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Hidden Secrets

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Chapter One
Word Count: 1,964

July 1, 2002
Shermer, Illinois

He hadn't been back here in years. He wasn't even sure what he was doing here now really. They each had equal say in decisions on where they played. John was the swing vote on playing the venue this weekend. Claude and Billy didn't want to bother with a town the size of Shermer. Sean and Noel wanted to because they thought it'd be a nice change of pace from the larger venues they'd been playing lately.

Candy, Jazmin, and Farrah didn't have an opinion, or a vote, since they were backup singers and dancers. They were a dime a dozen and could be replaced pretty easily. So easily, Farrah (John really wanted to meet the parents who would name their child that.) was the fourth they'd burned through in the past couple of years.

They were playing two shows, one each Friday and Saturday night. Friday night was a last minute addition because the band that was supposed to play cancelled unexpectedly. Finding a band with the night open on such short notice who were willing to travel wasn't easy, or cost effective. John had no idea how many they'd tried to find before contacting Shooterz about adding a second night, but being Fourth of July weekend played into most bands already being booked.

Deep down he supposed he knew why he was back here. He'd recognized the name of the annual Shermer Days planner when he called. He, of course, had no idea that the guitar player for Shooterz was a Shermer alum. That's why John voted yes.

The rest of the band wanted to stay downtown, but John was having none of that. He wanted to be right here, in the thick of it. If he was going to come back, he wanted to be back. He'd been to Chicago before. Many times. They'd played a wide array of venues throughout Cook County, just never Shermer.

John ashed his cigarette into his all but backwash bottle of beer while popping open the top on his next one. He took a sip, running his fingers through his hair as he looked out of his hotel window. Almost twenty years since he'd been back here. He'd like to say it hadn't changed, but it had. Every suburb of Chicago had, though. He had to admit he was kind of glad it hadn't been for the worse in Shermer's case.

He regarded his reflection in the window. He hadn't changed a whole lot. His hair was longer, his body a little leaner, but overall he didn't think he looked any different than the last time he'd set foot in Shermer. He dressed a little better because he could afford to, but he was still most comfortable in a flannel shirt with a T-shirt underneath, a pair of blue jeans, and a pair of boots. These days he could afford real Doc Martens instead of the knock offs he'd gotten in high school.

It was going to be interesting being on the performer side of Shermer Days. He'd gone plenty of times growing up, listening to bands from secluded spots so he could get stoned or drunk. Or both. Usually both. Ninety-nine percent of the time both.

Little had changed. Just he got paid to get stoned and drunk while playing a guitar surrounded by thousands of fans on any given night. He couldn't remember the last time he'd had to buy his own drugs because there was always someone with something. Booze. That he had to buy his own of sometimes, but not all of the time. It wasn't a bad way to live.

His cell phone rang and he pulled it out of his pocket, cigarette dangling from his lips as he regarded the number. He brought the phone up to his ear as he pulled the cigarette from between his lips.

"Hey, Sean. What's up?" He took a long pull from his beer after speaking into the phone.

'We're going out for pizza. Do you want to come?'

"Sure," he said

'I've heard Chicago pizza is to die for.'

"You've never had it?"

'No,' Sean said.

"It's the best," he said and could honestly say that with sincerity. He'd been everywhere he could think of and he'd never had a pizza like the kind he'd gotten growing up. New York came close, but it wasn't the same.

'Meet you in the lobby?'

"Yeah, I'll be down in a minute," he said.

It was hot, so he didn't need a jacket or anything. He finished the last of his beer, putting his cigarette out in the backwash of that one. He grabbed one of his picks, sliding it between his index and middle finger before grabbing his room key and heading down to the lobby.

No doubt they'd look to him for pizza ideas since they knew he was from here.


***

"Missy," Claire said, exasperated into the phone. "It's your mother. Call me, please."

She disconnected, sighing a bit. She wasn't sure she'd ever gone a day without talking to Missy let alone weeks until now. Oh sure, she'd gone to camp and things over the years, but this was different. She was staying at Claire's parents. It wasn't a planned break. They'd gotten into an argument.

A huge argument.

Claire wasn't sure Missy would ever forgive her, and she supposed she couldn't blame her for that. She hadn't intentionally mislead her. She'd just never told the truth. The truth wouldn't have done any good, and likely would have hurt Missy more growing up. She had a pretty good life growing up being Claire Standish's daughter and Christopher Standish's niece. Any other facts about her background would have led to people like (now) Principal Vernon treating her poorly due to guilt by association.

Of course, part of their agreement was that his name not be on anything regarding her. It seemed like an ideal deal at the time. He'd never missed a child support payment, not once. The months of her birthday and Christmas he always gave her a little more, but he'd never sent her a card or given her anything directly. At first he'd sent the money directly to her, but eventually he just started sending it right to her bank so she never even saw the checks. The account was one she had set up specifically for Melissa so he wouldn't have had access to any of her financials if he'd tried to do that.

So she had the financial support she needed but no interference or anyone to talk things over with as far as Missy's upbringing. It was better than forcing him to be involved when he didn't want to be anything more than essentially a sperm donor.

There were some who thought she was nuts, but she'd been pretty okay with the agreement. Missy certainly hadn't suffered or led a deprived life because of it.

Or so Claire had thought. Maybe she'd been wrong. God, she wasn't sure anymore. The past week had been awful. The worst. She'd take losing Stu again over knowing Missy was alive and well just not speaking to her.

"At least you're not mad at me," she said while petting her Airedale Terrier, Scotty. He was really Stu's dog, replacing Claire and Missy's Scottish Terrier, Princess, who died almost eighteen months ago. She hadn't wanted to get another dog. Missy was going to be leaving for college soon, which would leave them more time to travel and do things. A dog would interfere with that new found freedom that she had never had as an adult. Stu had wanted one, though, and Claire couldn't say no to him. If she'd known Stu was going to be gone less than three months after getting Scotty she might have stuck to her guns more about no more dogs.

There were times over the last seventeen years that Claire wondered if she'd ever be alone. Now that she was she hated every second of it, even if it was her own fault she was alone. Well, it wasn't completely her fault, but mostly her fault. Scotty was welcome company, truthfully, so she was grateful Stu had insisted.

"She can't stay mad at me forever," she said to Scotty, rubbing along his ear and cheek as he liked. "Right? I'm all she's got, really. She knows that. She'll realize that everything I've done and every decision I've made has been because of and for her."

Even marrying Stu. She'd loved him, but had never been in love with him. He was older than Claire and she'd liked that he didn't think because she already had Missy sex was expected on the first date. Or even the second. He'd treated her like a queen and Missy no worse than Chris and Tina treated their own kids. Missy, for all intents and purposes, was Stu's.

"All right, Scotty," she said. "Let's go for a walk." Missy wasn't going to call her back at this time of night. Then, maybe she would, thinking Claire wouldn't expect her to call and shut her phone off. So, she grabbed her cell phone and brought it with her, which was not something she usually did while walking Scotty.

She walked him on their usual route, wondering why it was so crowded tonight. It was summer so people were always out and about, but tonight was busier than usual for a weekday night. Then she remembered. Shermer Days was starting the day after tomorrow. Likely there were some vendors and things setting up. She'd always enjoyed going because she liked her town. Stu hadn't batted an eyelash about moving here when Claire mentioned she'd like to stay here instead of moving away. He'd lived in a condo downtown when they met, but hadn't thought twice about selling it and buying a home in Claire's hometown so that she could live where she felt most comfortable.

"Yet another thing I won't be doing this year," she whispered to Scotty as she passed by a group of people. Going to carnivals and concerts just wasn't much fun alone. She scrunched her nose a bit as she regarded the women in the group. Skeezy wasn't doing their outfits justice. Did they not realize where they were?

Scotty stayed close to her side as they passed. He was pretty good at that sort of thing, barking occasionally when they passed another dog. People he was pretty shy around. She couldn't say she was too disappointed with this group.

"Nice dog," once of the guys said.

"Thanks," she said under her breath, moving past them quickly. She smelled smoke as she passed them, and not of the legal cigarette variety. Not her problem and she couldn't say she was surprised based solely on their appearance that she smelled it so prevalently. She couldn't help but think after the past few months she'd give just about anything for the mind-freeing effects pot had.

"Must be losing your touch, Noel," one of the women said. "She didn't even notice you," she heard from behind her.

"Hey," the guy said again. "I said nice dog. Didn't your mom and dad teach you to be gracious to people paying you a compliment?"

A burst of laughter followed that.

"Don't be an ass, Noel, she said thanks," someone said. Another woman, not the same one who'd spoken a second ago.

"I was going to offer her dog a free pass so he could come to the show Saturday night. Everyone's so uptight in this town, man, he'd have to liven things up."

More laughter as she continued down the sidewalk without looking back. Thankfully, she could get back to her house without backtracking the way she'd come.

Chapter Text

Chapter Two
Word Count: 3,049

July 5, 2002

He wasn't sure why he'd let them talk him into getting here days before they had to play. Usually they flew in, performed, and flew out with maybe an overnight before or after depending on their schedule. They didn't have anything else scheduled and since they were playing a carnival they (the ones who weren't John) thought it'd be fun to hang out for a few days.

The girls had entertained themselves by going downtown the day before yesterday. They hadn't gotten back to the hotel until early this afternoon so evidently they'd had a good time wherever they went. John didn't want to know and he didn't care as long as they showed up in time to go onstage tonight.

He, Claude, Billy, Sean, and Noel had stuck around Shermer for the most part. Sean and Noel were pretty young, so carnivals and the hometown girls that attended them appealed to them. In fact, they'd each met girls opening night of Shermer Days. Claude, Billy, and John spent a lot of time in the beer tent and checking out the acts for the first three nights.

Briefly, the night of the Fourth John thought he saw someone he recognized. Billy noticed, too, but John got the hell away from there before actual recognition clicked in by the other person. It hadn't been bad, he had to admit. Shermer always did have one of the best summer celebrations so he wasn't surprised. It'd been a long time since he'd eaten things like grilled corn on the cob and cheese curds. He still liked them, too, so it was probably good he didn't have access to them (especially the cheese curds) readily over the years.

Finally the time had come to do what they'd come here to do. John was a little nervous as he took a sip of his beer right before their set was about to begin. No bottled beer allowed on the premises. He vaguely remembered that rule from being a kid, but as he hadn't gotten his beer while here legally it had slipped his mind. Tap beer was all right, but he preferred bottled.

Wesley Carter took the stage to introduce them. He still didn't seem to have a clue who John was or that someone in the band he'd hired to perform for the weekend was from Shermer. Fine with John. He wasn't here for any recognition or pomp and circumstance. Oh, he didn't doubt he'd enjoy it if someone recognized him, but he wasn't exactly here to prove a point.

Sean was attentive to one of the girls sitting closest to the stage. John was pretty sure it was the same girl he'd met a couple days ago. She was with a group of girls, of course, so it was kind of hard to tell. John hadn't had any reason to be around twenty-something girls in a very long time, but he remembered the phenomenon well of traveling in packs. It was pretty obvious Sean was watching her, though, because her friends were laughing and she wasn't. She didn't look upset or anything that the group she was with knew he was watching her or anything.

More than once when he and Sean were standing together at a mic he got the feeling her eyes were on him versus his younger bandmate. Hard to tell, though, because she was wearing sunglasses. It was just a feeling he had, and he'd learned long ago that his feelings were rarely wrong on things like that.

Everything was pretty much the same as it had been twenty years ago just with him on a stage this time. He laid odds there was a group of burnouts like him and his buddies were back then huddled just out of sight in the area of trees near the stage. The view wasn't the best, but you were privy to pretty much front-row seats to the music. There were more people here than he remembered, but that wasn't surprising, Shermer had grown in his absence so of course there'd be more here.

They'd played well. Then they always did at these smaller venues. It was the larger ones they sometimes had problems. They got their start in Billy's garage. Billy and Noel were from the area, too, a few towns over. Their pasts weren't as mysterious as John's or something because no one cared about visiting their towns' summer festivals. Then they hadn't been asked to perform at their festivals either.

Their sound, though, tended to lend itself to smaller, more intimate venues given their start in a garage. They made the large venues work. They'd had to, but they knew where they came from and sometimes the larger venues caught them off guard.

He got his things ready to go, helping the others, too, so they all got done faster. The girl's friends were gone but she was still there when John walked out front of the stage. She was standing there, obviously waiting.

"Sean'll be out in a bit I imagine," he said. It seemed rude to just ignore her. Closer like this he could tell easily that she was the girl Sean had been talking to since Tuesday.

"Okay," she said. "Thanks."

He went about his business, ensuring the stage was clear of their things.

"You're really good," she said.

"Compared to all the other guitar players you know? Thank you."

"I play," she said, sounding somewhat pissed off to John's ears. That was all right. Like he cared. He played in a band with Sean he didn't have to like the women he took back with him at the end of the night.

"Fantastic," he said. "What do you want me to say? Thank you isn't good enough?"

Hopefully Sean hadn't latched onto someone who thought he'd be able to get her her big break or something. That had happened to each of them at least once. They were lucky, and they knew that. Right place, right time. Here they were. Ironic she was interested in the guy who was probably in diapers at the moment they were in their right place, right time.

"What's your name?"

"John," he said, regarding her a little closer as he recalled earlier thinking she was watching him as much as she was Sean now and again.

"I'm Missy."

"Thrilled," he said. "Sean's probably in the back if you wanted to find him."

"How did you learn to play?"

He sighed. Here it came. "I didn't really learn to play. I picked up a guitar and could play."

"Just like that?"

"Pretty much. I played by ear, eventually had a music teacher who realized that with some lessons to read music I could possibly be good."

"Mrs. Norman?"

He chuckled softly at that. "Yeah, Mrs. Norman. You had her?"

"Yes," she said.

"I'd figured she'd retired by now. She was, God," he said, thinking about her for the first time in years. She'd been into her fifties he would have guessed twenty five years ago. This girl couldn't have been out of high school that long, so that meant the woman was still actively teaching.

"No," she said.

"Well, good for you. She's good. Probably one of my favorite teachers," he said. He was going to have a chat with Sean about talking about him, or anyone, to people. He didn't want his past blabbed to everyone around.

She slid her sunglasses off then, regarding him. If she'd been stoned earlier her eyes were pretty clear now. He wasn't sure why else she'd have been wearing sunglasses in the evening and this late otherwise. She had some of the most incredibly nice dark brown eyes he'd seen. He wouldn't say ever, but it'd been a while. He supposed he should have guessed brown with the red hair, but he'd seen some redheads with hazel or green eyes.

"She'd be excited I met you."

"Unlikely. I bet she wouldn't even remember me. That was years ago and she's had to have thousands of students."

He was underselling their relationship a bit. She'd told John he had one of the most natural, raw talents she'd ever seen when she'd heard him play. He'd been eleven at the time. He'd found his grandfather's old guitar and picked it up. His parents hadn't cared because it kept him out of their hair for hours at a time. He'd listen to the radio and try to emulate guys like Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Les Paul, Eddie Van Halen, and even guys like B.B. King and Buddy Guy. If a song appealed to him, he'd tape it off the radio and listen to it constantly until he was able to at least get to the point of sounding as though he was playing the guitar parts in that song.

The day she gave him sheet music and expected him to read it he'd realized he was nothing more than a hack. A wannabe. He wanted to be better. He wanted to play a song by those great guitarists and know he did it right. So he'd worked. Hard. She'd pushed him, too.

"She told me once that she'd only encountered one person who plays as well as I do."

"And you think she's talking about me?" He scoffed. "Nice to think that, but no."

Sean found them and John was very relieved. He draped an arm around her before leaning in to kiss her.

"Did you like the show?"

"I did! You guys were good."

"Thanks. I see you met John."

"I did."

"How'd you two meet?" John asked. Having an arm around her suggested they hadn't just met today.

"I met her on Tuesday."

"Ah, all right then," he said with a nod. He knew that. That hadn't been what he was asking exactly. He had no idea how the two of them had encountered one another to begin with. "I guess you have had more current people to hit up for dinner advice."

Sean blushed a bit then. "Yeah, I guess."

"I'm glad it wasn't my choice in pizza places."

"No," Sean said.

"All right. Well, see you tomorrow I guess."

"It was nice to meet you, John," Missy said.

"Yeah, sure. Likewise," he said, but the words were hollow and he knew she was as aware of that as he was.

***

John tried to dismiss the persistent knocking at his door, but it wouldn't stop.

"Christ," he said gruffly, glancing at the alarm clock by his bed to see that it wasn't even nine o'clock in the morning.

"Coming," he called, hoping whoever was knocking would at least stop. He knocked a beer bottle onto the floor, cursing until he realized it was empty but for a little bit of backwash. No cigarette butts in that one, so it wasn't a huge mess to clean up.

He found his pack of cigarettes, lighting one before getting up from the bed and going to the door.

"What the fuck is your issue?" He opened the door, seeing Sean stand there and felt bad. Sean was, overall, a pretty good kid. "Oh," he said.

"What the fuck is your issue?"

"My issue? Other than you knocking on my door at a stupidly crazy hour, nothing."

"She couldn't shut up about you last night."

"Who?"

"Missy."

"What are you talking about?"

"Missy."

"Who the fuck are you talking about?"

"The girl who was with me at the show?"

"Oh," John said. "The redhead with the nice brown eyes. I remember."

"She was asking me questions about you."

"Maybe she likes older guys, Sean."

"You're old enough to be her father."

John shrugged, taking a long drag off his cigarette. "Some women like that. Daddy issues or something. I don't know what to tell you."

"What did you say to her?"

"I didn't say a god damned thing to her. I told her you'd be right out and she started talking to me. I tried to get her to stop talking to me by telling her where she could find you."

"Oh," Sean said.

"Maybe you shouldn't tell people that I'm from here and then they wouldn't care about me."

"Huh?"

"Never mind. It doesn't matter. I have to admit of all the people who could know I'm from here she's not so bad to look at."

"Great."

"You know, if you're here talking to me maybe I need to give you a clue on what to do with her. You should be in there with her, enjoying the next couple of days with her."

"She didn't even come back here with me," he said, sounding disappointed. John couldn't help but chuckle.

"No?"

"No. We just walked around until the Midway closed up for the night. She had to go home to her grandparents'."

"Ah," John said. "One of those, huh. There are plenty of them in Shermer. Though the grandparents' angle is an interesting twist."

"Like you'd know."

"The town hasn't changed that much, Sean. I know. In fact, based on my experience and knowledge of this town I'd suggest you stay as far away from brown-eyed redheads as you can."

"So you didn't hit on her?"

"No! Trust me, I have absolutely no desire to hook up with someone in Shermer." John took another drag off his cigarette. "Can I go back to bed now?" If he'd be able to go back to sleep.

"Yeah, sure. Sorry."

"Don't sweat it. I'm not trying to steal your girl, Sean."

"I…"

"You do know if I wanted to steal your girl I wouldn't have let her leave with you, right?"

"Well, no. I mean, yes, I know that."

"See you later then," he said, closing his door. He walked to the mini-fridge and pulled a beer out, popping open the top as he took a long pull off of it. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand before taking another pull.

He sighed, knowing he wasn't going to be able to go back to sleep. He had gone to bed pretty early so while nine was earlier than he usually woke up he'd gotten a good six or seven hours in. He showered and got ready for his day, grabbing a pick before heading out of his room. The Midway wouldn't open until eleven so he would be shit out of luck finding anything going on there. That didn't mean he couldn't drive around for a bit. They'd gotten two rental cars for the week. He had the keys to one and no one had called dibs on it or talked about plans that required it.

He'd like to claim that all of his memories of Shermer were bad, but really they weren't all bad. Mostly they were pretty decent. Yeah, Vernon had been an asshole, but overall he'd enjoyed his childhood despite his parents and their shortcomings. So driving past things like his elementary school and junior high where he'd first met Mrs. Norman didn't bring back bad memories or overwhelm him with hatred toward his past.

Driving past the Standishes house, though. That brought out some hate. Mrs. Standish hadn't been so bad. She'd seemed to disagree with Mr. Standish's handling of the whole situation. He'd been strong-armed, though, into signing away his rights more or less. Her dad was a lawyer who knew other lawyers who could have buried John in bills and debt. He'd made it abundantly clear, too, that Claire didn't want him involved. So, he agreed to their terms, making a few of his own. None of which her dad objected to because they distanced him from the kid even more. He'd never met her, never seen her, and knew absolutely nothing about her beyond what she'd cost his bank account over the years. He had no idea if how he handled the situation had been the right or best way, but it had been the only way at the time.

Claire hadn't spoken to him since that day of detention. Her parents showed up to talk to him one day during his band practicing. That's how he'd found out he was going to be a dad. Mrs. Standish had seemed to think maybe John should be given a chance, but Mr. Standish was having none of that. It was bad enough the kid would have common Bender blood running through its veins. He'd been given a choice of no involvement or they would tell his parents'.

