So, you've been hearing about it all month, this monster sequel to the Algea that I've been working on for NaNoWriMo. Well, wait no longer! This beast is finally finished! Of course... the timeline was originally supposed to run from the beginning of November until New Year's... but I only managed to reach the day after Thanksgiving. Granted, it took me 62,249 words to reach the day after Thanksgiving, but still. ^_^ This is officially my longest fic yet and I didn't want to push it or rush it to make the timeline fit in a reasonable fic length. So, there will be a third story in the Trinity-verse. Possibly not for a few months yet, though. O_O I have too much schoolwork that I pushed off for NaNo and I'm possibly a little burnt out after this. I've been enjoying the creativity so much that I don't want to ruin it. ^_~

Title: The Zorya
Fandom: Hair, the musical: 2009 Revival
Pairing: Berger/Claude/Sheila
Rating: PG-13 for some kissing, really very mild stuff, though... even for me.
Word Count: 62,249, Part 1: 6,029
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: Berger and Sheila are a broken triangle, desperately missing their third side. But is Claude well enough to fill his usual place? Only time will tell.

December 1, 2010: Timeline note - This story takes place in the "Trinity Arc" universe, roughly 3 months after the Algea. That places it starting in early November and running through the end of November. As noted, it was originally supposed to cover a much wider span of time... so I ended up leaving a plot thread dangly. It's in the middle and you can't miss it. Sorry about that. O_O I will wrap it up in the next story though, I promise. In fact... the entirely of the next story will be wrapping up that loose thread. Please don't hurt me?

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

Zorya Utrennyaya
by Renee-chan

One and a half years. It seemed like such a small amount of time when you thought about it that way, so innocuous. One and a half years. But one and a half years was also eighteen months... 78 weeks... 547 days. With each successive thought Claude's heart rate kicked up another notch. It was so easy to let the days blend together, to forget how long he'd been in this damned hospital. Normally he tried not to think about it for exactly this reason. With a quiet whimper he bent over, put his head between his knees and started doing the breathing exercises that Dr. Howard had painstakingly taught him, all the while praying that this time they would work.

They didn't, but after a few moments, his ragged breathing started to calm, his heartbeat slowing to a more natural rhythm, nonetheless. Why? Because of the warmth of one hand gently rubbing circles on his lower back. Tired brown eyes raised to meet worried green. He dredged up a smile from somewhere and said quietly, "Thanks."

Berger gave him a distracted smile in return as he removed his hand, "No problem, Claudio. You wanna tell me what that was about?"

With a weary sigh, Claude leaned back on the bench and turned his eyes skyward. And Berger, bless him, didn't push. He never did. He gave Claude whatever time, whatever space he needed - not like Dr. Howard with his endless questions, or his parents with their endless demands, or even Sheila with her almost desperate need for him to be the man he'd been four years ago when he'd left for Viet Nam. No, Berger just let him be exactly who he was at this moment, no pressure, no expectations. And the only thing he asked in return was for Claude to let him be near him. It was such a huge gift for what Claude secretly thought was a pitifully small return and it meant that when Berger asked these questions he always at least tried to answer. Once he'd had a few minutes to breathe, he turned back to Berger, "I... I'm just so tired of being here."

Berger twined their fingers together as his eyes filled with sympathy, "Oh, Claudio... I would be, too. But Dr. Howard doesn't think you're ready to leave, yet."

A soft snort was Claude's response to that, "Dr. Howard also didn't think I was ready to brave the main floor of the hospital, but I did. He didn't think I would ever speak again, but I did. So, that he doesn't think that I have enough of the basic human capacity to take care of myself to leave this hospital... let's just say that I don't hold his opinion in very high regard, right now."

And that hand was back, rubbing its soothing little circles, "I know, Claude. I know... but this is different, bigger. You know that. Hell, you've only really been lucid these last couple of months. All that fantastic progress you've made is so new... what if you have a relapse?"

Making an irritated noise, Claude pushed himself off the bench and started to pace. Eventually he turned back to Berger, frustration tightening every line of his body, "Well, what if you do?" Before Berger could answer, he continued, "No one asks that, do they? You and Sheila are too busy worrying about me, but it's just as valid a question if we're going to walk this road, isn't it?"

Swallowing hard against a suddenly dry mouth, Berger asked, "What do you mean?"

