OK, I think I'm done fighting with this one. :-P It took me awhile, but I'm finally satisfied with how it reads. ^_^ I went out on a limb and wrote a Hair story that doesn't have Claude or Berger in it. O_O Well, peripherally it does, but neither makes an in-fic appearance.

I know. I'm shocked, too.

Anyway, this story started out as a little ramble into a character's thoughts, then quickly headed towards karma/fate-land. A little strange, a little fun, a little angsty, a little heart-warming. Just a little bit of everything. ^_^

Title: Frank Mills
Fandom: Hair, the musical: 2009 Revival
Pairing: Crissy + Frank, mentions of Crissy/Tom (the ex from IBIL and LtSSI), other/I'm not telling ^_~
Rating: PG-13 for some kissing.
Word Count: 7,637
Warnings: Slash (as always ^_^), angst

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: Crissy is cheerful and generally happy. She usually sees the glass as half full and encourages others to do the same, but even an eternal optimist has days when she can't see the sun. Those are the days they need their friends the most.

October 19, 2010: Finally, right? I've been struggling with this one for almost a week trying to iron out the kinks. Crissy just did not want to cooperate. *sigh* Sign of personal stress, I suppose - mine, not hers. ^_^ Anyway, this story takes place in the WDIG? ficverse roughly a month after the end of "Hair: Redux."

Enjoy and please remember... comments and reviews are love!

Frank Mills
by Renee-chan

She walked the city streets quietly, alone, wandering where her feet would take her without much conscious thought to the action. There was a chill accompanying her which had very little to do with the brisk autumn air. It was a chill in her very soul and she wished futilely that someone would come along and warm her. She had thought she'd found someone who could so many times in the past... so very many times. Each and every time she'd been proved wrong. She often found herself eyeing the happy couples around her and feeling just a touch of envy for what they had that she did not. And lately... well, lately it had been worse than usual. It had been barely six months since the disastrous ending of her latest in a string of utterly failed relationships. What did her friends have that she didn't? Why did they all seem to pair off so happily when she couldn't? But thoughts like that were extremely self-defeating. She knew that. And every time she caught herself feeling that way, it would be immediately followed up by a hefty loud of guilt for even thinking those kinds of thoughts about the people she loved... people who had suffered far more than she and who maybe deserved that happiness just a little more as compensation.

First, there was Claude. G-d, there was Claude. If anyone in their little group deserved happiness it was him. He'd been through so much, through hell and back and then taken another round trip. He still suffered the aftereffects of his time in Viet Nam and as a consequence was possibly the one person in their Tribe that she didn't envy. She wasn't strong enough to go through what he'd gone through. She wouldn't have lived through it or kept her sanity if by some miracle she had. She was glad that he was made of stronger stuff than that because having him back in their lives was a gift beyond measure. He'd brought back so much of their innocent youth with him and she could only be grateful because how much more bereft would her life have been if she didn't have what he'd so eagerly given back to them all - each other... and hope? So, she was happy that he was back and she was happy that he had someone... and that that someone was Berger.

Berger... Ah, Berger. The Tribe's erstwhile leader, the man they'd all followed without question, the man she'd spent half her life fretting over. He was maybe the second person on Earth that she didn't envy. He'd been so broken, so lost, with Claude gone that it had broken her heart. They'd all tried to step in, to take some of that burden from him, to help fill the hole that Claude's absence had left behind... and they'd all failed. He'd slipped further and further from them with each passing day and nothing they did could stay that fall. She'd spent too many nights desperately searching the city for him, hoping that when morning came she would find him... and find him alive. So, no, she couldn't begrudge him what happiness he'd finally found, either. He'd suffered just as much as Claude, maybe even more so, and just like their wandering Aquarius, he deserved what joy he'd finally wrested from life.

And what of the third member of that trio? She'd always envied Sheila, if only just a little. It was hard not to. Sheila was brilliant, she was ambitious, she had "promise" stamped all over her. It was like she'd been anointed by G-d, herself, and the mark of that shone bright upon her through all the dismal terror of that time. They'd looked to her like a saint, like a goddess, like a savior. And so it was a bitter shock when in the end, the only person she'd been able to save was herself. That was a disappointment that, in a way, the Tribe still hadn't recovered from. At a time when they'd needed her most, she'd left them alone, bereft, with only each other for comfort. And in return for that betrayal of trust, she'd gained a husband who loved her, a job she was passionate about and three beautiful children. As much as she still loved her, it was easy to hate her, too, for what she had, for who she was, for everything she'd achieved that they couldn't even have dreamed of. They'd always known she was going places... it was just that they had always thought they'd be able to go along when she did.

