The night was spent in an emotional haze for Sophia, who felt like her world had imploded in on itself. Her constant thoughts centered on the disastrous conversation she'd had with Jeff, his heartrendingly hopeful expression when he'd asked her about her slip up and her cowardly actions as she escaped his apartment in a trembling mass of anxiety.
It was only after she had assembled some form of coherence to her roiling thoughts and emotions, that she realized what had actually happened. The whole experience seemed to flit around in her mind in a messy tangle of sounds and images. She could remember the split second in which the whole thing had fallen apart. How could she face Jeff now? She had barely mustered up the courage to meet him the first couple of times, but now she had well and truly put her foot in it.
She had remained distraught at her own stupidity; Gray had a champion's task of consoling his panicked girlfriend by holding her in a comforting embrace and whispering soothing assurances all night. Sophia felt doubly terrible then, for keeping him up all night especially when he had to face Jeff at work the next morning.
"I'm sorry," She had whispered dolefully, clutching the back of his t-shirt as they lay in bed.
Gray opened his drooping eyelids and frowned, "For what?" He murmured back, tucking her closer under his chin.
"For ruining your evening," She scoffed, "For being such a cry-baby, for keeping you awake and having to deal with my problems."
"Nobody said any of this was going to be easy…" He said quietly, "We'll deal with all of it as it happens."
She nodded and suddenly tried to pull away from him.
Gray jolted from his wavering drowsiness and immediately tightened his arms around her waist, halting her movements by tangling their legs together under the comforter. "Hey, where do you think you're going?" He reprimanded gently, nudging his nose along her cheek.
Sophia sighed, reluctantly trying again to extricate herself from his warm body. "I was going to take the couch so you can get some rest; your shift starts early." She informed, even as her traitorous hands drifted under his thin shirt to stroke the steely muscles of his back.
Gray shivered and grinned, "I don't mind all that, besides, I think I'm getting a pretty great deal…" His hand snuck under the covers and grasped behind her knee, hooking her thigh over his hip. "I'm going to take care of you, like you took care of me when I needed it most… so stay still and let me hug you."
His tone brooked no arguments, and Sophia found herself beaming a watery smile as she nuzzled closer into his side. "You might regret saying that in the morning…" She warned, her hot breath searing through his shirt.
Gray took a deep breath and delved his fingers into her thick curls, gripping the strands tightly and tilted her face up towards his. "I could never regret being with you…" He vowed, his serious eyes glinting darkly for a long moment, before crushing his lips upon hers hard. "Never…"
Sophia let herself drown in his frantic kisses, clutching at his hair just as tightly as he was clutching hers. I love you so much, she thought dazedly, gasping breathlessly as his lips trailed over her jaw and down her neck. Her heart pounded drunkenly in her chest as she let out a delighted giggle and hugged him close.
She whispered the three words over and over in her mind as her soft lips pressed sweet kisses to his stubbly cheek, strong jaw line and straining neck muscles. Sophia didn't know how she had ever mistaken her feelings for him before; he was the only constant thing in her convoluted life thus far.
"Mmm…" He groaned happily, cocooning them within the sheets. "Definitely not regretting this…" He tilted his head up so that she could continue to kiss every inch of his skin.
"You're amazing…" She breathed against his neck, running her fingers through his hair soothingly. "I'm so lucky to have you… I don't know why you put up with all my nonsense." She admitted softly, simply gazing at him in wonder and adoration.
Gray lifted his drooping eyelids to peer at her, a delighted smirk curled at the corner of his lips. "Woman, you've had me wrapped around your little finger from the moment we first met." He sighed languidly as her fingernails scratched against his skin. "I'd willingly surrendered myself to you a long time ago…"
"You make it sound like I've got you in my evil clutches…" She grumbled.
Gray chuckled and nuzzled closer. "I'm not complaining…" He whispered and kissed the cute little pout away.
Sophia smiled despite herself. "Good, because I'm never letting you go…"
Her words were met with a look of pure love from Gray. He stared at her for a long moment, before drawing her in so close, that she felt as though she would simply melt into him. "I'm gonna hold you to that promise." He vowed, voice rumbling deeply.
Sophia simply wrapped her fingers in his and pressed a kiss to his chest, over his heart.
"Crap, I'm gonna be late!" Gray grumbled as he hastily tried to tug on his jacket. "And where are my keys?" He rummaged around in his pocket, but failed to locate them.
"They're here." Sophia called out, plucking the bunch off the kitchen table and hurried towards him. "I'm sorry!" She cringed as she approached.
It seemed like the crazy happenings of the night before had caused them both to pass out like rocks. Gray had only jolted awake a mere half-hour before, when his internal alarm clock had finally kicked in.
"Relax." He gathered her up against him and lifted her several inches off the floor. "I meant what I said last night." His gaze was unwavering.
Sophia's expression softened and she wrapped her arms around his neck, the keys dangled from her fingers. "Me too..." She placed a soft kiss on his lips and giggled when he immediately began to deepen it.
"Mmm…I've gotta go…" He stated, while lapping sweetly at her mouth.
Sophia began to pull away reluctantly, but he followed her kiss swollen lips as she did so. "You're running late, remember?" She teased, obliging him with a few more kisses nonetheless.
"I'm feeling conflicted about that suddenly." He retorted, a wry smile adorning his face as he lowered her down to the ground.
"Really…?" She quirked her head to the side and observed him, not missing the devilish expression.
She gasped a second later when his large hands delved under the overlarge hoodie of his she was still wearing and slid up her hips, squeezed her petite waist and ran along her ribs until the rough pads of his thumbs were brushing the undersides of her breasts.
She looked up at him and found his pupils dilated, she barely stifled a moan when she felt herself tighten and clench. She boosted herself to her tiptoes and rubbed her nose along his.
"Gray…" She whispered, biting her lip as he stroked higher over her heaving chest.
He groaned, hearing her calling his name like that made his whole body tense up. The softness at his fingertips felt like heaven, and her breathy sighs were dangerous to his self-control. "Yes baby?" His voice huskier than it ever was.
Sophia shuddered in delight and brought her hand down, trailing a searing line, with her index finger, down the hard contours of his stomach until she reached the outside of his hip. She heard his sharp intake of breath and felt the coiled power of him simmering under the surface. She had him twitching and tensing when slid her hand down the front of his pants and into his pocket, depositing his car keys there.
"Have a good day…" She said coyly, their breaths mingling for a moment before she leaned up and kissed the corner of his mouth.
Gray almost growled at her teasing gestures. He had damn near lost all his faculties when her small hand had strayed down there, causing him to buck forwards and grind against her stomach. He stared at her, heart hammering in his chest; she looked so innocent and sensuous all at the same time. "You really are evil…" He groaned, taking the chance to kiss her hotly on her mouth, tasting her sweet tongue and suckling on her rosy lips.
Sophia seemed to be having second thoughts about getting him to leave for work as his kissed trailed down her throat. She was humming in pleasure when he pulled away. "No…not finished…" She reached for him, but found that he was stubbornly out of her grasp. "Gray!" She beseeched him, eyes wide.
He looked just as conflicted having separated from her, but did not come any closer. "C'mon Soph, don't give me that look, you know I can't resist it." He sounded strained. He took a deep breath and scrubbed at his face and ran an impatient hand through his hair.
She stayed silent, but continued to give him that innocent pouty stare. She tried not to smile in triumph when he took a step in her direction. She was slowly pulling the zipper of the hoodie down, revealing the low cut tank top she was wearing underneath as she rubbed her legs against one another.
His hand rose up to stop her.
"You're killing me, babe…" He bit out; looming over her and closing the zipper back up.
She looked at him quizzically; their arousal was evident enough, so why was he stopping them from doing what they obviously wanted so badly?
Gray huffed in frustration and sagged against her, propping his chin on her shoulder. "I might go crazy, but I can't be with a girl, and then have to face her old man at work the same day…" He sounded resigned.
Sophia took in his words and sobered up immediately. "Oh God…" She paled, feeling slightly dizzy. "I cannot believe I forgot about that!"
Gray jerked up and regretted his outpouring after seeing the color drain from her face. "Fuck…I shouldn't have said that…" He panicked, scrambling to make this okay. "I'm sorry, Soph."
She shook her head stiffly and focused on her hands. "No. I needed the reminder." She gave him a wavering smile.
