Sorry, last few days have been a little exhausting and it was hard to find time to do the last read-through and HTML. :-P But it's done now, so enjoy! ^_^

Title: The Algea
Fandom: Hair, the musical: 2009 Revival
Pairing: Berger/Sheila, hints of Claude/Berger, Claude/Berger/Sheila, Claude/Jeanie
Rating: PG-13 for some kissing, R for angst and trauma. Pick your poison. ^_^
Word Count: 33,098
Warnings: Slash. Angst. Holy hell, is there angst. O_O Sorry 'bout that. Rebound effect from 'Flesh Failures,' I think...

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 ((Hair was written by James Rado and Gerome Ragni with music by Galt MacDermot.))

Summary: Sheila has watched Berger destroying himself for months and finally decides that she can't take any more of it. She's going to save him from himself no matter the cost... or the ultimate prize. Sequel to "Going Down."

Juy 23, 2010: OK, finally got around to doing final edits and HTMLing on this sucker. ^_^ Hope you've enjoyed it as much as I have! *snugs on a * Happy Unbirthday, again, Ms. Orange21! :-D

And for the record, yes, there will be sequels. I've grown to love this new ficverse and I want to play in it some more. Stay tuned! ^_^

And do remember... comments and reviews are love! ^_^

The Algea: Conclusion
by Renee-chan

He stands by the door, up on tiptoe, anxiously looking out the little window. When he still doesn't see anyone out in the hall, he frowns, glances in the other direction to catch the angle of the sun in the sky. No, he's right. It's time. It's definitely time. So where is he? Eyes growing fretful, he turns back to his silent vigil, watching the hallway for signs of anyone approaching. Still no one comes.

It was a shock, a big shock, all those weeks ago... four and four and- damn it! He thunks his head against the wood of the door in frustration. Three months. It was three months ago. Three months since that day... that day when his life turned around and did cartwheels, handstands, back flips. And it was all because of him - that one last piece to his other life, the one with the long, curly black hair and green, green eyes. The one who knew the word that was his name. Claude - serious, full of emotion, sometimes stern, always him. Claudio - different sounds for the same person, three syllables instead of one... meant for fun, for teasing... for love. And it is love. He feels it every time the other comes around, it flavors the very air around him... him... the one whose word is "Berger"... Banana-Berger... Sexy-Berger. His Berger.

And he comes, faithfully, every day at this hour. So, why isn't he here? He starts pacing, nervously wringing his hands. He counts on Berger, more than he should. He knows better. Don't put your faith in other people. Don't give a damn about them, because they don't give a damn about you. The only way to survive is alone. Don't depend on anyone because they always disappoint you. He knows that, learned those lessons the hard way, learned them well, had them burned into his skin until there was no place to escape them. But still... an earlier lesson, one etched even more deeply, onto his very heart, his soul... fights it off. That lesson? Berger. Remember Berger. Love Berger. Come back to him because he needs you... and you need him. And that is a lesson even more inescapable than the first because he taught it to himself.

And so he waits, terrified that this will be the day that his faith is proven unjustified, that this will be the day when his trust is finally betrayed and what little of him is left is finally destroyed. But he can no more stop waiting, stop hoping than he can gnaw off his own foot. He needs to believe in something and so far, Berger is it.

A noise in the hallway distracts him from his pacing. Is that? Is it? He's back at the door in a heartbeat, looking down the hallway. And this... this is different. Heart beginning to race, he backs away from the door into the corner behind the bed. Why? Why is it different now? Different is bad... Badba- Damn it! He slams his head back against the wall once, frustrated with himself over the unfounded panic. He will not meet this change curled up on the floor like a weakling! In that surge of adrenaline, he manages to regain his feet, but can't force himself out of the corner. It will have to do. Have to...

When Berger finally gets into the room, he tosses Claude a beaming smile as he maneuvers the contraption he's brought in with him. Claude forces himself to calm, to listen for the words that are coming, because he knows they are... and maybe they'll explain what's going on here. He can only hope. Because he won't have the strength to put his world back together again if Berger is the one who pulls it apart.

Berger stared at the trembling figure in the corner and cursed to himself. He knew he shouldn't have stopped at Jeanie's, but he'd left Cheryl's stuffed dog there yesterday and the poor kid had an awful time sleeping without it last night. Of all days for him to throw off Claude's routine, though, it would have to be a day when he was planning on introducing something new. Shit. This wasn't good.

