March 1, 2010: *coughs* Erm... I was in a bad, bad, very bad mood when I started writing this... and the last few days haven't done anything to improve said mood. *sigh* Stupid bosses. *kicks bosses* Anyway, feeling a bit rotten myself, I did what I always do... take it out on a character! *bright smile* *coughs* Sorry, Berger? -.-;;;
Warnings: Still slash, nothing graphic. ^_^ All talk, no action this time. Mostly this gets a warning for angst.
Pairing: Claude/Berger, Sheila/Berger, Claude/Sheila/Berger, a little Dionne/Hud
Rating: PG, mostly for language
Word Count: 10,8003 -- I swear, I was trying for short this time. :-P
Disclaimer: Neither the musical nor the boys belong to me, if they did they'd be groping each other on sta--. *pause* *blinkblink* Huh. Look at that... they do. *eg* :D
Summary: It's been 2 1/2 years since Claude was drafted and the Tribe is straining to hold it together with him gone. Berger is slowly going mad and Sheila is fighting to keep him sane. That's when they get the news that they've been dreading ever since the day Claude was drafted... That they've lost him.
Sheila paused on the landing, staring down at the envelope in her hands. She'd been idly flipping through the week's stack of mail and this one had caught her eye. She knew that address. Flushing, Queens... Claude.
Breath catching, she almost dropped the rest of the mail in her haste to get that envelope open. Two and a half years he'd been gone. And this last year there'd been no word from him at all. And now this... could he possibly be home? Her heart hammering in her chest, Sheila finally managed to get the envelope open and pulled out the letter.
It wasn't from Claude. It was from his mother. Mrs. Bukowski had always had a soft spot for Sheila -- though she suspected it was simply the idea of Sheila, a young, intelligent woman who loved her son, that she'd held in her affection. Whatever the case, she'd once promised that she would find a way to ensure that any news they received of Claude, Sheila would also receive. And now, reading through that letter and feeling her heart grow colder with every word, Sheila almost wished that she'd never made that promise.
"Miss Franklin," the letter began. It continued, "There is no easy way to share what it is I have to impart to you, but I felt that I had a responsibility to you for the love you once bore my son. I wish I had known you better, perhaps then I could have found a more appropriate way to say this. Instead, knowing none better, I will give you the words that have been a comfort to me." She felt the impact of the next lines like a knife to the heart, "Claude is with G-d, in whose arms I pray he will find eternal peace. May you find the same. Sincerely, Helen Bukowski."
Sheila fell to her knees on the landing, clutching the letter in her hand, as tears began to stream down her cheeks. For a long, drawn out moment, she could do nothing but sit there, reading the letter over and over as the tears trailed down her face. It wasn't until Crissy found her there, nearly an hour later, that she was able to do more. As the petite girl knelt beside her, small hands brushing back her hair and gently asking what was wrong, Sheila finally lost the last of her control. Throwing her arms around the other girl and burying her face in Crissy's neck, she started to scream... and scream... and scream.
Crissy stared down at her friend in desperate worry. She'd gotten the older girl off the floor and into her apartment. Once inside and tucked in on the couch, she'd promptly fallen asleep. Crissy had gathered Sheila's fallen mail and found only one envelope opened. The address was Flushing, Queens -- where Claude's parents lived. But she had no idea what the letter said. Even in sleep, Sheila was clutching it so tightly that if Crissy tried to pry it loose, she'd likely rip it. Unfortunately, to have put Sheila, of all people, into such a state... Crissy could guess all too readily what the letter said.
She sat down next to her friend, once again stroking her long, blonde hair. What did the letter say? Claude was dead. That had to be it. At that thought, Crissy found herself desperately wanting to do her own fair share of screaming and crying, but now wasn't the time. Right now, Sheila needed her to be strong until she could be again. And Crissy could do that. She could be strong for Sheila... for now. Because Sheila needed to recover. She had to. Because if Sheila had taken the news this badly... then it would destroy Berger, and they'd need her to deal with him.
Thinking about the Tribe's erstwhile leader, Crissy couldn't help the shiver of fear that ran down her spine. Berger... he'd never really been quite sane. Sometimes she thought it was the drugs. Sometimes she thought it was just part of who he was. Whatever the case, Claude and Sheila had somehow held him stable between them. Since Claude had been gone, however, they'd all noticed a definite increase in Berger's self-destructive tendencies. Sheila wasn't enough and they all knew it -- even Sheila.
It wasn't fair. Sheila loved Berger so completely... but she wasn't going to be enough to hold him. Crissy could already see it. Berger was drifting away from all of them, as though they'd lost him along with Claude. And now this. The sudden swoop in Crissy's stomach clued her in to the real problem. Berger had followed Claude everywhere... except to Viet Nam. Having failed in that, would he now try to follow the other man in death? For the first time in a long, long time, Crissy felt the desire to pray.
Just as she was starting to contemplate calling someone else to come over and help, a soft knock sounded through the wood of the apartment door. Crissy got to the door as quickly and quietly as she could to peer out the peephole. Her heart sank further at the visage on the other side. Jeanie. She cursed under her breath. She'd almost forgotten why she'd been here in the first place. Girls' night. She, Sheila and Jeanie had started doing it shortly after Jeanie's son was born. One of the other Tribe members -- usually Woof -- would watch little Claude on Friday nights so she could have some time to herself... or with her friends, as the case might be.
Having little else she could do, Crissy reluctantly pulled the door open and then shushed Jeanie as soon as she could get a hand up to her mouth. Jeanie looked confused, but to her credit, she didn't ask any questions or demand any answers. She simply lifted an eyebrow and cocked her head to the side. Crissy started to sweat. It was uncanny how quickly and easily motherhood had settled on her once flighty best friend. She had the "mom stare" down to perfection. Before she had a chance to explain, however, Sheila moaned and stirred on the couch. Both girls immediately rushed over.
Sheila's eyes lighted on each of them briefly before dropping to the letter still clutched so tightly in her hand. The moment her gaze dropped to the paper, the tears again began falling. Jeanie picked up instantly that something had gone terribly wrong. In a tightly controlled voice, she asked, "Sheila... what happened?"
Sheila choked on a sob and shook her head, still unable to speak. Jeanie held out her hand and in a wavering voice, said, "Give me that letter, Sheila." Apparently no less immune to Jeanie's new "mom-isms" than Crissy was, Sheila actually did as she was told for once. Jeanie smoothed out the letter, hands shaking. Crissy leaned over to read it with her.