She wasn't the only one to leave them, either. And this had perhaps been the biggest shock of all. Woof had always been so quiet, so unassuming, the only Tribe member she'd truly felt equal to in her own banality, though she would never have admitted that out loud. Somehow, she'd thought he would be with her forever, always treading on her coat-tails, always willing to come when she called. It was unfair, and she'd known it even then, but it had felt good to have someone pursue her for a change and in her innocent navet, she'd assumed he always would. So, when he'd up and left, chasing off after someone else - and not even a Tribe member, at that! - because he'd fathered a child on her... well, it had come as a nasty surprise. Yet, in spite of all he went through to get there, even he had carved out a niche of happiness for himself. He had two beautiful daughters. He had a thriving business. He had a home. He had everything he'd ever wanted and seemed more than content with his lot in life, even occasionally surprised by the blessings he'd accumulated. And she envied him, not for what he had, but for how he felt about it. No matter how much or how little Woof had in life, he had always happy, even if all he'd had was a small plot of grass in Central Park that he could call his own for the night, even if all he'd had were the crumbs of affection that were tossed his way. So, though she felt like an absolute heel for it, she envied him, too.

But if you asked her who it was she envied the most, as ashamed as she was to say it, Hud and Dionne had to top the list. They'd always been star-touched, special, strong and self-confident in a way she never quite could be. Hud was the umbrella, the shield, the towering oak tree that hid you from the might of the storm. She'd taken shelter under his wing often when she'd been younger. He'd made her feel safe, cherished... loved. It was part of his nature to protect those smaller than he, weaker than he, less capable than he. And what had allowed her to tolerate that knowledge that she was smaller, weaker, less capable, was the fact that he viewed everyone that way, even brilliant Sheila, wild Berger and beautiful, otherworldly Claude. Yes, Hud viewed everyone that way... until Dionne.

Dionne was in no way smaller, in no way weaker and in absolutely no way lesser. She didn't allow herself to be. She was fierce, she was powerful and she was audacious in a way that challenged him like no one else. Everyone else had danced a dance of submission to Hud, even Berger to some extent, but not Dionne. She'd danced a dance of equality, of yin and yang. She'd made him dance to her tune, made him meet her on her ground... made him give her that respect that he tried so hard to withhold. Almost twenty years later, she would still occasionally catch him watching his wife as though he hadn't the foggiest idea how she'd reigned him in and tamed him... and how he'd been lucky enough that she'd thought him worth the effort. They were beautiful together and successful and so quietly, yet so very deeply, in love. She often found herself wishing she'd been a part of that, though she knew that she could never have been. She would have been a weak link, a chink in the armor, a stumble in the intricate steps of their dance and she could no more be the cause of that than she could throw tar on a Van Gogh. So she kept her distance, admired from afar... and secretly envied.

And that brought her to Jeanie - sweet, flighty, rootless, carefree and bohemian Jeanie. Jeanie, who'd been disowned by her parents at the tender age of sixteen. Jeanie, who'd gotten knocked up by a man she didn't love, didn't even like, because she'd been too high at the time to say "No." Jeanie, who'd spent half of her life loving a man who could never love her back. Jeanie, who's gentle, loving soul had not only survived those experiences, but had grown, strengthened and thrived on them, like a pinecone burst into wild germination by the heat of a forest fire. She had often gone unnoticed in Sheila's shadow - the "other" blonde, the lesser blonde, the substitute who never said, "No" - but in her opinion, it was Jeanie who really deserved the praise they'd heaped so gratuitously on Sheila. And now, finally matured into herself, finally comfortable in her own skin, she'd achieved success between all their wildest dreams for her... or hers for herself. She'd written an incredibly popular Broadway musical. She had a wonderful, caring son who was well on his way to a successful career of his own. She seemed truly content with her lot in life, even if that lot didn't include Claude.

And then there was one, only one, left: Crissy. Sweet, innocent, nave little Crissy. What was there to envy about her? She drifted from man to man, never appreciated, never taken seriously, never really loved. It had started with Frank, dear old Frank Mills, in front of the Waverly that fateful afternoon. She hadn't known a thing about him other than the fact that he'd been a biker and he'd looked like George Harrison. That had been enough, though. She'd fallen hard for him that day and never quite recovered from the fact that he clearly hadn't felt the same. He'd charmed her, taken her two dollars, flashed that brilliant smile at her and was gone from her life as quickly as he'd entered it and she'd spent the next twenty years fruitlessly searching for someone who could match up to this ideal of a man that wasn't even real. She'd let man after man use her, for her money, for her looks, for their convenience and hadn't once felt worthy enough to demand more. She should have. She should have felt worthy. She was the head nurse of one of the largest ICUs in the city. She taught classes at NYU. She'd had student after student return to her to tell her what a difference she'd made in their lives. She only wished that those words could make as big a difference in hers.