After taking one last peek down at Cheryl to make sure she was still sleeping, Berger left her by the door and walked over to Claude. The other man didn't ever respond in kind, but Berger was pretty sure that he understood most of what was said to him. He could only hope so, because words were all he could give in explanation. Smiling softly, he held out a hand, "Hey, Claudio. Sorry I'm late. I had to stop at Jeanie's to pick something up and it took a little longer to get here than I thought it would. Forgive me?"

Claude took a long, measuring moment, staring back and forth between Berger's outstretched hand and his eyes, before shyly stepping forward and tucking his head against the other man's shoulder. Berger let out a sigh of pure relief as he enfolded Claude in a gentle hug. Thank goodness for small favors. He couldn't lose Claude's trust, not now, not when they'd come so far already.

Before he had a chance to do or say anything else, however, fate sent another curveball his way. A warbling cry from behind him alerted him that Cheryl was awake and unhappy at being in such unfamiliar surroundings with no mother and no father in sight. And Claude, naturally unfamiliar with that noise, jerked away from Berger, eyes wide and more than a little frantic. Seconds later, he was curled back up in his corner, this time on the floor. Berger sighed. Damn it.

After a swift mental debate over which terrified person to soothe first, Berger made the only decision he really could. He crouched down by Claude and put a gentle hand on the other man's bowstring taut shoulder, "Claude, you gotta listen to me, man. She's nothing to be afraid of, all right? I'm going to go over to the carriage and get her, then I'll bring her over here for you to see. She's just a baby. She can't hurt you, all right?"

Though Claude looked anything but convinced, Berger took his stillness as an affirmative and walked over to the carriage. Freeing the little girl from her blankets, Berger cradled her close for a moment, "Hey there, kiddo. I'm here, OK? No need for all this fuss. I didn't leave you. We're just here visiting a friend, all right? He's a very special friend... someone that I love very much, someone who needs me just as much as you do... someone that I need even more than you need me. So, you gotta stop crying so we can make a good first impression, OK?"

He didn't expect that little speech to calm anyone but Cheryl, so no one was more surprised than he when he turned and almost ran straight into Claude who'd crept up behind him. He only managed to avoid that collision by the skin of his teeth. Claude was just standing there, staring down at Cheryl, a look of wonder-laced confusion scrawled all over his face. Once she was in a position to do so, Cheryl returned the scrutiny just as closely. She was always intensely interested in new people, but - and Berger readily admitted to himself that he could just be seeing what he wanted to see here - she seemed to be even more absorbed by Claude than she was by most.

Terrified to break the tableau and set one of the two of them off again, Berger held himself as still as he could. After another few minutes of gentle scrutiny, Cheryl picked up a hand and started grasping in Claude's general direction. Berger almost laughed. Cheryl was certainly a baby who knew what she wanted and didn't hesitate to try to take it - just like her old man. Fortunately, Claude seemed to be over the worst of his fear and seemed to understand that Cheryl meant him no harm. After eyeing her waving hand for a moment, he slowly lifted his in response, bringing it into range of Cheryl's grasping fingers. She immediately latched onto his index finger and giggled in delight. Almost in spite of himself, Claude smiled in response.

When Berger saw that smile, he let out a silent sigh of pure relief. And though it was silent, Claude seemed to hear it just the same. He turned that curiosity-bright gaze on Berger as though asking a question. Berger smiled sheepishly in response, "Claudio, this is Cheryl. She's my daughter." At the continued confusion, Berger explained, "I'm her father."

And that statement didn't go over well. Claude tensed, eyes suddenly anything but happy, and he tried to back away. With the two-handed grip Cheryl had on his finger, though, he didn't get far. Berger sighed. Damn it, he'd known that would be a problem, that Claude had extremely bad associations with that word, but he'd hoped that he might react to it differently in this context. Berger freed one hand from holding Cheryl to tuck it under Claude's chin and turn him back to face him, "Hey, Claudio, it's all right. Not all fathers are bad people, you know. Some of them are good." Huffing out a small laugh, he said, "It's a shame you haven't met mine. He's a great dad. No matter how much shit I shovel on him, he just takes it from me and tosses it away with a smile. Even though I dropped out of his life for almost five years, when I showed back up on his doorstep, he took me back in as though I hadn't been gone a day, helped me get a job, get back on my feet. He never forced me to be anything but what I was. And he loves me, Claude, for who I am, not who he wishes I was. You can see it in everything he does. Not all fathers are like yours. Some of them are like mine. OK?"

Though he still looked uncertain, at least he wasn't actively pulling away anymore. Berger smiled at that, "OK." In a sudden fit of inspiration, his smile widened to cat-that-ate-the-canary proportions, "Hey, Claudio... do you want to hold her?"