If his parents had found out Claire wouldn't have gotten child support payments since then because John wouldn't have been living to earn income. Her dad had known that, too, and played his hand well. He hated the man, maybe even more than his own old man.

He was brought out of his thoughts of his past by activity on the property. He expected to see Claire's dad or mom. He did not expect to see the girl Sean had been with last night.

"Fuck," he said.

Had he said anything wrong? Bad? Incriminating? He couldn't remember. He hadn't been drunk out of his mind or anything, but he'd had a toke or two before they took the stage and more than a beer or two on top of that.

He'd think he was seeing things except Sean had mentioned her needing to get back to her grandparents' so he knew he wasn't hallucinating. Was Claire here? Was Claire out of town for some reason, leaving the kid, Missy, with Grandma and Grandpa?

Missy.

Short for Melissa.

He was a fucking idiot not to connect the dots. Missy. The red hair. Her playing guitar.

Except he knew nothing about her other than her name and birthday.

He doubted very likely Claire's brother named his daughter the same as Claire's, so that ruled out the kid being anyone but Claire's.

His arm slipped along the steering wheel, causing the horn to go off and her to glance in the direction of his car. He pulled away, trying not to go incredibly fast as if to make it seem as though he was fleeing or anything. He wasn't supposed to be anywhere near her. He'd agreed to that. What if Claire's dad saw him?

"Fuck," he said again.

Chapter Text

Chapter Three
Word Count: 5,408

John got back to his room at the time Sean was leaving his. Judging by the fact he was not just dressed but shaved John took that to mean he was heading somewhere versus just to get something to eat or something like that.

"Where are you off to?" he asked.

"I, uh," Sean said, blushing.

"What?"

"Missy called. She is heading to the carnival."

"Oh," John said.

"She asked if I wanted to meet her there."

"Why?" John asked.

"Why?"

"Yes, why does she want you to meet her there?"

"Uh, I don't know. What kind of question is that?"

John rested his head against the wall for a second. Good question. Did he really want an answer?

"You actually like her?" he asked.

"I don't know. She's hot. She seems to at least know something about music."

"Yeah, she mentioned that," John said, choosing to ignore the her being hot part of that. His grandfather had been real good John knew. He knew his dad had played, but chose not to pursue any talent he may have had. John didn't even know if his dad had been any good. John remember picking up his grandpa's guitar for the first time and it hadn't been played in years before that.

"She did?"

"Yeah," John said, thinking over their conversation. She'd been trying to talk to him, but how did she know? Did she know? That was a leap. Why would she even guess who he was? "You realize you don't live in Chicago, right?"

"What?"

"You don't live in Chicago. We're going to get on a plane out of here tomorrow."

"I know."

"Just making sure."

"Since when have you cared what we do?"

John shrugged. "Since when have you had the chance to spend almost a week with one girl?"

Sean shrugged a little at that. They didn't have a week to spend with one girl often. Sean was a pretty good guy, though, who didn't have a girlfriend back home or anything. Would he be hanging out with Melissa if he did have a girl back home? John couldn't say for sure, but didn't think he would.

"Want a ride?" he asked.

"Really?" Sean asked. It wasn't a crazy long walk to the carnival or anything, but it was far enough.

"Yup. I'm not asking twice, though, so if you don't I'm going into my room to crash."

"Yeah, I'm sorry I woke you earlier."

"It's all right. Don't make a habit of it, though, that'd be better than a sorry."

"Don't worry about it. Really."

Sean fell into step with John.

"So, you have a sudden desire to go?"

"Nope," John said.

"I know you're not going for the beer," Sean said.

"You're not stupid, I'll give you that," John replied.

"Why then?"

"Maybe I really want some grilled corn."

"Shut up," Sean said.

John grunted softly.

"Really? Corn?" Sean asked with a frown when they got to the rental car John had used earlier.

"Shut up, Sean," he said. "Didn't they teach you not to piss off your gift horse?"

"No."

"I'm teaching you now. Don't piss off your gift horse."

"I don't think…"

"I don't care what the real saying is."

"Yeah, sure, whatever, John," Sean said with a slight frown.

Fuck. Why the hell was he busting the kid's balls like this? He had absolutely no reason to talk like that to him.

"Sorry," John said.

"It's okay. No problem," Sean said, but John knew it was a problem. Sean was just too nice of a kid to say so. John really wasn't in a position to elaborate because he wasn't even sure where to begin. Oh by the way the girl you met is my daughter who I never met sounded a little too farfetched even to him.

"So, has Missy said anything about what she does here in Shermer?"

"No," he said.

"Nothing."

"Not really," Sean said. John was guessing she'd said more than Sean was letting on. They hadn't spent most of a week together and talked about nothing.

"She mentioned her grandparents," John said, hoping Sean wouldn't think it was strange he was prying.

"Only that she was staying with them."

"Staying with them?"

Did Claire not live in Shermer any longer? Her bank account was still here because he sent money to it every month, but he supposed she could live in any suburb and still bank at the same bank. Or keep that one just for that. It was not like they talked to where she'd know how to really get a hold of him to change her information.

And then his thoughts took a darker turn. Was Claire all right? Was she staying with Mr. and Mrs. Standish because something had happened to her mom? And why the fuck did that thought … upset him, for lack of a better emotion to put with the feeling in his gut, after all of these years.

"Yeah," he shrugged. "I don't know," he shrugged.

Probably she told him more than that if John knew anything about women. Sean just hadn't been paying attention or hadn't cared enough to really listen.

John pulled up at the lesser used entrance to the grounds the carnival was held on every year.

"You're not coming," Sean said with a slight frown when he realized John wasn't parking.

"Nope," John said.

"Oh," the other guy said.

"Have fun," John said. It was tempting, but he wasn't sure having any more contact with her than he'd already had was a good idea. So, as soon as Sean got out of the car John headed back to the hotel. He had something in his stuff to help him sleep if he couldn't fall back to sleep on his own.

He pulled the local phone book out of the nightstand drawer when he got back to his room, taking a pull from his beer as he paged through it to the S pages. He ran a finger along the names once he'd found ST.

Standish, Christopher – no surprise big brother lived in Shermer
Standish, Frank – John already knew that bit of information

No Claire. No C.

He pulled his cell phone out and dialed 411.

No Claire or just C Standish in the surrounding area. It wasn't like when they were kids and you could ask about the entire Chicago area because there'd been only one area code back then. Now there were a bunch of them covering the suburbs and areas.

Did she not even live in Illinois anymore? John found it hard to believe she'd move far from her parents. She hadn't loved them exactly, but he didn't see her cutting Mommy and Daddy out of her life completely. She just wasn't the type.

He grabbed his beer and cell phone before standing from the bed. He made sure he had his room key and left the room, heading to Jazmin's room.

"Hey, John," she said. She didn't look as though he'd woken her, but she wasn't ready for the day either. She had a pretty fresh hickey on the side of her neck, too. John couldn't help but chuckle a bit at that. It hadn't been there before the show last night.

"Hey. Sorry to interrupt. I, uh, have a favor to ask."

"Sure, hon."

"You have that laptop of yours?"

"Yeah," she asked with a frown. John didn't use computers any more than he had to. He certainly didn't have a laptop that he brought with him everywhere they went. He had a computer at home and everything, but everyone in the band knew he didn't use it more than he had to.

"Can I borrow it? Or give me a few minutes to look something up?" He was betting borrowing it was going to win out, but he wanted to at least make the offer that didn't leave her for any length of time without the computer.

"Sure," she said. "Hang on a second." She held the door open for him so he stepped inside. There was someone sleeping on her bed. Judging by the shoes and clothes strewn on the floor, John was guessing it was a female someone. It was hard to tell with Jazmin because she wasn't exclusive to men or women.

"Sorry," he said.

"No problem." She grabbed her laptop case and brought it to John. "You can just get it to me later."

"Thanks," he said.

"Remind me to ask you later what you needed it for."

"Just some research."

"Yeah, right," she said with a soft laugh. She opened the door and John took the hint, stepping back into the hallway and returning to his room.

He was glad she'd obviously used the computer from here before today so he could just sign in without any difficulty. Computer expert he was not.

She wasn't dead. John was glad to find that out. Her husband had recently died, though. From what John could tell she hadn't been married real long. He found no indication she'd been married before and that surprised John. He'd assumed she'd finish college and meet someone. That was what her parents had been banking on, certainly. Someone more suitable than John Bender to give their grandchild a name and a life. So why hadn't she?

So, Missy had only really had a step-dad for a couple of years, not even really since he'd died not even like three months ago. From their engagement picture he'd looked a little older than them, but not old enough John would expect him to be dead already. He wondered what happened, and if that was the reason Missy was staying with the grandparents. Was Claire there, too?

He was able to find an address here in Shermer, which he wrote down. He also looked it up online to see where it was as it wasn't a street he was familiar with before he shut down the laptop. He glanced at the alarm clock as he took a pull from his beer. He had absolutely no business seeking her out, but he was under the impression Missy wasn't going to know anything about him. So how did she know who he was? That didn't sit well with him when it got down to it. He'd signed his rights away. Her birth certificate should have been blank where his name would ordinarily have gone. Claire's dad made it abundantly clear that was how it was going to be handled.

As it had turned out, Claire hadn't been eighteen on that day of detention. Legally, she was the age to consent but her dad was a lawyer and her dad made it clear that he would be able to come up with some law to be able to charge John with statutory rape. That had been the last thing he'd wanted. They'd made a kid out of that day, he didn't want a rape charge associated with it. They'd both been as willing and as consensual as they could get.

He ran his fingertips along the edge of the pick he always carried. It was a nervous habit he supposed some would say. He didn't like being without one on him all of the time. It wasn't because he was afraid he was going to be asked to play somewhere either.

"Fuck it," he said, glancing at himself in the mirror for a second once he stood from the bed. He grabbed his wallet and the keys to the rental, hoping no one would need it for the rest of the day. They still had hours until they were set to play tonight.

He spun the pick in between his index and middle finger as he drove through her neighborhood. She hadn't done badly for herself. Of course that was the plan for her. Her father wouldn't let something like a baby stand in the way of that. The houses back in here were, Christ, monstrous. As nice as her parents', but in a more modern way. (John had to admit as much as he didn't want to he liked her parents' house better.)

He found the address and pulled onto the driveway. It was Saturday so he hoped she'd be home. He wasn't even sure what he was going to say to her when all was said and done. Instinct had guided him here, but it was oddly silent on getting him past this point.

He rang the bell, waiting for a while given the size of the house before calling it quits on this ridiculous idea. He heard a dog barking from the back. There was enough property between her house and her neighbors on either side that there was no question the dog was in her yard.

Had Melissa grown up with dogs?

He hadn't. No big shock to anyone to learn that if they knew how he'd been raised. And who he'd been raised by. He liked to think he was lucky they didn't have pets because likely they would've been neglected worse than John had been. John was at least capable of making himself peanut butter and jelly the nights his mom forgot about him (or was too messed up to do anything when she did remember him).

She opened the door and stared.

He stared, too. He couldn't help it. She looked fantastic.

"Didn't you learn it's not polite to stare?" he asked.

"Yes, of course. I'm sorry. How did you? Why are you? What do you want?"

"Smooth," he said.

"Forgive me for not having any idea what to say to someone I haven't seen in eighteen years and didn't think I'd ever see again."

"You look good," he said.

"Thanks," she said.

"Are you heading out?"

"Out?"

"You're dressed…" She was dressed nicely. A pretty nice skirt and blouse.

"Oh, no," she said.

So, this was what she wore to just sit at her house? Man, he was lucky to put a shirt on when he was home.

"Good."

"What do you want, John?"

"Wow."

"Well, no offense, but I haven't seen you since sometime around graduation."

"Yeah, your dad made sure of that."

"And you wanted to be involved?"

Put like that… "I didn't see much choice in the matter. He had me by the short hairs, you know? It was give in or be branded a rapist. Not too great of a thing to have hanging over someone's head who's trying to get a record deal."

"Did you?"

"What?" What was she asking him?

"Get a record deal."

"Oh, well, not right away, but sure. Eventually. You know, hard work and perseverance. Whatever it's called."

"I'm glad." Did she really not know?

"I read about your husband. I'm sorry."

"Thank you," she said, sounding surprised and legitimately flattered he'd said that.

"Yeah, sure. You weren't married long?"

"No. I'd known him for years."

"Oh?"

"Yes. He asked me out for a year or so before I finally said yes."

"When was that?"

She shrugged. "Ninety-six?"

"Why'd you say no at first?"

"I really didn't want anyone involved with Melissa."

"What? Why not?"

She shrugged. "You hear so many stories, John. I didn't want to take the chance."

"Jesus. Hopefully, you're not going to date someone who does anything in those stories."

"Well, I'm sure John Wayne Gacy's wife didn't think he was that type of guy."

"I suppose," he said. That seemed a bit drastic in his opinion.

"I mean. I dated and did stuff now and again. I just never found anyone I wanted to get serious about. Christopher or Mom and Dad were always happy to babysit for an evening. I never introduced her to someone I dated until Stu. And even then, God, I think we'd dated for about two years by the time they met."

"Years?"

"Yeah. He was older and it took me a while to realize that he really was interested in me and not just a trophy wife."

"Well, it seems it worked out, and I'm sorry."

"Thanks. What are you doing here, John?"

"Well, my band is playing."

"Oh?"

"Yeah," he said. He'd sort of thought she was behind them being hired. Maybe he was wrong. She had to have some pull with the reunion committee and stuff.

"We've been here since early in the week."

"Okay."

"One of the kids in the band, Sean, he's a good guy and all. He's been spending time with a girl."

"John. I don't see…"

"I didn't see either, until she started talking to me last night."

"That's unusual?"

"Girls that young? These days? It doesn't happen as often as it did. Especially with Sean and Noel in the band now. They're both younger so the cute young groupies usually latch onto them if they can. She's pretty cute and all, but she wasn't hitting on me. She was telling me how good she is at guitar."

She got pale then. She didn't have a very dark tint to her skin to begin with, but the term white as a ghost would have been applicable to what she looked like now.

"I had time on my hands this morning due to getting woken up because Sean thought she was hitting on me. Or I was hitting on her. Something. I don't know what he thought exactly. So, I drove around, saw some sights. Your parents' house among them. Same girl from the carnival who's been hanging around Sean was there. She's too old to be one of Chris'."

"Yes," she whispered.

"Listen. I know I just showed up here unannounced and stuff and you have butt loads of privacy, but could I come in?"

"Yeah, sure," she said, stepping away from the door.

"Thanks." He let out a low whistle at the foyer. The chandelier coming down from the vaulted ceiling that extended beyond the second floor even had to cost more than all of the guitars he'd owned put together. "Nice."

"Thanks." She led him to a room off the front door. He'd call it some sort of living room, but he imagined there was a more formal, wealthy term for it. "Can I get you anything?"

"No. I don't want anything, but it's July and it's hot."

"I'm going to grab some iced tea and let my dog in. Are you sure I can't get you something?"

"Uh, sure then. Whatever you have handy."

"I'll be right back."

She returned a few minutes later with a glass of iced tea for herself and a bottle of beer for him.

"Thanks," he said, surprised somehow she had beer in her house.

"Stu drank it sometimes. It helped his nausea during his chemo."

"Oh," he said. Evidently he didn't hide his surprise at her having beer for him. "Sorry."

"It was fast. He was diagnosed. We tried chemo but it was too late and didn't do anything beyond make him sick. So, he stopped. Good or bad, I haven't decided yet. At least he didn't suffer for months or years."

"I suppose. Listen. How does she know who I am? I mean, enough to randomly pick me out of a crowd of guys at the carnival? I thought that was kind of the deal, you know? I was going to be kept out of it."

She sighed, taking a sip of her iced tea. "It being your daughter."

"Hey, I haven't missed a fucking support payment in over seventeen years. The months I've skipped I paid you double plus a little extra for the inconvenience the next month. Unfortunately I don't get paid on a regular schedule all of the time."

"I know. I'm not complaining."

"So, what?"

She sighed softly, taking another sip of her tea. "She'd grown up just knowing that you weren't involved. She'd ask questions periodically when she was growing up when they had a project in school about ancestry or some child would say something thoughtless about her father not being around. I was always able to skirt around the issue. You weren't here. I never told her about the support."

"Why not?"

"Would you want to know that someone sent support for you and never made an effort to see you?"

He frowned at that, never having thought about it from that perspective.

"I'll let you think on that while I continue with how she knows who you are. I never told her anything beyond your first name. Stu," she said. "Stu wanted to adopt her, but I said no."

"Why?"

"I would have had to find you, and I didn't want to do that. Plus," she shrugged. "I know what my father did to you. You didn't have a choice in the matter, and I felt bad for that. I didn't want to let another man adopt your child that you'd never met. That would sort of solidify you'd never have the chance to meet her."

"I…"

"I know you didn't want the chance then, but I held onto hope that maybe someday you'd change your mind. Maybe not when she was a child, but one day. You know, you'd know my father couldn't do anything. Or she'd be eighteen."

John scoffed at that.

"It was the romantic in me, I guess. You know?" She shrugged. "It was stupid."

"No, hey," he said. Was she saying she'd wanted him to come for them? Her? Fuck. The thought had never occurred to him she'd want him for more than what happened between them.

"Anyway," she said, glancing away from him and out the window. "Stu made the mistake of telling Melissa that he'd offered to adopt her."

"Oh," he said.

"I guess they talked, and he told her about you."

"He knew?"

"Of course. I didn't tell him at first, no, but once he asked me to marry him. Our situation was a little different than your average single parent household. There was no divorce, there was no father involved to share visitation with. I didn't get weekends or holidays off ever. He needed to understand that wasn't going to change."

"And you knew…"

"I knew enough about your career, yes."

"Oh," he said.

"So he knew. He was so sick toward the end. I don't think he did it to spite me or anything. I think he wanted her to know that he really loved her as a daughter and not just a step-daughter. He was really a very kind man. She got mad. She insisted that I made it sound like I had no idea how to find you. I never claimed that. Clearly, I could have gotten in touch with you through your parents even if I didn't know about your band."

"Right," he said. He was piecing it all together. "So, she's been staying with your parents…"

"Since school let out."

"Wow," he said.

"Yeah. She hasn't really said anything since Stu died."

"So, would she really like Sean or is she just using him to meet me?"

She shrugged. "I don't know. She's never really been interested in boys."

"Like mother like daughter I guess."

"Yes, let's hope she doesn't follow in my footsteps too closely."

"She's pretty."

"She's beautiful," Claire said proudly.

"Also like mother like daughter."

"Thank you."

"Sure. So what do I do, Claire? I don't know how to handle this situation. I'm not equipped to deal with it in the least."

"She's your daughter."

"That'd mean something if I knew one iota of information about dealing with kids of any age let alone teenagers."

She scoffed at that.

"What?"

"Nothing."

"So?"

"Don't do anything."

"Claire. She sought me out."

"John. Look at yourself."

"Yeah?"

"How many beers have you had this morning before mine?"

"I don't know…"

"And joints? Or are you taking something else?"

"Fuck, Claire, you're not my mother."

"No, but I'm my daughter's mother and I want you to step back and think about what kind of example you'd be setting for her right now. I know you've been arrested for possession at least once."

"Pot!"

"It's still an arrest."

"So, what am I supposed to do? To this point she hasn't said anything directly."

"Don't give her the chance to."

"Just because she's not talking to you…"

"No! I'm not punishing her. Look at yourself. You seek me out and can't even have the decency to shave?"

He ran his hand along his jaw and realized he hadn't.

"I have to be clean shaven to see you?"

"Well, I guess it depends on what you want me to think. Right now I think you're a rock star who drinks and drugs his days away in between shows."

"Fuck. You're judging me?"

"Have I said anything untrue?"

"That's not the point."

"You're sitting in my living room asking me what you should do. I'm telling you. Nothing."

"So act as if I don't know she's my kid?"

"Yes. Biological parents do it all of the time."

"That's not the same thing at all."

"It is so. How is it any different? You agreed to no involvement. Kids find their biological parents all of the time and are told they don't want to meet them and vice versa."

"You can't be serious."

"I'm completely serious."

"She sought me out!"

"Because she's mad at me and has some romantic idea in her head that you'll want a God damned thing to do with her after seventeen years because she can play a guitar same as you."

"You're a bitch, you know that?"

"I'm protecting my daughter from something I think will harm her."

"I wouldn't hurt her!"

"You can't even take care of your own life. I don't want you near hers. When was the last time you woke up and didn't grab a beer and your cigarettes?"

"You brought me a beer!"

"You're right, I did because I knew I had nothing else you'd like."

"I drink iced tea."

