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: 62,317 Part 9: ~7600
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 13, 2010: I am so sorry about the wait. I don't even have a really good excuse. *sigh* I was just feeling crappy and unproductive and never got around to HTMLing this last part. :-P Forgive me?

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

Death and Rebirth
by Renee-chan

That night went far better than the one before it had. Claude seemed to have figured out a trick to get himself to fall asleep - and all that food and the fact that he was already exhausted almost certainly helped - so Berger was able to sleep, too. It was a little strange, sleeping in the middle of the bed rather than on the outside, but Berger couldn't honestly say that he minded much. If Claude never felt up to reclaiming his old spot, if he needed to continue to sleep towards the edge of the bed, well... if that was the only consequence to come out of this whole mess, then it was one that Berger could easily live with.

He woke the next morning to the feel of Claude's head still resting warmly over his heart and his nimble fingers tracing mindless patterns across his chest and stomach. Once Berger awoke, however, the fingers stopped their mindless tracing and the head shifted to rest against his shoulder, instead... but he didn't pull away. Taking all of this as a positive sign, Berger let his arm gently close around Claude's body, pulled him a little closer. Claude went easily, even going so far as to ease his left leg over Berger's.

Berger let out a small moan, finally pried his eyes open to see Claude smirking at him from the safety of his shoulder. Those eyes were dancing a little as though patiently waiting for something and Berger almost laughed. Obligingly, he leaned over and kissed Claude's nose, sleepily murmured, "Good morning, starshine."

Sure enough, the other man let out a soft huff of laughter, happily answered back, "Good morning, yourself." Honestly, if Claude really thought that Berger still thought he was irritated by that morning greeting... Well, whatever the case. Even though he knew it no longer bothered the other man, it was still something that was theirs. It was something untouched, unsullied. He wasn't letting go of it without a damned good reason.

He rolled over onto his side to face Claude, tentatively slid his own free leg over Claude's so they were well and truly tangled together. It was risky, what he was doing. Claude couldn't be doing as well as it looked like he was, Berger knew it. Any minute now, he was going to freak out, pull away... After a minute, Berger became aware that he wasn't doing either. Berger's breath caught, his heart began to pound with a joy so fierce it was almost pain. He picked up his right arm, wrapped it around Claude, too. He hadn't dared, hadn't wanted to risk... damn it, it really had been too long.

Claude tucked his head under Berger's chin, let out a heavy sigh. After a few minutes with nothing untoward happening, Berger felt Claude slide his own left hand up and over Berger's hip and slowly up his side and around until it rested softly against Berger's back, became an aid to pull them closer together. They laid there like that, gently entwined with each other, for another ten minutes. And Berger didn't even feel a vague need to take it any farther than that. He'd started to reach the point where he was afraid he'd never even get this much intimacy from Claude ever again, so, he really didn't care. He'd just take this and be grateful for it.

They were both aware of the moment when Sheila awoke on Berger's other side, slowly shifted to face the two of them. Berger heard her breath catch from behind him, almost willed her to go back to sleep, to not ruin this moment. But Claude heard her, too, had probably been aware of her waking even before Berger had. The arm that Claude had wrapped around him gently lifted off his back, began to stretch towards Sheila. Sheila took that questing hand into her own, brought it to her lips for a soft kiss, said wonderingly, "You two are so beautiful together..."

Claude huffed out a soft laugh as he turned that hand to rest against her cheek, said sleepily, "I thought that was my line."

Sheila pressed herself against Berger's back, draped her own arm over him to rest her hand on Claude's hip. And if Berger thought the joy he'd felt before had been almost like pain... G-d, he didn't even have words to describe this. To his eternal embarrassment, he felt a single tear leak from his left eye, moved hastily to wipe it into his pillow before it could be noticed. But of course... of course Claude noticed it. When Berger turned his head back, the other man leaned forward, placed a butterfly kiss against that spot where the tear had been. In response, Berger let out a wet little laugh that felt more like a sob than any laugh had a right to.

Sheila pressed her face into his back and tightened her arm around him when she heard that sound. He could even hear her making soft, almost unheard 'shushing' noises. Claude leaned in again and Berger obligingly tilted his head as though to touch foreheads with the other man, but that wasn't what he was after. Tilting his own head, he leaned in further still, let his lips brush softly against the corner of Berger's. They lingered there for a moment, two moments, an infinity of moments, before shifting to the side, settling soft and warm over Berger's lips. And for just a moment, Berger had absolutely no idea what to do next. It was like he was suddenly fourteen, experiencing his first kiss all over again. That was truly what this felt like - a first kiss. And in a way... it was. Before he could get his mind to unlock, however, he could feel a soft tremble start in the muscles of Claude's back - thanks to Berger's hesitancy or just the import of what Claude was doing, he had no idea, but it was enough to jolt him out of his paralysis. Even as his hands shifted, started to rub soothing circles around Claude's back, he softened his lips, gently moved them against Claude's, asked for more, but didn't demand.

