February 14, 2010: Day late and a dollar short. Sorry about that -- it's been kind of a crappy week. :-P Out of deference to everyone else who I'm sure enjoys the holiday, I won't give you my usual Valentine's Day rant-fest. Instead, I'll just leave you with Part 3.

It's been 16 years since our hapless trio last had a chance to be together. With so much anger and pain still between them, will they ever be able to regain their balance?

Warnings: Still slash. ^_^ Strong PG-13, dipping its toes into 'R' territory here and there. Enjoy?

I Believe in Love

by Renee-chan

After a good night's sleep, Berger was pleased to note that Claude was looking better. The pallor had left his cheeks and his eyes had regained some of their shine. More importantly, he'd had no nightmares that night. Whatever the reason for that not-so-small blessing, Berger was grateful.

Leaning over the other man, he gently brushed a lock of hair out of his eyes. Claude smiled an impish grin up at him and raised his arms over his head in a somewhat provocative stretch. Berger just smiled at the display, "Good morning, starshine."

Claude let one of his hands drift over to play in Berger's curls, "Good morning, yourself."

With a small huff of a laugh, Berger planted a gentle kiss to the tip of Claude's nose, laughing again when his lover's eyes almost crossed trying to see him do it. Running his hands through Claude's hair again, he enticed a thoughtful frown to drift across his face, "This is starting to look a little shaggy... isn't it about time you got it cut?"

To his surprise, Claude's cheeks reddened at that question and he turned his head into the pillow to mumble something. Not one to be put off that easily, Berger tilted his head to peer down at his lover, an eyebrow raised, "I didn't catch that..."

Claude cleared his throat, then turned back to look up at Berger. His voice was hesitant and lilted upwards at the end as though asking a question, "I was thinking of growing it out again..."

The sudden intense sense memory of burying his hands and face in Claude's once thick, honey blonde hair... surrounding himself in its luxurious, silky length... inhaling the scent of vanilla that always seemed to emanate from it whether Claude had washed it recently or not... overwhelmed him. Giving a soft groan, he buried his head in the crook of Claude's neck. Claude let out a soft laugh from underneath him as he wrapped his arms around Berger's nearly trembling form, "I take it you approve of that thought?" Berger pressed his face further into Claude's neck, nodding vigorously.

Claude tightened his arms around him, "I thought about it once or twice before now, but I was afraid the school board might not approve. But now... I don't think I care. This isn't Kansas and they like me too much to fire me over something that silly... and it feels right." At that comment, Berger lifted his head, a worried frown on his face. Before he could voice that concern, however, Claude shook his head, "Don't you see? It's the last piece. It was the first thing they took away from me, so it makes sense that it should be the final thing that I should reclaim." Placing a gentle hand against Berger's cheek, he smiled, "It'll be fine. Really, it'll be fine." Smirking at the way Berger was still pressed so tightly to him, he concluded with, "And don't try to pretend now that you don't want me to do it."

Berger contemplated a pout for a moment before throwing off the idea for a wicked grin, "All right, then I won't." Leaning down to press a kiss to Claude's neck, he was severely disappointed when the man slipped out from underneath him. Berger lunged after him, but Claude danced out of the way, "Hey! No fair... I thought..."

Laughing on his way out of the bedroom, Claude said, "Nope. Remember, we promised we'd meet Jeanie and Sheila for lunch. It's almost noon already. If we don't hurry, we're going to be late."

Groaning, Berger buried his head in the pillow. He had forgotten. And while there was no question that he'd far rather spend the day in bed with Claude, he couldn't deny that they'd left a few severely damaged bridges in their wake yesterday. For everyone's sake, they were going to have to try to fix them. But, damn it, that didn't mean he had to like it!

Forty-five minutes and a fair amount of grumbling later, they'd finally gotten themselves out the door. Claude had called Jeanie before they left to get the address, but naturally, she didn't know the name of the hotel. She was certain that they'd be able to find it, though. She and Cloud, along with Crissy would be meeting them there. Once he saw the address, Claude cursed and claimed they didn't have enough time to walk it. They walked east past Washington Square Park to Lafayette and caught the subway going uptown. Claude got them off the subway at 68th and Lexington. As they got further and further uptown, Berger started to get more and more fidgety. The only reason he ever came this far uptown was to spend time in Central Park. Claude turned them left off of Lexington and over to Madison. When they reached 76th St. and still hadn't gotten to their destination, Berger grabbed his elbow to stop him, "OK, what hotel could she possibly be staying at that would put us up in this ritzy territory here?"