Only now was she starting to wake up, to wise up, to the situation. Now, at 35 years of age, she was finally starting to understand what she'd done wrong all those years ago... and it was starting to feel like it was too late for her to fix it. Tom was the one who'd finally shown her, in explicit detail, how she'd set herself up to fail. She'd thought she was being honest with him, thought she was sharing every detail of her life with him, thought she was giving him the best parts of who she was. They'd been happy. He'd brought her to meet his parents, they'd playfully argued about what to name their children. Then, one year ago, it had all come crashing down. They'd been over at Jeanie's, drinking too much and reminiscing too loudly. And with each new story, each new truth she'd revealed about her past, she'd watched him start to withdraw, to come to the realization that Crissy was not the woman he'd thought she was. In spite of how honest she thought she'd always been with him, clearly she'd been anything but. And that was horribly unfair to him. She'd let him fall in love with a lie, with half a person... with all that remained when you removed the part of her that was still sitting in front of the Waverly waiting for Frank.

She hadn't had the heart to try again after they'd fallen apart, hadn't even felt she had the right to defend herself when he'd thrown his accusations at her. After all, she'd deserved it, hadn't she? And so now, here she was, wandering the streets of New York, desperately wishing her pager would go off and spare her from any more of these uncomfortable and self-defeating thoughts. There was something about the ending of summer, when the warm days grew shorter and that autumn chill began seeping into the air. It felt like the ending of the summer of love all over again... the death of hippie. Usually she tried to keep herself busy this time of year, but this year all of her usual avenues had been closed to her and she'd found herself alone and wandering with nothing to do but dwell on these all too depressing thoughts. Sighing, she glanced down at her watch. 2:34. Unbidden, a laugh bubbled up. That had always been one of her favorite times, along with 3:45, 4:56, 1:23, 12:34... and so on. She'd met Frank at 1:23. She remembered.

Shaking off her melancholy with an effort, Crissy finally looked up at her surroundings... and let out a loud groan. She couldn't really have just... Damn it. Eying the corner street sign in front her, she rolled her eyes - Sixth Ave... and Waverly Place. Right. In front. Of. The Waverly. Damn it. Leaning back against the street sign, she bent over and laughed until she wheezed, tears of hysteria streaming down her face, Good one, Crissy... Good one.

Several minutes later, she jumped as she felt a gentle hand land on her shoulder. She hadn't even heard anyone approach. Straightening up, she took a step back. The man in front of her lifted an eyebrow and offered her a lopsided grin, "You OK, sweetheart?"

Arching her own eyebrow in response, she tarted back, "I'm just fine, thanks... but I'm not your sweetheart."

Laughing a little and nodding in agreement, he said, "No, no I suppose you're not. Would you share the joke, anyway? Looked like a pretty good one from where I was sitting." With that, he indicated the steps of the Waverly, not more than twenty feet away.

Sighing softly, Crissy shook her head, "I hate to disappoint you, but it actually isn't very funny. It's just kind of pathetic, actually." At the honest curiosity in his face, she shrugged, "I... This place, the Waverly, it used to be very important to me when I was just a girl. I used to come by and sit on those steps every day, waiting for... something. Something that never came. I stopped coming years ago, sometime when I was in nursing school, and I haven't been back since. Today I just started to walk, letting my feet lead the way while my mind took a little vacation... and here I am, as though I never left." Voice quieting to a whisper, she added, "I suppose, in a very real way, I never did."

Throughout her little speech, the man listened, attentive, nodding every so often. Now he offered her another gentle pat on the shoulder and a small smile, "I hear you. This place is special to me, too." At her skeptical look, he laughed, "Honest! My wife tolerates it, my kids roll their eyes whenever it comes up, but every year on this date I come to the city and spend the day here on the steps of the Waverly." Before Crissy could open her mouth to even ask the question, he shrugged and answered, "Waiting for something, just like you used to, I suppose." Suddenly, his smile broadened and he crooked an arm for her, "Come on, join me in a sit and I'll tell you the story. It's a good day for company, especially company as pretty as yourself."