The last of Claude's uncertainty faded into a look of fear as he shook his head. Berger laughed and patted his shoulder, "Yeah, man, I know that look. Wore it myself the first time Jeanie asked me if I wanted to hold her son and the first time Sheila asked me if I wanted to hold Cheryl. It's scary the first time, but it's worth it. Come on." Walking over to the bed, he sat down and patted the spot next to him.

Come on, Claudio. You've gotta do this. I know you've got the doctors fooled, but you don't have me fooled. I know you're not sleeping here, but maybe if I can distract you, we can at least get you to sit here. Putting on the most sweetly innocuous smile that he could manage, Berger patted that spot again. And wonder of wonders... Claude sat, eyes focused on Cheryl the whole time.

Once he was situated, Berger didn't give him time to think about it, just turned and plopped Cheryl right into the other man's arms. Claude froze, eyes wide like a deer in headlights. Berger just laughed and patted his shoulder, "Ease up, there, Claudio. She's not gonna break." Claude's eyes flickered accusingly over to him, then focused back on the child in his arms. Cheryl cooed and burbled happily up at him, little fists waving. Berger just watched, surprised by how right this felt. There was just something about it, about sitting here watching Claude hold his child... Swallowing around a sudden hard lump in his throat, Berger wiped surreptitiously at his eyes. How often had he imagined this back when they were younger? A chance to be with Claude... to be a family... There was a not-so-small part of him that kept expecting to wake up from this, as though it were a dream... or one damned fine trip.

Shifting closer, Berger leaned his head against Claude's shoulder, almost unconsciously seeking the warmth of contact, needing to reassure himself that this was real. And Claude responded, leaning back into his touch like he always used to. For just one moment it felt like they had gone backwards in time, back to a time before Claude was drafted, before Berger had managed to so thoroughly mess himself up... just before. Hardly daring to believe that amongst all the fucked up crap going on between the two of them that he could have managed to create a moment that was so very right, Berger had to catch his breath at the wonder of it. Caught up in that odd feeling of time warp, when Claude finally started to relax, Berger decided to take a chance. He lifted his left leg up onto the bed and scooted himself sideways to settle it behind and around Claude, shifted himself so that he was sitting behind the other man and wrapped his arms around him. Claude, rather than jumping at the enclosing embrace like he'd been wont to do these last months, settled back into it with a happy sigh, like how he used to before the war.

Berger squeezed his eyes shut tightly, firmly telling himself that crying would be a totally inappropriate response, no matter how much he might want to indulge in it. Instead, he just tucked his face into the crook of Claude's neck, into that one spot... his spot... and placed a soft, gentle kiss there. They would get through this. Somehow, they would... and he would have his Claude back. Not much longer, now... Berger could feel it.

Sheila frowned as she watched Berger. The other man was fidgety, unsettled... agitated. He kept eyeing the clock, frowning, then jumping up to pace the room. She couldn't imagine what it was that was getting under his skin so badly, but whatever it was, he was going to have to settle soon. After two more rounds of this behavior, she finally snapped out at him, "Berger! Our company's going to be here in a little more than an hour, but you don't have to watch the clock until they get here. Now will you just calm down, please?"

Berger jumped, turned wide eyes on her, "I... I just..." He fumbled, looking for words that he clearly wasn't finding. Finally he made a frustrated noise and tugged at his hair, "Look, I just need to go out for a little bit. Forty minutes... An hour, tops, OK?" Walking over to the couch, he dropped to his knees in front of her, hands resting in supplication on her legs, "Please, Sheila? I'll be back before everyone gets here, OK?"

Sighing, Sheila shook her head, "I could use you here, Berger. We still have a lot to do before everyone arrives - getting the hors d'oeuvres ready, getting Cheryl up from her nap... I can't do it all myself."

Eyes narrowing in frustration, Berger lurched to his feet to pace the room again. Sheila just waited. She'd planned the timing on Cheryl's six month birthday get-together on purpose. Maybe it was cruel, maybe it was petty, but Berger wasn't talking to her and she needed to get to the bottom of it. At about 1:30 every afternoon - sometimes with Cheryl, sometimes without - Berger would disappear for a few hours. He never said where he was going, never told her anything about it when he got back. She knew he wasn't at work, because she'd stopped by the store to find out. She knew he wasn't with any of the other Tribe members because she'd asked. And, damn it, she'd had enough of the secrets! So, she'd planned this gathering for 3 PM, knowing that this very thing would happen... and hoping that she could force him to tell her what he'd been hiding all these months.