Claude winced, "I was kind of hoping to not have to tell you until we got there."

Berger stared over at Claude in his khaki pants, crisp white collared shirt and dark green sweater, then eyed his own clothes. Claude had bullied him into one of his lesser damaged pair of jeans and one of his own black sweaters, but there was still a marked difference in their states of dress. This was as dressed up as he ever got, but he hadn't thought it would make a difference. He figured they'd be hitting a diner, maybe a deli. Now, he wasn't so sure. For once in his life, he found himself worried that he would be weighed and measured... and found wanting. Berger frowned and crossed his arms over his chest, "I think maybe we've had enough surprises for the weekend, don't you?"

Hand clutching the piece of paper, Claude let out a heavy sigh, "I'm not totally sure, Berger... but I think this is the address for the Carlyle."

"The... what?" Eyes wide with shock, Berger put a hand to his head. It took another few minutes for the pieces to click together, but when they did, he was not happy. Backing up a pace, he raised a hand in a warding gesture, "Oh, no no no. There's no way in hell they'll even let me in the lobby of a place like that!"

After tucking the paper safely in his coat pocket, Claude caught at Berger's hands and pressed a gentle kiss to his forehead, "Easy... It's not going to be a problem, Berger. She will have left our names with the doorman. And you have as much of a right to be there as anyone else."

Bitter snort of laughter in response to that, "That's not what they said two winters ago."

Claude winced, "Well... things are different now." Berger turned his head to the side, unwilling to give an inch. Claude caught at his chin and turned his face back around, "They are, Berger. You're not some vagabond looking for shelter from the cold. You're just a man visiting an old friend for lunch. Trust me. It'll be fine."

Relaxing minutely at the surety in his lover's voice, Berger couldn't help but wonder at this new example of how much change the years had wrought. They used to make fun of people who stayed in ritzy-ditzy places like the Carlyle. They used to scoff at the idea of dressing differently or acting differently just to get those same people to accept them. Now look at them. Dressing to the nines and putting on their "best" behavior like an overcoat just to meet a friend for lunch. Looking into Claude's eyes and seeing the silent plea there, Berger caved, wondering the whole while if the piece of himself he'd just given up would ever be returned. Pulling his hands back and crossing his arms over his chest, he grumped, "You'll have to help me order. I probably won't recognize any of the stuff on the menu. And can we even afford to eat there?"

Sliding an arm through Berger's, Claude smiled, "Sheila said this is her treat, so I say order whatever the hell you feel like." Relieved that the preppy clothes and lunchtime venue hadn't changed anything significant in his lover, Berger also smiled, then disentangled his arm from Claude's to wrap it around his shoulders instead. Back at peace, they walked the remaining two blocks to the hotel.

Reaching the front door, however, Berger couldn't help another tremor of trepidation. In spite of Claude's brave words, he was just sure that he was going to do something crazy... or stupid... or just... Berger, and get them kicked out before they even reached the lobby. But before he even had a chance to voice those fears, Claude had his hand in a firm grip and was dragging him to the door.

It started to go wrong from minute one. The doorman gave them an extremely sour look down the length of his nose and in an equally sour voice demanded their names and business. Berger opened his mouth to give him a snippy answer when Claude squeezed his fingers lightly in warning and answered for them. It was... weird, hearing their names like that: Claude Bukowski and George Berger here for a lunch meeting with Sheila Kendall. Shit. He didn't think he'd ever even heard Claude call him by his first name, hadn't even thought the other man remembered it. Was this how the rich and important talked? In that moment, looking at Claude's bland, white-bread expression, Berger suddenly wasn't even sure he knew him. Then the doorman looked down at his list and Claude locked his eyes with Berger's... and rolled them. Berger couldn't help it, he snickered. The doorman looked back up, a different sour look in place before he waved them in, "You are expected. Room 1503. Elevators are to your left as you enter the lobby."

They made their way through the elegant lobby as quickly as they could and across to the elevators. When theirs arrived, however, both were a little surprised by the man in uniform inside it that politely queried, "Going up?"

A mischievous glint in his eye, Berger opened his mouth to say something that again, would no doubt get them in trouble, but another warning squeeze from Claude cut him off. Claude answered in that same bland voice he'd used on the doorman, "15th floor, please." The ride up that elevator was the longest Berger had ever experienced -- or at least it felt that way. With the presence of a third party, he couldn't say any of the things he normally would have in a situation like this and he was starting to sweat with the need to maintain that stoic silence. When the elevator finally reached the 15th floor, the bellhop seemed as relieved to see him go as he was to leave.