Gray hesitated for a long moment, watching the emotions flit across her expression. He felt like an absolute tool. Why did he have to go and put his foot in it so epically? He silently berated himself as he laid an apologetic kiss to her forehead. "I'll see you tonight…I'll make it up to you, I promise."
Sophia cupped his cheek and sighed. "Don't worry about it, I'll be fine."
"I can tell when you're not 'fine', Soph." He said sternly, "I'm going to make this up to you tonight, okay?" He waited for her little smile and reluctant nod, before kissing her cheek and hugging her one last time.
He picked up his duffle bag and left for work; feeling drained and worked up at the same time.
He could only imagine what kind of confrontation, from Jeff, awaited him there.
Sophia had sat, hunched miserably, on the couch wrapped in Gray's hooded sweatshirt and the patchwork quilt from his room. She swaddled herself in the downy soft cocoon; her head nestled amongst a bundle of crumpled tissues. A mug of tea lay abandoned on the coffee table, the television was droning tunelessly in the background while Sophia absently scratched behind Axle's ears.
The earlier high of the morning had dissipated and left her crashing hard. She had forgotten about the drama in her life for a few blessed hours, Gray always seemed to have that effect on her. Whenever she was with him, she could focus on nothing else but him. So, it was that much more terrible when she was brought back down to earth.
She wondered what he was doing now; would he be out on a call, or would he be embroiled in an awkward face-to-face with Jeff? He wasn't stupid; Jeff would have figured out that something was strange about her.
She felt completely horrible; Gray shouldn't have to be the one to face the man alone. Sophia knew, however, that she was too much of a coward to do it herself right now.
She rolled over on to her side, casing Axle to yip in surprise and tumble into the space between her and the couch. He squirmed for a moment before deciding that this was a comfortable place as any other, and proceeded to fall asleep.
This scene of pathetic self-pity was what greeted Danny when he came home later that afternoon.
"Wow." He called out drily, "You look like crap. What're you doing home anyway?"
Sophia jolted from her musings and found him crouched down next to her, peering at her with a mixture of intrigue and concern. She looked blankly at his face for a second, as if she didn't recognize him. It all changed when she scowled fiercely and lunged at him.
"YOU!" She growled, trying to free herself from the confines of the blanket but failed. "I hate you!"
Danny gasped for breath, pinned beneath the wriggling burrito of a woman, who lad knocked on him on his ass for no good reason. "What the hell! What did I do?" He groaned, fearing for his ribs, a sharp elbow digging painfully into them. She had landed sideways onto his unprotected torso, winding him in the process.
"You lied to me, you bastard!" Her voice was muffled from her face being obscured by the hood of the sweatshirt. She struggled and finally managed to rip her arms out of their restraints, not without making sure that he bore the maximum brunt of her rogue elbow.
"About what?" He yelped, wincing in pain and captured her flailing arms in a firm grasp. "And, will you quit that?" He sat up hastily, dislodging her from his person, and collapsed on the floor once again, groaning in pain.
"Our whole friendship has been a lie!" She raved into the air.
"What?" He sounded baffled. Danny turned his head to look at her and ask, "You're not making any sense, Soph. Of course our friendship hasn't been a lie, why would you think that?"
She crossed her arms over her chest and scoffed, "Oh really? Why don't you tell me about that time you told me Gray had run away from home to get away from me, when, in fact, he was at summer camp!"
The silence that accompanied that accusation weighed heavily between them. Danny tried to gulp down the lump of guilt lodged conspicuously in his throat. "Oh, that…" He chuckled nervously and glanced intently at the ceiling. "It's not what you think…"
Sophia snapped her head to the side and glared at him, "Well then, please, enlighten me."
He mouthed wordlessly for several moments, before sighing heavily and scrubbing at his face. "It was a prank." He said finally. "I thought it would be funny."
He could practically feel the seething rage pouring from her.
"Yeah, really hilarious!" Her tone was ice-cold, "I bet you laughed your ass off at how stupid and gullible I was!"
"No!" He denied vehemently, "That's not true." He raised himself up and leaned against the front of the couch.
Sophia rolled her eyes and continued to avoid his gaze.
"Okay… maybe I did laugh…at first…" He admitted hesitantly, recoiling when she fixed her piercing gaze upon him. He continued on in a rush, "The only reason I told you that in the first place, was because I was jealous…"
There was a beat of silence before she sat up, blinking in confusion. "What? Why?"
He groaned in embarrassment, "I don't know if you remember, but you used to hate me…" He chuckled in remembrance, "It was mostly my fault; I was a mean little brat back then."
"You still are…" She muttered, still glaring at him, but had a much less guarded expression.
"I heard that…" He retorted and went on with his explanation, "Anyway, as I said, I was jealous; of you, of my brother." Danny surreptitiously began to pick at his fingernails as the story went on. "I didn't like it when you came along one day, and practically stole my brother away from under my nose. I would act like a jerk to you whenever you'd come over; wouldn't share any of my toys and would pick on you…"
Sophia definitely remembered that version of him; he had not been her friend back then. "I still don't understand why you did it!"
Danny slumped down further, sounding apologetic, "Whenever you were around, Gray wouldn't give me the time of day; you guys were kind of inseparable. I hated that you took all of his attention." He sighed heavily and looked to the left. "When I told you he'd run away, I didn't actually think you'd believe it for real."
Sophia stared at him in incredulousness, "I was six years old, Danny! I believed in Santa Claus, and thought the Tooth Fairy was real!" The hurt was obvious, "You had just told me that my most favorite person, in the whole wide world, actually hated me; what did you expect me to think?"
"I know… I'm sorry!" The stricken expression on his face definitely reflected that sentiment. "I felt really shitty afterwards; you were crying and the guilt nearly killed me. I tried so hard to be on my best behavior after that."
She closed her eyes and bit back the unexpected swell of tears, "Why didn't you tell me the truth then – set it all straight?"
"I never anticipated how much I'd enjoy hanging out with you. After I had stopped being such a jerk, we started to get along; I really liked being your friend. I thought that if I told you that it was all a bad joke, you'd hate me even more and never want to be my friend again; you'd have him, and I'd lose my new buddy." He sounded ashamed of his actions, and it showed through the sloping curve of his shoulders. "I was being selfish… as always…I'm so sorry, Soph, please forgive me?"
Sophia bit her lip and fiddled with the corner of the blanket, reeling from the information she had just heard. This explained why he had been so adamant to make her think Gray was always mean and grumpy around her as kids; and she had believed him. Thinking back, she always had a sneaking suspicion that he wasn't as bad as Danny made him out to be, and she was right. The anger of all those wasted years, regarding her relationship with Gray, wherein she felt guilty for being so naïve, was overwhelming.
"I…" She had no idea of what to say at that moment; the pleading look Danny was giving her wasn't helping either.
Luckily, the buzzer for the building's intercom trilled, alerting them to the presence of a visitor.
"I'll get it." Danny said quietly, dragging himself, and the heavy burden of his guilt, to the door.
Sophia barely had a few minutes to compose herself, to a point which she could think straight, before the door was opened to admit the last person she would have expected at that moment.
"Hey man, what happened last night? You and Sophia just disappeared…missed some great pizza too…" Max questioned his colleague, who looked more than a little anxious that morning.
Gray managed a meager smile, already on edge since stepping foot in the firehouse, toting two cups of coffee and a box of donuts. "Sophia wasn't feeling so well, so I took her home." He said, by way of explanation.
Max accepted the lie and nodded in sympathy, "Well, I hope she's alright? Make sure you send her our well wishes."
"Will do," He clapped the taller man on the shoulder as he passed. "I appreciate your concern, man."
"Sure." He shrugged bashfully, "She's a really nice person; didn't even yell at me last night…" Suddenly, his eyes widened in horror, "It wasn't anything I did, was it? God, don't tell me, I broke her toes; didn't I?"
Gray tried to suppress his amusement at the dramatic interlude his friend was experiencing. "Calm down, Max, you didn't do anything to hurt her."
"Okay…" The relief in his voice was palpable, "I'm going to lie down." He staggered away, hand on heart, to collapse onto the couch.
Gray trudged over to the kitchen area and deposited the box of pastries on the counter. He was met by his only female colleague.
"Where'd you run off to last night?" She asked bluntly, immediately going for the best donut in the box.