After another few minutes of fidgeting and a few more anxiously darted glances at the clock, Berger turned to face her, a plea in his eyes, "Sheila, you don't understand. He counts on me... he needs me to be there. Two o'clock, every day. He depends on it. When I'm late, when I don't show..." Rushing back over, he grabbed Sheila's hands, "Sheila, I have to go!"

At the sheer desperation in Berger's eyes, G-d help her, Sheila almost gave in right there. Instead, she forced herself to grip Berger's hands in return and ask the questions, "Who depends on you, Berger? Where do you go every day?"

And that was the moment when Berger saw the trap closing on him. Eyes widening in horror, then narrowing in accusation, he pulled his hands out of Sheila's grip, "No. I can't... Sheila, I can't tell you. Not yet. He isn't ready. Sheila, he's not ready." And again, that pleading was back in his eyes. It about broke Sheila's heart to see it.

Sighing, she rubbed a hand against her forehead, "Isn't ready for what, Banana-Berger?"

Swallowing hard, Berger sat down next to her, "You, Sheila. He isn't ready for you... for any of you. He barely handles Cheryl, for goodness' sake."

Turning, Sheila took Berger's hand into hers, blue eyes locking with deep green in entreaty, "Please, baby... who?"

Looking more defeated than she'd seen him in a year, Berger closed his eyes and whispered, "Claude."

Sheila's eyes blazed and she dropped Berger's hand, lurching to her feet to do some pacing of her own. G-d... he sounded so damned sincere, like he actually believed... Rounding back on him, she clenched her hands, "Damn it, Berger, that's not funny!" To her embarrassment, a few tears leaked free from her eyes before she could stop them.

Berger rose to his feet in front of her, hurt innocence in his very posture, "Sheila, it's not a joke! Why do you think I didn't tell you?" She opened her mouth to say something but he ran right over her, "I'm not lying to you. That letter... the one you got from Claude's mom... she never said that he died. We all just assumed!" Seeing that he had her for now, Berger rushed onward, "It was the night Cheryl was born. I'd wandered off into the hospital and Sheila, I swear to G-d, he literally ran me down in the hallway." Pausing to laugh bitterly, Berger buried his hands in his hair, "Shit. He was so messed up, Sheila, he didn't even really know me. He was more animal than human..."

At that, his voice choked up and he had to pause in his narrative - not that it mattered. Sheila couldn't have interrupted him then if her life depended on it. When he managed to get his voice back under control, it was barely a whisper, "I don't know what he went through over there to do that to him, Sheila... but it must have been so awful..." For the first time since he started speaking, Berger raised his eyes to meet hers and they were shining bright with an echo of the tears that she was now freely shedding. Swallowing hard, he started to speak again, "But he's been getting better... he really has! And Cheryl just adores him... and he her. But he isn't ready for everyone else, Sheila - not yet. And I don't know if he could take another set-back... I mean, Jesus, he still isn't even talking, you know?"

Sheila nodded, "OK... let's... let's just say I believe you, all right, Banana-Berger? Let's say that I believe you... I still want to see him." Before he could say anything, she held up a hand, "He doesn't have to see me! I just..." Her eyes filled with tears again, "Please... I just want to see him, just once, for myself, OK? Please..."

Berger's eyes widened and he stepped closer, drawn in by Sheila's tears the way he was by almost nothing else. He took her into his arms and nodded against her hair, "OK. We'll... we'll go over there and we'll let you see him... and we'll see how it goes, OK?"

Sheila didn't waste another minute. She gave Berger a firm, almost bruising kiss, then ran into the kitchen to call Jeanie and ask her to call down the phone chain that the party was going to be delayed and that she'd call when she got home. She felt a momentary pang about not telling the other woman the rest of it, but she fought it off. If Berger was right - and wasn't hallucinating - then Claude wasn't ready for the whole Tribe to come beating down his door yet. As she hung up the phone, she leaned her head against the wall momentarily, one hand pressed to her mouth as a hysterical giggle tried to force its way past her lips. It was silly really, stupid... but even the possibility of Claude still being alive made her feel as giddy as a schoolgirl about to go on a date with her first crush. Once she'd gotten herself back under control, she went into Cheryl's room and gently tucked her into her carriage. When she wheeled her out into the living room, Berger already had the door open and was almost bouncing in his need to be out it and away. Sheila didn't waste another minute. After all this time, she wasn't wasting another second. Not anymore, not ever again.