When they'd both gotten to the end, Crissy could only sit in benumbed shock. She'd suspected this was coming from the minute she saw the address on the envelope, but still... somehow guessing and knowing where still two very different things. Jeanie had one hand pressed to her mouth, the other to her stomach. Her eyes were wide and full of broken horror. She shook her head, frantically uttering the word, "No." Shortly thereafter she dropped the letter and bolted for the bathroom. Crissy was unsurprised to soon hear the sounds of her friend being sick.
Sheila had sat up and pulled her knees to her chest. She rocked slowly back and forth, a haunted look in her eyes. Crissy stared into that flat blue gaze and had the sudden panicked thought that she wasn't strong enough to do this. Someone else should be here -- maybe Dionne or Angela... hell, she'd even welcome Hud or Woof if they could take this responsibility from her. But they weren't here and she was. For Sheila's sake... for Jeanie's sake... for her own sake... she had to find that strength somewhere.
Settling herself next to her friend, Crissy pulled her head down to rest on her shoulder. Sheila's body was quaking with little hiccupping sobs, pained whimpers tumbling from her lips with each breath. Crissy ran her hands down that long blond length of hair, murmuring whatever reassuring nonsense she could think of. By the time Sheila was calm again, Jeanie had emerged from the bathroom. The other girl's face was so white that Crissy worried she might faint, but she made it to the couch without incident. She sat down on Crissy's other side and made a pillow of the shorter girl's legs. They sat there like that, silently lending each other support, for what felt like an eternity, but in reality couldn't have been more than an hour.
It was Sheila who pulled away first. She stood up and walked away from them, arms crossed firmly over her stomach as she fought to contain another round of sobs. Finally getting herself more firmly under control, she turned back to Crissy. Her lip trembled and when she spoke, her voice cracked, "I... I can't tell Berger, Crissy. I can't. It'll kill him." A single sob broke through and she bit down on a knuckle to prevent any more from doing the same. After another minute, she lowered her hand. In a harsh whisper, she said, "I can't lose them both, Crissy. I won't."
Still stroking Jeanie's hair, Crissy nodded grimly, "I know, Sheila. Somehow, we'll find a way. Somehow..."
The next day, the trio was no closer to an answer, but were definitely closer to a sleep-deprivation and grief-induced breakdown. They parted for the morning, agreeing to meet up with the rest of the Tribe after lunch to try to find a way to break the news to Berger. Jeanie fitted her key into the lock of her new apartment but froze in the act of turning it. She needed to see her son, needed to hold him to her and reassure herself that she at least had that much left... but she couldn't make herself open the door. The grief was too fresh and she couldn't put a brave face on it, even for her son. She couldn't.
The door slowly opened under her hand to reveal Woof's worried face. It was uncanny sometimes, the way the man could sense when things were wrong with another member of the Tribe. Then again, the rest of the Tribe said the same things about her. When he confirmed that it was Jeanie on the other side of the door he pulled it the rest of the way open. His voice was soft and hesitant as he spoke, "Jeanie...?" Finally getting a good look at her face, his own paled, "What's wrong?"
Jeanie just shook her head, unable to answer and suddenly needing to get to her son. She pushed past Woof and barreled into the kitchen. Her son was sitting at the table, intently working his way through a bowl of cereal. He looked up at her entrance, blue eyes twinkling with happiness. He leapt down from the chair and ran over to her, clutching his arms around her knees, "Mommy! You're home, you're home! Uncle Woof made me breakfast, 'cuz it was getting late, but I still have room for pancakes if you wanna make 'em!"
In spite of the rawness of recent grief, Jeanie allowed herself a moment's indulgence in the exuberance of her son. Saturday morning was pancake morning. It had started as a way to make up for being away from him on Friday nights and had quickly become tradition. It was so tempting... to just go to the stove and make a batch of pancakes like any other Saturday, to forget for now how dark a place the world had just become. But she couldn't quite do it. Dropping to her knees, she pulled Claude into a tight embrace, hiding her tears in his golden curls.
After a minute, Woof gently pulled them apart, "Claude... I don't think your mommy's up to making pancakes right now. Why don't you go play in your room for a little while I talk to her, then maybe we'll see about pancakes for lunch, OK?"
Claude's face screwed up into a confused frown before settling back into a sunny smile, "Silly Uncle Woof! Pancakes aren't for lunch -- grilled cheese is for lunch!"
With a gentle smile Woof shooed the boy out of the room, "Grilled cheese it is, then." With a whoop and a laugh, Claude ran off to his own room to play.
Woof dropped down next to Jeanie and started carding his fingers through her blonde curls. All traces of the mature calm he'd displayed earlier disappeared in the face of his worry, "Jeanie... please... what happened? Are Sheila and Crissy OK?"
Jeanie nodded, voice still breaking on the jagged edges of her grief, "Sheila got a letter from Mrs. Bukowski yesterday."
"A letter...? Why would Mrs. Bukowski write Sheila a l--" Jeanie could see it -- the exact moment when Woof figured out the only possible reason that Claude's mother could have for writing Sheila a letter. He grabbed her shoulders and shook her once, frantic worry in his normally placid brown eyes, "No. Jeanie, no. Tell me it's not true!"
Jeanie could do no such thing. Meeting his desperate gaze with her own broken one, she just shook her head. At that confirmation, they clutched each other close and gave in to the tears, again. Somehow... Woof had known. She just hadn't picked up on it when he'd come by last night to watch Claude. He'd always been sensitive that way and he'd been edgy all week. Normally that twitchiness would have put her on alert, too, but she'd been so wrapped up in her son, lately...
When they pulled apart, Jeanie gently brushed the last tears from his eyes and pushed his hair back from his face, "You knew this was coming, didn't you?"
Woof ducked his gaze away, "No. Nonono. No."
Jeanie cupped Woof's face with her hand, "It's OK, Woof. I know. I get those feelings too, sometimes. I just... I didn't want to feel this one, you know?"
Letting out another hiccupping sob, Woof nuzzled his face into Jeanie's hand, "So many of them come back. Why couldn't he, Jeanie? Why couldn't Claude come back? I was so sure he would... I even told Berger he would."
"I don't know... I just don't know," Jeanie said. Pulling Woof back into her arms, she gently rocked him back and forth.
Eventually he calmed again and pulled away from her, wiping his eyes with his sleeve. Raising those haunted eyes to meet hers, he sniffled, "Does Berger know?"