She scoffed softly.

"So you want me to just ignore her?"

"Yes. You'll be gone tomorrow, right?"

"Yes."

"Well then it's just tonight you'll have to worry about."

"Claire…"

She stood then and opened the doors leading to the foyer. He stood then, taking his cue from her. He wasn't raised in this type of home, but he knew the sign of him getting thrown out in this house or any other house.

"John. You do whatever you want, but after you leave here I want you to stop and really look at yourself and think about the fact if you're the man you want your daughter to meet and get to know."

"You don't know a fucking thing about me."

"I know enough."

He sighed as he walked to the door. She hadn't opened it yet, but she was getting to that point. He may as well beat her to it.

"And if I like what I see?"

"Then disregard what I'm asking you to do. Just remember you don't know her. Being a sperm donor does not give you an instant connection to someone."

He wanted to get mad at the sperm donor comment, but he'd thought it himself over the years as he'd written child support checks. He didn't think it every month or even frequently, but there were a few months where things were pretty fucking lean and he had to make the fucking payment. Those months he looked forward to her being out of college. He'd agreed to support through college because he thought it was the right thing to do at the time. There'd been more than once over the years he'd thought he should have tried to barter for eighteen instead.

"Claire."

"Good bye, John. You've asked me what I thought you should do. I've told you. You either abide by my wishes or you don't. I'm not going to sit here and talk about the meaning of life or anything else with you. We had one day of our lives, we made a child out of that day, that's all."

"Yeah, sure," he said, stepping outside. She hadn't made it sound like that was all at first, though. She'd made it sound like maybe she'd hoped he'd look for them. Was that why she was mad now? Had she not married someone until a couple of years ago, thinking maybe he would?

There was putting way more stock into what she could possibly think about him.


***

Claire watched from behind the drapes as he pulled off the driveway and drove away.

God, she couldn't believe he'd just shown up here. Sounding sincere about his condolences about Stu. She had no idea Shooterz had been hired to play for Shermer Days because since Melissa wasn't speaking to her she hadn't cared enough to find out about the various performers. She and Melissa had always enjoyed going previous years. Stu would come with sometimes, but usually he let Mother and daughter enjoy their music together. (Stu was a classical music guy, and while he tolerated other types of music he didn't enjoy the majority of music that contained words.)

She found Scotty in the den, closing the door behind her before she sat at her desk and picked up the phone.

'This is Alison. Leave a message.'

"Hi Alison, it's Claire." She sighed and Alison would probably hear the sigh. "You'll never guess who came by the house today to tell me that my daughter has spoken to him. Did you, uh, know he was in town? Call me when you get a chance. I have no real plans today. Bye."

She hung up, disappointed to get voicemail. It was Saturday, though, after the Fourth. For all she knew Alison and Andy were at the Dells for the weekend or something.

She grabbed her remote and turned the TV on, moving to the couch.

"Oh, Scotty," she said, touching the top of his head with her fingertips. "He's not going to listen to me, is he? He's going to be a like a bull in a China shop and just barrel through this without any thought of what his actions could do to her. Or to me. Or even to him. People start finding out he has a child."

Well, it didn't matter. She thought she'd done pretty well for the past seventeen years keeping her paternity under wraps.

She stumbled across the movie Grease and stopped there. A little singing and dancing should be good for her. And if she fell asleep? She wouldn't complain either. She hadn't slept real well since Melissa moved in with her parents. Moved in wasn't accurate, but she may as well be living there at this rate.

Oddly, her parents hadn't asked Claire one question as to why their granddaughter wanted to stay there. Perhaps not so oddly given who her parents were.

She wondered what would have happened between Sandy and Danny if their summer night at the beach had resulted in a Melissa of their own. Would Sandy's parents have stayed? Would Danny have given her the time of day? Kenickie had come through in the end for Rizzo when he thought she was pregnant. Well, sort of. She'd told him it wasn't his, which had to have hurt.

"Too bad I couldn't have done that," she murmured to Scotty.

Of course, in her case, she couldnt have lied because there was no other guy but John who could have been the father. She certainly wasnt going to go out and have sex with someone else after realizing she was pregnant. So, when her father had wanted the information there really was no alternative for her but the truth. Anyone else would have denied having had sex with her, and while a pregnancy was bad enough for her reputation she didnt want it getting around she was accusing random guys of fathering her baby. That would have completely ruined her. Shed kind of taken pride in the fact no one could talk about her in that way.

And the one guy who could have? The one who her friends probably would have told her to stay away from because he'd blab to the entire student body that he'd had her? He hadn't told a soul that anything had happened between them. Well, he had, a few years later but in a way no one would know who he was talking about.

Except her, of course. She knew.

Chapter Text

Chapter Four
Word Count: 6,128

He wasn't overly shocked to see Melissa with Sean when they left for dinner before their show that evening. He had no idea how long they'd been in Sean's room. If her grandparents thought she was at the carnival she had pretty much a free pass to do whatever she wanted for the entire day.

When he saw she was with Sean he tried to come up with a legitimate sounding reason to bow out of dinner, but nothing sounded sincere. That resulted in him drinking a few more beers than he would've normally and saying as little as possible to anyone.

She asked him some questions. Oh she asked them to Claude and Billy, too, but he suspected she didn't really care what their answers were.

Are you married?
Kids?
Where do you actually consider home when you travel so much?

The first two questions were easily answered. No. She hadn't liked that answer when he gave it to the kids' question. He'd never in seventeen years admitted to having one, he wasn't about to start now. Certainly not tonight in front of people he worked and traveled with on a pretty much daily basis.

Claude, on the other hand, had four of them from three different ex-wives. Well, the kids came from the first two wives. No kids resulted from the third wife. Evidently Claude got all of his procreating done before the age of thirty. John considered himself fortunate he'd gotten his done before he was twenty because even one was too many where he was concerned.

John tried not to feel superior over anyone for any reason, but sometimes he looked at Claude and realized he'd done all right for the most part. One kid, but until this weekend he honestly hadn't given her much thought beyond ensuring her mom got his money in a timely fashion. He'd never stopped to think about what she looked like, what grade she was in, whether she had a boyfriend, or if she could play guitar. Maybe that made him a bad guy. He wasn't sure, but dwelling on her wouldn't have done him any good. No failed marriages. He'd had a couple of girlfriends, but the relationships had ended fairly amicably. He wasn't still friends with any of them or anything, but if he saw them out somewhere he wouldn't want to run away and hide. That was compared to Claude who practically needed a police escort to see his first wife because she was as nuts as they came.

Come to think of it, Claude probably would get a good laugh at John's current predicament if he found out. He'd probably tell John that Claire was right, too. Claude had gotten clean about three years ago now. Wife number three died of an overdose of shit Claude had bought. She'd used the new stuff while Claude had taken the last of their previous stash. He'd flushed it all down the toilet and hadn't touched anything since. Not even booze.

It was Claude's garage John had been in when he found out that there was going to be a Melissa from Claire's mom and dad.

"So are you looking at colleges?" Farrah asked Melissa.

"Uh, yeah. I took the SATs and ACTs last year."

"Both?" Farrah asked. She was the only one who seemed to know what the fuck those were. John knew, not that he'd ever taken them. He went to school with a bunch of people who put great stock in those tests.

"Yeah, the better colleges like to have both I guess," she shrugged.

"Better?" Noel asked.

"Harvard and Yale," Farrah said, sounding exasperated. "You know, the ones kids dream about getting into growing up."

"I never did," Noel said.

"That's you, that doesn't mean that's normal," Farrah said.

"Hey," Noel said.

"Do you have any idea what you want to do?"

She shrugged. "English and Political Science."

"Wow," Farrah said. It was, truthfully, the most John had ever heard her say at one time. She so rarely spoke up it was easy most of the time to completely forget she was there. She sang and danced great, though, so no one was complaining. "Ambitious."

"You go to college or something, Farrah?" John asked out of curiosity.

"I did," she said.

"Huh," he said. He glanced at Claude and Billy who both shrugged so apparently they hadn't known that either. College attendance weren't really questions asked about for her type of job.

"For what?"

"Nursing."

"You're a nurse?" John wasn't alone in asking that question, everyone else in the band did, too.

"Yes," she said, sounding defensive.

"Why in the hell are you doing this then?"

"Because I want to while I can? I figure a year or two from now I can think about getting a real job."

"Huh," he said again.

"So why those two majors? One of them alone is pretty tough."

"My grandpa and uncle want me to go onto law school."

John scoffed at that as he took a sip of his beer.

"What?" he asked when eyes fell on him. Missy was watching him pretty intently, too. "Like we need any more lawyers in this world. Whatever happened to women becoming teachers?"

"Oh my God," Farrah said. "You did not just say that?"

He shrugged. "Why the fuck not? We need teachers, don't we?"

"So they have to be women?"

"Well," he said. "No, but I hated all my male teachers with a passion. My assistant principal was the biggest asshole of them all. Lucky he let me graduate."

"It's not his fault you put yourself in the position to possibly not graduate," Farrah said.

"You think so?" he asked. "Tell me, Miss Nurse," he said, pushing his sleeve up enough to show the scar he'd shown Claire and the others that day at school. "What's that look like to you in your expert, educated opinion?"

"John, man, they don't know," Claude said.

He shut up and didn't say another fucking word after that. He drank his share of beers, too, realizing Claire would probably get her wish now. Likely she wouldn't want anything to do with him.

It wasn't the most awkward dinner he'd ever experienced, but it was pretty fucking close. He was pretty sure Claude noticed his answers to her questions before that conversation that she directed specifically to him were monosyllabic at best.

He watched her, though, as much as he could without seeming obvious about it. She and Sean weren't acting like two people who'd just had sex. Somehow he suspected if that happened it would come back to him and be his fault somehow. Fuck if he knew what Claire was thinking at the moment.

Grandpa and Uncle Chris wanted her to be a lawyer. What did she want? Was Claire a lawyer? If Claire was didn't she want Melissa to be one, too? So many questions that he realized when it got down to it he had no business asking. He'd signed away his rights for it to be his business. That just put him in a fouler mood, so he was glad when they finally got the fuck out of there so they could get on with their night. The sooner he was out of Shermer, Illinois the better as far as he was concerned.

He stopped at a liquor store on their way back from dinner to pick up a pint of Jack.

"John," Claude said.

"It's for afterward, don't worry," he said.

"You wake up on the wrong side of the bed or something?"

"Yeah, you could say getting woken up by Sean pissed off because he thought I was hitting on the girl he's with was the wrong way to wake up. Couldn't fucking get to sleep after that."

"Why'd you think he was hitting on her, Sean?"

"I don't know, he was talking to her," Sean mumbled from the backseat. Likely he was not too happy about being caught up in John's bad mood tonight.

"I didn't talk to her!" John said. "She talked to me. I don't see you waking her up to tell her to stay away from me."

"John," Sean said. "Come on. You said we were all right."

"We're super," he said. Why Sean and Melissa rode with him he didn't know, but somehow the two of them and Farrah were with him. The others were in the other car. He had no idea why Sean and Melissa hadn't ridden together in her car other than he supposed taking three cars was a bit ridiculous.

"Don't be a dick, John," Claude murmured from the front seat.

"You're not coming up?" Claude asked when they got back to the hotel.

"I've got something to do. I'll be back."

"John," Claude said. He knew exactly what John's something to do was because he knew John well enough to know what he'd want to go with his Jack.

"Claude," he said simply.

"Get out," Claude said to the three in the backseat.

"I'm not taking you with me," John said.

"I wouldn't want you to," Claude said.

"Well then," he asked as the three got out as Claude told them to.

"What the fuck is your problem?"

"No problem. Beer just isn't enough tonight."

"Want to talk about it?"

"No."

"I talked your ear off plenty over the years."

"You did, doesn't mean I'm going to return the favor."

"You ever need to …"

"Right," John said with a scoff, glancing out his window. What a ridiculous conversation.

"The fact no one but Billy and me knows about your past should be a pretty good indication I'm not going to run and tell anyone."

"Nothing to tell anyone anyway. I just need to go do something."

"Fine," he said, getting out then. "That shit's going to kill you."

"I'll come back and haunt you when it does."

"Not funny, man," he said. He shut the door though, but he stood there by the doors as John pulled away.

She was there with her friends tonight, too. He didn't stay behind on stage and help pack shit up as he had the night before. He was tempted, but told Sean to do it since she seemed to want to stay behind and be chatty.

She found him anyway as he was walking to the car ahead of the others.

"Hey, John," she said.

"What? Oh, hey," he said when he saw it was her.

"You're leaving?"

"Uh yeah. We're done. Why? You need me to give Sean a ride back to the hotel?"

"No," she said. She had her own car, which Sean had ridden with her in from the hotel to the carnival.

"Okay," he said.

"I was hoping I could play for you."

He scoffed softly at that. "I don't think so."

"Why?"

"That's exactly why."

"What?"

"Why is exactly why. I don't think so. I'm not a talent scout or anything. I just play."

"Yes, but…"

John sighed softly. Would it hurt to hear her play? Really? Then he spotted Sean walking toward them, and he didn't look pleased. Then John wondered what that was about. They were leaving. Tomorrow. What the fuck did Sean think he was going to do? Take her with them. John chuckled to himself at the very thought of a Standish traveling on the road with them.

"Play for Sean. And please for the love of God let him know I'm not hitting on you so he doesn't wake me up earlier than I need to fucking wake up in the morning."

"But he's not…"

"I've got plans."

"Plans?" She sounded suspicious.

"Yup. There's a bottle with my name on it in my room." And he planned on making a good dent in it, too. "Later," he said, turning just as Sean called her name.

John scoffed at Sean asking her if she was into John or something. He hadn't had someone that young come onto him in a very, very long time. He couldn't even remember the last time. He was still playing local venues here in Illinois with Claude, Billy, and Xavier, who just went by X. Xavier went on his merry way after a while, but Claude, Billy, and John had remained. Billy was one of the best drummers around and Claude despite his issues was one helluva a songwriter and front man. After Xavier left he had to double up on bass and had fared well for quite a while until they stumbled upon Sean a couple of years ago. They'd found Noel, adding a keyboard player a couple of years before that. Their sound hadn't changed too much, but John knew there was a difference. There always was when someone new came along, no matter what anyone said.

Sean wasn't among those going back to the hotel as a group. No surprise there he supposed. He drove those who were ready to go back when he was and went to his room to shower before continuing his night.

He cursed at the knock that came just as he broke the seal on the bottle of Jack and poured himself the first shot.

"Sean. For fuck's sake I was not hitting on her," he said, opening the door. "Oh," he said. "Sorry." It was Claude not Sean at all.

"I don't think Sean's here yet, and I don't think he thinks that tonight."

"Oh?"

"Yeah, heard them talking when I walked past them. You told her you didn't have time to listen to her play?"

"I don't."

"You and your busy night?"

"I have a busy night scheduled. I should never have suggested we come here."

"Buyers' remorse does suck."

John grunted.

"Can I come in or what?"

"I'm not doing anything in here you want to be a part of."

Claude shrugged. "I'm sober not dead."

"It's a free country," he said, stepping away from the door. Claude was left to catch the door to stop it from closing and come in or let it shut in his face.

"So," he said, making his way to the table where the bottle currently sat. "What are we drinking to tonight, exactly?"

"We aren't drinking to anything," John said, running a finger along the edge of the shot glass. John honestly wasn't sure what he'd do if Claude asked to do a shot or a line with him. They'd done many of both together over the years, but his wife OD'ing had changed that. Overall, John thought it was for the greater good. Claude definitely wrote better clean and sober then the couple of years before. However, there were times he missed that friend because Billy, Sean, and Noel just weren't into it like John and Claude had been.

"Okay. What are you drinking to, John? And don't think I've forgotten about the errand you went on earlier. You go to that Stubby kid?"

Stubby was no longer a kid. John wondered how many of Stubby's rich friends realized that Stubby had been a dealer all through high school and continued dealing to this day. Some had to know, those that used. Some like Claire probably hadn't a clue, then or now.

"Yeah. Stick with what you know, I guess." He didn't want to get arrested that was for sure. Claire was right. He had been once, actually there were a couple other times, too, but only once had made the paper because it was after Shooterz was a household name.

"Right," Claude said. "So…"

"What?" John asked.

Claude shrugged. "Why'd you say no to listening to her play?"

"Why not? I have to listen to every person who thinks they're a guitar expert who comes along?"

"No, but Sean likes her."

"Then Sean can listen to her, and I told her that."

"John…"

John said nothing, taking another shot. This one he savored the feeling of it coating his throat for a moment. He didn't drink hard liquor often, but when he did he honestly didn't think there was much better than Jack.

Claude walked to the little refrigerator in the room that held pop and other stuff at ridiculous prices, grabbing a Coke out of there.

"I don't need mixer," John said.

"It's not for you," he said.

"Hey, who invited you?"

"You haven't told me to leave. I'm not going to drink that."

John shrugged.

"We sounded good tonight," Claude said.

"Are you implying we didn't last night?"

"No, just making conversation."

"What are you doing, Claude?"

"Talking."

"Why?"

"You don't think there was a reason Billy and I weren't behind the idea of coming here?"

"What reason would that be? You said Shermer was too small."

"Sure. Too small and chalk full of memories. In fact, I can honestly say the last time I saw you in this kind of mood you were living in Shermer."

"If you're trying to psychoanalyze me, you're way off the mark." Being this close to his parents again had absolutely nothing to do with his mood.

"You just said we shouldn't have come."

"It's not because of Shermer."

"What then?"

John sighed softly. What did he have to lose at this point? Not a whole lot really. And this was Claude he was talking to who had absolutely no room to cast judgement on John for past misdeeds.

"She's my daughter."

"I'm sorry?"

"Melissa. Missy."

"You don't have kids, John."

"I do have one. Just because you didn't know about her existence until tonight doesn't mean it's not fact."

Claude was quiet, taking a long sip of his Coke.

"You think I'd know her name was Melissa otherwise?"

"It's not a stretch to get Melissa from Missy."

"Go find out from Sean what her last name is and I'll tell you…"

"She could have told you."

"Her birthdate."

"You're serious?"

"I am."

"You've known?"

"Yes," John said with a scoff. "Well, since this morning when I went for a drive and saw her at her grandparents' house."

"And haven't said anything?"

"That wasn't the agreement we had."

"Agreement? What the fuck are you talking about? I thought we were friends."

"Not you, you moron. With her mother."

"Her mother told you not to say anything."

"You don't need to hear this shit."

"No, I don't, but you obviously need to talk about this shit. So, talk about it instead of taking it out on Sean's girlfriend."

"Girlfriend? They've known one another a week and we're leaving tomorrow."

"He mentioned coming back after we're done out east."

"Huh," he said. "Tell him to avoid meeting her grandparents and for God's sakes wear a condom."

"I don't think…"

"I don't want to fucking hear about it. Just passing along what I learned."

"I'm not going to tell him that."

"Let him dig his own grave then. I hope he heard that conversation at dinner. They want her to become a lawyer. Bass players do not fit in with that life plan."

"Did guitar players?"

"I wasn't given the opportunity," John said simply. He poured himself another drink. He sighed a bit after he downed the shot. "I swear to God anyone knows about this tomorrow or at any point in the future I will never talk to you again."

"You either trust me or you don't, John."

"Yeah, yeah," he said. He didn't trust many people. Claude knew that, too.

He was a good listener. He didn't interrupt John once from the day of detention to the day he found out Claire was pregnant to today and everything in between.

"You could have fought a rape charge."

"Really? Against a lawyer like her old man's firm? I had nothing. No money. I was a bum and she was the prom queen. I had no idea what she'd told her old man. For all I know she did tell him that was what happened to save face."

"You don't really think she did that, though?"

"No," John admitted. She'd liked him. A lot. He'd liked her. A lot. He knew, though, even before her dad had come to visit her that their lives weren't meant to be lived together. He just chalked it up to loving someone he wasn't meant to have and left it at that. It happened all of the time. Wrong time and wrong place type of thing.

"And you think what she said yesterday was right?"

"No!"

"And yet you acted like an asshole at dinner last night, answered her questions as abruptly and rudely as you could."

"Because I'm not here to get to know her!"

"She asks you to listen to her play…"

"And again…"

"She's obviously here to get to know you, though."

"Yeah, because she's fighting with her mom. Some fuck you to her for thinking she's been lying to her about me for her whole life."

"Does it matter?"

"Yes!"

"Why?"

He shrugged, not sure how to explain it exactly. It mattered, though, a lot.

"I don't want to be someone's consolation prize."

"You're a fucking dick, John."

"Thank you. I didn't invite you in here."

"No, that's not what I mean. You have a kid."

"So?"

"You have a kid who until a couple of months ago didn't know one iota of information about you."

"Your point?"