Intrigued in spite of herself, Crissy let herself be led over to the stairs and settled herself as comfortably as she could on the cold stone. The man settled in next to her, shoulder lightly brushing against hers. It should have felt intrusive, but somehow... somehow it didn't. Once they were seated, the man started to talk and with his very first words, Crissy's heart gave a hard thump and started to beat a crazy little tattoo inside her chest, "It was 1967. The summer of love. Hippies everywhere." Nudging her gently, he smirked, "I'm sure you remember." At her distracted nod, he continued, "My friends and I used to come into the city, try to score with the loose hippie chicks while scamming the good pot off their men." At her arch look, he held up his hands, "I'm not saying it was right, I'm just saying it's what we did, OK? We were young, we were stupid - according to my wife, it comes from being male."

Crissy laughed, "Sounds like I'd like your wife."

Eyes twinkling in response, he said, "You know, you just might at that. She's sassy, keeps me line, and that takes a lot of effort even these days, just so you know."

"I'm sure it does," Crissy answered back, "You look like a troublemaker."

Nodding in agreement, the man leaned back, bracing his weight on his hands, "Anyway, we were in the city one day in early September and saw this pair of hippie chicks hanging out here in front of the Waverly. One of them had dark curly hair, brown eyes, seemed to be scoffing at the whole of the city around her. The other, her hair was lighter, this soft auburn brown and it seemed to glow an almost red when the sun caught it just right. And she had the brightest, most innocent pair of blue eyes you ever saw. Vin saw me looking, said I should go over and talk to them, see if I couldn't get lucky, said it had been too long for me. I didn't take much to convince me back then, so... I did." Sighing softly, he shook his head, "I went right over to them like I belonged there, started chatting them up. And I could tell I had it made within the first thirty seconds. My blue-eyed doll, she was hung up on me from the second I walked over, probably would have spread her legs for me right in that dirty alley over there." As Crissy started to frown, he shook his head, "Don't get mad on her account just yet, darling. I couldn't go through with it. Seeing those bright, trusting eyes willing to offer themselves up on a silver platter to me, I just couldn't do it. For the first time in my life, I felt a shred of remorse, of guilt... of conscience. I couldn't take that little hippie flower and trample her into the ground. I just couldn't. So, instead, I bummed a couple bucks off her and her friend and walked away, slipped her a fake address so she couldn't actually track me down and tempt me to do something I oughtn't."

Crissy was silent, mind whirling as he told his story. He said, "I know it sounds corny, like 'Highway to Heaven' kind of corny, but that little girl changed me. After that day, I started to realize that my actions had consequences, that just because I didn't care didn't mean I couldn't hurt someone else. Because of that, I met the girl I eventually married, the girl who gave me my son and daughter." He laughed, "Thank G-d she's a tolerant woman. Didn't even bat an eyelash when I told her that if we had a little girl, I'd want to name her after that doll I met in the city... wasn't even shocked that I remembered her name." At Crissy's now blank look, he smiled, "My little girl's name is Christina... and we call her Chrissie."

That was the last straw. Crissy launched herself off the stoop and walked a few paces away, arms wrapped around herself. What were the odds? After all these years, what the hell were the odds? Finally, she managed to choke out, "Has... has anyone ever told you that you kind of look like George Harrison?"

She couldn't turn to look, but she heard his jacket rustle as he stood up and approached, gently wrapped his arms around her. She turned to face him, buried her face in his chest and struggled not to let any of the tears loose. He just cradled her close, rubbed his hands gently up and down her back, "Yeah, I think it's been mentioned to me once or twice in my life." Clearing his throat, he said, "There's a little more to the story, if you want to hear it...?" When he felt her nod against his chest, he continued, "So, after my little girl was born, I got to thinking that I'd like to thank my little hippie for what she'd done for me. I didn't know if she'd understand... but somehow I thought she might, thought she'd be happy for me. So, September 12th that year, the anniversary of the day we met, I got on the subway and came into the city, parked myself in front of the Waverly and, like a dumbass, somehow expected that she'd just magically appear. Obviously, she didn't. So, I came back the next day and the next - got a little obsessed with finding her and trying to make things right, I guess. Finally about a week later, my wife put her foot down and said that it was enough, that she admired what I was trying to do, but I couldn't keep on doing it. We compromised, said that if I wanted to spend every September 12th from then until kingdom come waiting on the steps of the Waverly that she was OK with it, but that every other day I would go to work like the responsible adult that she knew I was. Since that was more of a concession that I'd even dared hope to get out of her, I agreed. And I've been coming here, waiting patiently, every September 12th since."

When Crissy looked up, he gave her a gentle smile, "Truth be told, I'd finally about convinced myself you were never gonna show."

Crissy let out a watery little laugh and raised an arm to wipe her eyes on her sleeve, "I wasn't sure you recognized me. I've changed a little since then."