Jeanie shook her head, "You, me, Sheila and Crissy. That's it."
Woof's eyes widened, "How are we gonna tell him, Jeanie? It'll--"
"...kill him. I know, Woof. But we can't keep something like this from him. He has a right to know," she said.
Woof slumped, his whole posture defeated, "Then we've lost them both. One way or another, we've lost them both."
Unable to find anything else reassuring to say, Jeanie pulled Woof back into her arms and started rocking again. She desperately hoped that he would be proven wrong, but deep in her heart, she knew he wasn't... and grieved for it.
Dark eyes stared across the Park, eyeing the gathering with suspicion. On the surface, it seemed like any usual Saturday. The whole Tribe would take the day off from whatever they did during the week -- jobs, families, schools, whatever -- and would just be together, like they always used to be. Underneath the surface, though... something was very wrong. There was a black... something... eating away at the heart of his Tribe. He could see it, could feel it.
Prowling the edges of the group, staying hidden in the trees, he stalked it. It had spread from one point, radiating out in waves so dark he could almost see them, almost feel their impact as they washed against his bare toes. Dancing backwards, he snarled. He had enough of his own darkness to contend with already. He didn't want that blackness, that darkness, to touch him, didn't want it to wash into him and fill him up. He'd never escape once it did. But...
Looking up, he spotted Sheila in the middle of the group. Sheila... his Sheila. The one he'd promised to watch over, to keep happy... until he could come back. It scared him, sometimes, how he was failing in that one task. He'd known how to keep her happy once... it had been so easy, like breathing. Now, though... it was harder. It was impossible sometimes. And the best he could do when it was that hard was to just stay away. If he stayed away, the vileness that was already inside him wouldn't touch her. But now... she was spreading her own darkness and he didn't know what to do about it.
Stalking around his Tribe, he made his way around to watch from the other side. It had touched Jeanie and Crissy first and then they'd started spreading it to everyone else. There wasn't a single person it hadn't touched... except him. Which meant that in order to be with his Tribe, he'd have to let it touch him. And he needed his Tribe... A small whimper escaped his throat as he dropped down to his knees and curled over himself. He didn't want to be touched by whatever had contaminated his Tribe, but he couldn't stay away, either. He couldn't be alone. And he had to get to Sheila. Somehow.
He crept forward, staying hidden in the bushes, watching for those waves of blackness and trying to dart around them. It was hard and he got chased back more than once. It was enough to make him want to scream. Finally, he managed to creep forward close enough that he was noticed. And of course it was Woof that saw him. The other man turned just enough to let him know that he'd been spotted, but not enough to give his presence away to the rest of the Tribe. For that, he was grateful.
The darkness had touched Woof, too -- he could feel it. But somehow, Woof was keeping it contained. It would reach out a tendril here and there, brush against him when he got close enough, but it couldn't wash into him that way. Woof was safe. He inched forwards and ducked under the other man's arm, pressing against his side and trembling like a terrified animal. He couldn't... he couldn't go any further, but he needed to know what had brought this vileness into his Tribe. Caught between those two opposing needs, Berger was frozen, unable to move forwards... unable to back away.
After a little while, the rest of the Tribe seemed to note his presence at the edge of the group. They always did. No matter how loud or quiet he was, they always seemed to know when he was there. The group parted in front of him and Woof to allow Sheila a path to get to him. She knelt down in front of them, a golden visage that swam in and out of focus as he tried to see her through the darkness she was spreading. How could she do this to them? Couldnt she see that she was going to destroy them? And what was he without his Tribe? When they died... there would be nothing left of him. He pulled back from her outstretched hand, crouching behind Woof as though he were a human shield. Jeanie and Crissy stepped away from Sheila to kneel on either side of him, understanding and painful empathy in both their faces. They were less threatening, less a source of that darkness, but it was there in them, just the same. He pressed his face into Woof's back, whimpering quietly to himself as he fought to hold off the inevitable.
He knew something was wrong... of course he knew. Sheila didn't know how he knew these things, but he always seemed to be one step ahead of the rest of them. She pressed a hand to her mouth, trying to choke back the sobs that were threatening to leak forth. It was like a knife to the heart, watching Berger hiding behind Woof, flinching away from any contact with the rest of them. He was probably so lost into whatever trip he was on, he didn't even recognize them. It hurt, seeing him so devolved, seeing that shining brilliance starting to be subsumed by his own breed of madness.
Eventually, his shaking eased and he allowed Jeanie to pull him out from behind Woof. Sheila let her calm him, knowing that in this state he often responded better to the Tribe's mother than he did to her. Once Jeanie had him calmed, she crept forward to him, the rest of the Tribe filling in around them like a protective circle. She took one of his hands in hers and swallowed hard, her voice rough when she spoke, "Banana-Berger... there's something I need to tell you and I need to know that you're going to hear me. Can you stay with me for that, sweetheart?"
At his hesitant nod, she continued, "OK." After a deep breath, she plunged on in, "I got a letter from Mrs. Bukowski. Do you remember her?"
Oh, but the harshness in that voice was painful to hear! It was as though he hadn't spoken in days... Shaking off the thoughts, she continued, "That's right, baby. You remember where Claude went? That he went to war?"
It was horrible, having to drag it out like this, but Sheila was never really sure how much Berger understood these days. It was better to lay it out stepwise, to make sure that he was really following the conversation. But that wasn't what she wanted. She wanted to grab him and shake him and ram the truth of their loss down his throat. Instead, she waited for his confirmation.
Berger nodded, eyes taking on a desperate sheen, "He's coming back. He's coming back to me. He's coming back."
Sheila brushed a lock of hair from Berger's eyes, ignoring the sudden death-grip he had on her hand as she forced herself to say the words, "No, baby... he's not." She ignored it as the other members of the Tribe started softly crying in response to her words, focusing all her attention on Berger, "He's not coming back, Banana-Berger. Not ever. He's... dead."
Berger's hand tightened on hers momentarily, jaw clenching and she was sure she had him... until his eyes glazed over. She cursed as she realized that she'd lost him in that moment. He pulled back away from her, clutching his hands to his chest and starting to shake again, "No. He's coming back to me." When she opened her mouth to deny it, he roared right over her, "He's coming back to me!" Then he broke away from the Tribe and raced away from them into the Park.
Sheila jerked, startled by that explosion of temper. Crissy was on her feet, staring after Berger. It was she who had spoken. She took one long look at the rest of them, her eyes blazing and lip trembling before biting out, "I'm going after him," and taking off into the Park. Woof was hot on her heels.
