Author's Note: Thank you guys so much for your reviews! I know a lot of you are looking forward to Meredith finding out the full truth, and I can promise you it's coming up. I was just working on those scenes last night, and those revelations will sort of span chapters six & seven. I'm hesitant to spoil my own stories, but I'm also cognizant of it stretching on uncomfortably now and I don't want you guys to think I'm just teasing you with the occasional step forward just to yank any progress back. The reality is that this is the sort of secret Meredith can't simply discover on her own because she doesn't have the right set of background knowledge; she doesn't even know that there's a race so similar to humans that exists, so it's not like she can easily attribute Chloe's strange behavior to that, you know? So it's an organic process until something breaks or forces Chloe's hand and... well, this is the chapter that sets all of that in motion, and I think you'll see why!
Thanks again for continuing to read and supporting my story, and I look forward to hearing what you guys have to say.
Meredith has so many questions for Alek's parents. It just doesn't make sense to her, how anyone can abandon their child the way they did Alek. She understands that some people simply aren't made to be parents, but those also aren't usually the people who adopt.
She's been through it herself, and she knows what a difficult and time-consuming process adoption is. While it might be a bit different in England, she's confident that both nations put the best interests of the child first, so the process can't be all that different. It stretches out over months, and sometimes years, and there's always a risk of setback and having your heart broken. Adoptive parents invite strangers into their homes to judge them, open up everything from their bedrooms to their bank accounts for scrutiny. They're automatically on the defensive, put in a position where they need to prove they're even worthy of being considered.
Adoption isn't something you do because it seems trendy or because you think it makes you look good. Adoption is the path you choose when you can't imagine not being a parent, and even the prospect of being up all night with a sick child excites you, because there's no place you'd rather be.
Adoptive parents don't approach parenthood expecting it to be easy, because even just getting there is a journey.
It appears like Meredith will have a chance to ask her questions, though, when she gets word from her lawyer shortly before Thanksgiving that Alek's parents have agreed to travel to San Francisco to settle things.
She doesn't tell Chloe or Alek, deterred by how strangely they reacted to her attempts to get in touch with his parents in the first place, and arranges a meeting at a bistro near the airport.
She's expecting a couple more like the parents from Matilda than Leave it to Beaver, so she's incredibly surprised by the couple standing in front of her. Helen Lewis is a diminutive woman who stands at barely five feet tall, with pale skin, glasses, and mousy brown hair. Her husband, Peter, towers over her but isn't at all intimidating in his khakis and sweater vest.
"We didn't even know Valentina had passed," Helen tells Meredith after they've exchanged greetings and introductions, running her fingers anxiously over the edge of her menu. "And Alek – he's okay?"
The concern is evident in Helen's voice and it throws Meredith off. She nods slowly. "He's doing well. He's recovering from a broken nose, though, because of a fight after basketball practice." She knows it's a lie, and yet she repeats it anyway, not even sure why.
Helen and Peter exchange a look, and Meredith's not sure what to make of it. The silence stretches on, and when Helen speaks again, she sounds almost pleading. "It's not that we don't love him, I hope you understand. We just weren't equipped to be parents to him, after the changes."
Meredith frowns at that, finding it to be a pretty lame excuse. From what she understands, Alek came to California at the start of high school, and it hardly could've been a surprise that a thirteen or fourteen year old boy would undergo changes. It was a pretty clear indication that they weren't bright enough to be parents if they didn't know puberty existed. "I don't really understand," she admits, trying to keep her tone civil, because having these people on her side for the petition will make the whole process a lot easier. She wants to yell at them, to tell them all about what a great kid Alek is, but she refrains. "Did you always expect him to be a little boy?"
Peter frowns, apparently taking offense to that, anyway. "It's not that simple. We thought we knew what we were getting into, researched what conditions were like in Russia and the Ukraine and all those former satellite countries so we'd have a good idea of what his life was like. We were equipped for trouble; we knew he might have problems because of everything that happened to him when he was so young, but…" He trails off, and glances at his wife.
"We have two younger kids," Helen tells her, as if that's somehow an excuse. When she realizes Meredith isn't coming around, she adds, "Your daughter - she's one of them, right?"
"Chloe," Meredith supplies, and nods. She's not sure how they guessed Chloe was born in the Ukraine, but she doesn't get how that's supposed to make her understand. It's not like the conditions of Chloe's formative years are lost on her; given the massacre, she always anticipated there'd be emotional problems, and she knows she's lucky that there haven't been, and that Chloe doesn't remember. "And yes, but I always knew there could be issues. I never thought there should be some kind of return policy, if my daughter wound up damaged goods." She can't quite bite back the accusation this time, too fed up to care.
