyway, he still hadn't called his mother to let her know of her grandchild. What was the sign for baby again?
Greg sat and looked at the crib he had just erected. Don't feel jaded, he thought to himself. You knew what you were getting in to. You knew perfectly well that it had to end. So why does it suck so much? Sighing, he picked up his tools, tore up and threw away the box the crib came in, and set about making the little mattress.
It wasn't like he wanted a kid, anyhow. Sure, Dora was cute and he adored her like crazy, but did he really want to be getting up at all hours of the night? Or running after a demonically possessed toddler? And, yeah, he liked Sara. Loved her? Well…maybe. But she could be moody. And she lied, too, right? Plus, shouldn't the mom and the dad be together?
If anyone had told him seven months ago that he'd be pining over Sara and her daughter, he'd have laughed them right out of his lab. Preposterous! Insane! Ludicrous! Fact.
Shaking the crib a couple times to ensure its stability, he made up his mind to go rent an Eddie Izzard performance—Dress To Kill sounded good—and drown his sorrows in a pint of Ben and Jerry's. Maybe he couldn't have Sara, but he sure as heck could have peanut butter filled, fudge coated pretzels in malt ice-cream and "cake or death."
Let the future worry about itself.
She had just had the worst dream of her entire life. What a horrible thing for her brain to come up with. Taking a few deep breaths, she patted the empty space beside her to check for a warm body. No one there.
Sara headed in the direction of the kitchen when she noticed the light on in the living room and heard the soft hum of the TV. Had she left that on? It just figured. The lab was hectic as ever and, with everything on her mind, she'd been a little distracted. No wonder her subconscious concocted something so awful.
Walking softly, she made her way towards the room, then stopped. She smiled. There sat her husband and daughter. The former lay sleeping in the arms of the latter, who rocked back and forth while watching Puma Man get riffed mercilessly. Fantastic—was he seriously trying letting her little mind get corrupted with that Mystery Science Theater 3000 garbage?
"Did I wake you?" he asked. "I turned it down as low as I could and still hear it."
"No, you didn't wake me. I had a bad dream."
"What a coincidence; so did she." He got up, put Dora back in her bed, and joined his wife on the couch. "She dreamt that something happened to that stuffed dog of hers. What was your nightmare?"
She leaned against. "I dreamt she died. I came home and the babysitter left me a note to say they'd gone to the hospital. I was frantic and then I couldn't get hold of you at the lab and it turned out to be my fault because I'd, somehow, left my gun sitting right on the floor where she could get to it." She shook her head. "A parent's worst nightmare."
"Well, she is not dead and you would never leave your gun anywhere she could get to it. Neither of us would. Do you want a cup of coffee? I bought some decaf—go figure."
"No. I want you to promise me nothing bad will ever happen to her."
"Nothing would make me happier. But we both know I can't. I'm afraid we're gonna have to be content with providing a loving, happy, safe home and always checking babysitter references."
She chuckled softly against his chest, where her head was laying. How had she gotten so blessed, with a wonderful (if not occasionally demonically possessed) daughter and an amazing husband? She reached up and ran a hand through his hair—soft and spike-less with the gel washed out. If someone had told her three years ago that everything really would work itself out, she wouldn't have believed a word.
"D'you wanna go back to bed?" he asked eventually.
"Yeah. You go ahead and I'll meet you there in a minute."
He extracted himself from under her weight, kissed her forehead, and walked towards their room, stopping momentarily to look fondly at his wife. She followed slowly, but made a slight detour to check her little blessing, an act she often performed two or three times a night. There she lay, sound asleep and clutching her stuffed dog. Sara tiptoed in, smoothed back Dora's hair, and pulled the pink cashmere blanket up around her neck.
This was a mistake she wouldn't correct for anything in the world.
A/N: I apologize that it took me so long to finish this; life has a way of interfering with the creative process. I'm extremely grateful to everyone who has reviewed, and especially to those who didn't give up on something that took (seemingly) forever. I sincerely hope you enjoyed the story and were not disappointed with the ending (which was slightly modified from the original post to include less ambiguity). Thanks again. –your humble author.