Before more of them could follow suit, Hud raised his voice, "Wait! We need a plan here, people! Berger knows this Park too well. We'll never find him if we just go running off willy-nilly."
Jeanie, amazingly enough the voice of reason these days, added her two cents, "Hud's right. The only one who knows this Park better than Berger is Woof, so if anyone can find him here, it'll be him. Sending anyone else would just be a waste of time and resources."
Hud nodded, "We should stake out places we know he likes to hide. Hopefully he'll go to ground in one of them and we can catch up to him that way." After a quick brainstorm, they all took off into the city to try to find their wayward friend.
After two days of searching, they were all exhausted and many were ready to call it quits. Berger did this sometimes -- just disappeared without warning. Well, at least this time they'd had warning. Sheila cursed as she dropped down onto the couch in her apartment. She'd known this was going to go badly before she even saw Berger in the Park. There was no way that it couldnt go badly, but somehow she'd hoped that it would go better than it had. She didn't think it was possible for it to have gone worse.
The only positive thing in this whole mess was that she'd been so worried about Berger these last two days, she'd almost forgotten her own grief. Now, though... there was nothing else to think about. Claude was dead. She couldn't really blame Berger for not believing it, after all, she was having a hard time believing it herself. It had been more than 2 years since he'd been drafted. He should have been home seven months ago. How could he have lasted all this time just to die now?
Caught in a downward spiral of depressive thoughts, Sheila nearly jumped when her phone rang. Desperate for news, she scrambled off the couch and grabbed up the receiver, "Hello?"
Crissy's exhausted voice came from the other end of the phone, "We found him."
Sending up a brief prayer of thanks, Sheila started stuffing her feet back into her shoes, "Where are you? I'll come to you."
There was a pause and a small hitched sob from the other end of the line before Crissy continued, "You'll have to, Sheila. We're at the hospital."
"Is he...?" Sheila couldn't even bring herself to ask the question.
Crissy's voice was uncharacteristically bitter as she answered, "He OD'ed. The doctors aren't even sure on what and what's more, they don't seem to care. He was unconscious when we found him and he still hasn't woken up. Sheila... you need to get down here."
Taking down the address, Sheila promised to get there as fast as she could. She delayed only long enough to call Jeanie and ask her to pass the information down the phone chain.
Her heart was beating in a hundred different nervous rhythms as she headed uptown to the hospital. How could Berger have done this? He was usually so careful... But if she were being honest with herself, she'd admit that she didn't need to ask that question. She knew the answer. This had been no accident. Berger had to have OD'ed on purpose.
Thirty minutes later she finally arrived at the hospital. The scene she found was less than reassuring. Crissy was pacing the waiting room in anxious, jerky movements. Woof was curled up on one of the couches, knees tucked up against his chest and rocking back and forth. They spotted her at almost the exact same moment. Woof turned his gaze towards her just long enough for her to see how lost and haunted it was before turning his face back into his knees and resuming his rocking. Crissy, on the other hand, just barreled into her, wrapping her arms tightly around the older girl's waist as she started sobbing into her shirt.
Wrapping the smaller girl in her arms, Sheila took a few precious moments to get her calmed down. When her tears finally slowed, Sheila asked, "Crissy... is he awake? Is he OK?" Crissy just shook her head.
"Is he allowed any visitors, yet?" Another head shake. Damn it. Well, there was nothing for it, then. Sheila guided Crissy over to the couch where Woof was and let them both curl up against her. Apparently, there was nothing else they could do but wait.
Eyes opened. They opened slowly, reluctantly, their owner holding onto oblivion with tooth and nail, but still they opened. They took in the room with drug-hazed ambiguity, not altogether certain of what they were seeing. There was machinery. There were tubes and wires all over the place. There were monitors with little squiggly lines that made irritated and irritating little beeps and whistles. There was harsh, artificial fluorescent lighting overhead. And there were people. There were a lot of people. The eyes lit on each of those faces in turn, recognition absent as they beheld each. Many of those faces were shedding tears, their own eyes red-rimmed and bloodshot, cheeks puffy and lips chapped. They still looked better than he felt.
Eyes closed. That was better. It was quieter somehow, here in the dark... the dark that was all that was left to him. But even here in the dark, there was a light. He knew that light, had touched it often. It belonged to him. That guiding light that he'd followed in the darkness. Someone had told him that the light was gone now, extinguished, but he didn't believe them. Couldn't believe them. Someone else had told him the light would come back, that he'd hold it again. He preferred to believe that. The alternative was too horrible to bear. That was why...
Eyes opened again, confusion lit deep in their depths. That was why he'd done it. He'd done it to go to the light. So if he'd gone to the light, how could he still be here? Here in the dark with nothing but other darknesses around him? Heart racing in panic as realization set in, he jerked himself upright, away from those other darknesses. Where was his light? Where had it gone?
One of the darknesses stepped forward, holding out its hands -- hands to soothe, hands to ease away the hurt, the emptiness... hands that had once brought him comfort. Hands that had also warmed themselves by the light. No! Nonono. It wasn't the same, wasn't enough, wasn't wasn't wasn't. Couldnt be. He pulled away from those hands, pulling his knees up and hiding the eyes that couldnt stop seeing. Where was the light? He couldn't see it anymore, even with his eyes closed. The ambiguity was fading and with it, his ability to see his light was going, too. Clarity was harsh, abrasive, unforgiving. He didn't want it!
Eyes jerking upwards again, he frantically searched the faces around him. So much darkness... too much darkness. He couldn't keep it all away! But the faces... he knew the faces now. The one who had touched, the one who comforted -- was Sheila. She had had a light of her own once, but it was harsh, unforgiving, like the bright, fluorescent bulbs above. He couldn't warm himself by that light, had never been able to, and now he couldn't even see by it. It was too swamped, covered by this darkness.
Eyes searching the room, he located other familiar faces, other lights that were hidden from view. Despairing that he would ever find another that shone even half so bright as the one he wanted, he screamed into the darkness of the room, "Why?? I don't want this. I don't want it!" His tone turned softer, begging, "Why couldn't you let me go? Please... please, I want to go... I can't stay here... Not like this, not in the dark..." Folding over on himself, he finally gave in to the shrieking sobs that were raking his mind like knives through flesh. And in spite of the hands that reached out, there was nothing left to hold him as he fell... and fell... and fell.