"No reason… just wanted to say thanks to Sophia…for giving me some great advice, that's all…" She mumbled shiftily, taking a huge bite of the pastry in her hand.
"Uh huh…okay…" He nodded along, humoring her.
"What did you say to him?" Jessie asked, motioning to where the object of her affections was laying down.
Gray quirked a brow, his voice taking on a teasing tone, "Worried about your boyfriend?"
Jessie spluttered, trying to formulate an adequate response. "He's not my boyfriend!" She eventually huffed out.
"Not yet, anyway…" He smirked.
"What have you heard?" She narrowed her eyes at him, probably getting ready to wring his neck in annoyance.
This was interrupted, however, when Jeff popped his head around the door to his office and beckoned him over silently, looking rather haggard.
"Gotta go; the Boss man calls." He said hastily and made his exit.
The walk to Jeff's office seemed to take an inordinate amount of time. His mind was racing with the possibilities of what he may be confronted with when he stepped into that little room. He didn't know if he was ready to answer the elder man's questions, but he knew that that choice was not one he had available to him right then.
"You wanted to see me, Sir?" He asked nervously, standing just inside the threshold.
"Sir?" Jeff snorted, gesturing to the chair in front of his desk, "Relax, I just want to ask you something…"
Gray dropped into the seat, heart in mouth; he knew exactly what the elder man wanted to ask him. "Coffee?" He proffered the cup to Jeff, hoping that the caffeine hit would help this entire thing go smoothly.
Jeff blinked in surprise, "Sure." He took the cup and opened the lid; to his relief it contained strong black coffee. He had half expected to find some sort of frothy swill; but realized that the young man sitting across from him probably knew him better than most. "Thanks." He took a swig and nodded in appreciation, "This is good stuff!"
"No problem, Boss." Gray shrugged, taking a hearty gulp of his own, equally strong, brew. "So…what did you want to ask me?" He kept his tone light.
Jeff regarded the younger man for a long moment, and looked down at the cup. He had been expecting this conversation, it seemed, or otherwise he wouldn't have brought him coffee…
He reclined into his chair and watched Gray shrewdly. "Do you remember the strip of photographs I showed you, that one time, of myself and the woman I consider the love of my life?"
"Yeah…what of it?" He knew Jeff wouldn't beat around the bush; especially not about this.
"Well…I also showed it to Sophia last night…" Jeff linked his fingers around the cup.
"You did?" Gray was being deliberately obtuse.
Jeff chuckled, finding it immensely amusing to watch him try and keep a straight face. "Yes, I did." He agreed in a lyrical tone, "And, do you know, the strangest thing happened…" He waited for a response.
"What?" Gray obliged, trying to sound mildly interested.
"She asked me the most interesting thing; 'had I heard from Penny, ever again?'" Jeff took another swig of his coffee and watched the glint of recognition spark in Gray's eyes; he definitely knew something. "Do you know why this question was so interesting to me?"
Gray silently indicated for him to continue, feeling the anxiety searing the lining of his stomach. He just knew Jeff would pry whatever information he wanted out of him today; he just hoped that Sophia would forgive him for this.
"It intrigued me, because she knew her name; how could she possibly have known that?" His body leaned forward, until he rested his chin on the clasped arch of his fingers. "I mean, I hadn't told anyone that information; not even you. So, how did she know?" He let the moment linger, as if pondering a great mystery. "Then it occurred to me; you've known Sophia since childhood, so, therefore, you must know how she knows her, right?" The anticipation of having his question answered, finally, nearly had him feeling faint. "I mistook your expression of recognition the first time I showed you the picture; I just thought you were surprised to learn something of my past. But, you know her, don't you? You've met her before. Where?"
The slight tinge of desperation, clouding that question, had Gray relenting slightly in sympathy. He hesitated, feeling conflicted.
Jeff could see the battle warring in the mind of his subordinate; he stood from his seat and rounded his desk, standing right in front of him. "Come on, man." He pleaded, not caring how pathetic he might have sounded. "You know what she means to me… Tell me, please; how did Sophia know her name?"
Gray felt as though his heart would drop right out of his chest; he had never seen his superior this emotional about anything, ever. The defeated demeanor of the, usually enigmatic, man made the decision for him.
"The reason why Sophia knew her name-," His voice was low and quiet, knowing that the world would be upended for the elder man after he finished his statements. "-is because she's Penny's daughter."
The sharp intake of breath sounded more like a hiss of pain. Jeff stumbled, feeling flat and tumultuous at the same time. He nearly startled when Gray's voice penetrated the haze surrounding his mind.
The silence was deafening.
Jeff's heart stalled hard in his chest, hot blood flooding his entire system and rendering him unable to form a single coherent thought. "What?" He gasped at length, having lost the use of his legs and sitting down heavily on the edge of his desk.
Gray took pity on him, having had just completely blown his life apart. "Sophia is your daughter, Boss; yours and Penny's…"
It seemed that the second iteration of that fact caused Jeff to break down completely. He slid off his desk and crumpled to his knees, tears of joy and regret streaking down his bearded cheeks. "My daughter…" He sobbed, feeling as though his lungs would burst if he took another breath. "Sophia…she's my child?" His voice was a gruff sound, but his tone was reverent.
Gray felt himself choke up too. Crouching down beside him, he reached out to help support the broken, but whole, man before him. "Yeah, she really is."
"B-but how?" He spluttered, tufts of silver-streaked hair feeling the stress of his impassioned tugs.
"Do I need to give you the talk about the birds and the bees, Boss?" Gray quipped, clapping a hand to his back.
Jeff seemed to regain his usual snarky demeanor at this. "Quit being a smart-ass, son." He said dryly. "I meant, how could I not know about my own flesh and blood? Isn't it like instinct, for a parent to recognize their own child?"
"I think you knew, subconsciously…" Gray offered.
The older man pondered that statement for a while. Gray was right; there had always been a persistent feeling of deep recognition whenever he was with the stormy-eyed girl. Perhaps his soul was tugging him towards the missing pieces all along…
The deep rumble of Jeff's joyous laughter, rolled through the room like thunder; engulfing everything. "I have a daughter!" He scrubbed away the, still flowing, tears; the corners of his eyes crinkled and a beaming smile of contentment took over. "I feel like I'm gonna burst!"
Gray grinned, simply enjoying the sheer joy pouring from the other man's being. A life of sacrifice and loneliness had been alleviated in mere moments. Gray realized that telling Jeff about Sophia might just have been the best thing he could've done; he would just have to convince Sophia of that when he got home…
"I…I need to speak to her." Jeff blurted, sobering up considerably. "I need to tell her that she was born out of love; that I'd never have done what I did, if I had known!"
Gray patted him on the shoulder and helped him off the floor. "You'll get that chance, Boss." Gray promised, "I'll make sure you both do."
"Georgie?" Sophia was surprised to see her boisterous friend rushing towards her.
"Hey, Sweetie…" Georgie skipped across the room, after planting a kiss of greeting on her boyfriend's lips, and dropped down beside her, engulfing her in a crushing hug. "I heard what happened; are you alright?"
Sophia felt her lips tremble. "Nope…" The look of sympathy from her friend caused Sophia to sink into her embrace. "I screwed it all up, George!" She whimpered, burying her face into the red-head's shoulder.
"Oh, honey…I'm sure it's not as bad as you think…" Georgie said soothingly, rocking her gently from side-to-side as she pushed a few stray curls away from her eyes. "Everything's going to be alright."
Sophia sniffed and wiped the tears from her cheeks and scowled stubbornly, "How can you know that? Everything good in my life always seems to turn to crap… it's like I've got a reverse Midas touch!"
"Oh hush!" Georgie berated gently, taking her bag off her shoulder and settled down more comfortably on the couch. "You're just overreacting; life has a way of surprising you when you least expect it…"
While Sophia pondered that little nugget of wisdom, Danny wandered over gingerly. "Can I get you ladies something to drink? Coffee? Tea? Juice? Soda? Water?" He wanted back into Sophia's good graces, and if he could impress his girlfriend in the process; well, that was a bonus.
"I'll have a glass of water, thanks!" Georgie replied in gratitude.
Sophia just shook her head and avoided his gaze.
"Okay…I'll be right back." Danny trudged away in disappointment; she knew how much he hated it when she gave him the silent treatment.