Claude sighed, sat down again beside Berger on the bench, "In all these months you've been visiting, I haven't once seen you high, Banana-Berger. Something scared you sober - and that's a good thing - but I can see the strain it's putting on you. So... what if you relapse? I only have myself to drag under if I go down. You... Berger, you've got Cheryl to consider, now."

As he got up to do some pacing of his own, Berger asked, "Who told you? Did Sheila tell you?"

Claude shook his head, caught at Berger's hand as he walked by. Pulling him back down beside him, Claude raised a hand to cup his cheek, "Love... she didn't have to. I know you, Berger. You fell apart when I... left - you told me so yourself - did some pretty hardcore drugs. And now you don't even smoke pot anymore. It stands to reason that something scared you straight." Meeting Berger's eyes head-on, he offered the other man a soft smile, "If I was a betting man, I'd put my money on Cheryl."

Berger smiled sheepishly back, shrugged, "Is it really that obvious?" At Claude's knowing smile, Berger rolled his eyes, "Yeah, I guess it is." He sighed, "But it's not the same thing, Claude. You know it's not." When Claude tried to pull his hand away, Berger clutched it closer, forced Claude to stay with him, "You don't... I don't know how much you remember about those days, Claude, but I remember. You... Jesus, Claude, it was horrible." Swallowing hard, he said, "Some days you were more animal than human. I don't think you understood more than half of what we said to you... and you were violent, really violent. You injured several of the orderlies and I think you actually tried to kill your father once. It wasn't you, but... it was, you know?" Seeing that he had the other man's attention, Berger relaxed his grip, "And that wasn't so long ago. Two months? Four, at most? All this progress you've made, it's great... but I can see why they're afraid that it won't hold. What happens if they let you leave here and someone startles you into a flashback out on the street?" Grabbing Claude's face in his hands, Berger leaned forward until their foreheads were touching, "I don't want to be visiting you in jail, Claudio."

After a moment of silent communion, Claude slumped, "I guess you're right. I just... Berger, I feel fine. I feel normal. All of that other stuff... you're right, I don't really remember it. And that's a blessing, really, but... You know what? I don't have a good answer for you. But to toss you back another 'What if?' - What if nothing happens? Who decides when enough time has passed that it's 'safe' to let me out on the streets? What if they never decide it's safe? I just... Berger, I want to go home." And if that last statement came out more plaintive than he would have liked... well, so be it.

Berger slid his arm around Claude, pulled his head down to rest against his shoulder and cradled him close, "Well... I don't want you stuck here forever, either. That's no better than prison." He fell silent for a moment, pulling his thoughts together. Claude just stayed quiet, letting Berger have the time he needed to think it through and hopefully come to the right conclusion. Eventually, Berger smiled, "We'll talk to Dr. Howard, tell him what you just told me. And if he can't come up with a damned good reason to keep you here, we're busting you out."

At those words, Claude pressed himself a little closer, finally let go of the tension that had been zinging through him since they started this conversation, "Thanks."

Berger sighed as he carded his hands thought Claude's hair, then let out a little laugh, "No sweat, Claudio. Dear Dr. Howard and I haven't butted heads in a while. We're long overdue."

Later that afternoon, Claude had to admit that he was impressed. Berger and Dr. Howard had managed to keep the conversation civil for almost ten minutes before it devolved into a shouting match. And, to be fair, they'd moved back out into the hall when that happened. It was just that they were loud enough even out there that he could still hear them clearly even through the wall, and a not so small part of him was fighting the urge to retreat to his corner and hide from the anger spewing forth from the hallway. The only thing keeping him from actually following through on that impulse was the knowledge that if Dr. Howard caught him doing it, any chance they had of gaining the man's cooperation would evaporate like so much smoke.

Finally, after another twenty minutes had passed and the argument outside had devolved further still to name calling, Claude couldn't take it anymore. He stalked over to the door, quietly opened it, stepped out into the hallway, then slammed it shut behind him as loudly as he could. Both of the other men immediately fell into a stunned silence. Into the quiet, voice deceptively calm, Claude hissed out, "That is enough. Dr. Howard, you are a doctor, a professional. Could you G-d damned act like one instead of like a spoiled child who thinks he's getting his favorite toy taken away?"