He paces the room, nervous. Two o'clock has come and gone - it came and went almost fifteen minutes ago, in fact. What could be keeping Berger? Ten steps... turn. Another ten steps... turn. Look at the clock. It still reads 2:16. Damn it. Where the hell is he? Ten steps... turn. It's not like him to be late. Check that. It's not like him to be late without good cause. And it's stupid, really. It should be OK for him to be late every now and then. He shouldn't feel this heart-racing panic when the hour rolls on by without him being there. But he does. Every time that clock strikes two, if Berger isn't there, his heart starts to speed up, to beat this tattoo of panic against his breastbone. And if Berger isn't there by 2:01? That's it. All bets are off and his heart doesn't stop its racing until Berger is finally safely in the room with him.

He'd call, wouldn't he? He'd find some way to let him know if he wasn't coming. He knows how much Claude depends on him, knows how much he needs him to be here every day. Dr. Howard says it isn't healthy, that he shouldn't depend so much on the other man, but he can't help it. Berger is the one constant thing that he can hold onto in this upside down life of his that has spun so rapidly out of control. He's the only thing that Claude has left to remind him that he wasn't always like this... wasn't crazy. That he had control once, that he was a whole person, that he wasn't afraid to leave the confines of this tiny, tiny room that feels more and more like a cage with each passing day.

In a fit of frustration, Claude looks at the clock again - 2:17. Damn it! Pacing back over to the door, he yanks it open this time, takes a step into the hall, looks back and forth... no Berger. Jerking himself back inside, he slams the door closed, paces back and forth a few more times. He looks up at the clock again - 2:19. He's never been this late before.

Heart and steps freezing in sudden panic, Claude turns slowly to face the door. What if... what if something happened to him? His heart starts to pound again. What if Berger is hurt? What if he's lying in the street somewhere, bleeding, broken, in painpainpain, waiting for Claude to find him? What if... what if he needs Claude this time? He's back at the door in a flash, yanking it back open and stepping out into the hall.

He looks up and down the hallway, hoping beyond hope that Berger will just suddenly appear at one end or the other... but he doesn't. Nothing is ever that easy. Nothing... Breath speeding up, he turns up the hallway that Berger always arrives by, takes another step and another. He doesn't know what's outside this room, doesn't know what lies at the end of the hallway or outside the hospital, but if Berger needs him he is not going to let the other man down.

Several more steps down the hall there is a desk. The nurses are littered about it in their whitewhite uniforms and their squeaky shoes, squeaking back and forth at each other in their high pitched voices. Dr. Howard is there, too, startles when he sees Claude. Several of the orderlies are also there. Two of them step forward, ready to corral him in and take him back to his little room. Claude drops into a fighting stance, eyes blazing with determination, a feral growl in his throat. No one is going to stop him from finding Berger, from helping him - especially not a pair of orderlies that he's taken down at least twice before.

Dr. Howard steps between them, stops the bigger men before they can make a move they'll all regret. He then turns back to Claude, "Claude... what are you doing out here? You know you aren't supposed to leave your room alone."

Claude whimpers, frustrated. He has the words, he knows he does, but they're locked up in his throat and he can't force them out, especially not now when he can barely maintain coherent thoughts. Finally he gestures up at the clock, turns pleading eyes on the doctor, willing him to understand. Dr. Howard turns to look where Claude pointed, then looks back at the taller man. His eyes widen in abrupt understanding, "Your friend is late, isn't he?" Looking back up at the clock, he frowns, "He's very late." Nodding to himself, he turns to one of the nurses, asks her to keep a look-out for Berger and page him if he shows up, then he turns back to Claude, "Well, if you've been brave enough to come this far, why don't we take it a little further, hmm? I'll go with you."

Relieved beyond measure that not only did the doctor not stop him but is even willing to help, Claude can only nod. Dr. Howard falls into step next to him, lets him take the lead. It's inefficient, Claude knows that. If he could just ask the doctor how to get to the main entrance... but he can't. He just can't. So, instead he looks, puts long-rusty skills in recon to use. After a few false turns, Claude hits the jackpot - a stairwell. Pulling open the door, he looks at the number inside the stairwell. It's a '3.' Third floor. They're on the third floor. The main entrance should be on the ground floor - on the first floor. Two flights.

A hand on his arm stops him before he can get any further. Dr. Howard frowns, "Claude... on second thought, I'm not sure this is a great idea. Why don't we head back to your room and wait?"