Georgie had observed the body language of the two friends; something was definitely off about them. "What was that about?" She said lightly.
Sophia shifted in discomfort, but did not answer.
Changing the subject, she asked with mild suspicion, "How exactly did you find out what happened last night?"
Georgie seemed to be startled at the question. She cleared her throat lightly and shrugged, sheepishly admitting, "Uh… Gray stopped by Russo's this morning for coffee, and I might have pried the information out of him. Only because I was worried about you; you never call in sick. Unless, you count that time you were hospitalized after the fire. So sue me for caring!"
She tried to suppress the smile that wanted to break free. "Even though I don't approve of your methods; it was really sweet of you to come over and check on me." Sophia nudged her with her shoulder and grinned. "You're a great friend, George.
"Aww, quit it, you're gonna make me blush…!" Georgie replied bashfully, waving her off, "So, give me all the details; what happened?" She continued, in a no nonsense tone.
Sophia groaned in mortification and retreated back into her cocoon. "I'm sure you found out just about everything you wanted to know." She mumbled from behind her hands.
Georgie sighed and tried to bat her hands away, "Not everything! What did he say, you know…after you practically told him you were his daughter?"
Sophia wailed incoherently, further disguising her embarrassment by pulling the hood over her eyes. "I never told him I was his daughter; I chickened out and bolted, before he even had time to blink!"
Before Georgie could formulate a response, Danny dashed out from the kitchen, where he had been eavesdropping on their conversation, "Whoa…whoa…what are we talking about here?"
The two women started at the unexpected interruption. "You scared us!" Georgie complained.
Danny rushed over, spilling the glass of water over the floor in his haste. "Forget that!" He planted himself down onto the coffee table and simply stared in astonishment at Sophia. "What's going on, Soph?"
She squirmed under his gaze; suddenly feeling guilty for not having informed him of the recent developments in her life. She and Danny used to talk about everything to one another; it seemed, though, they were not as involved in the other's life as they thought.
"I found him, Danny." She whispered, a tremulous smile appearing, "I found my dad…"
He looked as though his mind had been blown away. "Wh-what?" The glass had almost slipped out of his grasp, but he managed to regain his senses in time. Placing the glass on the table beside him, he leaned forward and took her hands in his. "I can't believe it!" He blustered, brows aloft. "Who? Where? HOW?"
Sophia felt her previous anger at him lift a little. Even though he did some stupid things in the past, he was still too important to her to hold grudges. "His name is Jeff." She revealed.
Danny blinked and mouthed wordlessly. "Jeff?" He asked slowly, "Wait…as in Gray's boss, Jeff?"
"Yeah! Can you believe it?" Georgie enthused, bobbing excitedly on the spot. "I've told her before; it's fate!"
"Why am I always the last one to know?" He griped a little petulantly, looking pointedly from Georgie to Sophia.
"It wasn't intentional." Sophia reassured, pulling on the hand wrapped around hers and tugging him over onto the couch to sit between them. "You know how much I suck at telling lies and keeping secrets…"
Danny had to concede to that, but huffed nonetheless, "You managed to keep that one under wraps pretty well…"
She let out a derisive snort and said, "Well, you obviously missed eavesdropping on the part where I put my foot in it so terribly!"
His eyes widened comically, "You've met him?!" He gawped, shuffling closer and peering at her in extreme interest, "What's he like? What did you say? Tell me!"
Sophia braced herself against his litany of questions. "He's your brother's boss, you've met him before." She said drily.
"Like I was even paying attention…I just shook the guy's hand and said hello; not much to built an in depth insight into the man's personality, is it?" He insisted, gazing imploringly at her. "You owe me one, for telling everyone else before me."
She let out an incredulous breath, "Are you going to guilt trip me for keeping a secret?" Her tone of implication had him shrinking back in contrition.
"What's going on, guys?" Georgie asked after a tense silence filled the air. "Will one of you tell me why you're pissed at each other?"
Danny squared his shoulders and turned to face his girlfriend, "I did something really bad; something I can't apologize enough for." He appealed to the forgiving nature of the woman beside him. "I really screwed up. It wasn't fair to you, I know that. But, you gotta know how much I love you and value our friendship…please…?"
Sophia hated this part. She could never stay mad at him for long. It was a testament to their friendship that Danny knew all her weak points, and knew how to exploit them so successfully to his advantage.
"Arrgh! Alright, alright! ...Just quit it with this hallmark moment already!" She whined, reaching up to squish his facial expression to something other than the pleading look he was giving her.
"Thank you!" Danny beamed, his face still squashed between her hands. "I promise, I'll never do anything like that again."
Sophia surveyed him critically, "Anything else you want to get off your chest, while you're at it?"
"Uh…" He hummed, wracking his brains for potential ass-hattery he may have committed against her in the past. "Nope?"
"You don't sound too sure about that." She said wryly. "But, I'll give you the benefit of the doubt."
"Hallelujah!" He crowed, slinging his arms out and drawing his two favorite ladies to his side.
Georgie watched as her boyfriend and best girl-friend negotiated their terms of peace, a smile of amusement gracing her lips. "So, you still haven't told me what this is about…"
"Let's not rehash old mistakes, shall we…?" Danny replied wisely, trying to avoid the question altogether. "Let's focus on the more important topic at hand… Soph?" He prompted, drawing both girls closer. "Tell me the whole story, from the beginning."
She pulled her knees into her chest and sighed, "That's gonna take a while…" She warned.
"Well, we better get comfortable then…" Danny stated, kicking his feet up onto the coffee table.
Georgie shrugged and followed suit; taking her coat, bag, shoes and hat off, flinging them all in a pile on the armchair. She snuggled in close to Danny, as well as reaching over to lend a supporting hand to Sophia.
Sophia grasped the other girl's hand with gratitude and genuine affection. Giving the fingers a squeeze, she placed her head onto Danny's broad shoulder and began.
"Well, as you know, I never knew who my father was. Until…."
Gray came home that evening to find the three huddled together on the couch, talking in quiet, ponderous tones.
"Hi guys…" He greeted curiously as he closed the door and dropped his bag, with a thump, to the ground. "What's going on?"
His answer came in the form of Sophia, barreling into him as he tried to divest himself of his jacket.
"God, I missed you today…" He groaned into her hair, as she burrowed her arms into his jacket and wrapped them around his back. "Everything okay?"
Sophia nodded and inhaled the scent of smoke and warm leather on his skin. "Yep, I was telling them about last night." She replied quietly, unable to resist stroking the strong lines of his back through his navy t-shirt. "I'm sorry for this morning…it must have made you really uncomfortable."
Gray shook his head and drew his arms tighter around her, loving the fact that she was wearing his clothes.
If his nosy brother, and his equally inquisitive girlfriend, weren't around, he would have already wrapped her legs around his waist and carried her off into the bedroom…
As it were, he contented himself with stealing a few lingering kisses from her willing lips, and discreetly slipping a hand under the front of the sweatshirt to caress the silky skin he found there.
"You have nothing to apologize for…" He murmured, nuzzling her cheek. "I actually have something I need to tell you…"
Sophia could sense the tone of urgency and importance in his voice, it made her lean back and observe him. "Okay, sure…" She nodded, gesturing to the duo in the living room, "Do you want to go somewhere quieter?"
Gray glanced up, and found Danny and Georgie trying to disguise their rapt interest. Caught, they immediately averted their gazes to random spots in the apartment.
He rolled his eyes at their antics and said, "Yeah. I think that'll be the best thing."
"Alright." Sophia agreed, planting a soft kiss on his jaw. "I'll meet you in the bedroom in a few; we can talk after you get cleaned up and comfortable."
He let his arms drop away from her gentle curves, reluctantly, watching her pad over to the mischievous duo. Gray knew that the following conversation was going to be eventful, and he didn't know if he had done the right thing by telling Jeff about her.
He stalked to his room, guessing that he would find out soon enough if he had made a terrible decision or not.
After informing Danny and Georgie that she would have to leave them for a while to talk with Gray, as well as receiving numerous wolf-whistles and cat-calls about the dubious nature of their 'talk'; she made her way to the bedroom, ears burning.
"Get your filthy minds out of the gutters!" She grumbled, trying to wish away the heat from her cheeks.
"No way, it's hilarious watching you squirm!" Danny bellowed, chortling heartily at her embarrassment.