He could feel it, too, the internal struggle Claude was having. Finally, those tense muscles relaxed again and he pressed closer against Berger to pursue that kiss, made a small needy moan in the back of his throat that shot straight through Berger like an arrow. But Berger wasn't stupid. Claude wasn't ready for more than this. He could feel it in those same muscles as they tightened again under his hands. So he soothed rather than inflamed, kept that kiss as tender, as easy as Claude would allow him to.

Claude wasn't stupid either. He got the hint, reigned in his own impulses after a minute. Eventually, he released Berger's lips, went back to nuzzling against his neck instead, and Berger breathed a silent sigh of relief. He wanted more, G-d he wanted more, but he didn't want to traumatize Claude to get it, didn't want to push the other man too far out of his comfort zone. The repercussions on that would carry a higher price than he could easily pay.

Shortly thereafter, the baby monitor let out an unhappy cry and Sheila let out an answering groan. Claude slowly pulled away from them, made as though to get out of the bed, "I... I'll go get her."

Before he could get too far, however, Berger pulled him back, "Not so fast, Claudio. She can wait another few seconds." And she could - he recognized the cry. It wasn't an unhappy cry, it was a complaint cry. That could definitely wait the minute or two that this would take.

Claude hesitated, resisted for a moment, before allowing Berger to pull them back together. He waited as Berger stared into his eyes, rubbed warm hands against his lower back, finally let out an irritated huff, "Did you want something, Banana-Berger?"

Berger just smiled, leaned forward to steal another light, easy kiss. When Claude reacted by merely lifting an eyebrow in query, Berger's smile widened even further, "Sorry. Sorry. I've been waiting for that for a long time. Just wanted to make sure I wasn't dreaming."

Sheila let out a soft laugh from behind him, "You know... you're supposed to pinch yourself to make sure you're awake, not kiss someone."

Letting Claude go, Berger turned his head to face Sheila, waggled his eyebrows provocatively, "You know... you could pinch me... Sheila-bear."

Sheila stared at him, mouth dropping open in surprise, before she moaned and buried her face in his shoulder. A moment later, she let out an almost pained sounding giggle, "Oh G-d... you heard that, didn't you?"

Claude propped himself up on his elbow, stared down at Sheila with an unsure but game smile on his face, "Sheila-bear? That's new."

Sheila shook her head, smacked Berger on the shoulder for good measure before explaining, "No, it's actually not. It's my brother's old nickname for me and he was overusing it last night. And it's not one I want to put back into steady rotation, if you both don't mind." Seeing the evil looks the two immediately shared, she flopped back against the bed, covered her face with her hands and whimpered, "Oh, why the hell do I even bother?"

Claude just laughed, finally untangled himself from Berger and climbed out of bed, "I'll leave you two to fight it out, then, while I go deal with our daughter."

It wasn't until a good minute later, when Berger became aware of Sheila worriedly shaking his shoulder and asking if he was alright, that he realized that at those last words, his mouth had dropped open and he'd frozen in place, as though he didn't dare move. When he came out of it, he immediately flopped over to face Sheila and crushed her to him, buried his face in her chest, "I must be dreaming. I must be. He... he said..."

Sheila rocked him against her, gently shushed him, "I know, baby. I heard it, too. 'Our daughter.' It's the first time he's called her that... isn't it?"

Berger looked up, met eyes as shining and watery as his own, then leaned in to claim a kiss. When they pulled away from each other again, Berger couldn't keep the wide grin off his face, "I can't explain it and I don't even want to try. I'm just happy. It's a damned good morning, Sheila. Don't you agree?"

Sheila kissed the end of his nose with a laugh, "It is, baby. It really is." Sitting upright, she smiled down at him, "In fact, it's such a good morning, that I think I'll make chocolate chip pancakes. What do you say?"

Berger laughed, "I say that's A-OK with me... since Cheryl's not old enough to manage the syrup bottle." Though intended as a joke, that last had a sobering effect on the pair. Berger sighed, "Yeah... maybe we should call her later. See how she's doing. I... I haven't been by to see them in... Jesus. Since Claude came home with us."

Sheila shifted, gave Berger room to sit up, then placed a gentle hand on his shoulder, "We'll figure it out, baby. If this improvement is real and continues at this kind of a rate... maybe we'll be able to tell everyone by Christmas. Wouldn't that make a wonderful present?"

Slowly smiling, Berger reached out and pulled Sheila into a hug, "Yeah... it really would."