It was a wonder that the hospital staff hadn't thrown Berger in the psych ward and the rest of them in jail after that little scene. Hud could admit, if only to himself, that Berger had even scared him. He'd always known the boy was a little tweaked, but he hadn't realized he was completely off his nut. The really weird thing, though, was that he hadn't remembered the kid being this bad. Then... he'd been gone a while, too.
With a sigh, Hud slouched down on the waiting room couch and settled Dionne a little more comfortably against him. It had been hard, these last few months, trying to reintegrate back into life stateside. He'd been drafted not long after poor Claude, about six months. The Tribe had begged him to duck it, to go to Canada, hell to go to jail if he had to -- they were all scared then. Not that he could blame them. Claude's occasional letters detailing how things were over there were nothing short of terrifying, and Hud figured that even as bad as they were, he was leaving the worst of it out.
To this day, he still wasn't sure why he'd gone so meekly along when his number came up. Really, though... maybe it all did come back to Berger and Claude. Berger had been lost those last few months he'd been home, lost without Claude. It had tugged on his heartstrings, seeing the brightness fade further out of him with each passing day. There'd been something about those two boys, something really special. The whole Tribe had felt it, had known it, had wanted to be part of it. And even though both could have had whoever they wanted, they always came back to each other. Truth was, Hud still wasn't entirely sure how Sheila fit into the picture, but it wasn't for him to say. Whatever floats your boat and helps you sleep at night, right?
Anyways, it really all came back to that. He hadn't fought the draft because somewhere deep inside, some of Claude's shine had rubbed off on him, made him want to make a difference... even if only for the people he loved. And Berger was one of his. So was Claude. And if by going over there he might save Claude... well, then he'd go. Dionne had railed at him, called him six kinds of a fool for thinking that way, then had kissed him with such a ferocious passion that he'd been humbled. Then... of all things, she'd told him she'd be waiting for him. He hadn't understood then. He thought maybe he did, now. She'd wanted him to come home and she'd wanted him to bring Claude back with him. And he thanked the Lord every day he was over there that she'd said it, because every time he was on the verge of giving up, there she'd be... smiling, winking, humming some tune or other... a promise of a better life.
He hadn't really expected her to follow through on that promise, wouldn't have wanted to tie her down that way, so no one was more shocked than he to discover that it hadn't just been a ruse... she'd meant it. And that was why this was doubly more difficult. He had an inkling of how Berger and Sheila must be feeling right now and nothing could possibly make it better, but Lord he wanted to try anyway.
Slowly shifting Dionne's weight over onto Crissy, he made his way through the silent lobby to find Sheila. Unsurprisingly, she was awake, standing at the window and staring out into the night. At his approach, she quickly wiped her eyes and Hud let her believe that he hadn't seen her tears. Running a hand through her hair, he asked, "How you holdin' up, girl?"
Sheila shook her head, "Not well. That... that was awful. I don't think he knew any of us... not even me. Hud... I'm not even sure he's sane anymore." She turned her tear-bright eyes up to stare into his, "How the hell are we going to get him through this?"
Hud shook his head, "I don't have an answer for you, Sheila. Wish I did."
For just a moment, Sheila rested her head against Hud's shoulder, "You... you were there, Hud. You were in Viet Nam. I... Did you..." Sheila stopped, voice dropping away into silence for a moment before picking back up again, "Never mind. You... you don't have to tell me anything."
Wrapping an arm around the distraught girl, Hud gave her a little squeeze, "Once, Sheila. I saw him once... Lord, nearly a year ago, now." Seeing her expression, how desperately starved she was for any new piece of Claude she could hold onto, Hud took a moment to gather this thoughts, then continued, "Our platoons were stationed at the same base camp for once. Man, Sheila, I swear I almost didn't recognize him at first -- his hair cut that short, in fatigues and with that look in his eyes..."
Hud looked up from his seat in the mess tent as a commotion broke out near the food line. It was stupid, really -- it wasn't like they weren't all going to get their fair share... and it wasn't like the food was worth fighting about. But it wasn't his problem. None of the men involved were in his platoon, so it wasn't worth abandoning his own dinner just to break it up. Besides, someone else would surely step in before things got out of hand.
Sure enough, just down the table from him, another soldier deliberately put down his fork and stood, a cold, blank expression on his face. Hud stopped eating just to watch him. He wasn't the only one. The man's entire body language spoke of danger. Hud was kinda glad that he wasn't one of the two men about to be on the receiving end of that temper.
The other man stalked over to the two who had caused the fight, grabbed each by the shoulder of their fatigues and pulled them apart. He then leaned up into each of their faces in turn and spoke a few quiet words. The two broke off their stares and redirected their gazes to the ground, almost sheepish looks on each of them. At that, the third man's entire demeanor changed, the cold air disappearing and a tired but real smile emerging as he clapped both men on the shoulders.
At the appearance of that smile... that was when Hud dropped his water glass. It landed with a loud clatter on the floor, spilling water on everyone nearby. He ignored the curses from the ones around him who'd gotten wet and the round of applause from the remainder who hadn't. He was too busy staring at that sunny smile. It wasn't possible... couldnt be possible. Heart hammering in his chest and food forgotten, Hud got up from the bench and moved to meet the other man as he came back to the table.
With his eyes directed elsewhere, the other man didn't notice Hud until he got back to his tray. Hud had planted himself in the aisle between the benches, deliberately blocking the other's road back to his seat. Presented with a mountain of soldier between himself and his food, that smile turned back down into a frown. Even so, now Hud was sure -- up close, there could be no mistaking those eyes. With a bright smile of his own, he pulled on his best British accent and asked, "Ye wouldn't happen to be from Manchester, would ye mate?"
Those irritated brown eyes snapped up to land on him with unconcealed shock. The other man's mouth dropped open as he openly stared. Hud just kept smiling. After a few tense moments, the other soldier threw himself at him, wrapping his arms around him and pounding him on the back, laughing through the few tears that managed to escape, "Hud! Hud Johnson! Oh my G-d, it's good to see you!" Then he paused and pulled back to stare into Hud's eyes in dismay, gripping his shoulders tightly, "No... No, I take it back. It is not good to see you. What the Hell are you doing here?"
Hud pushed Claude back down into his seat, "Easy there, kid. I got drafted, same as you. That's what I'm doing here. My number came up about six months after yours."
Claude slumped in his seat, "Man, Hud... I'm so sorry."