Raising an eyebrow, he also laughed, "You saying you recognized me right from the start?"

Snorting softly, she shook her head, "No. No... you've changed, too. A lot." She gave him a brilliant smile, "For the better, though, I think. You really have." And... it didn't hurt. Not like she'd half-expected it should. That painful knot of tension that had been wrapped around her heart since 1967 finally started to loosen a little. For the first time in longer than she'd realized, Crissy felt like she could draw in a full breath and she did, with great relish. Releasing that breath on a joyful laugh, she threw her arms around the man and tightly squeezed, "It's good to see you, Frank. After all this time, it really is good."

He tightened his arms around her and buried his face in her hair. Crissy could feel the curve of his smile as it pressed into her neck, "Likewise, little hippie flower. Likewise." When he pulled back out of the hug, his mouth pulled down into a little frown of dismay, "Did you really come here every day to look for me?"

Blushing hotly, Crissy nodded, "Yeah... I kind of did. I know. It's... it's pathetic."

Now it was his turn to snort, shake his head in denial, "I was going to say awesome. You have any idea how many guys pray to G-d for a girl with that kind of a sense of loyalty? Whoever finally won you is one lucky son of a bitch. Makes me almost sorry I'm taken."

And there it was again, that knot of tension, tying itself a little tighter, "There's... um... there's... nobody." At his astounded look, she cleared her throat, spoke a little louder, "There's nobody. I don't... I had a boyfriend, but he... we parted ways. About a year ago."

At those words, Frank frowned, "And he just let you go? Just like that?"

With another bitter laugh, Crissy shrugged, "Yeah. Just like that." At Frank's intense look, she sighed, shrugged again, "I guess I was... a little looser in my youth than he was comfortable with. He didn't... he didn't understand, wasn't part of it back then. We weren't right for each other, never would have been. It just took me too long to see it. If he hadn't broken it off, I should have. So," Another shrug, "All for the best, right?"

Frank gave her another frown, "Well... that's not fair."

"No, no it isn't fair. You know something, though, Frank? Not everything in life is. Not everyone gets the perfect, fairy tale ending they deserve. And some people don't even deserve it if they do get it," was her bitter answer. "I'm fine on my own. It isn't like I need the monetary support. I have my career, I have my students, I have good friends who adore me. It's enough."

Frank's frown intensified, "Well... I want you to know that you at least have one more friend. Even if we only met the once, even if you don't remember me with any fondness at all - and I can sure see why you wouldn't - you've still got a friend in me. And that's a friendship I'd like to pursue... if you don't mind seeing me from time to time."

Crissy's mouth dropped open in shock. When she finally gathered her wits, she couldn't help but smile, "You've got to be kidding me. Are you serious?"

Taking her hands in his, Frank nodded earnestly, "Absolutely, 100%. I meant what I said, earlier. You changed me, Crissy and like you said, it was a change for the better. Without you, I wouldn't have my wife, I wouldn't have my children, I wouldn't have the happy life that I do, now. I owe you so much... and I'd like to get to know the girl that saved me, even if she didn't know that's what she was doing at the time." Seeing her still struggling with the idea, Frank pulled out a piece of paper. On it he wrote down an address and a phone number and handed it over, "This time, I swear to you, they're real. And even if you don't want to give me yours, even if you don't call, even if you lose it, I'll make you this promise. I will be here every September 12th, on the steps of the Waverly, in case you change your mind. OK?"

Smiling broadly and choking up a little, Crissy nodded, then threw her arms around him again. It felt like something deep and raw inside her was finally, at long last, getting a chance to heal. After a little longer, she bid him farewell and sat down on the steps of the Waverly, folded paper pressed to her lips and a giggle fluttering in her throat.

A moment later, two shadows fell across her where she sat, easily blocking the fading, late afternoon sun. The owner of one shadow turned to the owner of the other and said philosophically, "You know... I really thought you were kidding when you said we should come down here. I desperately hoped you were kidding. Why do you always have to be right?"

The owner of the other shadow shrugged sheepishly and murmured, "Just gifted, I guess."

Laughing softly, Crissy reached up and pulled her two friends down to sit beside her on the stoop, "Oh, hush up, you two. It's not what it looks like."

Jeanie raised an eyebrow as she folded her hands over her chest, "Oh, so you weren't here hoping to find Frank?"

Crissy leaned her head against the taller woman's shoulder and gave her a brilliantly happy grin, "Nope. I actually wasn't... but I found him anyway!"