Sheila gave him another quick kiss, then got up, "So, why don't I start the pancakes and you see about waking your sister, hm?"

If Sheila hadn't recognized the maniacal grin that immediately filled his features as one that she'd seen before - having an older brother of her own - she'd have been worried. As it was, she just rolled her eyes and left the room. Behind her, Berger rubbed his hands together and gave an evil laugh, "Wake my sister, indeed... let the games begin!"

Later that morning, Sheila had suggested that Berger's sister might enjoy going out holiday bargain shopping with her and Cheryl. Sammy, just as enamored of a good bargain hunt as the next woman and equally as enamored with her new "big sister," eagerly agreed. Berger had hesitated, thought to protest for a moment, then had looked at Claude. He was definitely looking a little strained around the edges. Some time alone with Berger would probably do him good.

Once the women had left, Berger could almost see it as the tension ran out of him and breathed his own sigh of relief at having made the right choice. And when he wandered over to the couch to settle down for a while, Claude eagerly followed, curled up against him. For just a moment, it felt like old times: Sheila, off with the girls on some quest or other, he and Claude happily stealing the opportunity to cuddle in her apartment while she was gone. It was nice. It was nice just to have Claude so relaxed beside him. Taking a gigantic risk by calling attention to it, he even said so.

Claude tensed for a moment, then sighed. Eventually, he answered, "I... Berger... There's something..." With a short growl of frustration, he sat up, pulled away.

Berger just let him go, a worried frown on his face, "What is it, Claude? This... it's a good thing. It means you're getting better."

Shaking his head, Claude got up from the couch, started his ten step pace back and forth in front of him. After a few trips, he paused, clenched his fists and turned back to face Berger, "There's something I need to tell you about this... 'getting better.' And I'm not sure you'll like it."

Berger sat up straighter on the couch, held out a hand to the other man. When Claude approached, almost wild-shy like he'd been in the beginning, Berger just waited patiently until he got over it enough to reach out and take his hand. Quietly, he answered, "If it's getting you better, whatever it is, I'll learn to love it, OK? Just tell me."

Claude sighed, slumped, "I... The last couple of nights when you were asleep... I've been calling Dr. Howard." At Berger's frown, he winced, "See? I knew you wouldn't like it."

Berger rubbed his free hand against his forehead, tried to process what Claude had just said, "OK. So, you called Dr. Howard. Why?"

Claude shrugged, eyed Berger nervously before answering, "I... Just to talk. He said... He said if I ever needed to talk, needed help, I could call him. So, I did." At Berger's continued frown, he hastened to explain, "Berger, I'm not getting better, not really. I wish I could say that I was, that things were getting easier, but they're not. If anything, they're getting harder."

Berger squeezed his hand, interrupted the flow of words almost desperately, "But what about this morning? You... Jesus, Claudio, for a few minutes, you were almost back to normal."

Shaking his head miserably, Claude said, "No. Berger, I wasn't. I have moments - a few minutes, like you said - when things are OK, but they pass. My reactions, the level of stress I live with on a daily basis... it's not normal." Folding back down onto the couch next to Berger, Claude added, "As long as I'm here, in this apartment, with one of you, I'm OK. But, with each passing day, I'm a little more afraid to go outside. That's not getting better. Berger, it's getting worse." He drooped, pressed his head into Berger's shoulder, "I want you to help. G-d, I can't tell you how much I want that, for it to be you... but Berger, I don't think it can be. All those months ago, Dr. Howard said I depended on you too much, that it wasn't healthy." Raising miserable eyes to meet Berger's just as miserable ones, he finished, "He was right. I just couldn't see it until I was around you all the time."

Berger dropped his hand, got up from the couch and stumbled away a few steps, finally hoarsely got out, "So... it's my fault that you're not getting any better?"

"No," was the emphatic response. Claude got up from the couch, put his hands on Berger's shoulders and spun the other man to face him, gave him a firm shake for good measure, "It is not your fault that I'm not getting better. It's mine. Berger, you've done everything right from minute one with me. You... Jesus, Banana-Berger, you worked a fucking miracle and you know it. But I've been abusing that, using you like a crutch these last few weeks. I can't keep doing that or I'll never be able to stand on my own." Taking a deep breath, he said, "I think... I think maybe Dr. Howard could help. I think... I think maybe just getting out of the apartment on my own for a few hours a week will help." At Berger's miserable look, his tone turned pleading, "Berger, I don't know. All I know is that I want to wake up tomorrow morning to find out that we're all in Canada and this was just one fucking horrific nightmare. But that can't happen, because it wasn't. It was real. Every. Fucking. Minute. Of it." He was breathing harder now, eyes wide, and he punctuated each of those last words with a little shake.