Georgie was a tad more sensitive to her friend's plight, not by much though. "You two are so damn cute together! I swear, if you were characters in a book, I'd totally be shipping you two so hard right now!" She squealed, swaying dreamily on the spot.
Sophia didn't even want to decipher what that meant, but chuckled in amusement when Danny demanded she explain herself. Proceeding to ramble on about a million things per second, Georgie schooled her boyfriend in the intricacies of 'shipping' and any related terms besides.
"Huh…" He said in puzzlement, scratching absently at his chin. "So…do you ship us?"
If it was possible, Georgie squealed even louder and leapt onto her boyfriend; qualifying the answer to that question a resounding 'yes'. "We're OTP, baby!"
Leaving them to appreciate each other, Sophia felt glad to close the door behind her.
She heard the shower running in the bathroom, and decided to fling herself onto the cushy mattress to wait for Gray. Her eyes slid shut of their own accord and to her surprise; she felt the lingering fatigue of the day catch up with her.
After what seemed like a minute's passing, Sophia was jolted awake when two damp hands circled around her ankles and, playfully, tugged her down to the edge of the bed.
Yelping in surprise, she kicked out on a reflex; only to find a dripping, freshly showered and towel-clad version of her boyfriend stepping up between her thighs. Her previous drowsiness dissipated in an instant.
Unable to tear her gaze away from the bead of moisture rolling over the rippling lines of his stomach, she scrambled up. Her soft hands immediately found themselves chasing that dot of water all the way down his belly, until it was absorbed into the towel that was slung dangerously low on his hips.
Gray suppressed a shudder, the heady sensation of her hot breath misting along the damp skin of his stomach, and her velvety fingertips tracing their path had almost undone him. "Mmm…I think I need to be fully dressed for this conversation…" He said with a groan of reluctance.
Sophia tilted her head back and gave him that look; the one he could never say no to. Her stormy eyes were dilated, holding a simmering darkness that had his blood pumping.
It seemed as though he could never catch a break; he doubted she would still be this happy in the next few minutes.
Steeling his resolve, he stepped away from her and sat on the bed. He leaned back and tried to think of a way to tell her what had happened that morning, without completely ruining the trust they had built. He took her hand and twined their fingers together. "Something happened this morning…" He said vaguely, trying to think of a way to break the news to her.
Sophia, nonetheless, looked at him alarm. "What is it?" She asked urgently, a million awful scenarios flashing through her mind at that moment. She just knew Jeff would have a million questions about their crazy encounter.
He hesitated, remembering how torn up she had been about it all. "I talked with Jeff…" Her fingers tightened around his. "He was asking questions about how you knew Penny's name…"
She squeezed his hand once more to prompt him to continue, but he stayed grudgingly silent. "What did you say?" She asked in a whisper, heart clenched in fear and anticipation.
That anxious expression on her face nearly broke him. He would bear the fallout of his actions, he had to tell her. "I told him the truth…"
Sophia's ears rang with blood. "What?" She breathed, staring at him in wordless hurt. "You told him…everything?"
He flinched, panicking when she dropped his hand and jerked to her feet. "I know it wasn't my place to tell him, but you should've seen how desperate he was!" He pleaded.
She paced frantically back and forth, shaking from shock. "You're right… it wasn't your right to tell him anything!" For the first time in years, Sophia felt anger toward him; it made her feel ill.
Gray wilted under the look disappointment and betrayal flowing from her. He leapt to his feet and tried to envelop her in his arms, but was distressed when she dodged out of reach. "Soph, please… I did it for you…" A lump of guilt was lodged painfully in his throat. Dropping his arms to his side, he allowed her the space she needed.
Sophia heard the rough edge in his voice and her heart broke. She hated it when they fought; the last time they had a misunderstanding, he had disappeared for days on end. She didn't think she could take it if this situation put a strain on the only good thing in her life at the moment.
She hugged herself, subconsciously putting up barriers as a defense mechanism. "How did he react…?" She asked quietly, eventually turning to face him. "Was he mad?"
Gray couldn't help himself, he rushed forward and crushed her to his chest; she could curse him if she wanted to, but the way she bit her lip in apprehension just got to him. It was something that was ingrained within him since childhood; it physically pained him to see her in such distress.
"Of course not!" He admonished, burying his finger in her hair and tilted her face up to his, so that he could growl fiercely against her cheek. "I've never seen a man happier than he was when he learned the truth. It was raw, Soph, you should've seen him…" He hunched his shoulders, "I'm sorry that I robbed you of that chance; it was wrong…"
The regret of his actions was palpable, Sophia sagged against him. "I would have been too scared to do it myself…" She admitted; feeling drained. "I just can't believe it; he knows!" The thought was dawning on her with increasing horror, "He knows…I exist…"
Gray shook her out of the impending meltdown. "I think you two should talk…" He offered, hoping he wasn't adding more fuel to the fire in her mind. "Get answers to the questions you've been waiting your whole life to ask…"
Her back stiffened immediately, "No…I can't!" She shook her head, eyes filling with dread. "This is all happening too fast!" She bit her lip, thoughts running a mile a minute. "I thought I'd have more time to figure out what I would say once I'd finally told him about myself, but this…it's all too much, too quick!"
Gray cursed himself, once again, for having expedited the whole issue between father and daughter. "It's your choice, babe." He conceded gently.
She looked up at him in shock. "Aren't you going to try and convince me to go and see him?" Her tone was one of puzzlement.
"I think I've done enough meddling to last me a lifetime." He confessed, pretending to wipe his brow. "I don't know how people do it…"
She couldn't help but laugh at the expression of muted anguish he displayed. "I think all the mischievous genes must have gone to Danny…"
"He's like my mom in that way…" Gray responded thoughtfully, "Funny, isn't it?"
"What?" She asked, nuzzling the dip between his collar bones absentmindedly.
Gray shivered when her warm breath skittered over his neck. "The traits and mannerisms that a parent and child can share…"
Reaching up to poke him in his bared ribs, she scowled up at him, "I thought you weren't going to try and convince me of anything?"
He shrugged innocently and dipped down to brush her nose with his. "I didn't anything of the sort, thank you very much." The sly gleam in his eye inferred something totally different, however. "I think it's your subconscious trying to give you a nudge in the right direction…"
"I know what you're trying to do…" Sophia scoffed loudly and pinched his earlobe between her fingers. "It's not going to work." She growled, leaning closer, until their noses were touching once again. She tried to sound as menacing as she could, but the effect was entirely ruined when she found Gray's pupils dilating from her confrontational manner.
He found himself strangely aroused by her assertive stance; the way she was eyeing him with a look of wary apprehension made him grin. It reminded him of how she used to look at him as a young girl – he felt his skin prickle with goose bumps as her glassy stare raked every inch of his face.
"I'm not sure what you mean…" He replied lowly, watching her gaze flicker to his mouth and back up again.
"You're trying to reverse-psychology me into meeting with Jeff, aren't you?" She accused, tugging on his ear again. She felt her stomach clench when he hissed with pain, but his darkening eyes revealed another story entirely. Sophia felt the heat creep up her spine, despite her best efforts, she couldn't seem to stay angry at him for any length of time, it seemed.
"Am I?" His challenging expression increased her ire.
Steeling her resolve, she hardened her eyes and silently tried to convey her irritation. She had to bite her lip to keep from smiling in spite of herself.
"Has anyone told you how delicious you look when you're angry?" He rasped, following the pink tip of her tongue as it licked the rosy flesh in its wake.
Her gaze faltered and their eyes locked in a heated stare down. The warmth of his skin seemed to radiate intensely and it only increased when he suddenly crushed her to his chest and delved in to place hot, sucking kisses to her panting mouth.
"Is this all part of your master plan, too?" She gasped, gripping his slightly damp hair tightly.
Gray moaned at her rough handling of him, he gave as good as he got when he cupped her rear and snapped their hips together. "I don't know… is it working?" He murmured, towering over her.
Sophia stifled a sigh of pleasure; his strong fingers were branding her with their grip. "I'm not so easily swayed…" She whispered devilishly and traced a fingertip down the length of the straining tendons in his neck, nipping him sharply on the lower lip in reprimand. "I'm still mad at you…"
Gray almost lunged at her with barely restrained wanting. The deep groan that sounded from his chest rocked her to the core.