At those words, Jeanie's jaw dropped open, "You... what?" Putting a hand to her head, Jeanie winced, "If it weren't for the fact that I'm pretty darned sure you don't do that sort of thing any more, I'd ask what you were smoking and if I could have some."

Woof smiled and shook his head at Jeanie, then lifted one long arm and wrapped it around Crissy's shoulders, giving her a light squeeze. Leaning over, he then pressed a soft kiss to her hair and quietly prompted, "So, what happened?"

Of course Woof wasn't surprised. Leaning back into that arm, Crissy turned to give him his own grin, "Well, it's actually kind of a long story." At the patient looks on her friends faces, she huffed out a small laugh and shook her head, "All right, all right. I'll tell you."

When she'd finished with her explanation, Jeanie just laughed, "Only you, Crissy. Only you." She wrapped her arms around the smaller woman and pulled her into a tight hug, "So, does this mean you're finally ready to stop pining after him?"

Hugging her friend back just as tightly, Crissy nodded against her shoulder, "Yeah, Jeanie. I think I really am. And I'm glad. I didn't realize how much I was holding myself back, how much I was denying myself still, all because of him." Leaning back to look her friend in the eyes, Crissy's smile widened, "I see it now and I'm ready to put a stop to it. No more self-pity. No more thinking that I'm not worthy." Voice dropping into a whisper, she added, "I should have listened all those years ago when Hud tried to tell me what Claude had said. I guess I'm a little stubborn sometimes."

Jeanie rolled her eyes, "A little stubborn?"

Woof laughed from behind her, "Sometimes?"

Playfully shoving at them both, she amended, "All right, all right! I'm a lot stubborn, all the time, OK? Is that better?"

Woof wrapped his arms around her from behind, cradled her close, "No, it's not better, but it is more accurate... and we love you, anyway."

There was something about how he said that last that made Crissy turn to look at him. It reminded her forcefully of that wistful note he'd always held in his voice when he talked to her in their youth - like he wanted to ask something, but he didn't even dare raise the question because he just knew he wouldn't like the answer. So, she turned and she met those wide, trusting hazel eyes with a question in her own, "Woof...?"

Sheepishly, he ducked his gaze away from her and shrugged. She turned back to Jeanie with that same question in her eyes. The other woman had known Woof far longer than she, had watched him pine after Berger, after Dionne, after numerous others, looking for someone to call his own and, like her, never feeling worthy enough to ask for what he wanted. But surely... surely he couldn't have wanted her?

Running a gentle hand through Crissy's hair to push it back from her eyes, Jeanie offered the smaller girl a soft smile and a shrug. And there was something in Jeanie's eyes, too, something Crissy had always associated with her friend's proximity to Claude. It was a shock for her to see it there now, because why... why would...? Clearing her throat, she husked out, "Jeanie...?" No. Not both of her best friends. How on Earth could she have missed that all these years? And how could that possibly work out well? How could she choose without hurting one of them? They'd been having so much fun this last year, had become so comfortable with each other. She wasn't ready for that to end... ever.

Jeanie offered her another shrug, "You weren't ready to see it before, Crissy."

Crissy's mouth dropped open, "But... what about Claude?"

Jeanie's smile gained a touch of wistfulness, "Claude and I... it was a dream, Crissy. It was a glorious dream, but a dream nonetheless. He was always going to be Berger's, from the very start. Hell, if Sheila couldn't keep him, I never stood a chance. Even when he first came back, even when he didn't remember anyone, even when I was the only link he had to his past... it was still Berger. It was never me." Laughing softly, she added, "And I knew it even when we were young. It was why I never teased you all that hard about hanging around waiting for Frank. In my own way, I was just as pathetic as you were." At Crissy's frown, she shrugged, "It took me a long time to begin to let go, to realize that Claude and I would never be... and more that that, that I no longer wanted us to be. I wanted that for you, too, but I couldn't think of a way to help you let go. I talked to Woof about it and you know how he is." Looking over Crissy's shoulder to scowl at Woof, she said, "He just gave me that enigmatic smile of his and told me that it would all work out."

Woof held up a finger, "Well, it did."

Jeanie waved it off, "That's besides the point."

Crissy turned to look at Woof, "And you? All these years... I thought it was Berger for you."

Woof ducked his head again, shy like he hadn't been in quite some time, "In a way, it always will be. There's a bond between us that won't break easily, but... it's different. I knew back when we first met that it would never be me, that I couldn't be what he needed... that there would be someone else who could. It took time, and I couldn't let him go completely... but it's different now." Raising his head, he offered her a soft smile, "It's different when you have two little girls that look up to you to set an example. It's different when you have to show them what self-confidence looks like, what genuine strength is. And I found that when I was trying to show them, I gained a little bit of it for myself, too. I thought that when I came back, maybe I'd finally have the strength to say what I should have all those years ago... but even then I couldn't. Now, now I think maybe I can."