As Berger's expression stretched into a satisfied smirk, Dr. Howard could only gape. As his mouth worked and no further sound emerged, Berger started to snicker. Claude merely continued to hold his gaze. Finally Dr. Howard spluttered out, "You... you're talking!"

Claude raised an eyebrow and let his lips slide into a smirk of their own, "Rather more eloquently than you at the moment, I'd dare say."

The doctor turned back to Berger and narrowed his eyes accusingly, "I thought we were working together."

Berger shrugged, "We are. We both want what's best for Claude. And what's best for him right now isn't wasting away in a hospital talking this thing to death with you. He needs to get back out in the world and live, man. I know you're worried about what could happen, but even if you keep him here another ten years, you're never going to know how he's going to react to being back out in the real world unless you let him get out into it. Can't you see that?"

Dr. Howard stared back and forth between the two of them for another few minutes and finally slumped. Turning back to Claude he said quietly, "You know I'm only trying to protect you, right?"

Sensing victory around the corner, Claude let himself relax a fraction. Raising a hand to grip Dr. Howard's shoulder, he said, "I know. And I appreciate that, I truly do, but you can't protect me forever. You've already done more for me than most others in your position would have. Most other psychiatrists would have thrown me into an institution somewhere then thrown away the key and washed their hands of me. You didn't. Instead, you gave me a chance to get better. You allowed the one person who could help me to stay by my side when by all rights you should have thrown him out that first day. You've done right by me and I've no complaints, but Dr. Howard, it's time to let me go. We're never going to know if this foundation will hold unless we try to build on top of it, right?"

By halfway through that speech, the doctor had a small, yet proud smile on his face. By the end of it, he huffed out a short laugh and shook his head. Ruefully, almost under his breath, he muttered, "Jesus, you must have been a force to be reckoned with before all of this."

Claude tightened his grip on the man's shoulder until he raised his head to meet Claude's smirking eyes. Claude then bared his teeth ever so slightly and said simply, "I still am. And I want a chance to prove it."

Dr. Howard met his eyes for another endless moment, then smiled, "OK. OK, you can stop now. I'm convinced. I'll go get the paperwork started to release you back into your parents' custody."

Claude's eyes immediately flared wide in panic and he flung up a hand to stay the doctor's leaving, but the man was already gone. Berger caught at his hand and brought his other hand up to Claude's face to turn him to face him, "Claudio. Breathe. Just breathe. I'll go straighten this out." Seeing Claude's eyes still glazed, Berger cursed under his breath. Sliding his hand from Claude's cheek to the back of his neck, he gave the man a small shake, "Claude. I'm not going to let this happen, but you've gotta trust me, man. Take a deep breath, go sit down and I'll have this sorted as soon as I go talk to him." Seeing the light of understanding go on behind Claude's eyes, Berger let out a breath of relief, "But I've gotta walk away from you to do it and I'm not leaving until I know you're OK."

Claude nodded, breath still harsh but eyes finally aware again, "I'm OK. I'm OK. Just go. I'll wait here."

Berger held his gaze for another two minutes, searching, before finally releasing his grip. He nodded once, then turned to take off after Dr. Howard. Claude, meanwhile, got himself back into his room and started furiously pacing. He couldn't... He just couldn't go back to live in his parents' home. The suffocation he'd felt in the life they'd tried to force on him was the pebble that had started this avalanche of events to begin with. He and his father... Good G-d, he'd kill the man before he even had a chance realize what he was doing.

What other alternatives were there, though? Berger, Sheila and Cheryl were a nice little nuclear family, now. In spite of how warm and open and happy they'd been to have him back, he didn't belong there. He would only be intruding. There was Jeanie... but he couldn't do that to her, not after he'd rejected her so often in the past. It wouldn't be right to come to her now, only when he needed something. Hud... Hud might be willing to take him in... no. No, Berger had said that he and Dionne were living together now, considering marriage. He couldn't intrude on them any more than he could Berger and Sheila. Damn it.

Before he'd even realized what he was doing, his furious pacing had started to aim itself... one corner to the other corner and back again. Pause. Press his head into the corner, try to stave off the pain centering in his temples. Trapped. He was feeling trapped. Pause at the window, stare out at the fading afternoon light. Eying the ground. He could make it. He wouldn't even hurt himself too badly from this height. He could be on the ground and off into the wilderness of the city before...