Claude jerks his arm away from the doctor's grasping hand, bares his teeth in warning. The doctor holds his hands up and sighs. Recognizing that as a yield, Claude nods once, turns back to the stairs, races down them as quickly as he can so as to not be stopped again. Once on the main floor and out of the stairwell, however, he freezes. There are so many people down here! Scared and confused, he backs up against the wall, shaking. How is he going to find Berger in all this mess?

Dr. Howard's hand is back on his arm now, gentle words murmuring in his ear like a brook over stones. Go back upstairs. Go back to your room. Don't push yourself. He's been listening to those words for a year now. Those words haven't helped. Berger helped. Berger, who might even now be out there dying... alone... No! Pushing away from the wall and Dr. Howard, Claude makes his way into the crowd of people. He gets more than his fair share of strange looks as he goes. Wild eyes, wild hair barely contained in a ponytail at the nape of his neck, tee-shirt and sweatpants... no shoes or socks. No doubt, he's a strange picture. He doesn't care. He's just grateful that most of them get out of the way when they see him coming. He pushes aside the few that don't.

After another few minutes, it becomes apparent that Berger isn't here. Claude makes his way back over to the wall, then pauses. There is writing on the wall... Squinting, he drags out another long disused skill and doggedly works his way through the letters and symbols. An 'E' and an 'R' and an arrow pointing to the right. ER... In a flash of insight, he remembers: Emergency Room! And the arrow shows you which way to go to get there! Almost bouncing in his sudden excitement, he continues down the row: ER, Maternity, Psychiatric - at that one, he frowns. The arrow points back the way they came and there is a '3' next to it. That must be where he came from. Psychiatric... that's crazy people. With a sigh, he shakes his head. He can't exactly deny that it's true. He knows he's nuts. He's known it for a while... but he's working on it, getting better - because of Berger. Abruptly shaking his head he refocuses on the list. It doesn't matter, now. Nothing matters but finding Berger.

There! 'Exit' - that's what he's looking for. And he was right, it is on this floor. Turning in the direction that the arrow points, Claude takes off, Dr. Howard hot on his heels. There are more signs, some indicating to keep going, some to turn in a different direction, but he's got the way of it now, stays on track. And finally... there it is. A room even larger than the one he came down into, this one is veritably packed with people. And right in front of him at the other end are two large glass doors... and he can see the street beyond them.

Dr. Howard reaches out a hand to grab him, but he twists out of the way, ducks down to lose himself in the crowd, makes his way to those doors. Once there, though, he stops. He has to. Pressed against the glass, he stares out at the hustle and bustle of the street... and he knows it. It's another piece of his former life - this street is near the college... near NYU. He... he's home? Abruptly losing strength, Claude sinks down to the floor, still pressed to the glass. Has he been home all this time and didn't know it? How could he not have known it? His parents were here. Berger was here. How could he have thought he was anywhere but New York?

Shaking, he pulls himself up again, drinking in the sights out that glass, drawing in the energy of the city outside those doors, taking strength from it. Dr. Howard reaches him then, puts a gentle hand on his back, "Good for you, son. I should have given you more credit. I didn't think you could do it, didn't think you were ready. I was wrong. But now... we really should get you back upstairs, all right?"

Claude shakes off that hand, well-intentioned though it is, then turns pleading eyes on the doctor. He isn't ready. He needs to stay here, take it all in, for just a little longer. And still... there's Berger. He isn't fool enough to think that he can barge out onto the streets of Manhattan and find the other man if he truly is lost and injured... but he can wait here, hoping that he still might come. Understanding, as usual, Dr. Howard just pats him on the shoulder and nods. Claude turns back to watching the street, ignoring it when Dr. Howard sits in a nearby chair and pulls out his pad to take notes.

Claude doesn't know how long they wait there, he can't see the sun from here and there is no clock, but all of a sudden, he sees something that brings him out of his mesmerized staring. Edging out of the corner of the doorway that he's retreated into, he presses himself back against the glass. It's him. He's pushing Cheryl's carriage and arguing with a blonde woman. There's something about that woman... Claude thinks he should know her, feels his heart speed up in panic when he can't bring her name to mind. But it doesn't matter. What matters is that Berger is here and he's alive and uninjured. He's OK... thank G-d, he's OK... Claude is almost ready to cry with the sheer relief he feels bubbling up inside him at the sight. It's a surge of feeling so intense that it needs- no. It demands an outlet. The minute that the other man is safely within the confines of the building, Claude launches himself at him, wrapping his arms tightly around him and soaking the other man's shoulder with his tears. Hoarsely, barely coherent, he sobs one word into his shoulder, over and over again, "Berger!"