Putting a soft hand on Woof's cheek, Crissy made the older man meet her eyes, "And what was that?"

Woof gave her a self-deprecating smile and shrugged, "It wasn't just Berger. I think you knew that back then. I think you tried not to see it, but I think you did know. It was Berger and it was Dionne and it was Claude and Sheila and Jackie and Hud and Nicole... and most of all, it was you... and it was Jeanie. Always. There's always been something about the three of us. We fit in a way that I can't describe. You... you bring out the best in people, Crissy. You always have. Truthfully, I envy you for that. I envy you for your ability to see a person's potential and force them to live up to it. I know, because you did it to me. And I love the person I've become because of you." Turning his gaze to look behind her, Woof gave the other member of their group a soft smile, "And Jeanie... Jeanie's always been special to me. She understands me in a way that no one else ever did. I don't have to try so hard around her and I love her for that, too. Around the two of you I can just be who I am... and I need that. Don't you see, Crissy? We're best together. We always have been. We need each other."

She couldn't meet that gaze any longer. What he was offering... to be able to have them both, to keep them both... for it to be the three of them, like it always had been... It was such a gift, such an unbelievably large gift, that Crissy almost didn't dare even hope for it. Turning to look at Jeanie she said, "And you? What about you, Jeanie?"

Jeanie just smiled, "There's so much we don't understand when we're young, you know? I always cared about you, was always drawn to you. It's why I brought you into the Tribe to begin with, but even then... well. I wasn't ready to see it then, either. And Woof... there was always a connection between us. We were the two with the least connection to the world of the physical, the ones that karma had a heavier hand with than most." Reaching a hand around to take one of Woof's, she smiled, "The strange ones have a way of finding each other, right, man?"

Woof smiled, nodded silently. Jeanie squeezed his hand then turned back to Crissy, "But you see... we're older and wiser now. We know what we deserve and more importantly, we know what we want. Back when we were kids, we all spent too much time pining after people we could never have, completely missed the treasures under our very noses. Now? I see the roses, Crissy. I see the stars at night. I see the little treasures that are all around me, the loved ones I've long missed. And I'm tired of being alone."

Crissy swallowed hard, "You... are you asking what I think you're asking?"

Woof reached out his free hand to take one of hers, "Jeanie and I, we've talked about it, thought about it. We think we could be happy with each other, we always were... but we need someone to ground us, someone to keep us from floating away. You see... there's a piece missing." Leaning forward, he brushed a gentle kiss against her cheek, "Crissy... that piece is you."

There was something about this conversation, about this whole day, that was so surreal that Crissy felt like at any moment, someone was going to shake her awake, snap her back into reality. She heard the words her friends were saying, but they didn't make any sense. A soft hand slid into the hair at the side of her neck, gently turned her head back the other way. When she turned to meet Jeanie's softly gleaming eyes, her friend's lips turned up into a smile. Liking whatever it was that she saw, Jeanie then leaned forward and gently pressed their lips together. It was soft, gentle, loving... and never demanding. It was everything she'd always wanted from a kiss but never really gotten. It gave more than it asked... just like the one who'd initiated it.

Just as Crissy was really starting to enjoy that slow, butterfly kiss, Jeanie drew back, drew away. Crissy let out a soft whimper, not really ready to let it go, when the touch of another pair of lips on the back of her neck distracted her. Turning, she caught but a brief glimpse of Woof's mischievously twinkling hazel eyes before he leaned closer to press his own lips against hers. This kiss was just as soft, just as giving... but it had a harder edge to it. It didn't demand, but it asked for more... it teased, it taunted with how much more there could be... if she had the courage to ask for it. And in a flash of insight, she suddenly knew who had taught Berger how to kiss. When they leaned away from each other, mutually taking a mental step back, he caught her eyes and offered her a smug little grin and a one-shouldered shrug.

None of them said anything for the next few minutes. They just sat there, breathing the same air, sharing a slowing heartbeat as they came slowly into tune with each other. And Crissy finally began to realize... they'd been working towards this for a long time, since those early days of summer, back when they'd all first met. Jeanie and Woof, they'd been dancing around each other for a long time, and once she was in the mix, they'd been dancing around her, too. Neither was ever close enough for her to see the pattern to the dance, but she could occasionally catch a glimpse of the steps. Well... she could see it, now, the pattern, the endless wheel that spun them around her, never so far away that she couldn't reach out to touch. She could see how long they'd been waiting, wanting her to take notice, but never feeling worthy enough to push the issue. Well, they were pushing, now. They felt worthy, now. And to Crissy's surprise... so did she.