What the hell am I thinking? Pulling his thoughts up short, Claude froze, pressed against the glass and shaking. So easy. It was so easy to slip backwards, to fall into the seductive pull of that animalistic thinking. Oh, sweet Jesus, no wonder Dr. Howard is so concerned about letting me out of here.

He had no idea how long he stood there after that, mind racing and heart pounding, trying to keep himself centered in the here and now, trying to keep his thoughts human and coherent. All he knew was that when Berger finally returned, he still didn't have a handle on it and he was ready to bury himself in the corner and never emerge.

Always sensitive to Claude's moods, Berger sensed the severity of this one and edged himself closer, one hand outstretched like he was trying to calm a wild animal. Seeing that, Claude let out a hoarse bark of a laugh that devolved quickly into a mild fit of hysterics. Berger stopped his advance, eyes full of worry, hand still outstretched in entreaty. After a few moments, Claude raised his own hand to grip Berger's and gave it a light squeeze. Voice harsh with tightness, he grated out, "I'm OK. No. No, actually I'm not... but close enough for government work, I suppose."

At that, Berger gave him an obligatory chuckle and pulled him into his arms. Claude went willingly, tucked his head against Berger's shoulder with a weary sigh. Berger just let his hands trace gently soothing patterns against Claude's back, let the other man calm on his own as much as he was able. When the rest of the tension finally left him, Berger said quietly, "Well, we knew this wasn't gonna be easy, Claudio."

Claude pulled himself back upright, took in a deep, calming breath, "Yeah. Yeah, we did." Clearing his throat, he added, "Just tell me you caught up to him and talked him out of this. Because if my choices are living with my parents or staying in this hospital forever... I'd rather stay here."

Berger just smiled, shook his head, "Don't worry. We had a nice little chat about it and he came around to my way of thinking. Eventually. You're not going back to Flushing unless you want to visit." At Claude's indelicate snort, he laughed, "Yeah, didn't think so." Then he fell silent, eyes dropping to stare at the floor for a moment, before raising back up to meet Claude's. In a quiet voice, almost hesitant, he asked, "Have... have you given any thought to where you do want to live?"

And there was that heart racing panic, again. He fought through it anyway, tried to get the words out past a fear-tightened throat, "I haven't... I don't... Berger, the last thing I want to be is an imposition."

At that, Berger's eyes flared wide and his mouth dropped open. Moments later, his eyes narrowed and he took a determined step forward, deliberately invading Claude's personal space. Claude backed up, his own eyes wide in alarm. Berger's mouth worked for a moment with no sound emerging. Eventually, he huffed out an irritated mutter that Claude didn't quite catch - and wasn't sure he wanted to - and crossed his arms over his chest. Meeting Claude's eyes head on, he said in a lighthearted conversational tone that was quite at odds with the flashing almost-anger in his eyes, "If you even hint that you want to live somewhere other than with me and Sheila, we're going to be very annoyed with you, you know. We made space in the closets and everything."

In spite of his expectations, on hearing that, Claude's heartbeat sped up again, though this time from hope, "You... but how would that work? You and Sheila have a baby, now. You're parents. How would you even explain me to her? An old friend who just happens to live with you? An uncle? Berger, I'd just be in the way."

Berger snorted, waved a hand in Claude's face like the objections that Claude was raising weren't even significant, "Claudio, you would not be in the way. I've been planning to move you in with us since the night Cheryl was born. And Sheila's been so excited to have you back with us, I'm sure she won't mind having you with us full time. So I think it's safe to say that it's not a problem. Although..." And at that, he raised a finger to tap against his chin, face taking on a look of seriousness, "...there is one little detail that I've been stuck on. Maybe you'd be willing to offer your input?"

At that point, Claude would have agreed to solve the problem of world hunger single-handedly, he was so relieved, "Anything, Berger. What is it?"

Stepping closer, Berger draped an arm around Claude's shoulders and pulled him away from the wall, "Well, we've got a few months before this is really a problem, but I thought we'd want to get it sorted before then." Seeing that he had Claude's attention, Berger smiled and continued, "See, Sheila's easy. She can be 'Mom,' 'Mommy,' Mama,' whatever the hell she wants to be, right?" He paused, waiting for Claude's confused nod before continuing, "But then when we get to me and you, as you said, it gets a little complicated. After all, we can't both be 'Dad.' It'll confuse the hell out of the poor kid. So, the way I figure it, one of us should be 'Dad' and the other can be... I don't know... maybe 'Pop?' What do you think?"