"You're lucky, then," Peter tells her, shaking his head. "These kids, they're…." He trails off, and Meredith thinks the way he says 'kids' sounds off. "They're monsters. We couldn't just sit around waiting for Alek to lose control. We had to think of our other kids. The youngest was only five then."
After their talk, Meredith is too upset to go home. It's a mixture of anger and sadness and indignation, and she's worried that if she goes right home, she won't be able to hide her emotions from Chloe and Alek. She's just stunned, really, at the nerve of his parents. From their explanation, it sounds like Alek was experiencing some sort of post-traumatic stress, and their reaction was to kick him out? It's unbelievable.
She drives around for a while, and finds herself parked outside the law offices of Adler & Koenig. She doesn't have an appointment, obviously, and she's only recently hired her lawyer. He's a partner at the firm, so almost surely busy, but she goes in anyway.
"I need to see Evan Koenig," she tells the receptionist, sounding incredibly frustrated.
"I think he's in a meeting," the receptionist starts to say, not glancing up from her computer. When Meredith doesn't move away, she glances up and frowns. "I'll see what I can do."
The receptionist reappears a few minutes later with a man who appears to be younger than Meredith, so she's dubious when he introduces himself as Evan Koenig. He's not at all what she imagines a lawyer to look like; he looks like he belongs in a gym instead of pouring over case law, and it looks like it's been a few days since his last shave. He wears glasses, but they don't manage to make him look any older. She's only spoken to her lawyer on the phone, though, and dealt face to face with his equally young staff, so she hesitates to call them on what she initially assumes is some juvenile scheme
"I'm Meredith King," she introduces herself, still halfway convinced that the man standing in front of her actually works in the mailroom and this is just the receptionist's way of getting rid of her.
Warm eyes light up with recognition. "Ah, the guardianship case," he acknowledges, and okay, maybe he isn't the mail guy. "Here, come with me to my office."
Meredith follows him down a long hallway to the biggest corner office she's ever seen. She steps inside, admiring the view of the Embarcadero from his windows. Evan sits down at his desk, rifling through a stack of papers on top of it. There's a gym bag on the chair opposite his desk, so Meredith stands awkwardly next to it.
Evan glances up after a minute and grimaces when he notices the gym bag. "Oh, sorry, you can just put it on the floor." He seems to think better of it a second later and leans over the desk to grab it himself. "Sweaty," he explains with a shrug, which isn't exactly an enticement for Meredith to sit, but she does so anyway.
"So, don't take this the wrong way," Meredith starts, even though she's warned Chloe a hundred times that any sentence that starts with that sort of disclaimer just shouldn't be uttered aloud in the first place, "But you look really young to be a lawyer. And maybe a little too pretty, too."
He grins, either because of what she's said or because he's found the papers he was looking for, and leans back in his chair. "I've heard worse. And I'm older than I look."
"And how old is that, exactly?" It's a bit rude, she knows, but this is the man she's trusting to keep Alek out of foster homes and away from his awful parents.
"Do I look, or how old am I actually?" he retorts immediately, and shrugs. "I'm 32. You asked exactly, so I can tell you I'll be 33 on Christmas Day. Put a crimp in my mom's plans right from the start."
And dear God, that's young.
Evan seems to read her mind because he continues quickly, "I can assure you I earned this office, though. It's not nepotism or anything like that. I graduated first in my class from Harvard Law, made a lot of money for a law firm in Boston, then moved out here." He gestures to the wall of degrees and accolades behind him, as if she'll need proof of what he's saying.
Feeling a little guilty for challenging him like that, Meredith bites her lower lip. "I'm sorry. It's just nerves. I met Alek's parents today and, well, let me just say it's more important than ever that I win this case." She glances around the office, gazing finding the framed photos hanging from the walls instead of the degrees. Most are of some far off landmark, an exotic animal, or someone's expressive face. They're from all over the world, and she wonders how Evan's even had time to experience so much.
He follows her gaze to a photo of a yawning lion somewhere in the deserts of Africa and smiles. "You ever been?" When she shakes her head, he adds, "Me neither. My little brother's the world traveler; he's a photographer for the National Geographic." Refocusing, he pushes the papers he'd found across the table and tells her, "These are the forms we're going to fill out. I was going to call you tomorrow to schedule an appointment, but you're already here, and it's close enough to my lunch break anyway."
The pile of papers in front of her is overwhelming. She leafs through Form GC-210 before looking up at Evan and shaking her head. "I thought I've seen a lot of red tape, working in real estate."
He taps a spot about halfway down the first page. "A lot of this is geared more toward guardianship of the estate than of the person, so you don't actually have to worry about all that fiduciary stuff. But really, that's what I'm here for. Filling out all the pain in the ass paperwork."
Meredith smiles at that, and sifts through the rest of the paperwork, relieved she doesn't have to figure it out on her own.