Dropping his head forward onto Berger's chest, Claude let out a little whimper, "In fact, it's too real and sometimes it's all I can see, like it's a barricade between me and everything else. Berger... I can't get past it on my own. I need help. And whether I like it or not, whether you like it or not... Dr. Howard's all I've got. OK?"

Berger wrapped his arms around Claude, pulled him close against him. After a few minutes of trying to get his throat to work, he managed to say, "OK. OK. If... If that's what you need, then OK. Like I said... whatever it takes, Claudio. I want you better. And my pride can take it if I'm not the one who makes it happen. In the end, as long as you're better... as long as you're happy, I don't care. Is that good enough?"

Claude let out a watery little laugh, finally lifted his head to meet Berger's gaze again, "Yeah, Banana-Berger. That's plenty good enough."

"Good." Berger leaned forward, pressed a soft kiss against Claude's forehead, "Then that's good enough for me, too." Sighing heavily, he added plaintively, "Now, can we please do something completely unstrenuous for the next few hours until my parents get here?"

Claude readily agreed to that and they spent the next few hours numbing their brains on afternoon television. And Claude was even good enough to say nothing when Berger fell asleep, sprawled on top of him on the couch. He just pulled the afghan down off the back, draped it across the other man and cradled him close as he slept.

Sammy was the first to the door when three o'clock rolled around. Full of happy exuberance, she flung it open and threw her arms around her mother's neck, "Mom, you are not going to believe the awesome day I've had! Sheila knows where all the good stores are in the city and she has the keenest fashion sense. You are going to love the stuff I got!" Leaning back with a wicked grin, she added, "I even picked up a couple of things for you guys!" Then, just like any other teenager and child on the planet, seeing the large box that her father held in his hands, she was immediately diverted from thoughts of presents she'd bought by thoughts of presents she might receive, "Ooooo... And what is that? Is for Cheryl? Is it for me?"

Elaine quickly covered her daughter's mouth with her hand to shush her, "Sammy! For goodness' sakes be quiet, OK? It's a surprise." Turning her around, she then gave her daughter a playful swat on the behind, "Go keep your brother occupied for a while for us while we set it up, would you?"

Though she paused to stick her tongue out at her mother, Sammy did at least do what had been asked of her. As she scampered off, Claude walked over carrying Cheryl. The little girl let out a happy squeal when she saw Elaine, immediately started reaching her hands out and babbling, "Ma-ma-ma-ma-ma-ma-ma!"

Elaine obligingly took the little girl off of Claude's hands and gave her a squeeze, "So, tell me, little one... if your mom is 'ma-ma-ma', then does me being 'ma-ma-ma-ma-ma-ma-ma' make me your great grandmother? I'm not sure I'm OK with that assumption."

The girl just giggled and started tugging on Elaine's ponytail. Claude smiled, shook his head, "I think it just means she's excited to see you and that's currently her favorite syllable. If that makes you feel any better, that is."

Elaine laughed, patted Claude's cheek as she moved past him, "Not entirely, but you're a dear for saying so, anyway, Claude. Thank you."

Once she'd migrated further into the living room, Claude raised an eyebrow at Berger's father, "Would you like a hand with that?"

Jack let out a sigh of relief, "Good Lord, would I. You have no idea how much of a pain it's been carting this thing from New Jersey. If I'd realized how much trouble it was going to be, I'd have risked the city driving and brought it in the car."

Claude obligingly took one end of the box, helped Jack carry it to the spot he'd decided would make a good location for a Christmas Tree. It was a corner of the living room which normally held a small curio table on which they dumped the mail before it could be sorted. Claude had relocated it over towards the front door - where it ironically made more sense for it to be located, anyway - to make room. The table normally sat in this natural little alcove that would be perfect placement for a tree. As they set the box down on the floor and started quickly and efficiently unpacking what was inside it, Claude paused to muse, "I wonder what Sammy found to keep him occupied with that's actually keeping him in the bedroom? Normally he'd be out here already just on the suspicion that something might be going on that he'd want to be a part of."

Before Jack even had a chance to answer, they all heard Berger yell out, "Sam! Come on! How the hell many shirts did you buy?"

They missed Samantha's answer to that question, but not Berger's whimpered, "Oh, you've got to be kidding me. And you have to model all of them for me?"

After another pause for Sam's quiet response, Berger groaned loudly, "Oh, come on... Sheila, you did not buy some for me, too! And... what the hell is that, anyway? I thought we'd been through this? I hate yellow!"

Elaine coughed quickly to hide her giggling, then rapidly stood, Cheryl in hand, to head towards the bedroom. At the other two's raised eyebrows, she said mildly, "Firstly, if there is going to be clothing modeling, then I want to be involved, especially if they bully George into participating. Secondly, I think I'd better put a hand on this situation before dear Samantha manages to goad her brother into a real fight. I think that might be in all of our best interests."