By then, Claude's mouth had dropped open and he was gaping at Berger like a landed fish, unable to get a single sound to emerge. That Berger was willing to take him in, that in itself he would have welcomed as a miracle. That he wanted him to be a second father to his child... that was more than he ever would have dared hope for. It was so huge, such an unbelievably tremendous gift... he couldn't even conceive of it right at the moment.

Smirking at Claude's predicament, Berger just kept talking, tone now light and a little playful, "Honestly, Claudio, I have given it some thought already and if it's all the same to you, I don't think 'Dad' really fits for me, you know? I think I'd make a pretty good 'Pop,' but I wanted to see what you thought about it before I made it official." Quirking an eyebrow at him and grinning like the cat who'd gotten not only the canary but an entire bowl of cream to wash it down, he asked, "So, what do you say, Claudio? 'Dad' work for you?"

And the only response that Claude could make to that was to throw his arms around Berger's neck, bury his face in the man's shoulder and try desperately not to start crying. Berger just rocked him in place, still smiling - Claude could almost feel the ferocious grin even with his head down - and said, "OK, then I guess that's settled. We'll get the place ready tonight and come pick you up in the morning. How's that sound?"

Claude just nodded his head vigorously against Berger's shoulder, too overcome for words. Berger rocked him a little longer, then let out a small laugh, "Truthfully I'll be glad to have you. Cheryl started crawling already and she's starting to pull herself up on things, too. I figure it'll only be another month, maybe two before she's got her feet under her and starts walking... and then I'm gonna need all the help I can get to keep her the hell out of trouble." Snorting softly, he added, "And let's face it. She's my kid, Claudio. She's gonna get herself in as much trouble as she can just because she can. Karma, man... it's a bitch."

At that last comment, Claude pulled back to meet Berger's eyes. They stared at each other for a moment in total sympathy, then Claude's lips quirked. Berger's soon followed. Two seconds later, they were leaning on each other and laughing like a pair of fools, tears of mirth streaming down their faces. And when Dr. Howard came back five minutes later with the paperwork for them to sign and they still hadn't calmed, he was forced to wonder if he should just tear it up and commit them both.

When Berger got back to Sheila's apartment, she met him at the door with a relieved smile, a peck on the lips and a double armful of wiggling 8 month old, "Oh, thank G-d. She's all yours. I have got to get this damned paper finished." Sighing heavily, she added, "Why the hell did I think it was a good idea to start law school right after having her?"

Taking the happily cooing little bundle off of Sheila's hands, Berger shrugged and quirked an eyebrow. Sheila winced, "Right. Right. Because if I hadn't, we would have had to start paying back my student loans. I know." Throwing her hands in the air, she turned and stalked back off towards the kitchen table where her books were spread out, "That doesn't make writing papers any easier with an 8 month running around flinging your pencils everywhere!"

In spite of the stress in Sheila's voice, Berger couldn't help sharing a quiet giggle with his daughter. With a twinkle in his eyes, he asked her seriously, "Were you really throwing mommy's pencils?"

Meeting his eyes with an equally mischievous twinkle in hers, she gave him a big smile and said very firmly, "Ma-ma-ma!"

At that, Berger started to laugh harder, "Ma-ma-ma, indeed. I'll bet she wasn't too happy about that. But you know what, kiddo? I'll bet I have some news to share with her that she will be happy about." Leaning in close, he whispered in Cheryl's ear. She immediately responded with a happy giggle - probably more for the ticklish feel of Berger whispering in her ear than for the content of what he'd said, but still, it at least made him feel like he had a co-conspirator. And in spite of his bravado, he was suddenly worried that he might need one. Leaning back, he said, "What do you think, kiddo? Should we tell her?"

At this point, Sheila had caught on to the goings-on behind her and had turned in her seat with her mom-eyebrow raised, "Tell me what?"

Giving Cheryl one more tickling kiss, Berger walked over to the table, "So... I saw Claude today."

Sheila raised her other eyebrow, "Berger, you see him every day. What was so special about today?" He sighed, sat down at the table with Cheryl on his knee, "Well... we were sitting outside in the courtyard - you know, that little one that he likes so much."