"Instead of thinking you're an asshole she deliberately sought you out."

"And again, because she's…"

"Do you think after this weekend she's ever going to want to seek you out again?"

"I'm sure she and her mom will make up…"

"Irrelevant."

"It's not if that's why she's talking to me!"

"John. I have four kids."

"Yeah."

"The older two won't even give me the fucking time of day. I've tried everything. Gifts. Offer of trips. Unexpected visits. Nothing. Their mother has filled their heads with so much crap about me they think I'm worse than Mussolini or something."

"So?"

"Her mom hasn't done that evidently."

"Okay."

"She has nothing to base an opinion off except for your behavior."

"She was never supposed to know who I am. That was the deal."

"Deals are meant to be broken. How many times has it happened to us? She's a kid. Who's to say she wouldn't have stumbled upon the papers one day."

John sighed.

"So that brings me back to you must think her mom is right."

John shrugged.

"You haven't done anything real bad tonight. Nothing illegal."

"Not yet."

"Why was your knee jerk reaction to do that?"

"I don't know." He didn't, not really. He didn't usually seek out drugs like he had tonight. If they were available at a party he was fine with that.

"You've met her and she's pretty all right."

"Yeah," John said. He couldn't deny that was the case.

"Would it hurt you to go listen to the kid play?"

"It's kind of late now, isn't it?"

"She's in Sean's room."

John rolled his eyes.

"I think, much to Sean's dismay, she's a pretty good girl. He didn't realize she was as young as she was when they first met. I bet if you knocked you'd at the most be interrupting a movie."

"No," John said.

"I'll come with you."

"And do what? Supervise?"

He shrugged. "John. You do what you want, but you have an opportunity to show her you're not an ass. Even if you don't admit to her that you know who she is and who you are to her."

John reached for the pick laying on the table, tapping it on the table.

"What if she's awful?"

"Then she is. What if she's better than you are?"

"Then her education would be sorely wasted on becoming a lawyer."

Claude laughed at that.

"Yeah, well, best not to impart those fatherly words on her."

"Sean might get mad."

"I just said they aren't…"

"No, not for that. I'm pretty sure she started talking to him as a way to get to me."

"Ah, yeah, well, she seems to genuinely like him. If not, well, it's a week out of his life. It's not as if he hasn't done the same himself."

"I know." He didn't often, though, not really.

John stood then and walked to the desk, finding Claire's number in the phone book under her married last name. He sighed softly, watching as Claude eyed him curiously.

'Hello,' she said, sounding very much as if it was after midnight and he'd woken her up.

"Uh, hi. It's John."

'John? Are you all right?'

"Yeah," he said.

'Missy!'

"She's all right."

'Okay.'

"I'm just letting you know that I'm going to listen to her play."

'John.'

"She asked! I'm not going to talk to her, admit anything to her, or anything else. She sought me out, though, Claire."

'We've had this discussion.'

"I know we had the discussion. However, I have one chance to make her think I'm not an asshole."

'John.'

"I don't care if I never see or talk to her again, not really. However, I do care that she understands what you saw in me that day."

'She's very good.'

"So. That's where I'm at. I just wanted you to know. I'm not offering to take her with me or anything like that. Wouldn't you, though, if the situation was reversed want to at least make her think you were likeable enough to do that with?"

'I don't think I want her thinking about doing that with anyone.'

"From my understanding she doesn't yet."

'Your understanding?'

"I told you she's been hanging around with Sean."

'Oh right.'

"I've heard tell that if I go to his room right now I won't be interrupting anything but a movie."

'She's there now?'

"I think the carnival is outstanding cover for her to do as she pleases."

'John.'

"I'm not ready to talk to the daughter I haven't met until this weekend. However, maybe one day I would be and I'd like her to not think I'm an asshole."

'I understand.'

"Do you?" he asked.

'I do.'

"Sorry if I woke you."

'It's all right. Were you hoping I'd tell you not to?'

"No. Maybe."

'Who's talking you into it?'

"No one."

She laughed softly at that. 'If you say so. Please don't be disappointed.'

"What? I don't know her or anything, but she seems pretty terrific. What's to be disappointed about?"

'Her playing.'

"Oh. Well, I'll do my best."

'I think when she found out that you play professionally that started this whole her not talking to me thing.'

"You're a lot calmer about this than you were this morning."

'You woke me up.'

"I suppose. I'll let you get back to sleep. Thanks for not yelling."

'Sure. Thanks for telling me. Thinking I might yell at you especially thank you for doing it anyway.'

"Yeah, sure," he said, hanging up.

"You like her," Claude said when he hung up.

"Get over yourself and your psychoanalyzing skills and let's go find Sean."

He shrugged. The bottle of Jack was no longer on the table John noticed. Sneaky bastard.

"Just saying maybe it wasn't so crazy her thinking you'd find them eventually."

"She didn't say them."

"Same thing."

"No."

"Grab your guitar, John," Claude said.

"We knock and interrupt something…"

"I'll bail you out of jail and explain to Sean why you overreacted."

John frowned. "Thanks, I think."

"Sure. What are friends for?"

"This is a horrible idea," John whispered in the hall as he knocked on the door to Sean's room.

"Maybe it is."

"You agree with me!"

"No, but you're right. It might be a horrible idea. I can't predict the future."

Sean was surprised to see them standing there. That much was clear. The guy had all of his clothes on at least and it hadn't taken him long enough to answer the door that he had to put some on.

"Hey," John said.

"Yeah."

"Claude told me Missy is here. I thought maybe if she still wanted to play…"

"Yeah, sure, come in," Sean said.

It didn't look like they'd even been on the same bed as there was already an indentation from someone on the second bed even before Sean took a place there now.

He wasn't drunk out of his mind, but he was impaired enough that he really wasn't sure what to even say let alone do.

"You, uh, wanted to play…"

"Yeah," she said, and John tried to ignore the tear or two that was sliding down her cheek.

"Oh, wow, this looks really old," she said when he'd opened the case. The case was new. The guitar not new.

"It was my grandfather's I've been told. It's what I learned on."

"You don't know?"

"He was dead before I have any real memories of him. Never heard him play that I can recall."

"Oh, sorry," she said.

"It's all right. Go ahead," he said when she reached to touch it and then took her hand away.

"You're sure?"

"Yeah," he said. "When did you start?"

"Before I even had a choice I think, Mom started me with lessons."

"Ah," he said. "Some parents are like that I guess."

"Yours weren't?"

"No. I found it when I was looking for something else and the rest is history I guess."

"Huh," she said, taking one of the picks out of the case. She grew quiet as she went through the steps of tuning it, the pick in between her lips almost exactly the same way he did. It probably wasn't that uncommon of a thing for players to do.

"Wow, that's…" Sean said.

"Hey, Sean," Claude said, cutting him off from saying more. Had he noticed that, too? John didn't think it was an obvious thing he did, but then he didn't have many occasions to watch himself do things.

"Huh?" Sean said.

"Why don't we go get some Cokes or something," he said.

John stared at him for a minute. He was going to leave him alone with her? That hadn't been the deal. Then he had no idea what the deal had been in Claude's mind really.

"But…"

"Would you want to play guitar in front of a group of people the first time you play for someone?"

"I suppose not."

"We'll be back," Claude said, patting Sean on the back as he guided him to the door.

"So," John said.

"I have no idea where to even start," she said.

"Start wherever you want. You asked me to listen to you play."

"You said no."

"I did."

"What changed your mind?"

He shrugged. "What? It's just women who have the right to do that?"

She opened her mouth to say something else and John cut her off. "Go on then."

He sat back in the chair by the table as she played. Claire was right, she was good. She wasn't a big girl by any means, but she wasn't too small either to where she looked ridiculous fingering the chords on the neck.

"Sean said something to me about you writing, too."

"Oh, I do. I can't say I'm very good."

"Modesty is nice and all, but it takes guts to do that."

"Have you ever?"

"No," John said. "Words aren't a strong suit of mine, so I leave it to the guy in the band who has that as a strength."

"Sean said you're going out east after this?"

"Yeah, some other gigs like this. Then in August we're playing some fairs."

"Oh."

"Always traveling somewhere it seems like."

"Do you like it?"

"Most of the time. There are times we have a break and I'm very glad."

"Where do you live?"

"I have a place in New York and one in Tampa."

"Why?"

"Sometimes I don't want to be in New York in the winter anymore."

"Oh," she said.

"Anyway," he said. "I should get back to my room and I imagine you have to be getting home soon."

"I do. My grandparents will freak if I'm out much after the carnival closes. Any advice?"

"I'm not a music teacher or anything so my only advice is to keep practicing and keep writing."

"Thanks."

"Sure."

"No, I mean, thanks for listening to me at all."

"Sure. When it got down to it my other plans weren't nearly as appealing."

She ran a fingertip along the top of his guitar case once she'd shut it. There was a piece of masking tape on it with his last name on it. It was pretty old, though, like he'd put it on there during high school and so the permanent marker was real faded.

"It was nice to meet you."

"You, too, Missy." He stood then, grabbing his guitar case just as she settled her hand over his. Of course Sean and Claude chose that moment to come back. Fuck. He fought the instinct to draw his hand away from hers as if either of them had done something wrong. Of course she didn't know that he was aware of who she was, but he to this point had done shit to indicate he would hit on her.

Her nails were painted nicely he noticed. Eerily similar in color choice to Claire's if he recalled correctly. It'd been over a decade since he saw her fingers, but he was pretty sure what they looked like that day were etched upon his memory. And probably always would be. No one, no one he'd ever been with before or after her had been like her. He drew his hand away before he gave into the urge to touch it and see if it felt like her mom's had, too.

"Night," he said. "See you in the morning, Sean."

"Uh, yeah," he said. Claude followed John out of the room and back to his room.

"So?"

"That was more intense than I think I was banking on it being."

"Really?"

"Well, she doesn't know I know who she is…"

"Oh, right," Claude said, nodding in understanding. "Well, you've met her, you've talked to her, you've listened to her play. That's a start."

"I don't know that I want to start anything, Claude."

"It may not be your decision."

"I guess not," he said.

"Anyway. You okay for the rest of the night?"

"Yes," John said.

"You need me to come in there and flush that shit down for you?"

"No," John said. Good thing he didn't buy more than a couple of lines' worth or he'd really be pissed off about spending the money to have it go to waste. The urge to get drunk and high was gone. Maybe that had been Claude's goal to begin with and meeting Missy was just the tool he chose to use to do it.

"I really wish you'd look into…"

"Nope," John said.

"I said it earlier, some day that shit will kill you."

"So," John shrugged.

"Like it or not, John, there's someone in that room right there who'd probably be upset that happened. I bet her mom would be, too."

"That's stretching it."

"She didn't sound as if she was yelling at you over the phone tonight."

"No."

"I called either of my kids' mothers at this time of night I wouldn't be able to hear for days from the screaming."

"Whatever. I'm going to bed."

"All right. See you in the morning."

"Yeah."

Sean's door opened just as John got his open. He stepped inside but not before seeing the two of them kiss. He shook his head, wondering how many guys she'd kissed. Claire had said she wasn't really interested in guys. Was Sean the first one? It was probably a good thing they were leaving and had no reason to come back to the Chicago area anytime soon.

He found the stuff he bought from Stubby and brought it to the bathroom after he'd set his guitar down. He open the little container and sighed softly as he dumped it into the toilet. What a fucking waste. He couldn't bring it on the plane with them, though. He wouldn't take that chance after getting busted years ago. Claude knew that, too.

"Bastard," he said once he'd flushed the toilet.

Chapter Text

Chapter Five
Word Count: 1,398

John picked up his phone and dialed without thinking too hard on what he was doing. He'd had a couple of drinks at dinner so the idea seemed like a good one at the time. Usually, in his experience anyway, ideas were not as good as he thought they were in his head.

"Uh, hi, sorry. It’s John."

'Oh, hi,' she said. 'How are you?'

"I’m all right. You?"

'About the same.' Their version of all right probably differed drastically.

Then maybe not. There was a reason she appealed to him that day (and vice versa he wagered). He hadn’t given her a lot of thought until then because why would he have? Their paths crossing wasn’t going to happen. Yet it had. Oh, she pretended just fine, but deep down he knew she was as alone as he was when all was said and done. She just had more people around her to make it look like she wasn’t so alone all of the time.

He doubted anyone but the four of them that day knew she was miserable at home, and he’d bet a million dollars none of the other three had figured out what her mother’s situation was. John knew. He saw it in her eyes when she talked about them. It wasn’t what she’d said, but how.

"Good," he said.

Now what, you moron? Say something so she doesn’t think you’re an idiot or an asshole. Or both.

"So, I was just wondering, you know, if maybe Melissa had come home yet," he said.

'No,' she said quietly.

"No? I was really hoping that maybe," he shrugged.

He wasn’t sure what he’d hoped. That sitting there listening to her play for an hour or so would send her back to her mother. He wouldn’t deny he hated the idea of his daughter being under the same roof as those people.

'Why?'

"Because you want her home," he said. Was that so strange? Maybe so.

'Oh, well, no.'

"I’m sorry."

'Thanks.'

"I, uh, didn’t tell her I know or anything."

He wasn’t sure that was a concern to her or not, but legally he wasn’t sure where he stood. He’d signed his rights away and it was made abundantly clear he wasn’t to try to contact her. As he’d gotten older that bothered him off and on, but never enough to see a lawyer about the legality of it. He’d signed on the dotted line when all was said and done. So had she.

'No?' she asked.

"Nah. I listened to her play and that was about it. I think Sean would’ve called the cops on me if I’d taken up much more of her time. Then I would have had to explain my way out of a for-real statutory situation."

She laughed softly at that.

"I’m glad I can amuse you."

'Where are you?'

"Uh, New York actually for a couple of nights."

'Oh?'

"Yeah. We left there and flew out here for a while. A couple more things like Shermer Days, a couple of legitimate concerts."

'What are your couple nights a break from?'

"A fair in Pennsylvania somewhere and a real concert here in New York."

'Oh,' she said.

"I do think Sean and Melissa have talked since we left."

'Really?'

"That surprises you?"

'A little.'

"Why?"

'She’s never really been interested in boys.'

"Is she interested in girls? Because if she is, I should probably tell Sean that he’s wasting his time."

'No! Nothing like that. She just hasn’t ever really shown an interest beyond going to a dance or maybe a group activity. You know, a movie or something.'

"Really?"

'Yes. Why do you think they’ve talked?'

"Just a suspicion I have. He hasn’t said, I haven’t asked. It’s not really any of my business as long as she’s not sending him naked pictures of herself."

'God, don’t even joke about that.'

"I’m not sure I’m joking! That’s more than I want to deal with, I think, and I’ve heard that happens."

'I bet it does.'

"I’m going to assume if you say she’s not like that that she’s not."

'She’s not!'

Now what else could they talk about? The bands they were playing with in a couple days’ time, a few of them would probably appeal to Melissa. Actually, they all could depending on what kind of music she liked.

"So, what kind of music does she like?"

'What do you mean?'

"Well, we’re playing with a couple of other bands night after tomorrow. It’s a club’s thing they’re doing. I was thinking if she liked any of the bands I could get her a shirt or something," he said, naming off the other bands.

'You don’t have to do that.'

"I know I don’t. I’d send it to you, you can give it to her. She’ll never have to know I sent it. One of the bands I could probably talk into autographing it because I know them well enough to ask such a thing."

'You’d do that?'

"Would she like it?"

'Yes, of course.'

"I’ll see what I can come up with. Black okay? For the T-shirt, I mean?"

'Any other colors?'

"Haven’t seen them yet, but I’ll try to choose something other than black."

'That’d be nice.'

"All right. Look for something not gothic. Got it. Any of the bands a better choice than the others?"

'Any of them, really, though I’ve heard her mention Jimmy Eats World more than the others.'

"Eat."

'What?'

"Jimmy Eat World. I’ll see what I can do." He glanced at his watch, noticing the time and that it was a Friday night. "Why are you home?"

'Where else would I be?'

"I don’t know. Out enjoying summer."

'Oh, Allison and I had dinner earlier. That was my excitement for the night.'

"Where’d you go?" He wouldn’t have thought she and Allison talked. Showed what he knew. He knew Andy dated her after that day, but he assumed once they broke up Claire would bail on that friendship.

'Hackney’s.'

"That sounds pretty good right now."

'You haven’t eaten?'

"I did, but it wasn’t near as tasty as a Hackney Burger."

'Oh. We split an onion loaf. I haven’t had one in ages. It was so delicious.'

He chuckled a bit at that.

"All right. Well, I’ll let you go, I guess. I was really hoping something would shake loose for you two."

She sighed. 'Me, too.'

"Good night," he said.

'Same to you.'

He hung up and realized what a fucking ridiculous conversation it had been. He must have looked like an idiot. As if it was any of his business whether Melissa had gone home or not, but he was curious. He’d sort of hoped that she’d get her curiosity out of her system and give up on the living with the grandparents’ thing.

Of course he wasn’t entirely sure why Melissa was mad at Claire.

A knock to his door brought him out of his thoughts. He opened his door and nodded in greeting to his neighbor.

"Hey," he said.

"We’re heading out. Want to come?"

"Sure," John said. "Let me grab my keys," he said.

He liked his neighbor. He knew who John was and everything, but never asked John to join him on nights like this if he was going to be around people who would hound him for an autograph or tips on how to be the next Eric Clapton. He was a stereotypical theatre guy and as gay as they came, but for whatever reason John usually had a good time with him and his friends. (Being the only straight guy in a crowd was actually a help a lot of the time rather than a hindrance.)

He glanced at the phone before heading out, realizing he hadn’t asked Claire what size shirt he should buy. He supposed he could ask Claude that piece of information because he didn’t want to fuck something simple like a shirt up. A large seemed a little big for her, so a medium? Hell if he knew how girls’ clothes were sized.

Chapter Text

Chapter Six
Word Count: 1,229

Claire rolled onto her side when the phone rang, putting her bookmark in place before picking up the phone.

"Hello," she said.

'Hi, it's John.'

She closed her eyes, setting the book on the nightstand by her bed. Absolutely nothing good could come from him calling. Yet, she didn't tell him not to call back either time he'd called before. The first call she could probably be excused for not telling him not to call again. He hadn't been calling to talk or anything. He'd called to tell her what he was doing, state a fact. The second call, though. That had been pretty close to a social call. So social she had, in fact, almost encouraged him to send Melissa a gift.

It certainly wasn't unheard of for a father to send his daughter a gift, but John had to this point done nothing like that. He'd sent a little extra the months of her birthday and Christmas, but an actual gift. No.

"Hi," she said instead of what she should have done. Last time, too.

'You sound as if I woke you?'

"No, I was just reading before bed."

She closed her eyes, realizing how absolutely lame that sounded. It was Friday night and she was in bed already. Then, well, he was calling her on a Friday night.

'Reading anything good?'

"An older Grisham novel. I hadn't read it before I realized."

'He's pretty good I've heard.'

"You haven't read him?"

'Uh, no,' he replied.

"Do you read?"

'Well, I know how, sure.'

"That's not what I meant."

She knew he wasn't stupid. He wanted people to believe he didn't care back in school and didn't try, but she'd seen through that disguise. It was like a friend of hers sister that was in a play where she had to play a character who sang badly. It actually took a lot of effort for her to sing badly, and they hadn't wanted to cast someone who actually couldn't sing for fear she'd be ridiculed afterward.

'Good to know, but I wasn't sure. I'm not really surrounded by readers.'

"So you don't read because other people don't read?"

'Yeah, I mean I guess. I haven't thought about it. I've picked up a book a time or two over the years. It just isn't something I default to when I'm bored.'

That was so strange to her. She loved reading, and couldn't imagine traveling as much as he had to without books.

"Don't you get bored?"

'I guess. Maybe I phrased it wrong. I don't have a lot of downtime to hunt for authors and books I'd like, you know? So I just sort of avoid it. I'm not going to waste my money and my downtime on something I don't like. So, I find other things to do.'

"That makes sense," she said. "I suppose going to a library is out."

'I'm honestly not sure I even know where my nearest library is.'

"That's a shame."

'You want to recommend one I'd try it.'

"Really?"

'Sure. Just no mushy stuff.'

She laughed softly. "Well, I can't guarantee there'd be absolutely none."

'As long as it's not the central plot I'm good.'

"I'll think on it."

'So, I was just calling to make sure you got the shirts.'

"I did," she said. "Thank you. Melissa will love it!" He'd sent a shirt for her, too, of a band she'd loved back in high school. "I guess I missed hearing you were playing with someone old."

'Ouch,' he said with a soft laugh.

"I didn't mean it like that. It's just the names you said sounded newer, I missed any names from when we grew up."

'Ah, I may have left them out thinking they wouldn't appeal to her. I figured you'd like that one.'