The two men laughed, quickly waved her on, then went back to unpacking the tree. Once they had it all out, Claude spread the tree skirt out on the floor in the corner - not that he expected to need it for an artificial tree, but for the image... well, it would make it look more real. Jack pulled out the instructions, then smirked over at Claude, "What do you say? Instructions or no instructions?"

Claude lifted an eyebrow, amused by how much Jack resembled his son in that moment. Wryly, he answered, "Well, Jack, we have an extremely finite amount of time in which to get this accomplished before Berger gets fed up with the girls and I don't have a hell of a lot of pride left to wound."

Jack sighed but spread out the pages nonetheless, "Instructions, it is." They poured over the pages for a moment, then mildly began to twitch when they realized how complicated the instruction sheets were trying to make the assembly seem. It could not be that complicated. It was essentially just a long pole with other skinnier poles stuck into it at different heights and angles. How the hell hard could it be to figure out? Almost as one, they both pushed the instruction sheets out of the way and reached for the parts of the tree to start putting it together.

It took them twenty minutes and a few redo attempts, but somehow they got it done, even managed to get the lights wrapped around it and ready to go. As they stood back to admire their work, Jack casually dropped an arm around Claude's shoulders, pulled him close in a one-armed hug that seemed like a habitual action on his part. And for just a moment, Claude froze, unsure of how to respond. It was a completely reflexive gesture, one that Berger's father surely hadn't thought about, one he'd doubtless enacted with Berger multiple times in the past. It was a gesture of accomplishment, a gesture of pride in a task well done, a gesture of camaraderie... a father's gesture. And it made the breath momentarily catch in Claude's throat when he realized that it was one that his own father had never shared with him.

Rather than release him from that one-armed hug as he tensed, however, Berger's father just squeezed him again, "We did good here, son. I'm sure George will love it." Letting Claude go with one final pat, Jack smiled at him, "You're not bad with your hands, Claude. I'll admit to being a bit impressed. George... well, let's just say he's a bit useless when it comes to putting things together. He's more adept at taking them apart."

That last startled Claude out of his frozen moment, back into amusement. With a quiet laugh, he said, "Yeah... I think I could see that." The two men shared a smile of pure understanding. After a moment, Claude cleared his throat, "I suppose we ought to go rescue him from the women, shouldn't we?"

Berger's father laughed, waggled his eyebrows in yet another gesture reminiscent of his son, "Oh... I don't know. I think we ought to let him suffer for a while."

They stared at each other for a moment, then Claude let out another huff of a laugh, "No... I don't think I'm that mean."

"Well, that makes one of us," was Jack's tart answer.

Still laughing, Claude made his way to the bedroom, peered around the door to see inside. The sight that met his eyes would have been pathetic if it hadn't been so ludicrous. Berger had a white shirt on, halfway buttoned, with one tail tucked into his jeans. His mother was holding a red sweater up in front of him on his left and Sheila was holding a green one up on his right. Samantha was digging through a pile on the bed to find another one that she swore was in there somewhere. Berger's eyes landed on Claude with a gleam of sincere relief, "Claudio! Help! I need rescuing from these three insanos! I haven't even gotten a chance to say hello to my dad, yet!"

Claude laughed, walked over to pat Berger on the shoulder, "Poor Karma-Berger. Let's see what I can do about that, OK?" He turned to Sheila, ready to ask her to let Berger go, when he happened to get a better look at the sweater in her hands. It was a rich forest green and looked like it would be so very soft to the touch. If she'd found it at one of the thrift stores, Claude was impressed. Seeing him looking, she held it up to him. He reached out a hand, ran it down the sweater. It felt as soft as it looked. And that rich, green color... He took it from Sheila, held it up towards Berger's face so he could see it next to the man's eyes. Sure enough, it was a perfect match. Quietly he said, "Berger... would you...?"

Berger sighed, rolled his eyes once for good measure, but he could never really deny Claude anything. That much hadn't changed. Then again, Claude supposed that was fair. He couldn't really say no to Berger, either. He reached out, helped Berger do up the last of his buttons, then stepped back as Berger tucked the shirt the rest of the way into his jeans and reached for the sweater to pull it on over his head. Once he had it settled in place, Claude couldn't help the soft smile that spread across his features. He'd been right. That sweater looked like it had been designed with Berger in mind.

Sheila moved closer to Claude, wrapped an arm around his waist and leaned her head against his shoulder, "Claude... It's perfect. You've got a good eye."

Claude shrugged, offered Berger a sheepish grin, "Only because Sexy-Berger here is my subject of choice."