Sheila nodded, took his free hand in hers, "I know it well."

"Well... he... he's getting better, Sheila. He really is. You know that, right?"

In his voice was a plea - a plea that she understand, a plea that she go along with whatever it was he was going to ask. Sheila sighed. It felt like that morning after Cheryl had been born, when he'd so desperately needed to know that Claude could have been a part of their lives. She hadn't understood it then, hadn't seen why he suddenly needed that reassurance. Of course, she understood, now. He'd been preparing her, even then, for the reality of Claude being back, had been trying to warn her, in his own Berger way, that things were going to get complicated. With that flash of insight, she finally saw what Berger was driving at. Raising his hand to her lips, she planted a gentle kiss on the knuckles, "Dr. Howard thinks he's ready to leave the hospital, doesn't he?" She prudently decided not to question the light blush on Berger's face at the question and instead took his answering nod at face value, "And you want him to come live here?"

At that question, Berger shifted his grip so that he was holding her hand instead of the other way around, "Sheila... he doesn't have anywhere else to go, and-" He cut off the remainder of what he'd been about to say.

Then again, he didn't have to say it. Sheila understood. She loved Berger with all her heart - she had for some time - and she knew that Berger loved her. He loved her and he loved their daughter and he loved being part of the family they made together. And if Claude had never come back into the picture, in time, he would have been content with that. But Claude was back in the picture. And Sheila could kid herself all she liked, but she saw things too clearly to be fooled for long. From the first day that Berger had brought Claude home to her, all eager smiles and naughty winks, to imply all the fun that could be had by the three of them together... she'd been losing him. Berger didn't see it, had never seen it. He really believed that he loved them both equally, just in different ways. Berger always did believe the best of people. But Sheila knew better. It had hurt at first, that she was second-best, but in the end, she'd finally accepted it. She'd prepared herself to lose them both, figured they would run off to Canada without her to escape the draft. And she'd made her peace with it, content in the knowledge that they would be together and they would be safe. She had never in her wildest dreams thought that she would lose them the way that she had... or ultimately have a chance to keep them both.

But there was the real question. She was still no fool. She wanted to keep them both... her beautiful boys, so in love with each other and willing to stretch that love wide enough to include her. She loved them both, for the love they shared and for themselves. She really couldn't imagine having to pick between them or forcing them to pick between her and each other. So the only way she could keep them both would be to let them have each other and to do it in such a way that neither would figure out that that she was doing it. And she could. She had to... for all their sakes.

Sheila let go of Berger's hand to take his face in both of hers and press their lips together in a butterfly soft kiss. When she leaned back it was to give him a brilliant smile, "I hope you told him that he has no choice in the matter, Banana-Berger. I won't hear of him living anywhere else."

The smile that Berger gave her in response... dear G-d, it was beautiful. It was pure, unalloyed joy. She hadn't seen many like it from him since Claude got his draft notice and it was breathtaking. He cleared his throat roughly and nodded, "I told him we cleared out space in the closets and everything."

She gave him an equally beaming grin in response, "Good. I want him back with us as badly as you do, Banana-Berger. I'm willing to do whatever it takes to make that happen. I miss him, love... you know I do."

He nodded again then, with a wild whoop of joy, yanked her out of her seat and onto his other knee. Taking firm hold of her, he indulged them in a deep, passionate kiss. She could almost feel his joy radiating through his very skin. It was enough to get drunk on. After a few minutes, he let her sit back up, grinned smugly at the blissed out look on her face. He then turned and planted a smacking kiss on top of Cheryl's head for good measure. Cheryl looked confused, but enchanted by the exuberant happiness her parents were sharing. Sheila smiled softly at her daughter and also gave her a kiss, then embraced them both.

After a few moments, Berger finally piped up again, "There was... um... there was one other thing." Sheila leaned back from their embrace, quirked an eyebrow. Berger, though, had apparently been taking to Cheryl. Hitching the little girl higher up on his hip so he could look her in the eyes, he said, "Kiddo... from now on, I'm gonna be 'Pop,' OK? And Claude - you know Claude, right? I know you like him... and he adores you." He paused, cleared his throat, "Well, he... he's gonna be 'Dad.' I know that seems a little confusing right now, but we'll help you sort it out when you start talking, OK?"