"What else do I have to do for you to change your mind?" He almost begged, canting her hips into his; relishing her surprised moan and the scrape of her blunt nails against the nape of his neck.
This heady sense of power left her feeling dazed and heavy. "I'm sure you'll think of something…" She gave him the most shockingly sweet kiss to the cheek and stepped away, leaving him bereft of her warmth.
"Where are you going?" He demanded, trying to reach her, but she padded towards the door instead. "We're not finished yet."
Sophia simply opened the door and said innocently over her shoulder, "I'm taking a rain check on that; and plus, you still have to make up for this morning, too…"
She left him simmering with arousal, and his mind whirring with the possibilities of just how he could fulfill his duty…
That evening, the four of them sat around the low coffee table and rehashed everything over the Chinese takeout that Danny had ordered.
After being gleefully interrogated by Danny and Georgie about the nature of their 'private conversation', she let them in on the new developments to the drama of her life.
"He knows?!" Danny bobbed in excitement on his spot on the floor, nearly flinging a bunch of noodles in the air. "Of course he does, Gray never could lie for shit." He explained in a matter of fact tone. "Always cracked under pressure, too much of a straight-laced goody-two-shoes."
"You say that like it's a bad thing!"
They all turned to find Gray strolling towards their little congregation, fully dressed and still strung out.
Sophia felt a frisson of power run through her when she saw just how tense he still was. Shuffling to the side, she made space for him beside her.
"Not at all!" Danny replied sheepishly, trying to avoid the pointed look that Georgie flashed him at his thoughtless statements. "In fact, it's…admirable…how honorable you are…" He wasn't keen to put doubts into her head about his stance on honesty, especially this early in their relationship.
"That's a first…" Gray muttered, eyeing his brother with suspicion, but taking the box of fried rice from him nonetheless. "What would you guys have done in my position?" He then asked the group at large.
"Sophia would've had a nervous breakdown and collapsed from the pressure, no doubt." Danny jibed, earning him a disgruntled jab to the ribs with her chopsticks from the woman in question.
"Hey!" She grumbled, secretly thinking that he was correct in his evaluation, however.
"What?" Danny shrugged, "You were always a wimp when it came to confrontations with grown-ups." He remembered how she would stand silently by, head bowed in contrition, while he went head-to-head with the figure of authority. He'd never had much patience for that kind of thing. "I, on the other hand, would have bamboozled him so fast; he wouldn't know what hit him. Then I would've changed the subject and escaped. Simple." His smug reply left them all snorting in amusement.
"Expert in the field of evasion and dubious tactics…" Gray chuckled, "Story of your life, brother."
Danny dodged another irate glance from his girlfriend, and slurped up another huge mouthful of noodles.
"Well, I think I'd have done the same thing as Gray…" Georgie intoned with understanding, nibbling on a broccoli floret, "I bet it's not easy being in a situation like that, who knows what we all would've done in his place."
"Thank you." Gray replied gratefully, "You guys should have seen the way he broke down… I'd like to see you guys say no to him then."
"Poor man…" Georgie lamented wistfully, "Imagine how he must have felt, finding out that he had a daughter all along, but had missed out on watching her grow up…" She patted Sophia on the knee and missed the way her friend's face fell. "Must have been devastating and wonderful at the same time…"
"Yeah, he was crying." Gray revealed quietly, "More from happiness than anything, probably…"
That piece of information broke her heart. Sophia poked at her chicken and bowed her head in shame.
She had been so wrapped up in her own problems that she had totally failed to consider how Jeff must be feeling. From what she could gather, and what he had told her about his life since his relationship with her mother, he had been extremely lonely. She hadn't seen any evidence of female company in his apartment; there were no personal photographs, framed pictures or even tacky ornaments. The only sentimental thing in his apartment seemed to be the dog-eared photo strip in his wallet.
What if he, like her, had been yearning for a second chance at happiness…Would her anxiety about meeting him feel like rejection to Jeff?
"I want to talk to him." She blurted suddenly, shocking everyone into silence. Her tone strengthened with conviction, "I want to meet with my father."
They all stared at her for a long moment, waiting for the other shoe to drop. But, she gazed back fiercely, not letting her apprehensions get to her this time.
"Are you sure that's what you want, babe?" Gray asked, tucking the loose curls from her face so that he could get an unimpeded look at her eyes; they would reveal whether she was serious or not, they always did.
Sophia nodded. "I've thought about what I need to do, and this is what's right…" Trying to convey her intentions wordlessly, she took his hand in hers and twined their fingers together in thanks.
"Well, alright then." He replied in wonderment, drawing her into his chest. "When you do you want to meet with him? I can call and set it up."
Sophia put her food down and wrapped her arms around him. "Tomorrow, if that's okay…" The sooner the better, she thought; before she lost her nerve.
"Of course, I'll call tonight and let him know." He reassured her. Chuckling, he rested his cheek against her forehead. "He'll probably be more nervous than you, Soph."
"I doubt that…" She scoffed, fiddling with the collar of his shirt.
"There's nothing to be worried about, anyway; you both got along great last night." He pointed out brightly.
"Hey, guys, look at this!" Danny yelped in astonishment, brandishing a thin strip of paper that he had liberated from the crumbled remains of a fortune cookie. He read out the fortune in awe, "'Family long absent are coming back to you'" His delighted laughter was contagious. "I gotta play the lotto with these lucky numbers tomorrow…" He mumbled to himself.
"I told you it was fate!" Georgie crowed, much to the groans of defeat from her best friend.
Another sleepless night later, Sophia found herself nervously baking muffins on autopilot at six in the morning.
She was sat on the kitchen floor, peering into the oven, watching them cook.
She nearly jumped out of her skin when the timer rang shrilly in the morning silence, jerking her out of her trance like state.
Donning her oven mitts, she hastily plucked them out and turned to place them on the cooling rack. She then proceeded to nearly jump out of her skin a second time, when she saw the disheveled figure of her boyfriend standing in the threshold, obviously thinking she had gone mad overnight.
"You scared me!" She hissed, clutching a warm mitt to her chest.
Gray squinted in the low light. He had only discovered that she was missing from the bed just moments before, when he had reached out and couldn't feel her warm body beside him. It hadn't been long, but already he couldn't sleep without her.
He had gotten out of bed to check on her, knowing that today would be causing turmoil in her overactive mind. He certainly hadn't expected to find her amidst an explosion of baking paraphernalia at the crack of dawn.
"Couldn't sleep?" He asked in an understatement, voice crackly with fatigue.
Sophia sighed loudly; shoulders slumped while shaking her head. "Not even for a damned hour!"
He spread his arms and beckoned her over. "C'mon, you'll drive yourself crazy if you don't rest a little."
When she staggered into his arms, he led her over to the cushy armchair. He collapsed into the overstuffed cushion and pulled her down into his lap.
"Close your eyes, Soph…" He murmured softly, his voice rumbling through his chest pleasantly as she snuggled into the crook of his neck.
"Okay…" She agreed, curling up in his embrace and sliding her weary eyes closed for a blessed moment of sleep, before she had to face the world that day.
Since receiving the call from his subordinate, Jeff felt as though his heart had relocated and positioned itself somewhere in his throat. He was beside himself with a mixture of nerves, anticipation and dread; what exactly would he say to the daughter he never dreamt he could have?
He pottered about his rather modest apartment, whiling away the hours when he would meet his daughter for real. The time seemed to crawl by; he checked the clock for the umpteenth time that morning, but it still read too early.
Jeff had rehearsed what he would do when they'd meet over and over in his mind's eye. Thinking back to all their past interactions, he did not know how he hadn't realized sooner who she was. She had his eyes, as well as her mother's quiet strength; he just couldn't wait to find out more about her.
His daughter… the words still sounded foreign to his brain. Having been alone for so long, he could never have fathomed that he had had a family of his own somewhere out there; he could've had that life, once upon a time…
He would tell her anything she wanted to know, Jeff only wanted a chance at happiness this once.
He was in the process of compulsively dusting his old vinyl record collection, having had already vacuumed the entire apartment twice over with nervous energy, when he heard the intercom buzz with life. His stomach somersaulted uncomfortably in response.
"Hello?" He asked gruffly, instinctively knowing who would reply back.
"Hello…" Sophia's sweet tone, tinged with uncertainty, replied back. "It's me…Sophia…may I come in?"
