"Hello," John said.
'Hi, John, it's Toni.'
John rolled his eyes a bit. He was just about done with his shift, but that didn't mean she didn't legitimately need something. So, he had to remind himself to be nice.
"How are you today?"
'I'm good,' she said, her voice barely above a whisper. 'Are you close to being back at the station?'
"Yeah, about five minutes away. Why?"
'Well, there's a senator here asking about you. I didn't want to make him wait or send him away without checking.'
"I can see that," John said after a moment's pause. It was sure tempting to make it to where he was a hell of a lot further away than five minutes. Fuck, nothing good could come out of a visit from Bryce at the station. Claire had made it sound as if he was okay with it. He wasn't happy and was, understandably cautious if he was at all familiar with Eddie, but she hadn't said he'd said John couldn't move in or anything.
'You in trouble or something?'
John scoffed at that.
'You running for office?'
He scoffed again at that.
"No," he said then.
'All right,' she said. 'I'll tell him you'll be about five minutes then.'
He parked in front of the station instead of in the back as he normally would to come in here and finish up for the day. As much as it appealed to him to make the guy wait a lot longer than five minutes, John wasn't going to be an asshole. At least not until he had a reason to be one.
John regarded him as he walked in and spotted him, talking with his captain.
"You sure you aren't in trouble?" Toni asked him when he walked toward the desk until the other two were done talking.
"I sure hope not."
"I didn't realize you knew senators, John."
"Uh, well, I…"
"John, you didn't tell me you're moving into the old Mercer place," his captain said.
"I didn't realize I had to tell you that," John said.
"Well, no, but I assume it'd come up at some point that you're seeing someone seriously enough to move in with her and her kids."
"Evidently I was saved the trouble. I haven't completely moved in yet."
He was far from that point. He'd brought some things over to her place the week the kids were gone, but he still had a lot of stuff to think about what to do with. Renting the house furnished wouldn't be a bad idea, but he'd still have to figure out where the stuff was going to go eventually. She'd offered the old Mercer house that was on her property for him to store big things in if he needed to. He might have to go that route, but he'd figure it out.
His captain had probably just turned a somewhat friend into someone pretty pissed off at him in a matter of seconds. He'd been very careful around Toni since Thanksgiving, not wanting to give her the wrong idea (not that he thought he was) or to risk pissing Claire off over someone he wasn't interested in beyond someone he would've just wanted sex with to begin with.
"I've always liked that old house, been there many times for dinners."
"Yeah," John said. He guessed he shouldn't be surprised his captain probably knew Claire, but he was kind of in a way. "Did you or Bryce need to talk to me then?" he asked.
His captain's brow arched a bit at John calling him Bryce.
"I'm going to be living with his kids. You think I'm going to call him Senator? I don't think so."
His captain evidently had no comeback to that and Toni was glaring at him pretty intensely. So not how he envisioned this day ending. He didn't even realize Bryce was still in town. He'd dropped the kids off yesterday morning, which probably meant they'd gotten into town Saturday sometime. He assumed by the early hour he'd dropped them off that he was driving back to Springfield. Evidently not.
"Come on, Randy," he said, tugging a little on his lead before heading to where the ex was still standing. Waiting for John to go to him, no doubt.
He'd never seen him in person before.
"Mr. Bender," he said, offering his hand.
He took it, not at all expecting the guy to be polite when Toni told him who was here looking for him.
"Yeah," he said.
"He looks more like Eddie," he said, releasing John's hand.
"Yeah, I've thought that, too. Claire and Chris think he looks like me, but if they knew Eddie…"
God, it was so strange to be talking to anyone about Eddie. He, honestly, hadn't thought about him in years until Claire brought him up. He didn't know if he was still in prison, but assumed he was. He wasn't even sure if the Shermer PD knew he was John's brother. If they did it had never hindered his ability to get and keep his job.