Berger rolled his eyes, but in spite of that show, Claude could easily see how pleased he'd made the other man with the comment and his and Sheila's obvious appreciation. He stepped forward, joined them in a group hug, smirked at them both, "Never thought I'd get this kind of reaction out of you two by putting on more clothes. What kind of messed up shit is that?"

Now it was Sheila's turn to roll her eyes as she smacked Berger lightly on the back of the head. Berger made an exaggerated "ow" face and rubbed the back of his head, sniffled melodramatically. Claude couldn't help it. He started to laugh. When he got himself back under control, he said quietly, "So... if you guys are done in here for a moment, I could use you out in the living room."

Berger raised an eyebrow at him, clearly having caught on that something was going on, but willing to hold off on the questions for now. Elaine just smiled softly at him, eagerness in her eyes. Sheila retrieved Cheryl from Samantha, then brought both girls back over to join them. Claude smiled, waved them out into the living room.

The minute they emerged from the bedroom, Claude nudged Berger to face the alcove where they'd placed the tree. The other man stared for a moment, blinked a few times, obviously having a momentary processing failure. Not one to waste a speechless-Berger moment, Claude hastily nodded at Jack who obligingly flipped the switch on the Christmas lights, setting the tree aglow with soft reds, blues, greens and yellows.

Berger just continued to stare at the tree, completely mesmerized, mouth dropped open with awe. Claude stepped up behind him, wrapped his arms around him and hooked his chin over the other man's shoulder. He spoke quietly into Berger's ear, "I spoke to your father last night, told him my concerns about going to Rockefeller Center. This was his idea, to have our own mini tree lighting ceremony at the apartment." He could feel it against his cheek as Berger swallowed hard, mutely shook his head.

Claude continued, "He also told me how you feel about having a live tree in the house." Berger nodded, almost frantically, Claude noted, "Well, I know you remember our first Christmas together. You... you told me about it that first night in the hospital. I remember..." Claude shuddered slightly, cleared his throat to cover his discomfort with that memory, "Anyway, apparently your father and mother bought an artificial tree that year so that you could all enjoy the holiday tradition without undue stress on anyone's part." At that, Berger actually managed to snort out half an amused laugh. Claude smiled right along with him, "But now... since your family doesn't mind having a real tree, your father thought it would be nice for us to have this one. That way we could enjoy that tradition, too."

Berger swallowed hard again, opened his mouth to speak. He seemed embarrassed when nothing came out, cleared his throat and tried again. On the third try, he finally got his voice to emerge, roughened by emotion, but strong, "I... I don't know what to say."

Elaine stepped up to her son's side, placed a soft kiss against his cheek, "Say 'Thank you,' George."

Berger huffed out a laugh, turned to wrap an arm around his mother and pull her close for a hug, "Thank you, George."

That got everyone else laughing, added a touch of humor to a moment that had gotten unexpectedly heavy. Elaine beamed a gentle smile at her son, then at Jack's nod, turned to retrieve her bag from the couch. When she came back, she offered her son a soft smile, "I know it isn't even close to Christmas yet, but Jack and I do have gifts for the four of you, if you don't mind opening a few early...?"

At Berger's eager headshake and upturned hands, they all laughed again. Elaine just rolled her eyes at her son and started pulling out brightly wrapped packages, one each for Berger, Claude, Sheila and Cheryl. At Samantha's woeful look, she gave the girl a gentle hug, "Yours is still at home, sweetheart. You can open it when we get back, if you like." She sighed but nodded in agreement, not wanting to be the one to ruin the moment.

As Claude moved away from Berger to start gently opening his own present, he was surprised to note a mild shake in his hands. This... it was so unexpected, so very Elaine, and he couldn't help the wistful thought that emerged in the wake of that one - he wished that his family had been more like Berger's. He wished it with a passion. If they had, he might not have... he might not have... he might not have a lot of things.

After a moment, he became aware that the others were all watching him, waiting to open their own gifts until he'd opened his. Though caught again at that sign of caring and interest, this time Claude forced himself past it, continued opening the wrapping. Once he had it open, he set the paper aside and pulled open the box to reveal a nest of tissue paper. Pulling that aside and gently removing what was nestled inside it, Claude's breath caught. It was an ornament. And it was beautiful.

Berger stepped up behind him, wrapped his arms around him in the mirror to the pose Claude had assumed behind him just a few moments ago. Looking over his shoulder, Berger reached out a hand to lightly touch the ornament. He smiled, nuzzled his nose into Claude's neck before turning to look at his mother, eyes practically glowing with joy, "It's perfect, Mom. I love it."

