AN: Thanks for reading (and reviewing) my story, people. That means you, 452Max, FirstBorn, SinisterShadows, bloomsky, Laney Tate, SnapeGIRL1234, X-5 450, supernaturalsdarkangel108, and anyone else I missed.
All right! Last chapter! This one is extra long (double the usual), so enjoy!
It wasn't fair. Sarah stared at her reflection in the bathroom mirror but looked away when she saw her lower lip quivering and her eyes fill with tears. No, she wouldn't cry. Her eyes were a little shiny. That was bad. Grandpa might notice when she came downstairs for her "party".
Today was her birthday, which meant that she could have whatever she wanted, right? But no, she was nine now; she would act more grown up about this. She wouldn't make a fuss about her dad not being able to be at dinner. She wouldn't.
Alec had called earlier to wish her a happy birthday. They'd talked for a while and Sarah had done her best not to beg him to come. Begging would have been childish when she knew how much it hurt her father to deny them both of the other's company. So she made no mention of her secret desire that he would be at her birthday dinner that night. It turned out to be the big white elephant in their phone conversation. She knew what her wish would be when she blew out those candles on the cake. Transgenic equality. She snorted. Might as well ask for world peace while she was at it.
Sarah splashed water on her face and patted it dry with a towel. She examined herself in the mirror again. Under close scrutiny, there were minute traces of the tears she had almost shed earlier, but her grandfather didn't have the best eyesight in the world; she'd pass.
She glanced at the clock beside her bed as she stepped out of the bathroom connected to her room. 7:33. Oh no, she was late for dinner! Sarah rushed out of her room and slid down the banisters of the grand staircase. Hurrying to the dining room, she skidded to a stop right outside the door. Composing herself and smoothing down her dress and hair to a more lady-like state, she opened the door.
"Grandpa?" she said as she entered. "Sorry I'm late for…" she trailed off as she caught sight of the teddy bear sitting at her place at the table. What really drew her attention, though, was the chain barely visible in the fur fastened around its neck with the locket on it. It flashed luminously in the dim lights of the dining room.
Sarah caught her breath as she realized that the table was set for three, not two. Was it possible…?
With a wide grin, she turned and launched herself at the taller of the two figures standing by the windows at the far corner of the room. "Daddy!" she cried.
Alec caught the living projectile and held her safely in his arms. "Hey baby," he murmured, breathing in her scent. "Didja miss me?"
Sarah laid her head on her shoulder, her face fitting in the crook of his neck. "Yeah, I missed you," she sighed, perfectly happy. "Why didn't you tell me you were coming when you called earlier?"
It was her grandfather who answered, however. "I thought you liked surprises, Sarah," he said, laughing softly at the touching display of paternal-filial love. "Happy ninth birthday."
"Best birthday present ever," Sarah gushed a few minutes later at the dinner table. She was still grinning like an idiot. Alec wasn't much better off, as he still bore the happy smile and twinkle in his eyes that had yet to dissipate. It made him look young again, Robert Berrisford thought, perhaps even younger than he had been when he had first entered this house. But happier, much happier than he had been then.
"Well, then I guess you don't want to know about your other present, since you like this one so much," Berrisford teased.
Sarah's green eyes lit up even more. "What is it, what is it, what is it? Tell me, please?" she asked, bouncing in her chair.
Berrisford took a sip of wine, deliberately taking his time. "Oh, it's not much." He put the glass down. "I just had the piano upstairs tuned this afternoon while you were at school. I know you've always wanted to play it." He glanced sideways from under half-closed eyelids to see what his granddaughter thought of it.
Her mouth formed an "O" and her eyes were as big as saucers. She leapt from her chair and ran around the table to hug her grandfather. "Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you," she chanted.
Berrisford laughed. He cupped Sarah's cheek in his hand and brought his face close to hers. "And you know what the best part is? I contacted one of your mother's old piano teachers and he said he'd be willing to give you lessons. She always said he was her favorite instructor, although I think she might have been a little bit biased. She had a crush on him, you see?" His eyes twinkled at Alec, who had the grace to blush a little.
Sarah's eyes widened even further in excitement. "No way. You mean…" She looked at her father.
Alec confirmed. "Yeah. Your Grandpa's letting me come over once a week to teach you the marvelous art of piano."
Sarah rushed over to him and scrambled into his lap. "This is way awesome." She put her arms around his neck in a tight hug.
"Well, you know, I can be a pretty strict teacher. You've got to practice every day, got that?" Alec said sternly, but gently. He stroked her hair out of her face. Her cheeks were pink from excitement and the locket was now around her neck where it belonged.
"Uh-huh. Okay. I can do that." Sarah bit her lip then burst out eagerly, "Can we go right now? Can you teach me? Please? Like now now?"
Sarah never understood why the grownups erupted in laughter. She was serious.
"No, honey, after dinner," her grandfather wheezed. "Finish eating first, then you can go upstairs."
Robert Berrisford stood at the dining room window listening to the two upstairs laugh and tease (and tickle) their way through their first piano lesson. He hoped he'd made the right choice in allowing it to happen.