"I did. Well, thank you, that was nice of you."

'Don't mention it.'

"So where are you tonight?"

'Uh, some dinky county in upper New York, population eighty thousand or something. No hotel this go around, though. It's two large cabins big enough to sleep all of us.'

"Really?"

'Yeah,' he said with a scoff. 'Upside we can cook and stuff. Downside if I want to watch TV I have to watch whatever someone else is watching.'

"Bored?"

'A little.'

"Well, Melissa still hasn't come home. Honestly, she likely wouldn't be home on a Friday night anyway."

'Ah, well, I just wanted to make sure you got the shirts. The chance she'd be home was an incentive to call, too. I wouldn't ask to talk to her, though.'

"No?"

'Nah,' he said. 'Nothing to say really. I told you I didn't tell her I knew or anything, so what would I say?'

"I guess. Did you like how she played?"

He scoffed a little at that. Was that good or bad? She wasn't sure. She wished she could say she knew him well enough to know. The presumption would certainly be if she knew someone well enough to have a child with them that she'd know them well generally overall. Not so in their case. Sure she knew things only a few select people knew. All the people who knew were friends and family of hers, though. As far as she was aware no one John knew had any knowledge of Claire or Melissa.

'Uh, yeah. She's real good. It's kind of a shame your family is pushing her to be a lawyer.'

She sighed a bit at that.

"I know," she said.

She said nothing else on the subject. It wasn't really any of his business what she did or didn't encourage Melissa to do. Claire had talked with Melissa at length regarding college and job prospects. She wasn't pushing her daughter into becoming a lawyer as Claire's father and brother were doing, but she was also a realist. John had done it, somehow. He was one of a few versus how many have the dream of growing up and being a famous guitarist.

Melissa, too, encountered a lot of guys who wouldn't take her seriously because she was a girl. Evidently, to guys, you had to have a penis to be a good guitarist.

'Anyway. I'll let you go. I was just making sure you got the shirt and everything. Hers will fit?'

"Yeah."

'Good. I had to ask Claude what he thought.'

"Not on my size."

He chuckled a bit. 'You haven't changed much at all, Claire. I didn't need any help figuring you out.'

"Oh," she said, knowing she was blushing profusely at that. Good grief. How old was she? Eighteen again?

'And before you get mad that I said something inappropriate or whatever about the day she came from I'll hang up.'

"Good night," she said, hanging up then. She picked up her book then, opened it to the page where she'd left off. She had no desire to read anymore tonight, though. She wasn't really tired either. It was late, but not incredibly late to where if she took Scotty for a walk she'd feel unsafe.

Scotty seemed a little confused at the sudden change in the routine. Claire was pretty much a creature of habit and when she came up to her bedroom at night it was usually for the duration. He followed her, though, not seemingly upset at the prospect of going O-U-T on a leash.

Chapter Text

Chapter Seven
Word Count: 2,477

"Where you going, John?" Noel asked.

"Uh, nowhere, just outside to make a phone call," he said.

"I guess I wasn't aware you knew how to turn your cell phone on," Noel said.

"You're hilarious. I'm sorry I'm not like you guys and do nothing but talk all day. I don't have that much to say."

"So, who are you calling?"

"None of your God damned business, Noel, that's who. I didn't realize making a phone call was going to result in the equivalent of the Spanish Inquisition."

"Settle down, John," Claude said, patting him on the shoulder. "He's just curious. You can't blame the kid."

"I don't ask anyone else who they're calling. What the fuck business is it to him who I'm calling?"

"It's not, man, settle down. He's right, though, and as you pointed out you don't use the cell much. So he's just curious."

"Yeah, well, didn't he get taught curiosity kills cats?"

Claude chuckled softly, drawing John away from the group.

They'd been at a release party for a friend of theirs latest album. They'd toured with Shooterz about two years ago and this release was expected to be their most well received to date. The party was ridiculously lame, though, so John had been ready to leave about three hours ago.

Lameness led to him thinking about things other than being here. Things other than here led to him wondering if Melissa was in school yet. That led into wondering if she was even home yet. Claire seemed to think she'd come back when school started, or at least that was the assumption John had. He supposed she could get to the high school just as easily from her parents' house same as she and her brother did years ago. Thinking about Melissa and whether she was home yet led to him thinking about Claire. He thought about her a little more than was probably healthy given she'd given absolutely no indication she had the remotest desire to have any contact with him.

Oh, she'd been polite on the phone the last couple of times they'd talked, but she hadn't gone out of her way to extend the conversations. John wasn't a huge conversationalist by any means. There were things he was curious about, but he wasn't even sure it was his place to ask about them.

"John," Claude said once they were outside. "It's a party, no need to be moody."

"But it's okay for him to insult me?"

"He's not insulting you, John. He was joking."

"Yeah, by making fun of me."

"Okay, maybe, but that's not insulting. We spend days on end together, you need to lighten up or he's going to quit."

"We did fine without a keyboard player."

"Okay. What the fuck are you on?"

"I'm not on anything!"

"Did you and Jeanie call it quits or what?"

"Yeah, funny thing that. I got back from Illinois and suddenly felt as though I was lying to her."

"You've never felt that before?"

"As if I was lying to a woman? Or are you asking me if I've felt as though I was lying to you?"

"Well, I am kind of curious about me, but I get it. So, we'll ignore me and Billy and focus on the woman you'd been at least remotely steadily seeing for a couple of months there. Noel probably thinks you're calling her, in fact, which may be why he was teasing you."

He hadn't had a real serious girlfriend in a while. Not one that warranted phone calls from cell phones anyway.

"I don't know. I didn't even know what the fuck to tell her."

"Didn't?"

"Yeah, I told her we probably shouldn't see each other."

Claude scoffed at that, making John wonder what that was about. "You don't think she'd understand?"

"Understand that I have a seventeen year old daughter who I hadn't seen until almost two months ago ever in her life? Yeah, I'm sure a woman would be real understanding about that. Or the part where I've been sending the kid support for the past seventeen years but haven't really thought about the fact that my doing that might mean I actually have some rights."

"You didn't want rights," Claude said, sounding cautious. Cautious about the statement or about pissing John off further he'd probably never know. Fact was he'd never really thought about whether he'd have rights. It seemed pretty cut and dried to him. He'd been told to sign, he signed. What option did that leave him? Had he wondered over the years? Sure, once in a while, especially when Claude's kids were born. He probably wouldn't be human if he didn't. Claire's dad's words would swirl around in his head and that would be the end of any thought he gave until the next time.

"No," John said. "I'm not a monster, though. I mean, I know her birthday, and I'd think about her. I know when school starts give or take and I've wondered what grade she'd be in and if she liked school."

"Does she know that?"

"Considering I haven't told her that I'm her father, no."

"I thought you called her house a couple of times. You asked me about what size shirt I thought she'd wear."

"I have."

Claude was quiet for a minute or two after that, processing no doubt. John could see the confusion there.

"So you haven't talked to her."

"No," John said. "She hadn't even gone back home the last time I called. I started thinking today, wondering if she was home yet."

"So, you've been talking to the mom when you've called?"

"If you want to consider five minute conversations talking, sure."

"What have you talked about?"

"Nothing! I mean, you know, fucking stupid crap. Books and shit."

"And you want to talk about more?"

John shrugged. "I don't know."

Did he? He really didn't know the answer to that question. There was a part of him that, yeah, he wanted to talk to her. He wanted to ask her questions and find out not just about Melissa but about her. Why had she waited years to marry the guy she eventually married? Why had she taken over a year to even say yes to him? Why didn't she marry someone before him?

"Have you tried?"

"I've called!"

Claude laughed again.

"Is it Melissa you want to talk about or just more than surface things?"

"I don't know!"

"Ah," Claude said. "Is that who you were going to call?"

"Yes," John said, wishing he could say no.

"Well, don't let me stop you."

"Would you get married again?" John asked.

"Huh?"

"Just curious. Would you do it again?"

"Oh, I'd like to say I'm done. Burn me once, shame on you. Burn me twice, shame on me. I don't know what three times means.

"Oh, I know the last one wasn't because of a divorce, but you and I both know we weren't on a path to a healthy relationship. Come on, I married her after knowing her four months."

John nodded a bit. Claude probably wasn't the best guy to take advice from when it came to women because he didn't think, he just dove right in for the most part. Three marriages wasn't all, he'd been engaged to someone in between wife number one and two and also between two and three. Paula was a little different because they'd known one another since they were kids. (Claude told John a story about Paula flashing him her panties when she was in Kindergarten and Claude swore then and there he was going to marry her.)

"Anyway, make your call, John, and know Noel is just giving you shit because you're not exactly a sharer."

"I never have been."

"No. Cut the kid some slack. He wasn't being insulting."

"Yeah, sure," John said. "See you Wednesday then?"

"Yup," Claude said.

Wednesday they were heading to Canada for four weeks straight. At least in the States there was a chance he'd get home, be able to do laundry and shit without spending an arm and a leg to do it.

He scrolled through his contacts until he found Claire's name as he walked to his car. He was kind of glad the party today didn't start in the evening. He would have been stuck there until real early in the morning if that was the case. He just hadn't been feeling it today. He was among the first to leave, though, so there was no saying how long the party would go.

'Hello,' a voice not Claire's said. John sighed softly, not knowing what to do. He assumed it was Melissa, but could be wrong he supposed. She likely had friends of her own.

"Hi, is Claire home," he asked, figuring asking for Claire was the safest bet.

'No. She went out for a while. Can I take a message?'

"Sure," he said, pinching the bridge of his nose a bit. "Just let her know John called."

'John? John Bender?'

"Uh, yeah."

'Hi, it's Missy.'

"Oh, hi. How are you?"

'Good.'

"Yeah? Did you have a good rest of your summer?"

'It was pretty nice. No complaints.'

"Did you do anything exciting?"

'No, not really. I spent most of last week at the hospital.'

"The hospital?" he asked. That didn't sound good. Would Claire call him today if something happened to her that required hospitalization? Probably not, he imagined. "Are you okay? Your mom?"

'We're fine. My best friend, Cindy, she got bucked off her horse and broke some bones. She had to have surgery and stuff.'

"Oh, that sounds pretty serious. Is she okay?"

'Yes. I teased her that she did it on purpose to get out of gym class for the year.'

John laughed softly at that. "That's one way of going about it."

'Yeah,' she said.

"I'm glad she's okay at any rate." All right was probably pretty relative, he imagined. Likely her friend's parents didn't see her as okay. "That was nice of you to spend so much time with her then."

'She did the same for me when I got my tonsils out.'

"You did?"

'Yeah. I kept getting strep throat. I'd take the antibiotics and it'd go away only to come back again, so the doctor finally suggested my mom have them removed.'

"Oh," he said. Funny, he'd gotten strep a lot growing up. Not like she was talking, but at least once a year it seemed like he had it. "They give you lots of ice cream for that, right?"

'They do!'

He chuckled softly at her enthusiasm. "Well, I don't know anyone who doesn't like ice cream."

'No.'

"And school?"

'We start Tuesday.'

"You all ready?"

'I think so. A little nervous.'

"Oh?"

'Yeah. I've already applied to a couple of colleges after I got my test scores, but I have to apply to tons more.'

"Oh, right. Well, I'm sure you'll get in wherever you apply."

'Did you go to college?'

He fought the urge to laugh at the ridiculousness of the question.

"No," he said simply. "No college for me. I went right from high school to what I'm doing now."

'Well, that's worked out for you.'

"Oh sure, but don't think I don't realize that college would have opened a hell of a lot more doors for me so I could have done something different."

'What would you have done if playing guitar hadn't worked?'

"Worked for my dad until I could get out of there."

'What does he do?'

"He's a mechanic."

'Oh,' she said.

"He's a pretty good mechanic, but unfortunately he was pretty crappy when it came to being a father so I'm very lucky that playing guitar worked out for me."

He realized she could be sitting there on the other end of the phone thinking the apple didn't fall from the tree as far as the type of father he'd been. Yeah, he imagined, his own father and upbringing was a reason he never challenged the Standishes. He honestly believed he'd have been better off with no father then the father he had.

"I shouldn't say that, I guess. We all do the best we can when we face things we maybe weren't expecting to face."

'Is that why you don't have kids?'

"Pretty much, yeah," he said, surprised she'd asked that question. "Anyway. Let your mom know I called, can you?"

'Sure. I don't think she'll be back until late tonight. She went on a blind date with my godparents.'

"Oh," he said. "Really?"

Why the fuck did that one sentence make him feel as if he'd been punched in the gut? What did that mean?

'Yeah. She wasn't too thrilled, but my godmother, Allison, is her best friend and convinced her that the guy is real nice and worth meeting.'

"Well, all right. She doesn't need to call me back or anything. I actually got the answer to the question I had."

'You did?'

"I did. You do well in school this year and everything."

'I will. Oh!'

"Yeah?"

'Thank you so much for the Jimmy Eat World T-shirt. It's amazing!'

He laughed softly at that. "You're welcome. I'm glad you like it."

'I don't want to wear it, though!'

"Why not?"

'Then I'd have to wash it and their signatures would wear off.'

"Ah. Well, ask your mom about getting like a picture frame for it. I've seen some people do that with that sort of thing."

'Oh, good idea!'

Somehow he imagined she'd have come up with an equally good idea of her own.

'Thank you, though, really. Mom says you got her a B-52's shirt.'

"I did," he said, surprised somehow Claire would admit to that.

'I love them. When I was little I'd dance this stupid dance to Rock Lobster.'

He closed his eyes, leaning his head against his headrest a bit. Fuck, this was absolutely the worst fucking idea in the world to talk to her. Now he had this image in his head of a little girl dancing to that song. Only thing was because he had no idea what the fuck she looked like as a little girl he didn't have his little girl in his head, but just a generic little girl that could be anybody or anyone's.

Stupid. Fucking stupid. Why the fuck couldn't I just leave well enough the fuck alone?

"Well, I'm glad she liked it and you liked yours. T-shirts are easy to come by. I have to go, though, so just let your mom know I called."

'Oh okay,' she said softly. 'Are you … Will you call her again?'

"Not sure. We'll be in Canada for the next month or so, but good luck with your applications and everything."

'Thanks.'

Chapter Text

Chapter Eight
Word Count: 1,905

John sighed heavily into the phone. Claude was waiting for his answer. He was the swing vote. They'd been asked to play at an Oktoberfest at the last minute because of a cancellation.

The reason John was hesitating?

It was back in the Chicago area. One of the organizers of the festival had heard them at Shermer Days, saw their schedule for that weekend was open, and contacted them to see if they were interested. It was not a hop, skip, and a jump away, but close enough. Claude understood why John wasn't chomping at the bit to return. No one else did.

"I don't know, Claude. It's Oktoberfest in Kankakee. How exciting can that be?"

'It could be worse?'

"Yeah? What?" he asked.

'Remember that carnival we played at in Nebraska?'

John grimaced a bit at that. "Yeah, I remember."

That had been a hell weekend for a variety of reasons. Billy had been sicker than a dog. A Christian activist group decided to swarm the place on the day they were playing and harassed Jazmin because her significant other at the time had been a woman. (They almost thought they were going to get kicked out of their hotel because of it, which would have been interesting after midnight on a Saturday night in the middle of nowhere.) There'd been a huge downpour and there'd been a crack in the back window of their rental no one had noticed so the rental and some belongings in it had been ruined.

Needless to say, it wasn't remembered fondly by any of them.

"Why don't Noel and Billy want to do it?" he asked.

'Noel doesn't want to play an outdoor venue in October in Illinois. Billy actually wants to. I figured maybe it wouldn't be on your list of things you wanted to do so didn't say yes or no.'

"It is a little risky, but I don't think that would be an issue."

'So?'

"I don't know."

'You could invite her to come down and see us yourself.'

"No," John said simply.

'Why not? You could hand-deliver that shirt you bought for her.'

"No," John said again.

Claude sighed.

'If we go and are that close to Chicago you know Sean's going to encourage her to come visit.'

"I do," John said, and that's why he wasn't sure.

Well, he wasn't sure he wanted to do that. He still wasn't sure what her grandfather and uncle would do to him if they found out he'd had the contact with her he'd had, inadvertent as it was. Her grandfather had told him in no uncertain terms he was not to pursue Claire no matter what his daughter may have said or done. (John had wondered at the time what her father thought she was going to do.) He had made it abundantly clear he had the power, money, and resources to bury him in so much legal red tape he'd be in court until he died. He was persona non grata in the eyes of Frank and Emily Standish. The time or two he'd gotten curious enough to think about possibly finding out what she was like he'd go back to the day at Claude's house when he'd found out.

God, he'd hated her for sending her fucking father. It had taken him a long time, years, to realize that she may not have had a choice. Someone like her, her first instinct was probably to tell her parents what was going on. They hadn't been dating, hadn't been involved. He'd come to realize she probably didn't know how he'd react. Maybe. It was that doubt that usually led to him squelching any desire to seek Melissa out.

'So? I need to get back to them tonight, or they're going to move onto their second choice.'

"Third, you mean, since we're obviously they're second choice."

'Their first choice was cheaper than us.'

"Ah," John said.

'Would it be bad to see her again?'

"Define bad."

'Come on. She seemed all right and everything.'

"Sure. In July. Who knows now that she's had time to think about the whole situation or now that she's talked with her mother."

'Her mother doesn't seem upset with you, John.'

"That remains to be seen."

'Well, if we were in Kankakee you could find out.'

"Yeah, fine. Go ahead," he said then before he could think too hard on why the idea of possibly seeing Claire again was an incentive to him. The day he'd shown up at her house he could understand her not being happy to see him or overly pleasant to him. On the phone, though, she'd been nice. She hadn't extended their conversations, but she hadn't hung up on him or told him never to call again either.

'Really?' Claude said.

"Yeah."

'How many beers have you had?'

John glanced at the table next to him. There were five empty cans with a sixth one about to join those. "Would you believe me if I said none?"

'No, you agreed to easily.'

"It was not easy," John said.

'I know. Maybe Sean won't…'

"You and I both know he will," John said.

'Can you blame him?'

"Excuse me?" John said.

Claude chuckled at that.

'Ease up there, John. I just meant. You liked her mom when she was this age, so can you blame him.'

"I think saying I liked her is putting way too much thought into what happened between us."

'You'd had sex before that day, right?'

"Yes," John admitted.

During one of their off nights in Canada he'd told Claude everything from before that day to present. The night in Shermer John had glossed over some things and hadn't talked about anything prior to the day of detention. A month of nothing but one another led to John having loose lips evidently. Claude had been pretty surprised at John's frankness, John was too. He didn't get it, though. He wasn't sure why he cared, or if that was even what he was feeling. How could he care about someone he didn't even know? Claire and Melissa both fell under that category. He didn't know either of them. Why did finding out she danced to a song bother him? What did it mean?

Claude hadn't really had any answers for him, but John had felt better getting it off his chest.

The thing was John knew what he'd felt for her was more than just liking her. It had taken him a long time to recognize that and it wasn't something he enjoyed knowing and he sure hadn't told Claude that he'd fallen in love with Melissa's mother in a matter of hours and hoped that after graduation, once he'd gotten out of his parents' house he'd be able to look her up and offer her something that came close to other guys asking her out could.

'Ever forgot to suit up before that?'

"No," John said simply.

'Ever forget one after that?'

"No!"

He chuckled again. What the fuck was he so amused for? 'Obviously, I assume after you found out about her being pregnant, but how about before that?'

"I hadn't with anyone after that day."

'Really?' he asked, sounding surprised by that.

So was John to be honest. He'd never really thought on that part before, but he hadn't for quite a while after that day. At first, he just hadn't and then rubbers or not he just found it hard to want to put himself in a position to even have sex again.

"No. I had things on my mind. Getting out of my house being among them."

'I suppose,' Claude said, though he didn't sound convinced.

"What's your point, Claude?"

'No point, just. You told me you thought Missy looks like her mother, so obviously she had to be pretty in her own right.'

"Yeah, she was," John could admit that freely. "I don't think it's a good idea, I really don't. I think there's potential for at the least a hugely uncomfortable situation and at the most a disaster."

'What disastrous could come out of it?'

"Her grandfather could find out."

'And do what seventeen years later, John?'

"I don't know! He's a lawyer, I'm sure he could do something. Search my room."

Claude sighed audibly at that, but said nothing. John didn't need him to say it anyway. He knew what Claude was thinking. Don't bring anything that could get him in trouble if a search of his room was conducted. John didn't want to do that, though.

'So, the shirt?'

"I already put it in the mail to her," John admitted.

'She'll like it.'

"Sure." It wasn't anything special. He'd addressed it to Claire so she could do whatever she wanted with it. For all he knew, she wouldn't give it to Melissa.

'You're not going to cause Sean any problems if she does come down, are you?'