The ornament was in the style of a snow globe with fluffy white flakes shivering eagerly inside it, as though begging him to give them a shake. He couldn't reign in the impulse to do so, gave the globe a gentle swirl. And through the white flurries, he could still make out the landmarks... Westminster Abby, Big Ben, Buckingham Palace - all of London in the palm of his hand. It wasn't Manchester, but it still reminded him of simpler days, happier days... days when he hadn't been so broken.

Berger's happy yell of, "My turn!" nearly into his ear, brought him abruptly out of his melancholy musing and Claude turned obligingly to watch the other man tear the paper from his own gift. Sure enough, his present was also inside an ornament-sized box. He smiled broadly, pulled open the box and tossed the tissue paper aside. And when he looked inside it... he froze again, stock-still like he had when he'd seen the tree. His eyes went round and shocked, whites showing all the way around. He then immediately turned to his mother and tried to push the box at her, blurted out almost hysterically, "I can't take this!"

Elaine smiled, shook her head, "You most certainly can, George."

Eyes still wide in inexplicable distress, Berger said plaintively, "But... but it's your favorite. It was your father's. I... I can't take it."

Elaine shook her head, walked over to pull her son into a gentle embrace, rocked him against her for a moment. When he calmed, she stepped back, cupped his face in her hands, "George... you never really had the chance to know your grandfather. You were too young when he died. So, please take my word for it when I tell you this. He'd have been unbelievably proud of the man you've become and he'd want you to have it. It's more appropriate than you know."

Finally subsiding, Berger took a deep breath, let it out on a shaky little laugh, "Fine. But if I break it... it's on your head."

Jack just rolled his eyes as he stepped up to join the conversation, "Believe me, George, you and your sister sure tried hard enough when you were kids and neither of you managed it. If you couldn't break him then, I doubt you'll break him now. So, don't worry about it."

With those words as reassurance, Berger finally pulled the ornament from its box. It was a knight - a gleaming knight in shining, white armor, sword and shield held up at the ready. Claude couldn't help but smile. Elaine was right. That ornament was more appropriate for Berger than he knew. After all... he'd been Claude's knight in shining armor all along, saving him from himself when nothing else could. But Berger wasn't the kind of guy who could accept that kind of praise, wouldn't be comfortable with that sort of acknowledgement, no matter how much he deserved it.

By then they'd all figured out the pattern and eagerly looked towards Sheila to reveal her ornament. When she opened her own, she let out a laughing little groan, "Bergerrrrr..." The younger man blinked innocently at her as though to ask what it was that he'd done to deserve that tone of voice. It wasn't until Sheila pulled out her own ornament that he understood and, through his laughter, hastened to explain that he hadn't had anything to do with it. Claude leaned over to peer at the ceramic figurine and when he saw what it was, he too started to smile.

Sheila's ornament was an intricately detailed and painted black bear, hovering protectively over three small cubs. It captured Sheila's essence to a tee. Knowing that that was the case, Elaine looked a little perturbed at Sheila's reaction. Before she could get too upset, however, Sheila sighed and said, "It's not the ornament, Elaine. Truthfully, I love it - it's beautiful. It's what I thought it represented." At Elaine's raised eyebrow, she said dryly, "My brother Roger used to call me 'Sheila-bear' when I was younger... and that nickname crops up again and again at the most inopportune and embarrassing times." Nodding her head towards Berger, she added, "And your son caught him using it yesterday, so I just assumed..." She shrugged.

Elaine laughed, "I can certainly see how that would prompt that reaction, then. No offense taken... Sheila-bear."

At that, Sheila rolled her eyes again and Claude could see her fighting to reign in the impulse to smack Elaine like she wouldn't have hesitated to do to her son. Berger quickly held up the fourth package, the one meant for Cheryl, to provide a distraction. He turned around in a circle holding the box as though to ask who wanted to open it, then seemed to think better of it and wordlessly handed it to Claude. Seeing Sheila nodding her head in silent agreement at the action, Claude knew better than to argue. If he couldn't say no to Berger alone, trying to say no to the pair of them working in tandem was beyond a lost cause.

Claude gently lifted Cheryl from where she'd been sitting on the floor and playing with the discarded wrapping paper, moved to sit on the couch with the girl settled in his lap. He let her assist in pulling off the paper, smiled when she flung it off with just as much wild abandon as her father had. Once the box was thoroughly unpapered, he gently pulled it from her hands and opened it. Nestled in the tissue paper was a small crystal ornament in the shape of a tiny angel. And at the base of the figurine, Cheryl's name was etched into the crystal, along with her date of birth - a date that was doubly significant in this family, also being the day that Berger had found Claude.