"I think you're right. Let's hope her parents don't know who Eddie is then?"
"I don't know how they would."
"And Kyle? I mean, about his uncle?"
"Yeah, let's hope not. He's clearly a good kid."
Of course Kyle showed no signs of being a sadistic prick so her parents would have no reason to worry over anything even if they thought it was Eddie. And he didn't like the idea of his brother getting his hands on Claire. At all. He shook the thought off, not even wanting to go any further with it.
"What can I do for you?"
"I wanted to meet you."
"And you couldn't have, like, come to my house?"
"I thought this would be easiest."
"Uh huh," John said. And drive home the point that he knew John's boss and that John's boss knew Claire.
Bryce extended his hand to Randy who sniffed and then licked it before pressing his head into the palm of his hand.
"You needing to take a bus down to Springfield because of your dog makes much more sense now."
"I bet," John said.
"I don't know you, but I know your brother."
"Yeah," John said cautiously.
"I know you're a cop, but I know there are cops who excel at their jobs who do things at home that would land them in jail with the criminals they catch."
"I'm not one of them," John said.
"I catch one whiff of you harming my children or my wife…"
"Ex-wife," John said. "You better not be telling people I'm moving in with your wife!"
"Ex-wife, of course. It still stands…"
"I'm not going to hurt them. I'm not Eddie. I'm not my old man. We're good."
"I'm just letting you know, whether I'm in Springfield in DC…"
"Yeah, I get it. Is that what you were talking to my captain about?"
"Yes," he said simply.
"You going to keep asking around about me?"
"Do you have anything to hide?"
John scoffed at that. The guy was asking him that? That was ironic.
"Uh, no. No kids, no ex wives, no arrests, no activities that I'd be embarrassed if Claire found out."
"What about him?"
"Anything you'd be embarrassed about him finding out?"
"Other than the way I behaved nineteen years ago, you mean? No. No offense, but you have a lot of nerve coming to where I work doing this shit. If you weren't a senator you wouldn't have done it."
"You're right," Bryce said. John gave him points for admitting that, he supposed.
Neither said anything, both seeming to think on that admission and what it meant.
"You actually do love her," John said, mulling that one over in his mind a bit.
"Of course I do. You don't spend fifteen years with someone and have no feelings for them."
"You never met my parents then."
Bryce chuckled a bit at that. "I guess I haven't. Why does that surprise you, though?"
He wanted to be a smart ass and ask why it surprised him he hadn't met his parents, but he knew what he was asking. John shrugged, unsure how to answer the question. Did Bryce know that John knew the things about him he did?
"I don't know. You're divorced."
"It was the best thing for all involved. Claire doesn't want to move to DC. Her business, family, and life are here. The kids probably wouldn't fare well there either, honestly. Bryce, Jr. Well, he's not one to accept change easily."
"I've noticed that."
"So, if Claire hadn't wanted…"
"Oh, perhaps it would have been an eventuality, but I wouldn't have sought it out, no."
Huh. What did that mean, exactly? Someone like Bryce in-love with her? It certainly made things a little stranger. John had just sort of assumed. Well, he wasn't sure what he'd assumed. That she'd been his beard and both had gotten tired of it.
"And this summer, calling her to come get Betsy?"
"How many days of your life have you spent caring for kids, John?"
"Uh, none. Well, a couple last month when she took a trip."
"And they knew she was going to be back in two days. Try dealing with Betsy who doesn't understand any unit of time beyond tomorrow, and even that's pretty vague to her. She wanted her mother. Try as I might, I'm not her mother."
John nodded a little at that. It was a fair point.
"I tried, too, you know. She does all of these things with the kids during the summer. Museums, zoos, parks, trips to the beach, an overnight trip to the Dells. They didn't want to do those things with me because they weren't used to doing them with me."
"Imagine your thirteen-year-old son telling you he doesn't want to go to Great America. Not because he doesn't want to go, but because he believes you don't really want to take him."