"No, just because I don't think it's a good idea doesn't mean I'm going to do anything."

'All right. Well, Oktoberfest in Kankakee here we come then, I guess.'

"I guess," John said.

They talked for a little while about a few other things before hanging up. The sixth can was now empty. John debated about adding another one to the group, but decided against it.

He turned the lights off after he'd gone to the bathroom and stared at the ceiling. He was watching a movie, but had no idea what movie since he'd been spending the bulk of it talking with Claude. What was the worst that could happen? So what if he saw her again. So what if he was even kind of hoping he would. He'd never admit that, not even to Claude, but a small part of him was really hoping he and Claude were both right thinking Sean would invite her to come down. Maybe she'd invite herself. Would Claire come with? Kankakee wasn't a crazy long drive, but it might be a further drive than Claire was willing to let her do by herself. Especially to an Oktoberfest party.

All things he had no answer to, and he wasn't going to call her to find out. He swore after that last conversation with Melissa he wasn't calling again. He hadn't expected to talk to her, and he hadn't thought talking to her about something as mundane and common as the B-52s would get to him. Showed what he knew, he supposed.

Claude had told him that hearing about a specific memory she had maybe bothered him. It was one thing to know she'd grown up, obviously she had, and had a lifetime of memories that John knew nothing about and likely never would. It was another to get a snippet, a glimpse into who she was before July.

John wasn't sure if that was true. He had no idea. He just knew he hadn't liked the feeling and didn't want to feel it again. The best way he knew of to not feel it again was not to call. It was as simple as that. He had the ability to stop the situation and feelings, so he did.

Chapter Text

Chapter Nine
Word Count: 4,471

October 2002
Kankakee, Illinois

John opened his door.

"Hey, Sean. Is it dinner time already?"

He'd turned a baseball game on after getting into the room and ended up falling asleep. He knew that only based on the fact it was innings later than he recalled it being just a minute ago. He'd never admit it to anyone, but he sort of liked catching Cubs games when he was close to home. He could watch them most anytime, but there was something about being close to home and the memories of the few games he'd managed to get to growing up. It wasn't a Cubs game today as it was the playoffs, but he could watch the Cardinals game and hope they'd lose.

"No, not yet."

"What's up then?"

"Can I pick your brain for a bit?"

"Sure, I guess," he said, stepping back to let Sean in.

Sean glanced at John's open guitar case. He'd thought about playing something earlier, but hadn't gotten that far. That's why the case was open, though.

"Since when do you have a pink pick?"

"It's not pink," John snapped, closing the case.

He'd forgotten about the pick until seeing Melissa's fingernails that night she'd played for him. He'd bought a bunch of them years ago not even realizing why the color appealed to him. It was not a true pink, but he understood why Sean said it. He understood, too, after seeing Melissa's nails why the color had appealed to him when he bought them. He imagined the color usually appealed to female guitarists, but he'd bought them.

"It reminds me of Missy's nails."

"Great. I assure you I did not pick it for that reason."

"No, I didn't think you did. They were real nice, though. I've never really noticed girls' nails before."

"What did you want to talk about?"

"Yeah? Something wrong? You get in trouble or something? You need some cash?"

"No, none of that."

"All right then."

"So we're kind of close to where Missy lives."

John sighed with a soft groan. Really? This is what he came here to talk to him about? How did he get so lucky?

"Yeah, it's not too far. It's been a while since I've thought about it, but it's maybe 60-70 miles."

“We talked pretty much every day since we left Shermer those first seven or eight weeks before we left for Canada. Then we didn't talk every day, but I'd call her to tell her my number and she'd call my room once in a while so we could talk.”

John kind of knew that. He was young enough that hanging out at carnivals and fairs was still pretty cool and not tiresome. He didn't do that so much after they got done playing there, though. Instead he'd go back to his room a lot. John always seemed to take the room next to Sean and he hadn't heard any indication the kid was taking girls to his room. So, he assumed Sean was either calling Missy or being called by her.

"Okay," John said.

"So, now we're an hour or so away and she says she's not sure she can get here to hear us play, or even just to come hang out with me."

She didn't? Was that because of him? Had he done something wrong somehow that she wouldn't even come here and risk seeing him? He didn't think he had. He was short in their phone call, but he wasn't an asshole or mean.

Did she not want to see John again?

Why the fuck did that thought upset him? A lot?

He hadn't banked on getting back to this area as quickly as they'd managed, but he'd assumed they'd get back to the Chicago area eventually and he'd see her again. Assuming Sean's interest was still there, anyway. Without Sean it'd be up to him to initiate that contact, and he wasn't sure he'd do it.

"And you came to me with this versus the guy with kids? Girls kids?"

"Claude told me to come talk to you."

"He did, huh," John said, mulling that over.

"Yeah. He said asking the guy with two failed marriages probably wasn't the best idea as far as wanting advice on women."

"And me with my no marriages is a better option? How about Noel or Billy?"

"Billy would give me shit for someone I met at a carnival."

"Likely he would." Likely he would for thinking to try to extend it beyond the week it was. He said nothing about Noel John noticed, but for whatever reason Noel didn't get along with anyone as far as he could tell. There were no fights, arguments, or anything like that. He ate dinner with them as a group and all when they did that, but no one was friendly with Noel.

"And what about one of the girls?"

Sean blushed deeply at the question and John couldn't help but laugh.

"Why would you be embarrassed? None of them fear having a good time. Clearly. I think Jazmin's already got someone with her."

"I'd rather not. They'd ask me things."

"Yeah. So?" John asked.

"I've never had a girlfriend before." Twenty-two years old and never had a girlfriend? John couldn't fathom that at all. Fuck, by the time he was twenty-two. Well, best not go there.

"So? Wait. Really?"

"No, and I don't want them to know that. It's bad enough Claude does. Now you."

"Wait, Claude knows that?"

"Yes," Sean said.

"Huh," John said. He guessed the guy was pretty good at keeping things under wraps.

"I don't know what type of things you think they'd ask you, but I guess I can try. I'm no expert by any means."

"But you've had girlfriends."

"Sure, it's been a while since I've had one of any substance."

"So, what does it mean?"

"That she doesn't know?"

"Yeah. I mean, we talked almost every day. I can't think of a day we didn't talk before going to Canada. Other than maybe one day we were traveling or something. When we were in Canada we talked as much as we could, but we both knew it was expensive."

"Okay. Maybe it really means she doesn't know."

"She sounded really excited when I told her last month we'd be in the area again."

"Maybe something came up, Sean. I don't know. Maybe she's not sure she can be gone all day like that without reason. It's sixty miles, but later at night that may not work for her. Do you know her situation?"

"She stays with her grandparents on the weekends right now. That's all I know."

"Still?"

"Yeah. She said something about going back to her mom's house when school starts only because she didn't have a choice. She hasn't said why she's mad at her or where her dad is beyond not around."

"Oh," John said.

He was hoping that wouldn't be the case. He was hoping Missy being at the house the last time he called was a good sign. He was tempted to ask him what else she'd said about her dad, but decided that wouldn't be right. He also wasn't sure he really wanted to know what she'd said about him. If she thought he was an asshole he'd rather not know that when it got down to it. He liked thinking he'd made a fairly decent impression on her.

"Well, what about her grandparents. Maybe they're strict."

"They seem okay so far. I mean she never had a problem being out late when we were in town."

"Different. Her grandparents likely knew she could walk home or get a ride from someone else if she had to."

"She doesn't drink much."

"No?" John asked.

"No. I mean, I wasn't trying to get her drunk or anything, but I offered…"

"Yeah, be careful of that, Sean."

"What do you mean?"

"In addition to undercover cops posing as underage people you don't know crap about her family and what they'd do if they thought you'd put her in a compromising position."

"Well, no."

"Did you hear the part at dinner that one night about them wanting her to be a lawyer?"

"Yes, she said her grandfather, uncle, and aunt are lawyers."

"Well, all the more reason to be careful."

Interesting. So Claire was not a lawyer. What did she do then? It was a very nice house she had. Of course he had no doubt that whatever Claire set her mind to do she'd do it well. That was just the way she was. He picked up the pick he'd taken out of his case earlier and slid his fingertip along the edge of it.

"You have more than one of them that color?"

"Yeah," John said abruptly. He wasn't exactly defensive, but he sure as hell didn't owe Sean – or anyone – an explanation as to his color choice in guitar picks.

"So what do I do? I mean, I'm here for a reason, I can't just randomly drive up there."

"You could," John said with a bit of a nod. "I'm not sure I'd trust you with a rental car driving in that area, so shelve that idea for the time being. Did you actually tell her you wanted her to come?"

"Well, yeah, I mean. We talked…"

"Sean. You didn't hear my question evidently. Did you come out and tell her you wanted or hoped she'd come down to see you again? Not us as a band, but you as you."

"Maybe," he shrugged. There was that blush again. "No."

"Well, try that. I mean, I don't know, but maybe she's not sure. I'm sure she's not stupid when it comes to what some people do."

"Right."

"Does she know you've never had a girlfriend?"

"No!"

John laughed again.

"It's not funny."

"It is that you get so defensive over it. Maybe if you told her that she wouldn't think you're like some people."

"Maybe."

"Would you do it?"

"Call her?"

"Yeah," Sean said.

"I don't know, Sean. I'm not you, though. It's not easy. I mean, you're talking girlfriend. Right?"

"Yes."

"Long distance things suck. Add trust into the equation and things don't go so well sometimes. So, I guess it would depend on the girl and what my interest was. If you're just looking to have your first girlfriend."

"Well, yeah, but I've never really thought about it before."

"You've met girls before." John had seen him talk to girls more than a few times. He'd seen him bring them back to his room, too.

"I know. I mean I'm not completely inexperienced. I've done, you know, stuff."

"Stuff," he said with a scoff. "Wait. You're a virgin, too?"

"Fuck," Sean said.

"Hey, it's okay. I just wasn't putting the two together to mean that. Nothing wrong with that."

"Says the guy who hasn't been a virgin since long before you were my age."

"Well, yeah, and I'll be honest if I could go back and undo them. I would. Well, most of them."

"Most?"

"Yeah, there might be one I wouldn't undo."

He glanced at the pick again. There certainly wouldn't be a Melissa for Sean to be contemplating falling in love with. He'd have a lot more money over the past seventeen years. Without her, though, he never would have experienced anything good growing up. It was only one day, so some may say that was a ridiculous way to think. She was, by far, the best thing to ever happen to him.

Wrong time. Wrong place. If they'd been a little older. If… He could go on with the ifs and buts. Had she really hoped he'd come find them? Finding implied he didn't know where they were. He may not have known an exact address, but finding them wouldn't have been difficult. She'd know that, too, likely.

Except he'd taken her dad coming to tell him her news that she didn't want him involved at all. He'd assumed that she'd been involved with the decisions leading up to Mr. Standish finding him. Except, he supposed thinking about it, that didn't make sense. He didn't think she'd go along with accusing him of raping her, but she may not have had a choice either.

"She is pretty, isn't she?" John said.

"Yeah," Sean said. "And she's really smart."

"I can imagine she is."

Claire wasn't stupid by any means.

"So, who is she?"

"Who?" John asked.

"The one you wouldn't undo?"

"I'm here to answer your questions it seems not the other way around."

"Why wouldn't you undo her over the others?"

"None of your business, kid. Have I answered all of your love life questions then or what?"

"I don't know."

"Well, my door's open, but you might start with telling her you actually want her down here."

"I guess," he said.

"I'll be right back," John said, going to the bathroom for a minute.

"Let me ask you something," he said when he came out and Sean was presumably ready to leave. He was standing up and fidgeting as if he'd had about enough of the heart to heart as John had by now. He wasn't a big communicator. No shock there to anyone who knew him.

"Yeah?"

"You actually like her? I mean, what is it you hope to gain here? You looking to just finally lose your virginity?"

"No! I mean," he blushed again. "I wouldn't mind…"

"Yeah, I don't need to hear the details of what you wouldn't mind doing."

"She's just different. No one I went to school with who looked like her would've given me the time of day."

"Why not?" he asked, looking at him pretty intently now. He was a good looking guy. A little scrawny maybe, but not toothpick scrawny.

"I didn't know how to talk to them!"

John chuckled at that. "Yeah, that can pose a problem."

"I had glasses and braces…"

"Ah," he said with a nod, heading back toward his bed.

"Well, if it's any consolation, I wouldn't have gotten a girl like her either."

"You're just saying that."

"Not and kept her, no," he admitted. That was an honest answer, too. There was no way Claire would have given him the time of day under a normal set of circumstances. He could have walked by her locker and stood on his head to try to get her attention and it wouldn't have worked. He happened to have her undivided attention for a day where she was able to learn there was more to him than people like Vernon wanted her to believe.

He slid the pick between his fingers again.

"Go call her then. Or something!"

"You wouldn't, would you?"

"For a girl I hadn't even had a real date with? And one I wasn't going to get laid by out of the deal either? I mean if I had a date with her the not laid part wouldn't be a big deal, but neither? No, but I'm not you."

"You probably think I'm an idiot."

"Uh, no. Trust me, I'm in no position to call anyone else an idiot," John said. "Just do me a favor."

"Yeah?"

"Remember that she has family members that are lawyers, okay?"

"Yeah, sure," he said.

"And if she does drive down here that does not mean it's an invitation to have sex."

"Well…"

"It absolutely is not!"

"But…"

"Sean. If that's why you're calling her…"

"Well, no, but…"

"There is no but. You're asking her to haul her ass down here sixty or seventy miles it'd better be more than a call for that. You can find that here without any forethought."

"I know."

"And her driving down here does not mean she's looking for that."

"I was hoping that night you let her play for you that…"

"I don't want to hear what you were hoping to get out of that night. Really, I don't," he said. He was going to absolutely kill Claude for sending Sean his way. No doubt he'd done it on purpose. Laugh at John's predicament. Ha ha. Real funny, Claude.

Sean left then and John lifted the pick he'd been touching over his head as he shifted to lay on the bed. He slid one hand under his head. The baseball game was over by now. He had no idea if they'd won or lost, not that it really mattered.

He wondered if Missy would come down here. It wasn't a crazy long drive, but for someone who hadn't even asked her to be his girlfriend it was. That was probably why she wasn't committing to coming down here. Women were strange, whether sixteen or thirty-six.

Whatever he said it evidently worked because she was there in time to have dinner with the group of them. Somehow, and John would put money on Claude being behind it, Sean, John, and Missy were the only ones who went to dinner. John tried to bow out, but Sean insisted he could come with. He was naïve enough to believe everyone thought they were going to dinner thirty minutes earlier than they had planned.

John didn't say a whole lot, listened to the two of them talk as if they hadn't talked pretty frequently over the past few months. The trip in Canada would have caused a little snag in every night talks as Sean had indicated. Unless Claire's parents' had calling to Canada on their phone plan.

"I was hoping I could play something for you before I go home," Missy said to him.

"Something you wrote?"

"Yeah," she shrugged. "I played it for my cousin and she really liked it, but she's eleven so I don't know."

"Yeah, sure," he said. What was he supposed to say to that? No. "Assuming we have time."

"Right."

"Eleven?" John said.

"Huh?"

"Your cousin. You said she's eleven."

"Oh, yeah. She's pretty cool. A little spoiled. She spent the weekend at my grandparents one weekend when I was staying with them over the summer while her parents picked her brother up from camp."

"Older?"

"Who?"

"The brother?"

"Oh, yeah. He'll be thirteen next month, I think."

"Ah," he said with a slight nod. So, Missy was the first grandchild by over four years because she'd be eighteen in January.

"When's your birthday?" Sean asked.

"January," she said.

"January what?"

"Second," she said, glancing at John who was doing his best to act as if he wasn't paying attention. "When's yours?"

"February twelfth."

"Pretty close," she said with a smile.

"Yeah," Sean said.

They got back from dinner in time to get ready for their performance that night and that was about it. He thought briefly on calling Claire to let her know Melissa was here, but realized it would be a stupid thing to do. Clearly, Melissa was old enough to know what she should and shouldn't be doing with her time. However, if she was somehow taking advantage of her grandparents not realizing she liked a guy maybe her mom should know. Then he'd be a snitch, and he wasn't ready for her to think of him that way.

Sean drove her car to the grounds, judging by her giggling when they were walking from their room to the cars John wondered if Sean had given her something to drink. None of his business, except she was supposed to drive home. Sixty or seventy miles wasn't crazy to drive, but he had no idea how much experience she had with drinking.

Sean had said she didn't drink much. In front of him? Ever? Had he offered her something and she said yes because she thought she had to? Girls did weird shit for guys (the same was true in reverse, too, he supposed). Did she not really want to be here and drank to appear happy? Did she not want to be here because of John? Had he been the reason she hadn't been sure she wanted to come here?

He hadn't thought of that.

"Hey, Claude," John said when they stepped out of their car.

"Yeah."

"I forgot to thank you for that fantastic conversation earlier."

Claude smiled widely. "I thought you might enjoy that one."

"Uh huh," he said.

"So should you or I go knock on the window and tell Sean he has to get his ass in gear."

"You can."

"You sure?"

"Yes," John said.

"I mean, I can let you get the full…"

"No," John said quickly.

He came back a few minutes later and chuckled softly.

"What?"

"You don't want to know."

"Great."

"I think she might be a bit tipsy, though."

"Yeah, I wondered that myself, too, actually."

"Sean should know better, especially knowing she has to drive home tonight."

"Yeah, he should," John said, sounding a little bitter to his own ears.

They hadn't gotten there that much ahead of them to where they could possibly be doing anything in the car other than kissing, but John still had absolutely no desire to see that. Sean was overall a good guy, but he was still a twenty-two year old guy who evidently hadn't been a chick magnet growing up. Not a bad thing until it was his daughter he wanted to spread his wings with.

He took his cell phone out of the bag he carried with him.

"Are you sick?" Candy asked him.

"No," he said, turning the phone on.

"Why do you think John's sick," Billy asked.

"He looks like he's going to use his cell phone."

A technology wizard he was not.

"Ha ha, guys, laugh it up," he said, stepping away from them as he scrolled to Claire's number he'd put into the phone after his trip to Shermer in July.

'Hello?' She didn't sound as though he'd woken her this time.

"Hi, it's John."

'John? Where are you?'

"Huh? Oh," he said, realizing it wasn't the quietest environment. "One second." He got back into the car then. "Better?"

'Yeah. That still doesn't tell me where you are.'

"Kankakee."

'Oh.'

"Melissa is here to see Sean. I wouldn't have called you ordinarily, but I think she's had enough to drink where maybe she shouldn't be driving home. It sounds like she's still staying at your parents'?"

'Yes, on weekends. She goes there after school on Friday and goes to school from their house Monday mornings,' she said, sounding more than a little exasperated at having to admit that.

"Well, we take the stage in about an hour. I don't know how much she's had to drink tonight, or ever in her life until now."

'Not much.'

"I didn't give it to her, just so we're clear."

'I didn't think you would.'

"Thank you. I think Sean," he shrugged. "I honestly don't know what he was thinking. Hoping she'd have to stay the night?"

'My parents would…'

"Yeah, I'm not sure he thought the whole barely seventeen years old yet thing through. So, do you just want me to keep an eye on her? She could stay in my room if she needs to stay here."

'With you?'

"Uh, I'd probably bunk with Sean or Claude."

'I don't know.'

"You could tell your parents she decided to spend the night with you."

'Except they know that she's still not talking to me.'

"You could drive down and get her."

'John…'

"Maybe seeing you in a neutral environment would get her talking. Throw a little liquor into the mix…"

'Please tell me you did not get our daughter drunk in an attempt to get her to talk to me.'

"Well, no, that's not exactly how I'd go about trying to do that if I was planning on it. I would like to see her talking to you, though."

'Why?'

"Well, I feel ridiculous not admitting to her I know who she is, but I don't want to do that until she's talked to you."

'Why?'

He shrugged. Why? "Good question. It just seems wrong. Along with her not thinking I'm an asshole I'd like her to be able to see that we can be civil. You know, communicate about this whole thing."

'Is that what we're doing?'

"I did seek you out."

'You did, and I do appreciate it. Very much. If I haven't said so, I apologize.'

"I'm not asking for your appreciation or apologies here, Princess. But, you know, I feel like I'm lying to her. I mean, we all know that she knows I know, but no one's admitting it yet. I just don't want to do that without you two solid."

Claude tapped on his window, pointing at his watch.

"I have to go so we can setup. She'll be near the stage, I'm sure."

'I don't know…'

"You guys could use my room. I'm sure Claude would let me use his."

'I'll be there as soon as I can. I'll have to change into something presentable and let Scotty out.'

He presumed Scotty was her dog. "Hmm. Maybe Sean and I can both get lucky tonight."

'That was a joke, I hope.'

"It was."