They spend nearly an hour filling out the paperwork. He's mostly quiet, filling out the bulk of it without even having to think about it, but glances up at Meredith with the occasional question. "It's Alek-with-a-K, right? And what's his birthdate?"
She'll nod, and recite from memory, "June 13th, 1994."
He fills that in, and then hands her another of the forms. In big, bold letters, it reads "CONFIDENTIAL" across the top, and is labeled GC-212. Evan's already filled in the contact information and Superior Court address, and leaves her to fill out the rest. It's kind of like a really nosy job application, with nearly twenty questions asking about the criminal history, alcohol and drug dependency, and financial security of everyone living in her home.
She's just finishing up checking all those little boxes when Evan speaks up again, turning the paper he's working on so she can read the question. "Now I just need to hear, in your own words, why you think it's necessary or convenient for Alek to have you as a guardian."
Meredith hesitates, not really sure what kind of answer the courts are looking for. "I can provide him with a better life than his parents can, or are willing to?" she tries.
Evan shakes his head. "That's subjective. I believe you, but you don't want to have to offer proof of that in a hearing. Just speak from the heart. Why is it important to you to take care of Alek, and why is it important to him to have you in his life?"
"He's a kid," she says simply, staring down at her hands, "and he might not always see himself that way, but it's still the adult's responsibility to let a kid be a kid. Alek's done a lot to help our family, and in the process, he's become a part of it. His parents live five thousand miles away, and they can't parent from that kind of distance. His moving back to England isn't really an option, either, since his parents don't want to parent him. And I do. I enjoy having him over, and he enjoys being over. I'm already teaching him how to cook, and my daughter's been helping him with his schoolwork, and everyone deserves that kind of support system. Especially a kid."
When she glances up, Evan's scribbling furiously as he tries to capture what she's said on the form. He smiles at her a minute later, and offers her yet another form. "I don't foresee any problems," he tells her, "But if you can get Alek's parents to sign this form, consenting to your guardianship petition and waiving notice, we could have this entire thing resolved before Christmas."
She grins and thanks him, getting up to leave. On her way out the door, though, she pauses, a thought occurring to her. "If you're some hotshot lawyer, why'd you take my case? You know I can't afford to pay you some exorbitant fee."
Evan shrugs, and reaches for a photo on his desk. He turns it around and holds it up for her to see. Evan's younger in the picture, between two other boys about his age, and an older couple stands behind them. It looks like any family photo, but the older couple are too fair to have given Evan his coloring, and one of Evan's brothers is black. "Cindy Koenig was my Meredith King," he tells her simply, "and no one knows as well as I do how huge an impact you'll have on this boy's life."
Meredith's greeted by grunts and gunfire upon returning home. She isn't alarmed, though, because it doesn't seem very likely there's an actual automatic weapon in her living roo. Plus, Alek's sitting on top of a kitchen counter, listening to Chloe's iPod, and she's fairly certain he wouldn't be so calm if there was a threat in the house. The music must be loud, because he doesn't hear her come in, and he's normally very alert.
She sets down her jacket and purse before waving a hand in front of Alek's face to get his attention. He doesn't remove the earbuds but glances up, and gestures toward the living room. "Greg came over with his xBox, and Chloe's apparently learning to love Call of Duty."
It's not all that surprising to Meredith, since Chloe's the kind of kid who will try anything once, but she would've expected Alek to join them. "Not a fan of xBox?" she asks, but Alek just looks confused. He takes out an earbud, stiffening as the sounds from the living room flood his senses, and Meredith repeats her question.
"Not a fan of guns." He sounds on edge, and as one of the kids unloads their magazine in the next room over, he flinches.
Meredith frowns, considering his parents' vague comments about how troubled his early years had been. "Do you want to come for a ride with me?" she asks impulsively. "I figured we'd do Chinese food tonight." She'd really been planning on pasta, but suddenly takeout seems like a better idea, for the built-in excuse of getting Alek out of the house.
He nods, a little too quickly, and then seems to think of something. "I should tell Chloe, though," he tells her, sounding oddly hesitant about leaving Chloe behind. Meredith knows those two are attached at the hip, but sometimes it seems like Alek thinks it's his job to be around her.
"I'll tell her," she says quickly, and Alek agrees easily. He flinches again as another round of gunfire seems to reverberate around the house, and Meredith frowns, pulling her keys out of her purse. "Can you go turn my car on for me? It's chilly, so having the heat on would be nice."
She watches him practically race from the room and sighs. It's the first time she's seen Alek so visibly shaken, and Meredith has a sick feeling in her stomach because she thinks she knows why. "Chloe!" she shouts over the sounds of the game, poking her head into the living room. She gives Greg a small smile and a hello after he's paused the game. "I'm gonna run out to pick up Chinese with Alek. You guys work out what you want and text me in the next few minutes, alright?"