"Of course." He said hastily and buzzed her up. Jeff felt as though his skin would burst from all the roiling emotions he was experiencing. He raised a shaky hand and scrubbed at his beard involuntarily as he hovered by the door.
Never had one elevator seemed to take an eon to arrive. This waiting was killing him.
Sophia hadn't even had the chance to knock on the door twice, before it was wrenched open, and engulfed in Jeff's crushing hug.
"I'm sorry, sweetheart." He heaved a shuddering breath, a sob escaping from his throat, unimpeded. "I didn't know…" The raw emotion in his plea staggered her. "F-forgive me?"
"I'm sorry too!" Sophia felt her own tears well in her eyes; completely taken aback by the strength of his apology. "I-it's alright...everything's going to be fine…" She vowed, returning his embrace just as fiercely, tears soaking though his flannel shirt.
Jeff felt a form of benediction descend upon him from her words. He pulled away slightly to examine her face, gently cupping her cheeks and wiping away the tears with his blistered fingers.
Jeff couldn't help but marvel at her appearance; now that he knew who she was, he could see traces of Penny and himself evident in her features. Overcome once again, he cried unashamedly, placing a gentle kiss on her forehead.
"Stop it; you're going to set me off again!" She grumbled; the bittersweet pain of seeing her father cry made her squirm.
Jeff chuckled, self-deprecatingly, and swiped away the stray tears making their way into his scruffy beard. "They're tears of joy, in case you couldn't tell." He retorted wryly
Sophia felt giddy with the sheer happiness of the moment. She suddenly felt herself begin to giggle uncontrollably, triggering Jeff to do the same in some strange fashion. "I made you some muffins, but they're probably squashed now…" She wheezed, lifting her arm to show him the slightly dented box. Something about the sight caused them both to laugh even harder.
After ushering her into the apartment, and hanging up her coat, he motioned her over to the couch. "Can I get you something? Coffee?" He felt a little better after their strange moment in the hallway, but still his hands needed something to occupy them.
"Sure." Sophia replied quickly, even though she never acquired the taste for it, she would agree to anything that would make this meeting go off without a hitch.
Jeff returned shortly after with a tray laden with two steaming cups of coffee, a bowl of sugar and a small jug of cream. "I didn't know how you like yours." He said sheepishly, and watched in astonishment when she tried to drown the coffee with massive amounts of both the sugar and cream. "Not a fan?"
Sophia looked up guiltily, but took a tiny sip of her concoction nonetheless. "It's okay…" She shrugged gingerly, trying to disguise the grimace from her expression.
Jeff simply chuckled and peered at her. "Your mom was the same way; she used to complain that it tasted like burnt dirt." The gentle glint in his eye spoke volumes, "How is she?"
"She's great." Sophia brightened immediately at the mention of her mother. "Yeah, she's more of a green tea kind of person…but she'd drink a cup of strong black coffee once a year; spluttering all the while, but she did it every year without fail." There was a tone of contemplation in her reminiscence.
From the contemplative look on his face, she guessed that it struck a chord with him. "Let me guess…it's always on March fifteenth, right?"
"Yeah…. How did you know that?" She asked in puzzlement.
He grinned at the memory, suddenly feeling as though he could see back in time. "I'd asked her out for coffee, for what seemed to be the millionth time, and I think she got sick of trying to find excuses to refuse. So, she poured herself a steaming cup and stared me right in the eye as she chugged it down; it was incredible!" His laughs rumbled through the room, "She slammed the cup down and said to me, 'Thanks for the coffee, let's never do this again!'"
"Wow…sounds like you had a rocky start to your relationship…" She had known they hadn't started off on the right foot, her mother had told her as much.
"Nah, I knew she hadn't meant what she said; she was afraid that I only wanted to make her another notch on my bed post…" Shame tinged his solemn tone. He gazed into the depths of his cup and grunted, "She probably left, thinking that she was right all these years…" Jeff took her unoccupied hand and affirmed, "I need you to know that I loved your mother very much, she was it for me." He couldn't seem to look her in the eye, "I ruined everything we had; but, if I had known that we had created you, then I would have fought harder for you both…"
Sophia squeezed his hand in sympathy; she could practically feel the regret pouring from him in waves. "If you don't mind me asking…what happened?"
"No, of course not," He deadpanned, gathering his thoughts together. "You deserve to know the story of your origins…"
Sophia scooted back into a more comfortable position, preparing to listen with her undivided attention as he told of his past…
Jeff had not even been back at home for a week, when his mother had approached him with the ultimatum that had turned his whole world upside down.
"Darling, have you come to a satisfactory conclusion about our previous conversation?" Annette Montenegro sat primly on her antique settee, nothing about her seemed remotely soft, she was all sharp angles and clean lines.
Jeff, on the other hand, was in a state of disarray; his casual attire and mussed hair was in direct contrast to his surroundings. He was rebelling.
"Mother, I've told you…Sara and I are not together anymore!" He asserted forcefully, "Why are you so hell-bent on getting us back together again?"
A chink formed in her, otherwise, pristine demeanor. "I still don't understand why you had to end things with her; you two were perfect together!" Her obvious disapproval showed. "She's from a good family, good breeding; she'd make a fabulous wife for you…"
"Well, maybe I don't want some vapid trophy wife to parade around during one of your shallow society functions!" He sneered, "You're just concerned of what people will say behind your back, but I don't give a damn about any of it!"
Annette looked shocked at his unseemly outburst, her gaze hardened. "Don't be ridiculous, Jeffrey!" She snipped, standing up to join him by the massive windows overlooking the manicured garden. "Don't think I don't know what this is about…I know you've taken up with some working class girl from California." Her tone was one of disdain.
Jeff peered at her from the corner of his eye, rage building in his stomach. "Did Sara tell you that?" He seethed. He should've known his mother would be keeping tabs on him; she would go to any lengths to secure this match, it seemed.
"She didn't have to." She said coldly, "Gossip travels fast, my boy, you are not very discreet with your dalliances."
"Is that what you think this is; a dalliance?" His eyes were narrowed in hate. "You know nothing of Penny. I love her!"
She let out a mirthless laugh, "Love? Please." She scoffed in derision, "You think you've found your Cinderella, but you'll see soon enough that she's a pumpkin…" With that, she sauntered away on her custom heels.
Jeff let a roar of frustration and stormed up to his bedroom.
What did his mother know about love? She, being one such vapid gold-digger, had only married his father to further her standing in society; that's all she could ever think about. Her whole life revolved around putting on the flawless façade to her equally shallow peers.
She had made no secret about the fact that his union with Sara would cement the relations between his father and hers. It was all a business transaction with these people; he hadn't realized just how messed up his world was, until he had experienced the joys that Penny had brought him. She was the only real thing in his miserable existence.
Jeff scrambled through his things, desperately seeking the Christmas card she had sent him earlier that week. He had to write to her and tell her everything…
He didn't know her phone number for her parent's place, but the envelope did have the address written on the back; if only he could just find it! He crowed in triumph when he unearthed it from beneath a stack of papers on his desk.
He quickly took out a page of the expensive monogrammed stationary that his mother had ordered, and began scribbling out a hasty letter. In it he iterated his love for her and explained the unfair ultimatum his other had given him, how he was being pressured and coerced into marring the daughter of his father's business partner. He vowed that if she replied back, confirming her love for him, he would gladly give up anything to be with her; she needs only to say the word
He sealed the envelope containing the letter, and bounded down to the foyer, where he found Mrs. O'Neal, their housekeeper doing her daily rounds. He enlisted her help to mail the letter as soon as possible…
Days, then a week had passed but he still didn't receive a reply from Penny. His mind was racing with the possibilities; did she not get his letter, or did she read it and feel appalled by him? He desperately penned another letter, and several more in the days following, and told Mrs. O'Neal to have mailed via priority service; hoping that he would get her input on this dire situation soon.
It wasn't until Christmas Eve, that his mother had informed him that Sara and her tycoon father would be dining with them.
"Try and look presentable, dear, for your future in-laws…" She commented shrewdly, daring him to argue with her.
"I am not going to marry Sara!" He growled.
"Yes you will." She replied, deadly serious. "You think that you can learn to live in her world, Jeffrey? You've grown up accustomed to the best in life, and it will not be easy to give that up; even if she does profess to love you. People of her sort are fickle; they don't see the bigger picture like we do." He wondered if she even believed the cracked logic pouring from her mouth.