Sheila clapped her hands over her mouth, for a moment unsure if she was going to laugh or cry. She hadn't even considered, hadn't even thought about what it would mean for Cheryl to have all three of them living together. But Berger... of course, he would think of it and wouldn't hesitate to share the gift that was fatherhood with the man he loved. His heart was too big to be jealous of something like that, especially when he knew it would bring Claude such joy. She threw her arms back around his neck, pressed a laughing kiss to his cheek.

Berger turned and lifted an eyebrow at her, eyes dancing, "I take it you don't mind, then?"

"'Don't mind,' Banana-Berger? No, I don't mind," she answered, pushing at his shoulder. Laughing, she said, "I think it's a great idea. And if we don't act like it's anything unusual, she'll never have to be confused about it." Smile softening, she added, "And I think Claude will make a wonderful father." At Berger's hopeful look, she started laughing, "Besides, it's a girl's dream come true, to have two fathers to wrap around her little finger instead of one. Between the two of you, she's going to be spoiled rotten. Neither of you can say 'No' to her, already!"

Berger laughed, shrugged sheepishly, "I'm not even going to try to deny it, because I have a feeling you're right." At Sheila's knowing look, Berger started to sweat, quickly decided a change of topic was in order, "OK, so... I don't have work tomorrow and you don't have class until the afternoon, so I thought... I thought we'd go pick him up tomorrow morning...?"

Sheila smiled, "That's perfect, baby. We'll get everything squared away tonight, get the place cleaned up, and... oh!" Berger lifted an eyebrow at her suddenly irked expression, "Berger... other than the hospital sweats he's been living in, Claude doesn't have anything to wear!"

Berger twitched, "You've got to be kidding me. You think he's going to care?"

"Well... how would you feel? If you'd just spent a year and a half in the hospital living in sweats and hospital gowns after two and half years of living in army fatigues... wouldn't you want normal clothes to come home in? Wouldn't you want to leave that all behind?" she asked.

Eyes taking on a sad look, Berger pulled her closer, rested his head against her shoulder, "You've got a point there..." Eyes taking on a determined look, Berger squared his shoulders, "I'm going to Queens."

"You're going to- Berger, why...?" Eyes widening in sudden understanding, Sheila said, "Oh, honey, no. That's not what I meant. We can hit the thrift shops in the morning, pick up something on the way to the hospital. Then we can take him shopping later, OK?"

Berger pushed at her until she got up, then handed Cheryl over. Meeting her eyes, he shook his head, "No. Sheila... I can't explain it, but I think he needs this: his clothes... his things... it's important. He doesn't really know who he is, anymore. This... it's a place to start, a way to remind him that he was once someone else, before all this. It'll help." Ducking his gaze again, he mumbled, "Besides... I'm not sure we can afford to buy him all new clothes and I don't want him to start worrying about being a burden on us." Looking back up, he said, "I don't want him having to worry about getting a job to help support us all, Sheila. He's getting better, but he needs more time. He needs a safe place he can come home to where he won't have to worry about any of that. I want to be able to give him that, for at least a little while. OK?"

Humbled by how Berger had thought this through and from an angle that she hadn't even considered, Sheila simply nodded, "OK." At Berger's shocked look, she said, "OK. You're right... except for one thing." Before Berger could even ask, she handed Cheryl back to him and said firmly, "We're coming with you."

Berger's jaw dropped, "But... but... didn't you just say you have a paper to finish...?"

Meeting his eyes dead-on, she said simply, "Fuck the paper. If you're going to Queens, I want to have a few words with Mrs. Helen Bukowski." And with that last, she spun on her heel and stalked off to get her and Cheryl's coats.

Shivering with an emotion that was half-fear and half-desire, Berger followed eagerly after her, glad as usual that she was on his side.


Claude: *twitch* I really don't like you right now.

R-chan: *blinks* Ironically enough... that no longer bothers me.

Claude: No. Really. I don't like you.

R-chan: *eg* Then why do you keep inspiring me to fic?

Claude: *gapes* D:

R-chan: *slow smile*

Claude: *crosses arms over chest* *grumps* Really don't like you.

R-chan: ^_^ Yes, dear. That's nice.

Coming Soon: Berger and Sheila take a trip to Queens to confront Claude's parents, then finally... finally get to bring Claude home.