Following the signs on the walls, Claude quickly found them the right room and pounded on the door. Berger eyed him with bemusement -- apparently he wasn't the only one stressed by their current situation. Moments after his less-than-polite knocking, the door opened and Sheila gave them both a warm smile before ushering them inside, "I'm so glad you could both make it! You're the first to arrive." At Claude's questioning look, she explained, "Crissy called from the hospital to say she'd been paged to come in, but she hoped to be able to make it later... and I have no idea where Jeanie and her son are."

Berger and Claude shared a look that was part affectionate exasperation and part irritation. Finally Claude cleared his throat and said, "Well... neither Jeanie or Cloud can get anywhere on time to save their lives and when they're going somewhere together the effect seems to be multiplied five-fold." A sudden silence filled the room as they each realized in turn that they were going to be alone together for an unknown amount of time for the first time since Claude had been drafted. To Berger's utter shock, it was Claude who panicked. He stepped away from the two of them into the room, face a blank mask that Berger recognized all too well. It was the face he usually wore when nightmares of Viet Nam propelled him out of sleep. Damn it.

Determined to give the other man time to pull himself together, Berger draped an arm around Sheila's shoulders and pulled her away from the door and over to the living room window. Turning on his most obnoxiously charming smile, Berger set out to entice Sheila's attention away from Claude's sudden discomfort and fascination with the suite's kitchenette. Well, at least he hadn't locked himself in the bathroom... "So, Sheila, you must have done pretty well for yourself, huh? Staying in a place like this, I mean."

Sheila frowned and turned as if to go after Claude, but Berger easily turned her back towards the window and shook his head. After a moment of watching his eyes silently pleading for cooperation, she finally backed down, "I suppose turnabout's fair play, isn't it?" Taking a deep breath, she pulled a smile out from somewhere and planted it firmly on her face, "After I left New York, I went down to DC to lobby against the war."

Berger winced, Oh shit. Bad topic choice. Gaze floating upwards, he was barely able to make out Claude's reflection in the window as he paused in the act of joining them and fled back the way he'd come. When he heard a door click shut, Berger cursed to himself as he realized that the other man had closed himself in the bathroom. Hearing the bathroom door shut and the lock slide home, Sheila caught on that she'd made a mistake. Her eyes took on an apologetic cast and she dropped all pretenses of holding a light conversation, "Damn it, Berger. I'm really sorry. Shoot. I didn't even mean to bring that up!" Clutching her hands in Berger's borrowed sweater, she met his eyes with tear-bright ones of her own, "Jeanie told me... she told me about..." Abruptly she broke away from him, "Damn it."

Running a hand over her immaculately groomed hair, Berger pulled her close in a brief but gentle hug, "It's OK, Sheila. Really... it is. He's just a little tense, I think."

Sheila stared up at him with an incredulous look, "A little tense? Berger, he's so upset with me he's hiding in the bathroom."

Vaguely amused snort for her misinterpretation, "I don't think he's upset with you, not really. I think he's scared of you."

Her voice dropping into a dry tone, Sheila repeated, "Scared of me." Berger easily recognized it as her 'you're being stupid and I'm just trying to give you a chance to figure it out on your own so I don't have to smack you' tone. It had been years since he'd last heard that tone, and he really hadn't missed it.

With a sigh, he stepped away from her to be able to look her in the eyes, "He's got a bit of a complex where we're concerned." At her disbelieving look, Berger nodded, "Really, it's true. I think that deep down inside, he's afraid that if he gives us the chance we're going to run off with each other and leave him alone." His voice quieted and roughened with emotion, "He doesn't really get it... that without him holding us together, we'd never have lasted as long as we did, anyway."

Sheila looked away, caught out by the truth of that statement, "I really did love you, you know."

Smiling, Berger ran a hand through her hair again, "I know you did. I really loved you, too. But once we were past the superficial attraction and mind-blowing sex that held us together to start with, we would never have stayed together without Claude acting as a bridge between us." Cupping her cheek with one hand and real regret in his voice, Berger finished with, "Left to our own devices, we only ever managed to hurt each other."