"I don't need anything but her." He stated.
"Really?" She sneered, pulling out his dinner jacket from the closet. "Who's paying for your college education, your car, and your entire lifestyle? You've never worked a day in your life, Jeffrey, how would you even survive?" Her voice took on a more persuasive tone. "Listen, if this girl really loves you and you love her, then so be it; you can learn to live on an empty stomach and feed yourself with fuzzy feelings. But, hear this, if you choose her, you will have to make your own way in life, because you'll be no son of mine."
Jeff was left reeling by his mother's admission that she would disown him if he chose wrongly.
"Why would you risk a place at any law firm of your choosing, a wonderful life and a beautiful wife on a mere fling?"
He couldn't seem to get the words out of his mouth.
"The choice is clear."
Jeff staggered to his bed. He still hadn't heard from Penny; maybe his mother was right, she didn't really love him anyway, her silence could be a sign to her real feelings for him. He knew he couldn't survive without finishing his college education; he knew his mother, she would find a way to freeze all his accounts, even the trust fund his grandmother had set up for him.
He was panicking internally.
Weeks later, his mother had gotten her wish; she had subdues him into a husk of his former self through her clever manipulations and expert emotional blackmail. Even as Sara hung off his arm at every party and function, Jeff still pined for Penny, feeling her rejection deeply.
Left reeling, he tried to get over her by burying himself in the life he absolutely loathed. His mother had declared that the engagement and subsequent wedding should not be put off, since, of course, both Jeff and Sara had a long history together.
The engagement party was a farce; he felt empty as he placed the huge diamond ring on Sara's finger. It nauseated him the way she and his mother had the gall to look elated.
New Year's Day came about, and he prepared himself to return to school – and possibly be confronted with Penny and her disgust at him. He didn't know what he was expecting, but he hadn't expected her to look at him in utter betrayal on the first day back from Christmas break, it completely broke his heart.
He didn't know what to do and tried to talk to her numerous times, but Sara was overly possessive, jealous and suspicious and would not let him out of her sights. Penny had also become extremely good at avoiding him. If he had somehow managed to corner her in private, she would find a convenient excuse to escape. Eventually, thinking she simply didn't want anything to do with him, he gave up.
Months of this kind of agonizing near misses, where he had tried to explain himself, without success, he found himself at home for the weekend. His mother was plowing away, full steam ahead; citing that they should be married straight after graduation, it was his final year of college after all.
One evening, while his mother and Sara were gushing over centerpieces, he was struggling to write his wedding vows; the whole marriage was a sham, a joke, the vows wouldn't even count. His mother had insisted, however, that he get used to the idea of marriage let bade him to use his father's study where, she maintained, he would find his appropriate inspiration. She probably was counting on the fact that his selfish desire for an opulent office and business power would motivate his muse to reappear.
Jeff had sat in the imposing leather chair, trying to think of something to write, but coming up blank. He wasted several sheets of paper this way. He sighed as he scrapped another feeble attempt at sounding even remotely genuine, perhaps he could draft his own suicide letter with this fancy stationary.
Laughing humorlessly, he went rummaging for more paper in the drawers of the behemoth of a mahogany desk. What he found within made his blood run cold; there, was a bundle of his letters addressed to Penny, hidden.
They were all opened and there were no postmarks on them, they had obviously been intercepted before being mailed.
He was crushed with the devastating realization that Penny hadn't known anything about his predicament. He felt like he couldn't breathe with the thought of her suffering; the anguish in her eyes on New Year's Eve had been real, he hadn't imagined it! She must have thought that because he had finally gotten into her pants, he had lost all interest in her.
The betrayal she must have felt, left him quaking in regret.
Such a feeling of rage consumed him at that instant; he knew the culprit of this sick act of manipulation. He leapt to his feet, sending the leather chair crashing to the ground.
He had found his mother sitting by herself in the parlor and wasted no time confronting her about her deception.
Jeff flung the letters in her face, "You planned this entire thing, you conniving bitch!"
Annette simply cursed her husband for not destroying them and remained unapologetic at the fact. "I did you a favor, boy; she would've broken your heart sooner or later…" Her lazy drawl only highlighted her disinterest to his overreaction. "Pull yourself together; you're getting married in a few weeks. This'll all be a distant memory by then…"
"Fuck that shit!" He roared, "I'm not marrying that glorified Barbie doll you're so enamored with!"
"Excuse me?" Her voice dropped to a dangerously low tone. She rose gracefully to her feet and circled around him, like a shark playing with its victim.
Annette threatened to cut him off and disown him if he walked out. She overestimated how much she actually knew her son at all.
"You can go to hell then." He replied back, just as dangerously.
He tore up to his room and packed a bag. Stumbling into his car, he just hoped that Penny would still be on campus when he got there.
He drove all night; cursing his very existence until he reached Penny's dorm and began banging and screaming at the door for her to let him in. He was met by her dorm mate, who was disheveled from her sexual activities.
"Where's Penny, I need to speak to her, its urgent!" He managed to gasp out in clipped tones.
"Dude, do you know what time it is?" She complained, pulling her robe closer together.
"I don't fucking care what time it is!" He hissed, running a shaky hand through his dark hair. "Just get Penny. Please!"
"Well, fuck you too, buddy!" She snapped at him, conveying to him that she had dropped out suddenly and didn't want him to ever try and contact her.
That piece of news felt like a sucker punch to his stomach.
She was gone. He'd been too late…
He had been devastated after that, he went to the nearest bar got wasted. He couldn't seem to muster up the will to care when he was arrested for a DUI and locked up for the night. He refused his phone call, unwilling to have his parents to bail him out just to spite him and rub his failures in his face.
Jeff doesn't act surprised when, eventually, his father storms in with his big shot lawyer and drags his ass back home, where they proceed to have a massive confrontation. He laid into his parents for ruining the best thing in his life, swearing up a storm and stalked out again, amidst threats from his parents.
He packed up his stuff and turned his back on them, never to talk to them again, even to this day.
He had made his living doing manual labor, as his father had made it impossible for him to get hired anywhere. The only member of his family who he stayed in contact with was his grandmother, who had proclaimed that his mother was the daughter of the devil himself…
His voice was rough as he tried to choke back the tears of shame welling in his eyes. "I kick myself everyday for giving up so easily! I should have gone to her, found her and apologized. What she must have gone through because of me!" He berated himself vehemently.
Sophia knew her cheeks were stained with tear tracks as well. Her poor father, having such disgraceful parents, who would treat their child like a commodity; it disgusted her. Both her parents had been cheated of true happiness through simple greed, pride and vanity.
"Please, Jeff…Dad…it's not your fault." She sniffed, allowing him to crush her into another bear hug.
"It is my fault." He choked out gruffly, trying to process the heart thumping joy of his daughter calling him dad for the first time, as well as, the debilitating shame for his past actions. "I missed supporting your mother through her pregnancy; I missed your birth and all the special milestones!" His shoulders heaved with emotion. "I can never forgive myself for abandoning you both when you needed me the most…"
He had a heavy heart full of things he needed to seek redemption for; but the crux of the litany of sins, had to be missing out on her life, for her having felt the absence of his presence due to his cowardice.
"I forgive you, dad, please stop blaming yourself…" She buried her face into his flannel clad shoulder. "We have this chance, now, to make things right."
Jeff nodded in gratitude, hugging the tiny body of his daughter ever tighter; as if she would disappear from his arms, otherwise. "Now that I've found you, baby-girl," He whispered fiercely. "I promise that I'll never let you go..."
Hey guys! Accept this chapter as a day-late 22nd birthday present to/and from myself! n_n
I hope you like it; it totaled a massive 32 pages for this single chapter! *phew*
As always, I'd like to thank you all for reading and reviewing;
tomboyish258, LunaSerena, Tihaq Klee, FallenAngelFromTheSky, Sunsharmony (special thanks to you, lovely, for keeping me motivated to write, with your kind words!), Sunny, Carmel March, checkyesdana, CRSmith, mylittleprincess, HelloFasination, The unknown anon and The Real Jackie-O!
Tell me what you think about this chapter, as well as casting your vote as to whether you'd like an M rated scene in the story... ¬_¬ hehe