Hud clapped him on the shoulder, "Ain't your fault, kid. It's Uncle Sam's fault, remember? Go on, eat. We'll talk when you're done."
Claude nodded, then shoveled in the remainder of his food with the speed of a man well accustomed to the fact that he might not get to finish if he didn't eat quickly. Soon enough he picked up his empty tray and motioned Hud to follow him out of the mess tent. Hud couldn't help but be aware of the many sets of intently staring eyes that followed them as they left. Not surprisingly, Claude brought them back to his own tent. Fortunately for them both it was void of any other occupants.
Once they'd settled in on Claude's cot, he immediately launched into a spate of questions about the rest of the Tribe -- who was sleeping with who, did they still hang out in the Park, did they ever talk about him, had Crissy ever found Frank... had anyone else been drafted. With a laugh, Hud answered his questions as best he could, all the while noting the three people that Claude didn't ask about: Jeanie... and Berger and Sheila.
When Claude finally seemed to have run out of questions, Hud leaned forward and raised an eyebrow. To his surprise, the other man ducked his head and looked away, swallowing hard. Hud sighed as he started to quietly speak, "Jeanie had a boy -- healthy kid, looks just like his mom. Curly mop of blonde hair, blue eyes, bright little kid. Born on January 22nd."
Claude snorted out a watery laugh. At Hud's confused look, he clarified, "Aquarius... like me." At Hud's continued look of confusion, Claude just shook his head, "Never mind, Hud. Don't worry about it." His voice quieted, "It's not important."
Hud cleared his throat and said in a stronger voice, "Sheila and Berger are still together." Claude made a pleased noise at that, a strange smile lighting his face. Somehow, Hud hadn't thought that would be his reaction. It was disturbing, really. Claude's attitude was oddly... fatalistic. Like he'd already given up. Hud couldn't take it anymore. He punched Claude lightly in the shoulder, "Hey, lighten up, bro! In less than six months, you'll be safe and comfortable at home, writing letters to me about all this stuff."
Still with that strange smile on his face, Claude just shook his head. He huffed out a bitter laugh, "Somehow... I don't think so, Hud. I just don't think so."
Scared beyond measure by his friend's words, Hud stood up and started angrily pacing the tent. Finally he rounded back on the other man, "You shouldn't talk like that, kid. Once you start talking like that, you're done. If you give up up here," he tapped a finger to his temple, "Then Death'll come knocking on your door right after. I've seen it, kid." He grabbed Claude by the shoulders and shook him, "You've got plenty to live for, to get home to. Do not give up on that." Seeing that blank look back in Claude's eyes, Hud couldn't take it anymore. He sat back down on the cot and pulled the other man into a rough embrace, voice harsh as he spoke his next words directly into Claude's ear, "Berger, Sheila, Jeanie... they all need you, man. The whole Tribe needs you. Sheila's been worried sick, protesting all up and down the East Coast. Hell, she got arrested, Claude. Did thirty days in lock up."
Claude's voice was equally rough as he responded, "That's her passion, Hud. Even if I were home, it would be the same. You know that."
Hud pushed Claude away from him to look him in the eyes again, "Well, what about Jeanie, then? There's a more than even chance that in spite of what she's been saying, the kid's yours, Claude. She named him after you. Claude Michael Ryan. What does that tell you?"
At that last, Claude's eyes filled with tears and he looked away, "Did you know... Did you know that in the Jewish tradition, you only name children after people who are already dead?"
Shit. Hud shook him again, "What the Hell does that matter? You ain't Jewish, Claude."
Claude let out another watery laugh, "Should've been. Religion passes down through the maternal side of the family... but my mother converted so she and my father could be married in the church."
This was starting to feel more and more like that time when Claude had given away all his possessions before letting himself get picked up by the induction center. He was cutting off all ties... he really had given up. What the Hell could he say that might break through that wall? Suddenly he had it, "Well, what about Berger? Poor kid's been half out of his mind with you gone. Before I left, I don't think I'd seen him sober in over a month. He's slowly destroying himself without you. If you don't come back, what'll happen to him?"
At that, Claude broke. He buried his face in his hands and started to sob. Hud pulled him back up against him, rocking him gently. Eventually he became aware that Claude was talking, quiet and grief-stricken against his shoulder, "...can't help him. Wish I could. Don't want to die, Hud... Don't want to die." His last words before dissolving back into quiet sobs were a desperate wail, "I want to go home!"
An intense feeling of relief washed through Hud at those last words. Thank G-d. Oh sweet Jesus, thank G-d. He continued rocking Claude against him, well into the night as the emotional storm raged. At some point, the man's tent-mates had returned from wherever they were, took one look at the two of them, gave him a gentle smile and made zipping motions over their lips. They bundled themselves into their cots without a word, backs politely turned. Hud was shocked. His own squad wouldn't have been nearly so accepting. Then again... Claude had always had a way about him. It was something that just drew others to him. It was part of what had kept the Tribe together for so long. Eventually, Claude's tears slowed and he managed to pull away. Hud patted his shoulder gently, "Better?"
Claude coughed, embarrassed, "If you discount the fact that I now look like shit, feel like my nose is three times too big and plugged with concrete to boot, and that half my damned squad has now seen me bawling like a baby... yeah, Hud. I feel better." As sarcastic as the previous words had been, there was nothing but true sincerity in the next ones, "Thanks, man. I guess I needed that."
Hud smiled back at him, "No problem, kid. Anytime."
Claude's face colored slightly as he cleared his throat, "Hud... I have a favor to ask."
"Anything, Claude. You know I'm good for whatever," was the response.
Claude waved his hands helplessly at his cot, "I haven't... I haven't had anyone to sleep with since I left the Tribe. Would you... would you mind...?"
Raising an eyebrow, Hud said dryly, "There are whores in just about every town around here, if that's what you're asking, kid."
At that, Claude's face blazed red and he ducked his eyes, "No! That's not... that's not what I meant..."
Understanding finally dawned. On any night warm enough, the Tribe used to cuddle up around each other in the Park, sleeping together like a pile of puppies. Even Hud had to admit that he'd found it strangely comforting to know that all he had to do was reach out a hand in any direction to touch a friend. Nodding to show he understood, he stretched himself out on the cot, arms open. Claude folded into them with a grateful smile, tucking himself up against the other man. After a moment of silence, he looked up at Hud, cheeks once again pink, "You really thought...?" He couldn't complete the sentence.