Seeing that Sheila understood, Berger left her side to go to the bathroom door. Testing the knob, he found it unlocked. Now... when did you do that, Claudio? I heard you lock it when you went in here... Pushing open the door, he found Claude perched on the toilet, head between his knees and hands laced together behind his head. Dropping down in front of him, Berger gently eased Claude's hands down from their tense grip on his hair and tipped his head up with a finger under his chin, "Hey, there, starshine."

Claude gave him a weak smile and gripped his free hand as though his life depended on it, "Hey, yourself."

Berger smiled back as he dropped his other hand from Claude's chin to rest it on his knee, "You plannin' on stayin' in here all day? Or were you gonna join us?"

Claude let out a shaky breath and hunched his shoulders over, "I don't know if I can do this, Berger -- go out there with the two of you and act like everything is OK between us."

Gently rubbing Claude's knee, Berger inched his way closer, "Claudio... no one said you have to act like everything is OK. We all know it's not. Maybe this is a blessing in disguise, yeah? A chance to clear the air before Jeanie and Cloud get here. What do you say?"

In answer, Claude stood and moved to the sink to splash some cold water on his face. When he raised his eyes to the mirror, Berger caught his gaze with a raised eyebrow. Claude nodded, "OK... I'll try."

Berger snorted as he bumped shoulders with his lover, "What is it with you and 'trying' these days? How's that line go? You know, from the movie that Cloud's been gushing over since they announced the release date for the third one? The one he made us promise to go see with him?"

Claude stared back at him, completely blank for a moment before doubling over with laughter. When he finally managed to straighten back up, his eyes had regained a little of their twinkle, "You mean 'Empire Strikes Back' and 'Return of the Jedi?'" At Berger's vigorous nodding, Claude started laughing again. Through his laughter, he managed to get out, "Do or do not, there is no try."

Eyes lighting up as he grinned in satisfaction, Berger grabbed Claude up into a tight hug from behind, hooking his head over the other man's shoulder, "That would be the one!"

Still snickering quietly, Claude dropped his hands to rest over Berger's where they were clasped around his waist, "OK, Berger. I get it. We'll go out there. We will find some way to clear the air and when Jeanie and Cloud get here, we will have a very pleasant lunch."

Berger's eyes took on a more serious cast as he prompted, "And...?"

Though puzzled for a moment, Claude caught his breath when he finally understood, then he nodded, "And from now on, we'll try to deal with my nightmares when they happen... not when I collapse because I can't deal with the pressure anymore." Turning around in Berger's arms, he twined his own around Berger's neck and pressed their foreheads together, "I trust you and I think I'm ready to let you help me."

Berger smiled as he joined their lips in a gentle kiss, "Good... 'cuz you've been pretty well sucking at dealing with it on your own."

With a heavy sigh, Claude nodded, "I have, at that." Then he pressed their lips back together in a deeper, more insistent kiss.

And that was the moment Sheila chose to open the door. Both men turned to look at her as her mouth froze in the act of opening to speak. Before either could even start to offer an explanation, she squeaked and backpedaled out the door as quickly as she could, slamming it in both their faces in the process. Claude and Berger's eyes met, equally stunned, and then they both broke up into laughter. Berger was the one who regained enough control to speak first, "Well... that's certainly changed. If she'd caught us at that in 1967, she'd have come in the bathroom, locked the door and joined us."

Claude rolled his eyes, then planted a light kiss on Berger's cheek, "Come on, let's get out there before she hyperventilates."

Snickering, Berger followed Claude out of the bathroom. They found Sheila in the living room, pacing back and forth, a deep red flush racing from her neck all the way up to her ears. When she noticed them, she let out another little squeak and immediately began apologizing, "I should have knocked first. I'm so sorry. Really, I don't know what I was thinking!"

Claude stepped away from Berger to place a finger over Sheila's lips. Seeing her so unsettled seemed, ironically enough, to have settled him. He smiled down at the one-time third member of their trio, "It's not all your fault, Sheila -- we could have locked the door."

Blush quieting, Sheila finally raised her eyes to meet Claude's. It was the first time they'd had a chance to really get a look at each other since this whole mess started yesterday. Berger found himself catching his breath in anticipation. After a few moments of silent communion, Sheila's face finally relaxed into a smile, "You look good, Claude." Turning to include Berger in her gaze, her smile widened, "You both do." Eyes taking on a mischievous cast, she concluded with, "And let's face it... you always did look good together. I just... I'd forgotten how good. It's been a while and Brad... he's a good man, but he isn't exactly..." Pausing to search for a word, she finally settled on, "...adventurous."