She rose up from between them, took the three steps down to stand on the sidewalk in front of them. She didn't speak. She didn't need any words. After all these years, her two best friends knew her answer. Holding out a hand to each of them, she pulled them off the stairs and into a tight embrace. And suddenly there was no autumn bite to the wind. It was as though they'd breathed one last breath into summer and the air was warmer around them. They stood there like that for another few minutes, taking in the warmth and enjoying the soft glow of acceptance that they'd always shared with each other, yet with this new dimension added to it.

It was Woof who finally said it, "You know... the girls are both at sleepovers tonight, so I actually have the apartment to myself."

At that, Jeanie let out a rolling, infectious laugh, "You sound like you're telling us your parents are out of town!"

Woof grumped quietly, "Well, it is my apartment. I ought to be able to have it to myself every now and again. It's not the same thing."

Crissy poked him in the shoulder, "Tell me you didn't plan this."

Woof's eyes widened in... well, Crissy was pretty sure it was mock-innocence. He even batted his eyelashes for effect. Eyes twinkling, he asked, "Who, me?"

Jeanie and Crissy answered back in perfect unison, "Yes, you!"

Despite being obviously tempted to deny any such thing, Woof smirked and shrugged, "OK, yeah. I kind of did."

The two girls turned and met each other's eyes, a happy twinkling shared between both. Finally, Crissy started to laugh. Between giggles, she said, "You know... I should feel bullied and manipulated here... but I just don't."

Jeanie pulled her in tight for a hug, "We've been fighting this for so long, I think it just feels strange to have it just snap into place like that."

Woof wrapped his arms around them both, "After all these years waiting for you two... I don't think I care. I'm glad it's this easy." Ducking his head a little, he added, "I'm just glad it worked out."

Crissy wormed her way around in Woof's embrace to plant a small kiss on his nose, before shaking a finger in his face, "Not the least among us, Woof. Remember that. You deserve happiness, too."

The beaming smile he gave her in response almost took her breath away. He had such a wild beauty to him... how was it that they'd all missed that? She snorted softly at the thought. How had they missed it? They same way that they'd missed Jeanie's spiritual beauty and Crissy's inner strength. They'd been eclipsed by those they thought were greater, more worthy than them. Not anymore. They were each worthy in their own way and it was more than time that that was recognized. Taking her friends' hands in hers, she gave them each a slow grin and gently tugged, "Come on, guys. Let's go home."

With a wild whoop and a cheer, Woof momentarily tightened his grip on both their hands and took off running for the subway. His laughing voice floated back to them on the warm, evening breeze, "Last one there's a rotten egg!"

Jeanie and Crissy looked at each other, shook their heads in mock-consternation and started slowly ambling after him. It didn't take more than half a block before they were shooting glances at each other out of the corners of their eyes and alternately quickening their pace. In another block, Jeanie finally beamed a wicked grin at her and broke into a run. Crissy immediately did likewise, yelling out, "No fair! You both have longer legs than I do!"

Two gleeful voices shouted back in perfect unison, "Sucks to be you!"

Letting out an indignant shriek, Crissy did the only thing she could in response - she ran faster. And in spite of her worries, somehow they all reached the subway together. And all Crissy could think as she stood there with her friends was that she hoped they finished this the way they'd begun... panting, laughing and leaning on each other for support.


And now for some chibi silliness!

Claude: OK, speaking for myself-

Berger: And me!

Claude: -and Berger... I liked it. ^_^

Crissy: *snerts* Yeah, 'cuz she left you alone for once.

Woof: *shy smile* I liked it, too.

R-chan: *beams* Did I not tell you I'd take care of you?

Woof: ^_^ *tail wag*

R-chan: *patpats a Woof*

Jeanie: Not to throw you under the bus, Crissy, but I liked it, too.

Frank: *raises hand* Me, too!

Crissy: *twitch* Oh, for heaven's sa- Yeah, yeah. I liked it, too, OK?

R-chan: *beams*

Questions, comments, roasted root vegetables?

Nuriko: *twitch*

Claude: *snickers* Lemme guess... "Not even gonna?"

Nuriko: You're getting good at this.

Claude: O_O I think that should worry me.

Duo/Guy/Andros/Zhane/Nokoru/Subaru/Jerry/Bailey/Jason/Billy/Eiji/Ken: *nod sagely* Indeed.