'He's going to wonder how I knew to come there.'

"I think they both are, yes."

She laughed a little at that.

"Yeah, just wait until I tell you about the conversation I had to have with him earlier."

'I can't wait.'

"Bye."

'Thanks for calling, John, really.'

"I couldn't have her driving that far like that."

'No, I wouldn't have wanted you to.'

She disconnected and John stepped out of the car.

"Making a date for later?" Claude asked.

"Yes," John said with a roll of his eyes.

"You just called the mother, didn't you?"

"I did."

Claude nodded a little. "Sean will be pissed, but good for you. That was a very dad-like thing to do."

"Yeah, I won't have her getting into an accident or passing out at the wheel on my conscience. Claire would never forgive me."

"Claire, huh," Claude said. "Is she hot?"

They'd already had a discussion about Claire and what she looked like. Claude knew full well that John thought she was, and probably knew John still thought so today.

"She's not your type."

"I wasn't asking for me, John."

"Forget it."

John walked up to Sean then.

"You and me, we're having a chat later about what exactly it was you took away from the conversation that we had earlier."

"Huh?"

"Don't huh me. We'll talk about it later, but I absolutely did not recommend giving alcohol to a minor when she has to drive home over sixty miles at night."

"John."

"Later. There will be plenty of time for it later."

Claude chuckled then softly.

"You, shut up," John said.

"Yes, sir," he said. Sean looked very confused. Rightfully so, John supposed.

Chapter Text

Chapter Ten
Word Count: 7,459

'So, let me get this straight. She just went to Kankakee?' Allison said, sounding about as astounded at the concept as Claire still was almost an hour after finding out about it.

"Evidently," Claire said.

She'd let Scotty out and put him in the small room off the garage she put him in if she was going to be gone for an unknown amount of time. She was hoping Allison would be able to feed Scotty in the morning. He could let himself in and out from the room they'd made for Princess, so that wasn't an issue. She'd done it before and had a key to Claire's house for just such a reason.

'Wow. And John called you?'

Claire sighed. "Only because he thought she'd been drinking too much to drive home safely."

'Or that gave him an excuse to call you.'

"I doubt that, Ally."

Her friend sighed into the phone then. If Claire had a dollar for every time Ally had told her over the years to reach out to John she'd be very rich. She'd even suggested it before Shooterz became a band worthy of newspaper headlines.

They'd opened for Rick Springfield years ago when Claire was still in college and Ally had dragged Claire to the concert. She admittedly had a lot of fun. Their days of being the opening act were long gone now, though. These days, likely Rick Springfield would be opening for them.

'So, feed and check on Scotty. Anything else?'

"I don't think so."

'What are you going to say to her?'

"I have no idea. She's never drank that I know of. I mean, I'm sure she has. She's seventeen. I've never seen evidence of it. She knows though that I won't bail her out for a DUI."

'She's not staying with you right now.'

"God, you're right, and Christopher probably would bail her out despite my not wanting to do that."

'Probably so,' Ally said. Ally was not a big fan of Christopher. He'd actually been the one who treated Claire the worst when she found out she was pregnant. She'd always adored her brother and assumed he felt the same way about her in return. He'd said some absolutely horrible things to her those first few months, making her feel like complete shit about herself. She wasn't quite sure she'd ever be able to forget what he said. 'Just let me know when you're on your way back.'

"I will, and thank you. I'm sorry for the short notice."

'No problem. I'm glad we were home. Drive carefully. Are you going to stay the night?'

"I guess I'll see what shape she's in when I get there. I can't let her drive home if she's that impaired."

'You're right. Well, should I say don't do anything I wouldn't do?'

"No!"

'You sure because the last time you and John were in close enough proximity to have sex you did.'

"We did not! He was at my house a few months ago!"

'And you thought about it.'

"Well," Claire said. "No! I did not think about having sex with him that day."

'No, I know that. You thought about sex with him, though. If it'd be the same.'

"Shut up, Ally."

Ally laughed then. 'All right, I do have to go. You drive carefully yourself. You won't do her any good in a hospital because you were driving like a bat out of hell to get there. Or John honestly. He'd probably freak out if you didn't show up now that he's called you.'

"I'm sure not."

'He didn't have to call you, Claire. Tonight or the last time either to tell you he was going to listen to her play. He could have just done it and gone on with his life as if it wouldn't matter to you.'

"I know," she said. She'd appreciated that phone call he'd made in July more than he probably could understand.

'Do you think Missy likes this guy because he's a way to get close to John?'

"I really don't know. I don't know him. John seems to think he's a decent guy."

'John may want to reevaluate that if he gave a seventeen year old alcohol.'

"And what was that guy's name you told me about our senior year? You totally used him, made him think you were into him just to get your booze."

'Totally different. I was not Missy.'

"I know," Claire said. "I'm sorry. I was teasing. A bad effort and not fair."

'It's all right. If I can give you shit about John you can do the same to me in return.'

"Thanks."

'Try to enjoy the music.'

"They'll probably be done playing by the time I get there."

'That's too bad. I wonder why they're doing those type of concerts,' Aly said.

Claire had wondered the same thing. It wasn't unheard of for household name bands to play a festival or something, but it appeared from their website they were doing quite a few of them this summer. (Not that Claire was stalking their website or anything since John's visit to her house.)

"Everyone needs to make money. Maybe they're a nice break from big concerts."

'Maybe so.'

"All right, thanks again."

'Tell Missy that we say hi.'

"If she talks to me, I will."

How frustrating it had been to have Missy at home with her, but still refusing to speak with her. The uncomfortableness of having her home but not speaking was why she'd agreed to the blind date Allison set her up on last month. It hadn't been awful, and she'd seen the man a couple of times since that night but she wasn't ready for a relationship or anything.

Andy and Allison were Melissa's godparents. Claire's parents had wanted her to choose some friends of the family, but Claire absolutely did not want her child raised by people like her parents. So she'd chosen the two people she knew would ensure she was raised decently. Fortunately, they hadn't had to do anything with her over the years, but it had made Claire feel better.

She found the festival easily enough and parked, paying the fee to park and then another one to get into the grandstand. It was a ridiculous amount of money to pay for maybe twenty minutes of music, but if it got Melissa talking to her it was worth every penny.

As she walked in the direction of the stage she had no idea what to even say. Where did she start? Melissa hadn't even wanted to listen to Claire's explanation. Claire remembered being seventeen and thinking she knew everything and her parents knew nothing. Her parents were crappy human beings but they knew things. Of course, Missy didn't know the things about her parents Claire knew and likely never would.

Not surprisingly it was packed. Festival or not, Shooterz was a crowd-drawing band. Likely she wasn't the only one who made the drive down from the Chicago area to see them. The price to get in here and see them was cheaper than a concert ticket at most venues these days.

She stopped walking for a little bit, taking the opportunity to look at John. She hadn't really the day he'd come to her house, purposely. She couldn't. God, she'd hoped and prayed her freshman year he'd come down there and say screw her parents.

He’d said things in that closet, whispered things while he’d been inside of her that she knew weren’t lines or embellishments. She’d made him feel as alive for the first time as he’d done for her that day.

So, she’d hoped.

He didn't. Not that she could blame him.

So, she’d hoped.

He hadn't.

There were so many hopes over the years that she felt like an idiot most of the time if she took the time to stop and think about it. She tried not to because she knew what anyone would tell her. You can't fall in love in one day.

She had. She'd never stopped. Melissa looked more like her, but there was never a day that didn't go by that she didn't say or do something that didn't make her wonder if John did those things when he was that age. Claire had put a guitar in Melissa's hand almost before she could walk. It was the only thing of him she could think of to give her. She didn't have his name and never would. It took Claire years to figure that last part out.

Stu knew that, too. She'd said no so many times she'd begun to think he was mentally unbalanced to keep coming back for more rejection. There were times since he'd passed away she wondered if he'd known somehow that he was sick because he didn't seem to mind settling for someone who just wasn't capable of giving him all of what he deserved. She did come to love him, she just hadn't been in love with him. She absolutely refused to give Melissa his name. That conversation was the only time they'd gotten into a full-on, no talking to one another for days, argument.

That was when he knew, though, without question. He never said anything, never accused her of any wrong doing, and things were strangely okay after that.

He looked pretty fantastic. His hair was quite a bit longer than it had been and looked nice on him. He hadn't shaved tonight either she noticed, and wondered if maybe he just didn't shave often. She'd seen pictures of him over the years and was always affected by them, particularly knowing something about him no one else in the world knew. Seeing pictures didn't have nearly the same effect as seeing him in person.

After staring at him for longer than would be polite if he was aware of her doing it she turned her attention to the rest of the band. Which of them was Sean? She knew the singer and drummer had been with the band since the beginning. That left the keyboard or bass player.

Claire was betting on the bass player. She had no idea why. Melissa had never really dated. She'd gone to dances, but to this point it had been with a different guy each year. She didn't seem to have a type. He was cute, though. Older than her, even from here Claire could tell that. How much older? Old enough to give her alcohol.

Now that she was here, she had no idea what to even do. If she went up to Melissa she might get mad and leave. She didn't want that, if for no other reason she didn't want her to leave in her car if she wasn't in a state to drive.

She found her way to the area behind the stage. Again, a huge difference between a place like this and a concert at a concert hall or something. Here the stage was setup in a field so anyone was free to walk behind it without a pass or anything.


***

They finished and John spotted her almost immediately once he went backstage. He'd almost wondered if she was going to come after all. He'd assumed she'd find Melissa right away, but he hadn't seen Claire anywhere near her. He actually smiled at her when he made his way toward her. It was a smile he actually meant, too. Regardless of the reason she was here he couldn't deny he was glad to see her. She was watching him approach her and he wondered what she was thinking.

"You made it." Way to state the obvious.

"I did," she said.

"How'd you like it?"

"I did," she said.

"Good. I'm not sure how you want to do this." Also stating the obvious. He had no idea how to handle the situation, which was why he'd called her.

"I'm not either. That's why I came back here instead of finding her out front. I didn't want her getting in her car and trying to leave or something."

Good point. That would be why she was the mom and he was not because he wouldn't have thought like that. He supposed he knew better than to confront her, though, because he hadn't mentioned to her he knew she was under the influence. "If I'd been thinking I would have just told you to meet us at our hotel."

"Then I wouldn't have heard you play."

Huh. He hadn't expected those words to come out of her mouth, certainly not tonight at any rate. She stopped breathing for a second as he closed the distance between them. He settled a hand against her cheek, brushing a few strands of hair away from her face there.

"You can hear me play anytime."

"Really?"

He brushed his thumb along her cheek, eyes flickering to her mouth for a second. The hair was all back in place, which meant he was doing something he shouldn't be doing. He drew his hand away, but didn't back away from her, though.

"Really."

"Have you played for Melissa?"

"No," he said. "I mean, not just her. Obviously, she's heard me like tonight."

"She's going to be mad."

"Probably so," he shrugged. "Let her be mad, I guess."

"That would bother you?"

"A little, I don't know." He didn't know how to put it into words. He honestly never stopped to think on the fact that he was a dad the past seventeen years. Asked if he had kids his immediate answer was no without hesitation. Her words at her house that day about sperm donors had bothered him in a way – coming from her – but he knew when it boiled down to it he wasn't much more than that.

"So…"

"Well, you're here. You tell me. You've been doing this a lot longer than I have."

"I don't know! I never thought we'd be here."

He snorted softly at that. "You and me both."

"Not us! Me and her."

"Oh," he said. He tilted his head a bit, regarding her. He liked her much better tonight then that day at her house. She was talking to him, not at or through him. Of course he hadn't just shown up on her doorstep tonight, telling her the daughter he was never even supposed to meet was talking to him. "You look good."

She laughed softly. "Thanks."

"Especially considering you had to be in for the night."

"I was," she admitted.

He supposed that was a given since her husband hadn't been gone that long. Except Melissa had mentioned she'd gone on a blind date when he'd called her the last time. She'd been home tonight, though, so he wondered if that meant the date had gone poorly. And then he wondered why he cared.

"So, you want to just meet us at the hotel? She'll go back there at the very least to drop Sean off."

"Have they? Are they?"

He shook his head, chuckling softly at her inability to actually say it. Over fifteen years later and a kid between them and she still couldn't say it outright.

"I don't think so. He asked me for advice today."

"You?"

"I know, right? Anyway, it came out that he's never had sex, so I think they haven't."

"Oh," she said, sounding very relieved about that. John was, too, honestly.

"I will be having a chat with him about the alcohol."

"Me, too."

John chuckled softly, telling her the hotel they were staying at. He held out his room key.

"John…"

"You'll get there before I will, I'm sure of it. I have to wait for all of them here."

"Oh, okay," she said, taking the key then. He didn't let her draw her hand away immediately. His fingers were a lot rougher than they were that day in high school. He'd been playing guitar by then, but not on an everyday basis as he did now. He had calluses on top of calluses it felt like. No doubt she was used to better, but she didn't pull away immediately or anything.

"You, uh, want me in there with you? I don't know what you want. I realize I have no room to lecture her."

She scoffed and he wished she wouldn't do that. He hadn't lived the life of a monk, but he wasn't that bad. When he had a girlfriend he'd stayed monogamous. The problem was he wasn't believed so there was always the third degree about where he was and who he was with. He'd dated one woman a few years ago who called him "by mistake" so many times it was beyond ridiculous.

"I don't know. I'll let you know when you get there, I guess."

"Fair enough. See you in a bit then."

"Sure, and thanks again for calling."

"Yeah," he said.

"That the mom," Claude said once she'd started walking away. John knew Claude was there, hovering in the background and taking it in. No doubt he realized Melissa looked a lot like her mother.

"Yeah," John said, watching as she made her way through the crowd. He had no idea where she parked or anything to know which direction she was going to go from here.

"What does she do?"

"I don't know," John admitted. He really had no clue what she did.

"What did she want to do?"

"I don't know," John said with a shrug. "We never got that far."

"Obviously you got far enough."

"Obviously."

"I'm going to say it again," Claude said, patting John on the shoulder.

"What?"

"You like her."

"Get the fuck out of here, Claude."

"Deny it all you want, but I don't see you touching anyone else."

"I touch people."

"If you say so, John."

"I do, too!"

"Not like that. You have absolutely no reason to touch her. She's not your girlfriend or anything yet you did, more than once."

"You were spying on me?"

He shrugged. "I was curious and I knew she was coming. I found out this guy I've known for over eighteen years has a kid. Sue me."

"Doesn't matter," he said with a shrug.

"You figure out what you're going to say?"

"To him or to her?"

"Either of them?"

"No," John said. "I think he took some X I had in my guitar case earlier."

"What?" Claude asked, sounding as incredulous as John was at the thought of it. He had two travel-sized Dramamine bottles in his guitar case. One contained that in the event he couldn't sleep on a plane or bus ride. The other contained X that he took on occasion when he needed something to get him through a show. He didn't take it often. So infrequently that he knew how the bottles were positioned in his case. They were askew today when he was getting ready to come here. He'd chalked it up to him dislodging them, but the more he thought about it on stage tonight he wondered.

Sean had told him Missy didn't drink much. So why would he give her something to drink tonight of all nights?

"I could be wrong, but if he did and that's what he gave her I'm not sure I can play with him anymore."

"Because she's your daughter?"

"No! I mean, yeah, okay, sure it'd piss me off a little extra I guess, but no."

"He's going to deny it."

"Well, I can count them when I get back."

"You know how many were in there?"

"Yes."

"All right," Claude said. "And, yes, if that's what happened I'd back your decision. Billy may not."

"Billy can go fuck himself if he thinks having someone who thinks it's acceptable to drug a seventeen year old girl in our band is cool."

"Don't hold back."

"Yeah," he said.

He hadn't mentioned the X to Claire. No sense freaking her out. Likely it wasn't something she'd done before, if that's what Sean had done, and she'd be none the worse for wear in the morning. Thirsty maybe. John handed Claude the keys to the rental car he was driving.

"I think I'll be riding with Melissa to the hotel."

"And Sean will be riding with me?"

"I'm fairly sure, yes," John said.

"All right, man. If you're wrong…"

"X or liquor, neither is cool, Claude. You have a daughter…"

"Oh, you're absolutely right. I'd probably be in jail at the end of the night."

"Well then?"

"Excuse my being amused – and yeah a little surprised - at seeing you act at all paternal, John."

Claude shrugged, pocketing the keys while John walked in the direction of their cars.

"Something wrong with the car you were driving?" Sean asked when he and Melissa got to her car.

"No. You're riding back with Claude."

"What?" Sean asked. John was too busy taking Melissa's appearance in to worry about Sean. He knew he sounded confused, though. She was walking all right, but Sean had his arm around her so it was hard to know if she was walking on her own. He tried to meet her gaze, but she didn't seem to be able to focus on him too easily. That could be an effect of either X or liquor, so he still wasn't sure.

"You heard me. Ride with Claude."

"But…"

"I've always liked you, Sean. I've always thought you were a pretty good kid."

"Yeah."

"I'm not sure I do anymore. So, you go with Claude. I'll make sure Melissa gets to the hotel."

He slid his arm around her then, pushing Sean's arm away from her as he did that.

"Can I have your keys, Melissa?" he asked.

"I'm…"

"Come on. I've always wanted to drive one of these new Mustangs," he said.

"Yeah?" she asked.

"Yup."

"You smell nice," she whispered.

"Thanks, I think," he said with a soft chuckle. He wasn't sure what to make of that comment. Instead he let instinct take over and kissed the top of her hair. "So do you."

"You're such an asshole, John." Sean said from the back of the car.

"You're still here?" he asked Sean.

"I don't usually put my arm around someone I'm not interested in."

"I'm helping her into her seat now and then getting in the car and I'm going to drive away. If you're still behind the car when I leave tough break for you."

"You can't be serious."

"I'm pretty fucking serious right now, Sean. Go find Claude and get the fuck out of my face before I do something that'll land me in jail."

"Taking her to your room will!"

John snorted at that.

"You have no idea what you're talking about. Now go!"

He helped Melissa into the passenger seat and shut the door once she was in. Sean was walking toward Claude. Thankfully Claude knew the situation so he waited, though Candy, Jazmin, and her date for the weekend seemed confused about the delay.

"How much did you drink?" he asked on the way back to the hotel.

"Just two. Maybe it was three. The first one was real easy to drink."

"Beers?"

"No," she said. "They weren't big or anything."

"Ah," he said. "You do know that you shouldn't take drinks from people, right?"

"Yes, but…"

"Ever. There's so many nut jobs out there."

"He's so nice."

"Even the nice ones can be nut jobs, sweetheart."

Maybe she was just drunk. Maybe he'd taken the X and held off giving it to her or had second thoughts about actually doing it. Sean had made John a couple of his rum and Cokes the past couple of years he'd been with them, and he made them pretty fucking strong. Strong enough a pretty petite person who wasn't used to drinking could be knocked off kilter a bit. He hoped that's what happened.

He shut the car off when they got back to the hotel. Man, the thing ran like a dream. Another time when Claire wasn't upstairs waiting for them he'd love to take it for a much longer drive. On a highway so he could really see what it could do.

"I should go," she said.

"Why?" he asked.

"I have to get home. My grandparents…"

"Yeah, come on up for a minute," he said. "You're not in any condition to drive yet."

"Okay," she said.

He went over to her side, holding her door open as she got out. She was able to get out on her own and everything. He locked the doors and pocketed the keys and started making their way to the hotel.

"Thanks for letting me drive," he said.

"Sure."

"How long have you had it?"

"It was my birthday present."

"Nice birthday present. Someone must love you."

"I guess," she said.

"Why'd you take the drinks?"

She shrugged.

"The school I go to, I walk through the halls and see pictures of my mom and my uncle. They did everything. Mom was homecoming and prom queen and Uncle Chris played sports."

"Yeah," he said, knowing full well about Chris.

"I haven't done anything! I haven't even had a real date."

"So you think taking a drink is going to change that?"

"He wanted me to try it…"

He sighed. "It's entirely too cliché I know that, but if Sean wanted you to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge would you do it?"

"It's not the same…"

"It is. Don't change yourself to get a guy or impress a guy. Or a woman, I suppose. You know, if that's your thing. Trust me when I say that any one in their right mind would be impressed by you."

"Are you?"

"More than you can ever possibly imagine." What wasn't there to be impressed about? Did she not see herself that way? Evidently not.

They were at his room now and he knocked on the door lightly.

"Why are you knocking?"

He chuckled lightly as Claire opened the door. Missy stepped inside without question or argument and hugged her mom. She didn't even really seem surprised or mad by her being there. Huh.

"Thank you," she whispered, hugging Melissa to her pretty damned tight.

"Yeah, sure. I'm going to be next door for a bit, but I'll come back to check on everything in a while."