Hud laughed, dropping his voice down low, "Hey, it was a fair misunderstanding. I mean, it's not like it would've been the first time, Claude -- just would've been the first time without Dionne there, too."
Claude's blush deepened, "But... there are other men in the tent."
Hud smirked, "What's the matter, kid? The Tribe had freakin' orgies in the Park, right out there for anyone to see. You turn into a prude since you left us?"
Claude buried his face in Hud's chest, to hide his raging blush or his laughter, Hud wasn't sure. When the kid calmed down, he snorted in amusement, "Well... it would be one way to get us both sent home early..."
Before Hud could respond, a voice spoke up from the other end of the tent, "For Christ's sake. If you're not gonna get on with it, would you shut up, already? There are people in this tent who'd like to sleep sometime tonight!"
Claude laughed, "Apologies, Frank! We'll be quiet." With a light-hearted smile on his face and laughter dancing in his eyes, Claude pressed a butterfly kiss to Hud's jaw and settled himself in. In minutes, he was asleep.
For Hud, it wasn't so easy. A set of footsteps caused him to abruptly look upwards. The one standing over him was the one who'd spoken before. He was staring down at the two of them, a contemplative frown on his face. Finally he spoke, "You know... he's got a point. We could spread it around that you two slept together tonight. Might get you sent home. Be a dishonorable discharge... but at least you'd be outa this hell hole, you know?"
For just a moment, Hud was severely tempted. It would be quick, easy... and it would let him keep his unspoken promise to Dionne. Or... it might get them both lynched tomorrow. Slowly, he shook his head. Frank sighed, a sad look in his eyes, "Thought that'd be your answer. Ah well. Had to ask."
As he turned away, Hud finally found his voice to speak, "Why?"
Frank turned back, "Why offer? Or why look the other way?" At Hud's shrug, Frank smiled, "Kid's a handful, but he's special. You see it, too -- I know. But this war... it's slowly killing him, smothering that light that makes him so different. Tonight I saw it shine again, even if it was only for a moment. That makes a hell of a lot of things worth it." He snorted, "You know, I considered shootin' him in the leg once, just to get him sent home. In the end, though, I didn't have the guts. Maybe that's for the best."
"Yeah... maybe it is," Hud swallowed hard, "Besides, it's only another few months. He's made it this long... he'll make it the rest of the way."
Frank smiled as he made his way back to his cot, "You know, soldier... after tonight, I think you may just be right."
It was with a much lighter heart that Hud finally fell asleep. Come morning, however, he wasn't feeling nearly so optimistic. Claude was gone, along with the other three men. Next to him on the pillow, instead, was an unsealed letter... and a note. The note said:
"Hud... I can't thank you enough for last night. It was good to feel human again, even if it was only for a short while. I'll remember the things you said, try to hold them close to my heart. I'll try to let myself remember that there are people waiting for me... and reasons to make it home. But, Hud... in case I don't, or in case you get there first... please tell Jeanie that I'm honored that she named her son after me and I would have been proud to be his father. Tell Crissy that she's stronger than she thinks she is and she's capable of more than just hanging off a man's arm for the rest of her life. Tell Woof that he's special and that I left more of my legacy to him than an old poster of Mick Jagger. He'll understand. And tell the rest of the Tribe that I wish them all happy, long lives filled with love and peace."
Hud could almost feel the pause between those words and the next, "Tell Sheila that I love her and I'm sorry to have put her on the spot like I did. I shouldn't have asked her to marry me, at least not like that. Berger needs her far more than I do and it was selfish of me to try to take her away from him. Please... make sure she knows that I'm sorry. I... I need her to know that. As for Berger... the letter is for him. You'll have to judge for yourself whether or not you think he'll be able to handle reading it. Thank you again, Hud. I hope you get to go home, soon. Sincerely, Claude."
"...That was the last time I saw him alive," Hud finished. Sheila was openly crying now, as was most of the rest of the Tribe that had gathered around them to hear the story. He looked around at all those sad faces and felt an irrational need to justify something to them, "I tried... I really tried. And I really thought I had him convinced, you know? Guess I was wrong..."
Dionne stepped up next to him, wrapping her slender arms around his waist, "It's not your fault, baby. You did what you could, right? Sometimes, people just don't want to be saved."
Hud swallowed hard, burying his face in her ebony curls, "But it was Claude, Dionne. It should have been different with him. He should be home, with us. Not... not..." He couldn't continue.
Jeanie spoke up, "Dionne's right, Hud. It wasn't your fault. If Claude was meant to come home... he would have." When Crissy opened her mouth to protest, Jeanie cut her off, "I'm not saying that I'm not upset, or that I don't wish it was different. It's just... karma, man. Fate."
Crissy scowled and crossed her arms over her chest, "Well... whatever you call it... it sucks."
Angela enfolded her girlfriend in a gentle hug and kissed the top of her head, "It really does, doesn't it?"
Sheila finally found her voice again, "Do... do you still have that letter, Hud? Maybe... maybe it would help Berger to read it."
Hud shook his head, "I do have it, Sheila... but I'm not sure it would help. I think in the state he's in, it might just push Berger over the edge. I think Claude would rather his last words go unread than to have them cause someone he loved more pain. Maybe another time, when he's... I don't know."
Sheila snorted bitterly, "When he's sane, you mean? Maybe when he's not high? I don't think that'll happen, Hud."
Dismayed by her words, Hud said, "But Sheila, don't you see? That's what Claude was afraid of, why he wanted you to know that he released any hold he had on you. He knew Berger would need you. If you give up on him, then that really is it. We lose him for good. Claude wouldn't want that."
Sheila rounded on him angrily, "Well, what about what I want, huh? What about what I need? I love Berger, Hud, I really do... but it's not me he wants!" New tears started tracking their way down her already flushed cheeks, "Do you know how that feels? Do you want to? One of the men I love loves someone else so much more than me that losing him has driven him insane. The other man I love had no words to comfort me with, only words to 'release me' from loving him so that I could comfort the man that he loved more than me."
Turning away from the rest of the Tribe, Sheila angrily wiped at her eyes before continuing, "Well, I'll tell you how it feels. It hurts. It hurts that I'm second best to both of them. And what hurts even more is that it feels like because of that... I don't have a right to grieve." Turning back to the others, Sheila clenched her hands into fists, "Why do I have to be the strong one? Why do I have to be the one to hold it all together? Why don't I get to lose myself in my grief? Why??"