A crash of discordant notes interrupted "Hot Cross Buns" and a giggle ending in a high-pitched screech brought a smile to his lips. This house hadn't felt so alive since…well, since his darling wife had passed when Rachel herself was not much older than Sarah was now.
He took a sip of his gin and was about to take another when he heard a sound outside. Probably nothing, he told himself, but it never hurt to check and make sure.
Berrisford stepped nearer to the window than he had been standing before and pulled the edge of the curtain back to look outside. He squinted in the dark, scanning the pathway leading to the house and the darker shadows of the trees planted against the side of the house. He almost missed the figure crouched in the tree, looking in at the room where his granddaughter and her father were.
Narrowing his eyes, he went to the table where he had hidden a gun in the drawer. He put his glass down, took the firearm out and returned to the window, silently releasing the catch and sliding it open.
The figure watching the oblivious duo startled and looked down at him. For a split second, they were both still. Then she, for the intruder was unmistakably a female, sprang down gracefully from her high perch and landed directly in front of the open window.
This action surprised Berrisford, but the face of the woman that was revealed in the light of the room within made him blink in astonishment. He recognized her, the face of the transgenics, but also the young woman who had stopped him from killing Alec all those years ago.
Max Guevera was her name, as he'd found out soon after the declaration of the transgenics' independence from the United States Military.
He broke the silence first. "Miss Guevera. May I ask what you're doing here?" He tucked the gun in his jacket pocket.
"It's Max." The dark-haired woman shrugged. "Thought I'd look in on a friend."
Berrisford nodded. "Alec? He's upstairs, but of course you already knew that since you were playing 'peeping tom' just now."
Max relaxed slightly from her previously tensed position. "He forgot to check in before he left. Wondered where he'd gone off to."
Raising his eyebrows, Berrisford repeated, "Check in? You keep track of all the people going in and out of that little city of yours? Or just him?"
The girl scowled. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"Nothing," he said, smiling. "Do you want to come in? It's a bit inconvenient talking through this window." He stepped aside to let her pass.
Max shook her head. "No. Thanks, though. I gotta jet. I just came to see that he wasn't in any trouble or anything. Good talking to you." She turned to leave.
"Wait," Berrisford stopped her. "You…you care a lot about him? You always seem to be nearby whenever I see him."
There was a pause as Max thought over his question and how she should answer it. "Well yeah," she said finally. "He's my friend. One of my best friends." She glanced upwards at the room upstairs from which the sounds of the piano could be heard reverberating through the house. "I haven't seen him this happy in ages. Maybe even never," she said with a short laugh and a quick flicker of envy flitted in her dark eyes. "He's like a kid in a candy shop."
Berrisford made a noncommittal sound. "Yes, they are making quite a racket up there, aren't they?" he observed.
"Well, that's Alec for ya. Can't walk into a room without bringing the volume up a notch or two," Max laughed quietly.
"That's the way it is with Sarah, too. She brightens this dreary old house up considerably. I'm almost afraid to think what it would be like without her," Berrisford said in a suddenly somber mood. "Rachel was a talker, too. She was always trying to engage people in conversation. I always thought she would have made a good politician," he mused.
Max looked sympathetic. "I'm sorry about your daughter. I only know about her from what Alec's told me, but from what I can tell, she was a really nice girl."
Berrisford shook his head and sighed. "It's no use dwelling on old memories. It only hurts you more in the long run. What's past should stay in the past. It's the future that counts now. I learned that the hard way."
Another loud bang and a screech of "Da-aaad!" made the both of them turn their attention upstairs. Berrisford chuckled. "Well," he sighed melodramatically, "I better go tell them it's bedtime for nine-year-olds." He quirked a smile at the curious look the brunette was wearing. "Wish me luck."
Max really laughed this time. "Good luck. Don't let Mr. Family Man keep her up all night. We've got an important meeting in the morning and I need him to be fully functional tomorrow."
Berrisford chuckled. "Alright, I'll be sure to tell him that. Goodbye now. Have a good night." He moved to close the window.
Max threw out a "Later," before disappearing into the night, her dark-clothed figure melting into the shadows.
Berrisford sighed and finished closing and locking the window. Stopping at the desk, he put the gun away and downed the rest of his glass of liquid courage. The he made his way to the music room.
Alec was sitting on the floor and Sarah was leaning over his left shoulder trying to grab at the piece of sheet music Alec was holding in his right hand. His left arm was employed in keeping her behind him and out of the reach of the paper. Both were laughing hysterically.
They looked up as Berrisford entered the room. He raised his eyebrow at them in mock annoyance. "What are you doing down there? I thought you were teaching her how to play the piano."
Alec and Sarah pasted on identical sheepish grins. "We fell?" Alec improvised with a shrug.
Berrisford's laugh started deep in his stomach. "Well of course you did."
Alec got up and helped Sarah to her feet and brushed her off. "Of course."
Berrisford looked down at his flushed granddaughter. "Sarah, bedtime." He gestured towards her room with his head.