Berger and Sheila settled on either side of them on the sofa, enfolded the pair in a warm embrace. Berger smiled softly, "Mom... Dad... you guys did good. You did real good." At Claude's curious look, Berger explained, "Samantha and I have ones just like this one for my parents' tree, so do all of our cousins for their parents' trees.. For that matter, so do my parents. The angel ornaments always stay with the parents of the kids they belong to, even when the kids move out, that way a part of them will always be home for Christmas, no matter where they are. It's a family tradition."

Claude smiled, pressed a kiss to the top of Cheryl's head, "I think that's a tradition I can fully support."

Elaine gave the four of them a soft, proud look, "I'm glad you like them. Now... I know they're not much to fill a whole tree with, but we figured that since you do have a tree, this would at least get you started. So what do you say? You ready to put them on the tree or did you want to wait until December 1st?"

Claude, Berger and Sheila looked at each other, had a moment of silent communion, then Sheila quietly said, "I'd love to hang them, now. I think we should." When both men silently nodded, she took Cheryl's ornament from Claude and stood.

They all moved over to the tree but Sheila and Berger held back, let Claude hang his ornament first. He examined the tree for a moment, seemed to be considering the best placement for it. Finally, he picked a spot and carefully hung the ornament.

Berger couldn't help a soft smile at the appropriateness of that placement. Claude may not have realized it, but he'd put his ornament just left of the center of the tree... where the tree's heart would be, if it had one. Berger walked over and gave the man a tight squeeze. It was appropriate for Claude's ornament to be the heart of their tree... because he was certainly the heart of their family. Berger leaned past him, hung the white knight with calm certainty immediately to the right of Claude's ornament. He couldn't have explained why, except that he knew that their ornaments belonged near each other... to protect each other.

Sheila stepped up beside them, eyed the two ornaments for a moment, then smiled. She placed her own ornament above their two and halfway between them, for just as Claude was their heart and Berger their protective right hand, so too was Sheila their mind. Once they'd had a moment to stare at the three ornaments together, Sheila added the final touch and placed Cheryl's angel in the spot exactly between the other three.

Claude couldn't tear his eyes away from those four ornaments. There was such a feeling of import to this occasion, such a strong feeling of family wrapped up in the mere fact of that tree, strung up with lights and the beginnings of a family collection of ornaments. It was cheesy and a little ridiculous, but standing here with Cheryl in his arms, Berger and Sheila resting their heads against his shoulders and Berger's family around them... suddenly it felt like everything was going to be all right. He didn't know how, he didn't know when, but it was all going to be all right. Cheryl fisted her hands in Claude's shirt, snuggled her head under his chin and made a happy, sleepy little cooing noise. Sheila immediately held up a hand to stroke her head. She just snuggled closer.

This... Good G-d, this. Being part of a family, no matter how nontraditional, sharing the joy of raising this precious child, this boundless feeling of love... this was what Claude had wanted all those years ago, what he'd craved from his own family and never quite gotten. But here, with Berger, with Sheila... with Cheryl, he finally had it. He'd had it all along.

As in tune with Claude's feelings as he always was these days, Berger leaned closer and pressed a gentle kiss to Claude's cheek. Then softly, he whispered into Claude's ear, "Welcome home, Claudio... Welcome home."


Finally. ^_^ The end.

Berger: *gapes* Oh no. Nonono. That is not the end.

Jeanie: D: I agree! That is not the end. That can not be the end.

R-chan: *sweatdrop* Of this fic! Sheesh, guys. Give a girl a break, huh? I never said there wasn't going to be a sequel!

Berger: *pause* Ooooooh... A seeeeeeequel.

Jeanie: *narrows eyes* Mm-hmm. I see.

R-chan: *eyes widen at Jeanie* *little voice* Has anyone told you that you're kind of scary now that you're a mom?

Jeanie: *feral grin* I believe it's been mentioned once or twice, actually. Yes. And who's fault exactly is that, hmm?

R-chan: *sweatrain* *littler voice* Mine...?

Jeanie: That's right. Yours. So what are you going to do about it?

R-chan: *squeaks* Get started working on that sequel, now?

Jeanie: *slow smile* *nods*

R-chan: *squeaks again* *runs off*

Berger: *stares at Jeanie* *_* *_* Seriously, Jeanie... I love you so hard, right now.

Jeanie: ^_^

Claude: *wobble eyes* Me, too!

Jeanie: *gapes at Claude*

Claude: *sweatdrop* Oops. Oh shit. Sorry... Sorry... I'll just... I'll just go now...

Jeanie: *gets a gleam in her eyes as she stares off in Claude's direction, then turns to stare after the fic author* *rubs hands together* I'll just go see about moving her along a little faster, then, shall I? *stalks off after the chibi*

Berger: *_* *_* *_* *_* Really love you right now, Jeanie. That's all I'm saying. Really love you. *_* *_* *_* *_*

I hope you all enjoyed it! ^_^