Berger was about ready to hand off the carriage to Sheila and send her back to the apartment. They'd argued the entire way here: which subway to take, which street to walk up, every little thing that Sheila could nitpick at, she did. And Berger understood. She was nervous and this was how she dealt with nerves, by bossing other people around. But that didn't help when she insisted on taking a particular subway line, in spite of Berger telling her they couldn't, just to find out that there was no way to get the carriage down the stairs. She'd apologized, but it had set them back another fifteen minutes - fifteen minutes when they didn't even have one to spare. Glancing down at his watch, Berger cursed. It was already 2:32. Thank G-d they were almost at their destination.

When they rounded the corner and saw the hospital in sight, he let out a sigh of relief. Then Sheila started pausing at every window to catch her reflection and check her hair - as if that mattered! And, all at once, Berger had had enough. Grabbing her hand firmly in his, he tucked it under his arm and started pushing the carriage with the other hand. Certainly, she had a few things to say about that, but at that moment, he couldn't have cared less if he tried - though he'd have been willing to make the effort if it would have gotten them moving faster.

He was so focused on Sheila, in fact, that he didn't initially take notice when they passed through the doors to the hospital. But he came back to himself right quickly when a man lunged at him from the side of the doors and locked his arms around his neck. Berger froze. His body knew this embrace, though it took his mind a moment to catch up. Seeing Dr. Howard get up out of a nearby chair was the final clincher... but what the hell was Claude doing all the way down here? Pushing those questions aside, he focused on the sobbing man in his arms, silently intoning every curse word he could think of. He knew he'd been pushing it, knew he should have just up and left when Sheila got fussy at him. This was the very situation he'd been trying to avoid. Fuck.

Pulling the other man close, he opened his mouth to start murmuring his usual words of reassurance when another voice stopped him in his tracks. It was hoarse, rusty from disuse, barely recognizable, but Berger knew it - knew it to the marrow of his bones. It was Claude's. And the one word he spoke, over and over again into the tear-soaked collar of his shirt, was Berger's name. Quietly, in awe, he answered back in kind, "Claudio...? Claudio... you... you really know me...?"

Claude nodded his head frantically against the other man's shoulder, clutching him even more tightly to him. He didn't seem inclined to speak any other words than the one he'd already spoken, but it was still more than Berger had been able to get him to speak in a year. He couldn't imagine being any more excited than this when Cheryl started to talk. No way. He laughed in delight, leaned back to look into Claude's red-rimmed eyes, "You were worried about me, huh, Claudio? You came all the way down here just to find me, didn't you?"

A hesitant smile started to peek through the sadness on Claude's face and he shyly nodded, only now starting to understand that he'd done something good - something that had made Berger proud... and happy. Berger laughed again, eyes twinkling. Completely overcome by that shy smile and forgetting himself for just a moment, he leaned forward, placed a gentle kiss on Claude's lips.

At the sudden stillness in the other man's body, though, he froze. Oh crap. Oh no. That was dumb. He didn't need you to do something so unexpected! Shit! He had barely enough time to complete those thoughts and try to pull away before his head was firmly bracketed by a larger pair of hands and that other pair of lips pressed firmly back against his. It was clumsy - G-d it was clumsier than any kiss they'd shared since their first - but it was from Claude and that made it perfect. He didn't stop to think anymore, didn't care that Sheila was staring, didn't care that Dr. Howard was gaping like a landed fish from behind Claude's shoulder, didn't care that they were gathering a crowd. It didn't matter.

He reached up, pulled Claude's hands down from his face to rest on his shoulders - a grip that the other man quickly shifted to lock his arms around Berger's neck - and raised his own hands up to cup Claude's face, to run his fingers through the other man's hair, down his cheeks. Eventually, he let one hand drop to Claude's waist as the other found a nesting place in the other man's hair, gently turning him to rest his back against the wall next to the door as he fought to gentle the desperation in that initial lock of lips. It was a bad idea, he knew that, knew that Claude wasn't really ready for this, but G-d it had been so long... and he needed his Claude back so very badly... he couldn't have stopped if he tried. And he sure as hell didn't want to try.

In a way, it was like their first kiss all over again, pure emotion and need, and there was a bundle of nerves dancing around in his belly. He remembered that kiss, how he'd known even then that he wanted more from Claude than he'd ever wanted from anyone else, how he'd been so terrified of scaring the older boy away that he'd hesitated... and George Berger didn't hesitate. And then, like now, it had been Claude who finally had the courage to cross that final bridge. But that wasn't to say that Berger was above taking advantage now that it had happened.