John didn't know the kids that well, but he could totally see Bryce doing that. He was the type to do whatever made anyone else happy. John had asked him the first night Claire was gone to Minneapolis what kind of soup he wanted. The kid hadn't wanted to answer. John had made him, though, because that was no way to live.
"It was your dog who was shot?"
"Huh?" John asked.
"The night we were arguing about Betsy, she hung up on me to take care of a dog."
"What's his name?"
"Randy," John said, not even bothering to go into the explanation of his name as he'd done with Claire.
"Well, I'm glad she could help him out."
"You're done for the day?"
"I'm heading back to Springfield after this."
"The woman behind you at the desk doesn't look too pleased with you right now."
"Let's just say she didn't realize I had a girlfriend let alone one I was moving in with until today."
"And had designs on you?"
"Something like that, yeah."
"I can't say I don't understand that. Did you become a cop because of Eddie?"
"No, I became a cop because I was on a path to become like Eddie back in high school and I realized when I turned eighteen and whatever I got busted for would stick with me for the rest of my life, like Eddie, that it wasn't what I wanted. Being unlike Eddie had nothing to do with it. I just," he shrugged. "You know. No one ever stepped in to help me, listen to me, or take me seriously. I want to do that."
"Yeah, by the time you got to Shermer High I bet they'd had their fill of Bender's and knew what to expect out of your household."
"I'm sorry that happened."
"Yeah, whatever. It got me here so I can't dwell on it too much."
"I'll let you go. Thank you for speaking with me."
"Did I have a choice?"
"Oh, you could have avoided coming back here."
"I thought about it."
Bryce laughed softly at that, running his fingers along Randy's ears. "I bet you did. I appreciate that you didn't."
"I meant what I said here, though."
"Yeah, I get that."
"Are you okay?" Claire asked softly.
He'd never had a problem functioning before. Ever. Tonight, though, he just … couldn't. The interest was there as it always was with her. The desire sure was, too. They hadn't tried for hours unsuccessfully or anything, but he'd never had to work at getting excited before.
"Yeah," he said.
"What?" she asked.
"If you hadn't initiated the divorce would you still be married?"
"Probably," she said. "Why?"
"So, you wanted the divorce not him?"
"Well, I don't know if he did or not before I brought it up. He agreed to it the same as I agreed to marrying him when he asked."
"Oh," he said.
"And if he came back here tomorrow? I mean, if he came back and said he wasn't gay, offered to remain a state senator, or said anything in an effort to get you back…"
"John. He's not going to do that."
"That's not what I'm asking."
"What are you asking?"
"I don't know. You said the other day you love him."
"Well, of course I do, but the Bryce I love isn't there anymore, John. The last time we did anything together, with or without the kids was well before Betsy was born. I don't mean going to a political dinner. I mean, a trip that was fun and not some publicity thing. Or God even just a movie or the mall. I want to do things with someone. Not just my kids. There has to be more to my life than being a mom and a vet. He's still the father of my children and he's been very good to me. I am not forgetting that. I can admit I wasn't perhaps the easiest to live with in the beginning."
John scoffed at that. They didn't do much either when it got down to it, but he supposed she counted them having dinner out. He supposed, too, he should tuck that away in his memory and come up with some ideas for things to do with her. And the kids, he imagined, too. That couldn't be that tough.
"He came by the station today," he said.
"He did what? I didn't even realize he was in town."
"Obviously he is. He said he was going back to Springfield after stopping there."
He relayed their conversation to her.
"So you think because he said I was his wife that he's going to come back and ask me…"
John shrugged. "I don't know. I would."
"You would not."
"I would so if the best thing to ever happen to me was moving on. He can't get much more proof that you're moving on than me living here with you. I wager he knows I'm not using his bedroom, too."