Sarah pouted. "Ten more minutes?"
"Fine." She heaved an immense sigh then perked up. "Can Dad put me to bed?"
Alec blinked. "I—uh…I don't really know…I've never—"
Sarah interrupted brightly. "That doesn't matter. You'll know how. Please?"
Darn those limpid emerald eyes. And those damnably cute dimples. Alec allowed himself a moment of indecision before he glanced at Berrisford to see what he thought of the whole situation. He got a badly suppressed grin and a nod in reply. "Um. Okay."
"Just clean up in here first, alright, Sarah? No goofing off, then straight to bed," Berrisford said, picking up one of the loose papers lying by his feet. The room was carpeted with sheet music.
"Yes, Grandpa," Sarah replied obediently, diligently scampering about to gather the paper scattered around the room.
After a few minutes, she looked at her father standing near the piano, organizing the music he'd just collected in its proper order. "Hey Dad?"
Alec looked up. "Yeah?"
Sarah took a deep breath. She was suddenly nervous. "What was the first thing you heard Mom play? Can you play it for me?"
Stunned for a moment by the unexpected request, Alec swallowed before sitting down at the shining black instrument. His fingers ghosted over the white keys, finding their place as if they had a mind of their own. His eyes met Berrisford's and he knew they were both remembering the melody the anguished father had once taunted the former assassin with.
The first strains of the Chopin piece resounded in the room, now devoid of the rustling of shuffled papers. Alec's listeners were captivated; they were awed into silence by the amount of emotion in the music flowing out from Alec's fingertips. "This was the first song she played." Alec flashed a grin at his audience. "Then she did this." The classical piece suddenly morphed into a familiar jazzy rhythm. "That's why I liked her. She was different. And funny."
Sarah giggled. "I read about that in her diary. I just wanted to hear you play it."
Alec smiled in remembrance. Patting the grand piano, he stood and closed the lid. "We all cleaned up?"
Berrisford nodded. "Just about." He took the papers from Sarah and put them together with his on top of the piano.
Alec scooped up an armful of squirming nine-year-old. "Let's get Birthday Girl ready for bed then."
Sarah giggled and clung to her dad like a little monkey. "Good night, Grandpa."
"'Night, Sarah." He gave her a big smacking kiss on her cheek, eliciting a delighted laugh. "Alec?" he stopped the younger man. "Max came by earlier and asked me to tell you that she needs you 'fully functioning' tomorrow, whatever that means. Don't keep her up too late," he said with a pat on the X5's shoulder.
Alec arched a brow. "Max came by? I thought I heard her, but I wasn't sure. Huh. She followed me. Figures. The leash that woman keeps on me. Alright, no worries on that point." Sarah chose this time to yawn. It was so big that her jaw cracked. Alec chuckled. "Sleepyhead. Come on."
It turned out that Alec did know exactly what to do to help his daughter get ready for bed. He even tucked her in correctly with her new teddy bear cuddled up beside her. Except for one thing. He was about to reach over to turn off the light and turn on the cat-themed night-light when he was interrupted by the sleepy demand of "Story!"
Alec blinked. Right, a story. He sat down on the edge of the bed and racked his brain for a suitable tale to tell a young child. He cleared his throat and began. "Once upon a time—"
"Dad?" Sarah interrupted with a yawn.
Alec leaned down. "Yeah, sweetheart?"
"I like Max. She's awesome," she murmured drowsily. "You like her, too, don't you?" Her eyelids were so heavy that her eyes were reduced to mere green slits.
Alec was taken aback. "Well, yeah, of course I like her. She's my friend."
Sarah pried her lids open with some effort. "No, not like that. Like, you know." She waved her hand and yawned again. "I wouldn't mind, and I don't think Mom would, either. She'd want you to be happy." Her eyelids fluttered again in her struggle to stay awake.
Alec was silent. With the advice she'd just given him, she reminded him of Joshua; a strange comparison between the biggest and smallest people he knew...and loved. "Yeah, I guess. Thanks." He stroked her hair, so much like her mother's, and kissed her temple. "Go to sleep now, baby."
"Story." The order came out decidedly slurred this time.
Chuckling quietly, Alec acquiesced. "Once upon a time, in a kingdom far, far away, there was a handsome prince who lived in a dark castle with all his brothers and sisters and an evil king and queen. One day he met a charming princess with beautiful dark hair, and he fell in love…"
AN: …And there was the semi-promised kinda M/A-ish ending. Didn't want to offend M/L lovers too much, but hey, if Sarah's okay with it…right? Heh.
Sarah's so cute that she's really easy to spoil. Sigh. Bad fictional parenting. Slaps fingers for typing it like this. And Alec mopes and cries far too much, but I can't help that, either. I love angsty Alec, poor guy.
This is the last chapter of this story. Well, what did you think? Too sappy? Anyone go diabetic from all the sweetness?
I've received a few requests for a sequel. Who's up for it? I've got some ideas, but nothing really solid, so if you want it, let me know, and I'll get on it.