Berger smirked as he wrapped an arm around Claude's waist, "You mean he doesn't bring home other men for you to share? That's a crying shame."

While Claude spluttered, Sheila lightly smacked Berger in the arm, "Banana-Berger, you are the only man I ever dated who brought home other men for me to share." Eyeing the two up and down, she wryly added, "And I'm understanding more and more that you really brought him home for yourself and just let me share because I happened to be there when you did."

Berger turned his gaze from Sheila to Claude and studied him for a long moment. Finally he grinned, "You know... you may be right at that. At least with this one. Most of the others... nah. I just knew you'd like 'em -- and besides, I learned in kindergarten that it's the right thing to do... to share with your friends."

Sheila, pointedly ignoring Berger's last comment, turned thoughtful, "You know... it's strange, looking back on it all, now. I think I knew that first time you brought him home, Berger. It was the first time I'd seen that look in your eyes. It was the first time that I realized that I might not get to keep you... and that if I didn't stand in the way, he would."

Berger watched his lover's eyes closely after that statement. Sheila couldn't have played it into his hands better if she tried. Then again, after that insight he'd shared with her earlier, she might have done it deliberately. Sure enough, Claude's eyes held a brighter shine -- whether it was from joy or tears almost didn't matter. He commented, "All that time, I thought it was you holding us together, Sheila."

Sheila just sadly shook her head, "Funny, really... in the end I think it was me holding you apart." Placing a gentle hand on each of their faces, she met each of their gazes in turn, "I loved you both, really I did, but I don't think I'd have been right for either of you alone. Berger, we were too different and Claude... we were too much alike. We would only ever have worked as a threesome."

Enfolding her in their embrace, they rested against each other. It was a moment caught outside of time, a return to the innocent togetherness of over a decade ago, but it gave them all comfort. That was one thing that Berger had been truly sorry to lose -- the unwavering support he'd always gotten from the two of them and the rest of the Tribe. It was that knowledge that his friends understood and accepted who he was, even loved him for it... even if he was more than a little crazy, even then. As much as his grief at losing Claude, the loss of that support had undone him nearly as badly.

Eventually Claude broke through the silence with a murmured plea, "I know we have things that need settling between us. I know we've all hurt each other more than can easily be forgiven... but is there any way we can just... forget about it and go back to being friends?"

After a minute, Sheila cleared her throat, "I've already mourned you both for more years than I care to count. I'm willing to forgive and forget if you are." Turning her head to the left, she asked, "Berger?"

Relief rushing through him like wildfire, Berger nodded, "I figure I've probably done the most to need to be let off the hook for, so if you guys want to let it all slide, it's cool with me."

The round of laughter they shared put the final nail in the coffin of the tension between them... and that was when the knock came at the door. Claude spluttered back into laughter as he turned to look at Berger, "Well, at least her timing's improving."

Sheila frowned, "I'm guessing there's a story there..."

Berger joined Claude in his laughter, "There is. Maybe we'll even tell you later."

Claude added, "Much later. After lunch, for certain."

Berger winced, "Yeah, speaking of lunch... those restaurants downstairs looked awfully... fancy."

Sheila laughed, "Don't worry about it, Banana-Berger. If Jeanie did what I asked her to when I sent her away before you got here, we won't have to subject you to their snobby and boorish sensibilities." Sure enough, when she opened the door, there stood Jeanie and Cloud with four pizza boxes and a handful of change. At Claude and Berger's incredulous looks, Sheila merely lifted an eyebrow, "Do you have any idea how hard it is to find a decent pizza place in D.C.?"

Comments? Questions? Strawberries?

Berger: *happy face* Mmm... Strawberries.

Cloud: *tosses Berger an aerosol can*

Berger: *eyes can* *rae, confused* Whipped cream?

Cloud: *smirk* Trust me, Uncle Berger. Would I steer you wrong?

Claude: *steps up behind Cloud with arms crossed over chest* Is there something going on here that I should know about?

Cloud: *eeps* Nope! Nothing at all, Uncle Claude! *scampers away* *pause* *eg* But I'm sure you will soon, anyway!

R-chan: *slips Cloud a 50 on his way past*

R-chan/Cloud: *shared smirk*


And on a random other note? Just found out that instead of my mother going with me to see Hair on Wednesday, my sister may go instead. ^_^ For some reason, that makes me happy. *eg* Maybe I can convince her to come up on stage with me at the end. Because I will be going up on stage at the end, this time, damn it! *determined face*