"John. I don't know what to say, how to reassure you. I do love him. Of course, but I'm not in love with him. And I want to be in love with someone who's in love with me. He's not going to change his mind about being gay. If it worked that way we wouldn't be here right now."
"You think that makes me feel better?"
"Well, no, but he is, John. That's not going to change. I don't want to be married to him anymore."
"Would you want to be married to me?"
"That's not a real reassuring answer there, Claire."
"I don't want to be married at all right now, John."
"But we can live together?"
"Why? So when you decide I'm not the same person anymore you don't have to get lawyers involved?"
She sat up on the bed then, reaching for the robe she kept by it.
"Where are you going?" he asked when she got up and went toward the door leading to the hall and not the bathroom.
"Why?" he asked, confused. It was late. She had to work in the morning.
"Because you just asked me…"
"Do you blame me? You haven't even told me what, if anything, you want from me."
"Why do I have to want anything from you?"
"Because your kids are involved here. I find it hard to believe you'd just move me in here casually."
"Well, of course not, but you're lying there asking me the question!"
"Claire, I'm sorry. He just got me thinking, you know?"
"I don't want him, John. I don't want to get married because I've spent so long being Claire Mercer, always careful what I did and said at every turn because it could affect Bryce's career or his father's, or his grandfather's reputation."
"I didn't think you wanted to get married anyway?"
"Well, not tomorrow, but we're talking about living together. To what end? I mean, I agreed to it, but don't you even care what I might want from you?"
"Honestly, I wasn't so worried about that for now. I just knew I wanted you here."
"I want to be here. I hope you know I do, but I guess I never stopped to realize he might still want to be here too."
"He shouldn't have done that."
John shrugged. "I probably would have done the same thing if I was in his shoes."
"I don't know what you want me to say, John."
"Well, I'd like you to come back to bed."
She sighed softly, but she did after a few seconds of thinking it over.
"So, no more flirting by Toni, huh?" she said after she'd gotten back into bed.
He snorted softly. "I don't think so, no. She was not pleased."
"Can you blame her?"
John shrugged. "I never told her I was interested in her, Claire. Ever. I flirted, I toyed with the idea of asking her out, but I never did it because I knew that was a bad road to go down."
"Well, forget just mixing work and dating in general. I know other cops who've done it and it hasn't gone well. She wasn't anyone I wanted anything but a date or two with, and I knew that. So I just never pursued it."
"Oh," she said.
"I want more than a date or two from you."
"I should hope so."
"But you haven't asked."
"Well, I knew you wouldn't tell me you love me and stay the weekend with the kids…"
"You'd be surprised what some people would do, Claire. I'm not one of them, but I guess it's one of the reasons I'm thinking things over on the house before I do anything for certain. I want to be sure this is what you want. Me. Here. Because if I move in I don't plan on leaving."
"I don't want you to."
"All right then."
"I also don't want you to think I expect you to marry me."
"Well, I'd hope one day you would. I mean, I wouldn't move in here if that wasn't my ultimate goal."
"Ultimate goal, huh?"
"Well, yeah. Like I said before, Randy really likes your pool. I'd hate for him to have that taken away from him after he gets used to being able to use it every day."
"I can't blame you there."
"We could. I mean, I think talking helped that issue…"
She settled against him, kissing his chest. "This is nice, too."
"What were you going to do downstairs?"
She shrugged, drawing the covers up around her better as she got comfortable against him.
"You were going to sleep on the couch down there?"
"Jesus. Claire. Don't ever fucking do that. Okay? If you're really that mad at me that you're going to go find somewhere to sleep that's not our bed, you tell me that."
"Well, I'd want to fix it for one. And I don't ever want the kids to see that."
He wasn't sure he could put a word to it, other than they knew their parents had separate bedrooms. He never wanted them to think that was normal where Claire and John were concerned. Ever.
"Because I just don't."
"That's a mom answer."
"See, I've been practicing."
Story ©Susan Falk/APCKRFAN/PhantomRoses.com