Jeanie stepped up next to Sheila and started stroking a hand gently through the other woman's tangled blonde hair, "Because it's the price we pay for loving unconditionally." Sheila jerked in Jeanie's arms, but stayed silent. Jeanie continued, "We don't love others just to have that love returned in equal measure. We love because it's the right thing to do... because we have no other choice... because we're human. What difference does it make who loved who more? Can't it just be enough that we were loved at all?"
As though her words were tying them all together, the Tribe moved in closer, almost as one, to join in Jeanie and Sheila's embrace. Woof was the one who spoke up in answer to Jeanie's questions, "It is. It has to be." He took a moment to meet each of their eyes in turn, then smiled a sheepish smile, "I'm not anyone's favorite. I know that. I'm flighty. I'm scattered. I'm weird, even for us. I'm not special, like Claude... but I love you all. Each and every one of you. And for me... that is enough. Just to be part of you, even if it's only the smallest, least important part." Crissy's voice caught on a small sob as she threw her arms around Woof, "You're not the least important, Woof. And you're certainly not the smallest. And you're right. It's enough that we're part of each other and that we love each other." Offering the lanky man a teary smile, she hugged him close, "I love you, too, Woof."
The tension in the group visibly eased as they all started embracing each other and making declarations of love. Dionne pressed herself close to him and laughed huskily into his ear, "Amazing that we can be like this even when we're not all high..."
Startled, Hud laughed then swung her into a tight embrace, "You got that right, woman. It is amazing. It's beyond amazing."
They spent that night in the hospital waiting room, Claude's presence strongly felt around them, though not seen or touched. At some point in the night, Berger quietly disentangled himself from his machinery, unplugging it from the wall so it wouldn't squeal any alarms, dressed and crept from his hospital room. He'd almost felt it, the presence of his light out here in the waiting room, but it was fading now. He could see it starting to shine in Woof, a little in Jeanie and Crissy, too. It warmed him, that light, but it wasn't enough. He needed his light... his warmth. And he was finally starting to understand that he would never have it again. It was enough to make him want to scream. But he didn't. He didn't want to wake the others.
He crept through the room, dropping light caresses and gentle kisses on brows and hands as he went... until he reached Hud and Dionne. There was something there, too. A hint of the light. Fingers nimble and careful, Berger lifted a much-creased and folded envelope from Hud's inside jacket pocket. It was clear that Hud had been carrying this letter for a long time. Looking more closely, Berger saw his own name written on the front of the envelope. The writing on the outside made his heart pound... it was his handwriting.
Clutching that envelope close to his heart, Berger fled the waiting room and then the hospital. It didn't take him long to find a quiet spot back in the Park. It was their spot -- underneath one of the bridges were he and Claude had often spent warm summer nights entwined around each other, laughing and dreaming. His presence was strong here, full of life and warmth. Cuddling down into that glow, Berger pulled out the letter.
He ran his hands over it, smoothing the crinkles as best he could, inhaling deeply to try to catch even a whiff of his scent. Finally, he lifted the flap and pulled out the letter. Though the outside of the envelope had been addressed to him, the inside was headed differently. His name wasn't there, but Berger knew it was meant for him, just the same. Ignoring the tears trying to blur his vision, Berger smoothed the letter one more time, then started to read.
"Love, if you're reading this, then I suppose Hud made it home before I did and that he found you well. At least I hope that's what it means. I hope that with all my heart. I know how upset you were when I left, how fractured you've become with me gone. I'm touched and I'm flattered, but it isn't what I want from you. You're capable of so much more than what you let yourself be. You're as smart as any of us, maybe even smarter, and you have just as much passion as Sheila, though you show it differently. I hate to think that that very passion might be what destroys you."
"I know how easy it is for me to sit here and write this, not being with you and seeing you struggling, but I wish you didn't have to. I wish you could let go of some of your anger, let go of the need to scare people away before they get too close. I wish you could let someone else understand you... the way I did. I think Sheila could, if you'd let her. I don't want you to be alone in the night, love. I don't want you to shut yourself off from the others, just because I'm not there. You need them and they need you."
"I miss you. More than any of the others combined, I miss you. I wish with all my heart that I was at home with you, wrapped up safe in your arms. I want it more than anything. But I'm afraid... I'm so afraid, because I'm not sure that I am coming home and for the first time in a long time... that seems like a bad thing. So, here's what I'm going to do: I'm going to imprint you deep within my heart, where I'll always be able to keep you close... where I'll never lose you, so I can lean on your strength and your passion when mine fails again. I'm going to take you with me wherever I go. And... maybe this is selfish, but I hope you'll do the same for me. Keep me with you, wherever you are... and maybe... someday... somehow... we'll meet again."
"I love you, Berger... and I will come back to you. I choose to believe that... I have to. Love, Claude."
Berger read that letter over and over and over... until he could see the words even with his eyes closed. And as he did, as those words settled deep into his heart, he finally began to feel some measure of peace. He'd known it. He'd known it all along... Sheila was wrong. Claude wasn't dead, couldn't be dead... not when he'd given him these words, these promises. Claude kept his promises. Always. So, Berger would do what he asked, because really... it was such a small thing. He would imprint Claude as deeply on his own heart as Claude had done for him. And he would stay... and wait. And someday, his Claude would come back to him. He didn't know when, or how, but he would. And Berger would be here, whatever it took.
Berger carefully folded the letter back up and tucked it into its envelope. The envelope then got tucked into his inner left vest pocket, right over his heart. Hugging it tightly to himself, he curled up under the bridge and for the first time in over a year, fell into a deep, peaceful sleep. I'm here, Claude... and I'll stay here until you come back to me. Come home soon... I'll be waiting.
And now for some chibi si--
Claude: *growls* If you dare say silliness, I'll throw your laptop against the wall.
Berger: *cuddles the Claude* Calm down! *sheepish grin* He's a little upset...
Claude: *roars* Upset??? I'll give you upset!!
Berger: *grabs Claude again* Calm down, Claudio! It's OK!
Claude: No it is not! Do you realize what happened here? *at Berger's blank look, Claude makes a frustrated noise* The letter I wrote to make you feel better is what pushed you over the edge and drove you insane!
Berger: *sweatdrop* Claudio... I was already there. I didn't need any help from you, I promise you that. *twitch* Besides, she already fixed it in earlier stories.
Claude: *grumps* Not the point.
Berger: *sighs* We'll work on it.
*sheepish grin* Questions, comments, papaya?