The frenzied kisses slowed, gentled, became deeper. To Berger's surprise it was Claude who parted his lips first, teased his tongue into the corner of Berger's mouth. He huffed out a small laugh at the ticklish sensation, a laugh that quickly turned into a soft moan when Claude took advantage of his now-open mouth.

They stayed that way, pressed against the wall, exchanging deep, leisurely kisses, for several minutes. It wasn't until Cheryl abruptly woke from her nap and let out a cranky little cry that they broke apart. Berger rested his head against Claude's shoulder, willing his heart to settle down, laughing when he felt the rapid-patter beat of Claude's heart mirroring his own. When he finally managed to force his gaze upwards to meet the other man's, Claude's eyes were smiling, at peace in a way that they hadn't been since Berger had found him six months ago. Berger just smiled back, for once unable to think of anything to say in response.

Unsurprisingly, it was Sheila who found something to say. Her soft voice whispered from behind him, full of tears and wavering, as she borrowed a line that had often been Claude's, "G-d... you guys are beautiful together."

At those words, Claude's head turned, his body tensed. Berger watched, helpless to do anything about it as Claude frowned, mouth working, eyes frustrated. And again it was Cheryl who broke the tableau. From her new vantage point in Sheila's arms, she spotted Claude and reached out her hands to him, face smiling and eyes twinkling. Claude couldn't help it - he smiled right back and reached out his own arms to the little girl. As always, the sight made Berger's lips stretch into a goofy grin of their own. He loved how his little girl loved Claude... loved how she gravitated towards him whenever she was around him... loved how he seemed to adore her right back.

Bemused, Sheila handed the child over. Cheryl immediately squealed in delight and reached up to tangle her hands in Claude's hair. Berger secretly suspected that Claude had refused to let the doctor have it cut because he had seen how much Cheryl enjoyed yanking on Berger's hair and wanted her to be able to yank on his, as well. He wouldn't put it past him. Claude indulged Cheryl's every whim as best he was able, just like he always had her father's. Claude smiled down at her, pressing gentle kisses to her face and tummy, making her laugh. It was at one particularly loud giggle that Claude abruptly frowned, stared into the girl's eyes, then jerked his gaze back upwards to look at Berger, then at Sheila. His mouth worked again, then his eyes widened. A look of complete awe on his face, he took a step forward, hand outstretched towards the other blonde as he spoke his second word of the year, "Sheila?"

And poor Sheila... she clapped both hands over her mouth in an effort to contain... something. The sob that slipped out a moment later made mockery of the attempt. The giggle that slipped out after it was just insult added to injury. Another moment later and she was laughing and crying at the same time, completely unable to make a coherent response. Claude's eyes grew worried, confused, at that outburst of emotion, but he stood fast, arm outstretched and waiting, confident, for once, that he'd made no mistake. When Sheila eventually calmed enough, she took that hand in both of hers and pressed a kiss to the knuckles, "G-d, I've missed you, Claude! I can't even tell you how much. We all have."

Claude turned, looked away from Sheila to find Berger. The other man just smiled encouragingly, stepping up close to the other two to wrap an arm around each. And it felt so very right... He'd loved having Claude all to himself, he wouldn't lie to himself and deny that selfish need, but even he could admit that there was something about the three of them... they had always balanced each other so well. He'd missed this, missed the perfect symmetry of the three of them together. And Cheryl, caught in the middle of their three-way embrace, just kept turning circles to look at each of them, cooing and giggling in joy. Even an innocent child could feel the love tying the three of them together. Buoyed by that love and more at peace than he'd been in three years, Berger snuggled into the embrace and, for the first time in a long time, let someone else support him. And it was wonderful... it was perfect... and Berger didn't want it ever to end. And Berger always got what he wanted.

A/N: And now for some chibi silliness! :D

Claude: *frowns* Hmm...

R-chan: *twitch* Oh, you can't tell me that the end wasn't better!

Berger: *beams* Personally, I loved it.

Claude: *frowns*

R-chan: *sighs* Well, now what's the problem?

Berger: *eyes Claude for a minute, then laughs and pokes him in the shoulder* *singsongs* I think I know!

Claude: *blushes, ducks his head*

R-chan: *eyes Claude and an evilly smirking Berger* *massive blush* No. Trust me, I'm no good at smut, you don't even want me to go there, OK?

Claude: *sigh* Well, you can't blame a guy for trying, can you? And really, after this one, you bloody well owe me!

R-chan: *blushes more* *squeaks* I'll think about it! *runs away*

Berger: *just laughs*

Questions, comments, honeydew?