Meredith calls in the order, tacking on an extra box of chicken fingers and beef teriyaki each, because she's feeding two teenage boys tonight. It will be a forty-five minute wait so she parks down by the Embarcadero and suggests they go for a walk. She figures Alek's more likely to talk to her if he doesn't feel trapped. They're quiet for the first few minutes, but then Meredith points down Washington Street and tells him, "That's where my lawyer works. Our lawyer, I guess." When Alek glances down the street but doesn't say anything, she presses, "I went to see him today, and he was asking me why I thought it would be a good thing for you to be under my guardianship. And I had my answer, but it occurred to me that we hadn't really talked about it much, one on one."
Alek stops suddenly, mid-step, and stares at Meredith. "I don't have any problems with the petition. You know that?" His inflection makes it sound like a question, but Meredith's not sure he meant it to be.
She nods anyway. "Yeah, yeah, of course I do." She pauses, glancing out at the bay. "That wasn't really what I meant to ask you. I guess my question's more why than if."
He mulls it over for a couple minutes, the sounds of a San Francisco night keeping the silence from growing awkward. "I'm not really sure," he tells her after a minute, sounding uncomfortable. "I do want it, though. I just don't know how to put that into words."
"Hmm." She's not really satisfied with the answer, but she doesn't want him to feed her some bullshit just to make her happy, either. Truthfully, coming from Alek, it almost means more that he doesn't have some perfect, prepared answer. "It's not just because of Chloe, right?" It's prying, but she has to ask. She knows some people will judge her for moving Alek in, make assumptions about how lax her parenting style is because she's allowing her daughter's boyfriend to move in. Only they aren't really dating, and Alek's role in their lives is much more significant than 'Chloe's boyfriend' now, anyway. She knows the risks; she knows they're teenagers and their hormones are out of control, and she knows she's making it all too easy for them to get too serious, too intimate, too quickly. But maybe her parenting style is lax, because she's also convinced that if something is going to happen between Alek and Chloe, it will happen regardless of where they're living. And besides, as far as she's concerned, not helping a child in need would be a much clearer indictment on her parenting.
"No." It comes out fast, but not so fast that Meredith worries he's being disingenuous. She's getting better at identifying Alek's lies. "I'm not going to lie. I like being around her, but that's not why I like the idea." They keep walking, but he stops talking, so Meredith thinks the conversation is over. Then, when they turn to head back to the car, Alek adds, "It's more you than her, really. I mean, Valentina was really good to me. Better than she was with Jasmine, really. But she didn't cook."
Meredith smiles. She knows it's not always easy for teenagers, especially boys, to open up, so that statement is huge. Alek's especially guarded, likely because of how many times he's been disappointed, and it means the world to Meredith that he trusts her enough to show any emotion even vaguely resembling vulnerability.
When they reach the car, Meredith's thinking about that video game and Alek's reaction to it. It's not something she particularly wants to push, but she knows she has to, and that she's let these kids off too easy by only discussing one difficult topic at a time. It's not her job to be his friend; it's her job to keep him safe and healthy and happy. Sometimes, that includes asking uncomfortable questions. "Alek, what happened to your biological parents?"
It takes him by surprise, and his whole body goes rigid as he looks at her. "What?"
He understood the question perfectly fine, she knows, but Meredith clarifies anyway. "Given the petition, it seems like the sort of thing I should know about. I want to know about it."
Alek opens the door to the car and slides into the passenger seat without a word. Meredith sighs, and leans against the driver's side door, mumbling a prayer under her breath to whomever might be listening to help her be there for Alek.
It's a strange thing, when she climbs into the car, because Alek's looking at her with far more understanding than a teenager should be capable of. It's almost like he heard her prayer, but she dismisses the thought quickly, because through a door and under her breath, that would be impossible. "They were murdered, my parents," he tells her quietly. "I don't normally talk about it."
She rests her hands on the steering wheel but doesn't start the car, taking a minute to absorb this. She'd already reached that conclusion, but it's still weightier coming from him.
He continues after a minute, staring out the windshield as he speaks. "My dad was a Russian journalist, and some people in power didn't like what he had to say. They were afraid he had too much influence, and they wanted to stop him before…" He trails off suddenly, as if reconsidering what he was going to say.
Meredith's mind fills in the gaps with her own memories of that part of the world after the Soviet Union's collapse. There had been a handful of high profile assassinations, especially among the press and others who dared to speak out against the government. "Oh, Alek," she starts, and then frowns, thinking of how he'd tried to drown out the sounds of the game. "You were there." She knows it intuitively, beyond a doubt.
Alek continues to stare straight ahead but gives a subtle nod. Meredith squeezes her eyes shut, deflated.