"Okay," she said, holding the key to his room out for him in one hand. "Here. You can let yourself in."

"You sure?"

"Yeah," she said. She let the door close then and John made his way to Sean's room.

Claude was in there with him, which was probably good. Likely Claude knew that, too.

"Where's Missy?" he asked. John scoffed. Pretty brave and bold question to ask right now.

"In my room, talking to her mother I imagine."

"Her mother?" Sean frowned at that.

John grabbed him by the shirt front and pushed him up against the wall.

"Let me ask you. What part of our conversation earlier today exactly did you think meant 'give an underage girl liquor'?"

"I…"

"I'm not done yet," John said.

"But…"

"When I'm ready for you to talk, you'll know. Until then shut up and listen to me. We do some crazy shit. All of us. Not all of it is legal. I give you that. I don't think any of us has ever thought it was acceptable to get a minor drunk."

"She said she wanted me to make her one."

"One. You made her two or three she said. You also told me earlier that you were hoping things would happen between you two."

"Yes, but…"

"You went through my guitar case earlier. I was trying to figure out when you had the time, but I went to the bathroom for a minute. Did you give her the X you took?"

"What?" he asked.

"You heard me. Did you give it to her?"

"No!"

"I should believe you, why?"

"I took it for me. I wanted to be sure I could stay awake as late as she could stay tonight. I was exhausted, man. I don't know why, but I saw the container there. I thought maybe she'd be in the mood to do something later and I didn't want to be too tired."

"You don't take my shit, and you certainly don't take my illegal shit."

"I didn't think you'd notice."

"Because I wouldn't notice was an acceptable reason to steal from me?"

"I didn't think you'd mind."

"Someone going through my stuff? Yeah, I mind. Someone potentially drugging a minor? Yeah, I mind. Someone potentially raping my daughter? Yeah, I mind."

"Your what?"

"I thought you were a pretty good guy. So I said nothing when you questioned me about if I was interested in or hitting on her. I told her mother you were a good guy. I stood up for you, thinking she could do far worse as far as boyfriends went."

"I am!"

"Good guys don't do that!"

He should know, too. If he'd been a good guy Melissa wouldn't be here more than likely because a good guy never would have had sex with Claire in that closet that day. A good guy would have told her no. There was a big difference between John and Claire and Sean and Melissa, though. They were the same age.

"Where is it?"

He reached into his pocket then, pulling the pill out and handing it to John.

"I will count them, and I will know if you took more than one because believe it or not I know what I have on any given day."

He let go of him then, pocketing the pill and stepping away from him.

"I find out he's lying about the pills, Claude, he's gone. Like tonight gone."

"I hear ya, John. Loud and clear."

"Thank you. Just make sure he does. Backup singers are not the only things that can be replaced."

He left then, stopping in front of his room. He stared at the key for a minute, debating about going in there or not. Except even if he was going to spend the night in Claude's room he had to get his stuff.

John felt as though he was intruding in a very huge way when he saw them on the bed together. He'd never seen parents with their children in a quiet or intimate setting like this before. Melissa was laying against Claire who had her arms wrapped tightly around her daughter. Their daughter. She looked very much as if she never wanted to let go and likely she didn't. He'd lay odds he'd never sat with his mother like that at any age.

"Hi," she whispered.

"Hey," he said. "Doesn't look like you said much."

Claire laughed softly at that. "Try nothing, but she's here with me and she's letting me hold her."

"Yeah, she is," John said with a slight nod. He made his way to the beds, sitting on the edge of his.

"Thank you for calling me," she whispered.

"Yeah, sure. I didn't want her driving home whatever her condition."

"How much did she have?"

"Two to three drinks she said, but I've had Sean's drinks before and he makes pretty stiff ones. If she's not used to drinking they could knock her on her ass."

"Why?"

He shrugged. "He's a twenty-two year old virgin. I think he was hoping a couple of drinks she'd do more than sit and watch TV with him when they got back here tonight."

"She's not even eighteen yet!"

"I know that, Princess, I do."

"Why do guys do that?"

"Not all of us guys do that. I didn't with you."

"We'd…"

"Quite a bit earlier," he said, knowing where she was going with that. They'd gotten stoned. Five of them had shared his stash. They weren't stoned out of their minds or anything.

"I suppose."

"You don't think that's why…"

"No," she said.

He was very relieved to hear her say that. God that would have put a whole new slant on things if she'd been thinking for the past eighteen years that Melissa was here because she'd gotten stoned. He didn't have the impression that day had been her first go around with getting high either.

"Good, because I can assure you it had nothing to do with my part of things."

"No?"

"No," he said simply.

Claire's hand was sliding through Melissa's hair and John realized it was probably time for him to go.

"Well, I'll get my stuff and hit Claude up for…"

"You don't have to."

"You sure? I mean, I told you I would."

"I know, and I appreciate that. I think, though, she might not be so fast to run away when she does wake up if you're here, too."

"Ah," he said with a chuckle.

"Besides it's not like you're going to do anything with her in the room with us."

"I'm not sure what 'anything' you're thinking about, but I'll do my best to behave."

He stood then, going to his guitar case and taking out the pill bottle.

"I'll be right back," he said before going into his bathroom. He put the one Sean had in his pocket in the toilet. He wasn't going to swallow a pill that had been sitting in someone's jeans pocket all night. It wasn't ninety degrees outside or anything, but they still worked up a sweat performing.

They were all accounted for, counting the one that he was about to flush down the toilet. He gripped the counter a bit, staring at his reflection in the mirror. It was pretty fucking easy to lay the entire blame at Sean's feet if he had done more than give her a drink or two. Except the kid had not only known who to get the X from but where to find it. And thought nothing of using it, whether for himself or on Melissa was irrelevant.

Except it wasn't. If something had happened to her.

Fuck. The blame would have been his. Claude didn't use and Sean wouldn't have gone to Billy, Noel, or any of the girls for shit.

He shook the pills out from the bottle onto the countertop, running his index finger over each of them with a heavy sigh.

Forget getting raped. She could have died if Sean wasn't careful and didn't pay attention to what he was doing or how much he was giving her. He'd dismissed it earlier, thinking she'd wake up and be thirsty or something but there was no telling how someone would react to a drug. Not just someone either. Somewhere over the course of the past couple of months she was no longer a faceless being he was sending her mom checks for once a month. She was his. He'd helped make her and that floored him that anything as good as she obviously was could come from him.

Claire would never have forgiven him in a million years if she'd found out the drugs had come from John.

That thought bothered him a lot more than he wanted to let it.

He opened the bathroom door then a bit.

"Hey, Claire?"

"Yeah?" she said.

"Can you come here a minute without disturbing her?"

"I think so," she said.

He pushed the door closed again without latching it this time and returned to the counter by the sink. This was the second time in a matter of a couple of months Melissa was going to be responsible for his flushing away money like this. That made him wonder what the fuck she was thinking wanting to be anywhere near him.

"Is everything all right?" she asked, pushing the door open. He watched her in the mirror. Saw when she realized he didn't have ibuprofen or something on the counter.

"John," she said cautiously.

"I have these. Life on the road, traveling from one dinky town to the next isn't always pleasant."

"I can imagine."

"Sometimes I don't sleep so good, you know? So, I have this stash as an emergency. It's not an every performance thing."

"Okay," she whispered.

"He took some. One. One or a dozen, doesn't matter. He took it for himself it turns out, so he says. I'm still not entirely sure I believe him. If he hadn't, though, anything that happened to her would have been my fault."

"John," she said, still sounding cautious.

"You were completely right that day at your house. Claude kind of twisted my arm into going to hear her play that night I called you and said I was going to. I was planning on getting good and drunk and stoned off the shit I bought from Stubby."

She snorted softly at that, so clearly she'd known all along what Stubby was up to.

"He knew what my plan was and distracted me."

"Good for him."

"Yeah, he's been after me to quit since he quit."

"Why?"

"I don't know why."

"No, why'd he quit?"

"Oh, his wife overdosed on shit he'd bought," he said. "Until tonight I never stopped to think what that must have felt like to him."

"John…"

"I counted them. He only took one, but he'd given her some drinks, too. Forget he stole from me, my shit – illegal or not – that wasn't really what bothered me."

"No?"

He turned then, gathering the pills into his hand and tossing them into the toilet before he looked at her.

"No, it bothered me that something could have happened to her."

"Well, of course. If I said something that day at my house to make you think you're a bad person, John."

"It bothered me that something could have happened to her and you would have blamed me and never spoken to me again."

"Oh," she said.

"I know we haven't talked until now. Well, recently, but I didn't think you wouldn't talk to me."

'Why didn't you then?"

He shrugged. "Oh, at first anger drove me. That you'd send your dad there with accusations of raping you."

"I did not tell him that!"

"I didn't think you did. Later. Then, though, I did, and by the time I really thought it through," he shrugged. "I figured you were married or something."

"I didn't want to marry anyone, John."

"You did, though."

"Eventually, sure."

He wanted to ask her what she would have done if he had sought her out after college or whenever, but tonight really wasn't the time for that conversation.

"I don't know if I should believe Sean," he said, deciding a change of subject was best.

"Why?"

He shrugged. "I don't know. I've done some crazy shit over the years, no denying. I've never come close to raping anyone or feeling the need to drug them to put them in the mood. I mean, if I was with someone who wanted us both to, that's different. He took one pill. Whether for her or for him."

"You like him."

"I do," he said, chuckling softly because it was the same thing Claude said about how John felt about Claire. No doubt she meant it in a very different way than Claude did.

"What does your gut say?"

"My gut says I don't like the thought of her potentially being hurt on my watch, even if it's not really my watch. I know it's not my watch…"

"It's all right, I know what you meant."

“Good,” he said.

"If they like one another there's not a whole lot we can really do."

"No, but I don't have to let him play with us."

"I can't decide that for you, John. I don't know him and until I've talked to Melissa."

"Yeah, I get it. Did you call your parents, by the way?"

"Yes, I told them that she came down here for the festival and called me when it got too late instead of waking them."

"Nice thinking."

"Yeah, they're pretty strict about calling the house after nine o'clock. They'd know she wouldn't want to risk getting them mad."

He laughed softly. "And I lived for after nine o'clock."

"Why?" she asked.

"By then my parents were passed out for the night so I could do whatever the fuck I wanted to."

"Oh," she said.

He shrugged, turning the sink on to wash his hands and dry them off.

"So, did you bring stuff with you?"

"I did, for her, too. She still has a lot of stuff at Mom and Dad's, but now that she's back in school not as much as during the summer."

"Ah. All right. Good."

"Why'd you ask me to come in here?"

He shrugged a bit. He stepped closer to her and reached behind her to push the door she was leaning against closed all of the way.

"Figured if someone saw me do it maybe I wouldn't replace it next chance I get."

"You don't want to?"

He shook his head a bit, leaning in to do what he'd been longing to do since seeing her earlier tonight. Probably he'd wanted to do it at her house in July, too, but he hadn't thought too hard on it. He slanted his mouth over hers, his breath hitching a bit at the contact and the jolt akin to electricity it sent through him.

"I think I want to hear her play again," he whispered, kissing her chin. "I think I want to listen to a song she writes."

"John," she whispered.

"I think I really want to do that again," he whispered before kissing her again.

She responded a lot better this time than the first one a minute ago. Her hands moved from where they were against the door as if trying to pull away from him to clutching his forearms.

He drew away then, kissing her jaw before touching her cheek as he'd done earlier in the night. No hair to brush out of the way this time.

"I need about five more minutes in the bathroom to change and stuff then it'll be all yours," he whispered.

"Okay," she said, not sounding so sure of herself. She squinted a little regarding him. He wondered if he was in trouble for doing that after all. "You have pajamas?"

He chuckled. "No, but I have shorts. It's the best I have. That okay, Princess?"

"Yes," she said.

"I mean, if you think you won't be able to control yourself and I need to wear more layers…"

"John," she said.

"Relax," he said, drawing her toward him for another kiss. "I'm teasing you. I wouldn't do that tonight anyway."

"No?"

"No."

"Because of Melissa being here?"

"Not entirely, but yes."

"You're not going to tell me the other reasons?"

"No," he said. "But, you know, if you decided you don't want to sleep with her all night…"

She rested her head against his chest then, surprising the fuck out of him. He slid his hand that had been at her cheek to her hair.

"What am I going to do if she wakes up sober and doesn't want to talk to me?"

"Well, then I guess you'll deal with that possibility tomorrow. She clearly wanted her mom tonight, Claire. I've never experienced that need, but I recognize it when I see it. That's something at least."

"I guess," she whispered.

He kissed the top of her head, drawing away.

"You sure you don't want me to stay with Claude?"

"No, it's fine. It might be better this way."

"Why?" he asked.

"She doesn't seem to want to run away from you."

"You do know I haven't told her I know, right?"

"I think she'll know in the morning."

"I guess so."

She reached up then, touching his jaw and cheek.

"Don't scold me, all right? I forgot to shave this morning!"

She laughed softly. "I shouldn't have said that about shaving before coming to my house."

"I know why you said it."

"Good."

She opened the door then and turned to leave.

"Claire?"

"Yeah?"

"Thanks for putting a guitar in her hand."

"I didn't do it just for you, but you're welcome." She left the bathroom then, drawing the door closed behind her so he could finish getting ready for bed and likely so she could get what she needed together to get ready herself.

Chapter Text

Chapter Eleven
Word Count: 6,900

John shifted a bit when he felt extra weight on his bed. He turned onto his side and opened one eye enough to see, surprised for some reason to see Melissa.

"God, please tell me you're not one of those bright-eyed and bushy-tailed people who are up at the ass-crack of dawn every god damned day," he mumbled against his pillow.

"No," she said.

"Good. Why are you awake?"

She shrugged. "Mom got up a while ago and went to get coffee."

"Why'd you call her?"

"Like it or not, she's your mother and I thought she deserved to be called because you weren't in any condition to drive home last night and I didn't know what to do with that."

"Why not?"

"What the heck kind of question is that?" he asked. Heck had not been his first choice in words, and she seemed to know that too because she laughed softly.

She sat against the headboard, drawing her legs up against her chest and draping her arms around them.

"I could have just stayed here."

"And not tell anyone where you were? Yeah, I wasn't going to do that."

"You have the right…"

"No, I really don't."

"But you're…"

"There was a reason your mom didn't tell you stuff about me, Melissa. I know you want to think it's her fault for some reason, but we were in a very different place eighteen years ago. I was not in a successful band at the time and she was not…" Fuck. He still had absolutely no idea what she did for a living.

"I know," she said, cutting him off.

"Your grandparents ensured I had nothing to do with you. They didn't want me to."

"Why?"

He shrugged, turning a bit to regard her. "I wasn't a good guy?"

"You seem all right to me."

He laughed softly at that, raising a hand to touch one of her feet. "Thanks, but I wasn't so much then. Honestly, your grandparents probably did you a favor."

"I don't think so."

"You didn't know me back then."

"I didn't even know anything!"

"I think your mom was trying to protect you from getting hurt or teased."

"Yes, but knowing something would have been better than knowing nothing at all!"

"We were still kids really. You know? Not much older than you. We both did what we thought was best for you. I would not have been a good dad, your grandparents knew that. They were right, too."

She shrugged a bit, running her cheek over one of her arms as she leaned against it.

"Your mom wasn't trying to be mean or deceiving. I admit I haven't seen her in over eighteen years, but I know she hasn't changed since I did know her. She loves you, probably more than anything, and honestly thought she was trying to protect you."

"By lying to me!"

"She wasn't lying from what she's told me. Did she ever say anything not truthful?"

"She didn't tell me the truth, though!"

"I didn't experience it growing up myself so I can't speak from experience, but I've been told it's a parent's instinct to protect their child from anything that could potentially hurt them. She was doing that."

"You would have hurt me?"

She reached then and touched one of the scars on his shoulder. He'd assumed he'd be up before them and taken his shirt off to sleep.

"There's a hell of a lot more than just physical hurt, Melissa." He propped his head up with his hand, elbow on the bed. "Do you prefer Melissa or Missy?"

She shrugged. "I like both. Most everyone calls me Missy."

"But?"

"I don't feel like a Missy anymore."

"Ah," he said with a nod. "Why didn't you introduce yourself to Sean as Melissa then?"

"I was worried you'd know."

He nodded a bit at that. He wasn't sure he would have made the leap, but with the red hair and being in Shermer maybe he would have.

"You didn't want me to?"

"I wanted to see who you were first."

"I'm really not a super good guy, Melissa. I'm not impress your friends material."

"But you are!"

"Because I'm in a band not for any other accomplishment or anything."

"But that's…"

"Nothing special. I got lucky. If it weren't for Mrs. Norman we wouldn't be sitting here today. Your mom wouldn't have put a guitar in your hands when you were little. What your mom did is exceptionally special. She raised you by herself knowing it would be tough. Tougher than tough. Things were different then. Single moms weren't everywhere and certainly not in Shermer. She worked very hard to be sure you turned out as good as you have."

"But Stu said…"

"Stu?"

"My," she shrugged. "Step-dad."

"Ah, I didn't know his name. I don't know what he said to you, but it sounds like he said things your mom wishes he hadn't."

"He wanted to adopt me."

"Your mom mentioned that, and I think she thought, in part, by that time it was kind of late to do that. I mean she wouldn't have gotten married and let him adopt you. So, you're talking a year or so ago maybe?"

"I guess."

"She also didn't think it'd be fair to me. Letting him adopt you would ensure I'd never have anything to do with you."

"But you hadn't!"

"I think she was hoping I would and didn't want that closed off to either of us. I think, too, she didn't want to go through the red tape of finding me."

"You're not that hard to find!"

"Sure, in theory, but she doesn't know where I live or anything so she would've had to hire someone and probably would have been charged more than a regular private detective would have charged because of who I am. I don't know. Have you asked her this stuff?"

"No," she said.

"Maybe you should. I can't speak for her, but I know she wants to talk to you. Badly."

"Why'd you listen to me play that night?"

He shrugged, turning over onto his back.

"I had never thought on you much. Don't take offense to that. At first I didn't have the capacity to think about you. If I did I got mad. At your mom. At your grandparents. At me. At everything. That led to some bad things."

"You were arrested."

He sighed. "I was. How'd you know that?"

"Stu told me."

"Yeah, well, I wish he hadn't, but yes I have been a few times. For possession of pot." He felt the need to clarify that. An arrest was an arrest he knew that, but he didn't want her thinking he'd been arrested for trying to import pounds of heroin or something.

"I just can't help but think if he hadn't said anything I wouldn't know!"

"Well, then I guess he did me a favor."

"Did you ever want to find me?"

"Find you? No," he said, hearing the key in the door. Likely Melissa did, too. "Like I said, those first few years I had some bad stuff going on. By the time that stopped it was kind of too late. I figured your mom would be married, you'd have a step-dad, and you all would be on your way to that picture perfect life I know Claire dreamt about growing up. I didn't want to interfere."

"So, it wasn't because of me?"

"Because of you?"

"That you stayed away?"

"No, it was because of me. Entirely, one hundred percent me. I also knew I wouldn't have liked seeing your mom married to someone else."

"Why?"

"Because she was the best thing to ever come my way." He looked from Melissa to Claire. "I wasn't sure I could deal with seeing her happy with someone else, you happy with someone else. That would have proven your grandparents were right. You probably think I'm this hugely confident guy, I'm not, and I can admit that I didn't want to see some other guy living the life I could have had but signed away."

Claire seemed to be processing what he just said.

"Did you get your coffee?"

"Yeah," she said.

"Good."

"Sorry if she woke you."

He shrugged. "I can think of worse ways to be woken up." He glanced at Melissa then, tapping the top of her foot with his fingertip.

"Do you really like Sean?"

"He's nice," she said with a shrug.

That wasn't exactly a ringing endorsement for liking him, and John couldn't deny that made him feel pretty all right. Maybe she liked him, but she wasn't rushing out to run away from home or anything.

"Yeah, well, I meant what I said last night. Don't take drinks from people."

"But…"

"That should be a pretty hard and fast rule whoever you're with. Am I right?" he asked Claire.

"You are."

"Despite what you may think I was pretty scared thinking of what could have happened to you last night. I would've had to explain to your mom, and with someone I told her was a decent guy."

"Sean wouldn't…"

"I'd love to agree with you and say without a doubt he wouldn't do that. He's a guy, sweetheart, and guys don't always think logically when it comes to pretty women showing them the time of day."

If he'd been able to do that, think logically when Claire had told him she wanted him inside of her they wouldn't be here today having this conversation because she wouldn't be here. Logical John would have known he didn't have a rubber on and all it took was one time. Logical John had been absent from the moment he walked into the library that morning and saw Claire sitting there.

"Any other questions for me?" he asked.

"No," she said with a shrug.

"If you don't like Sean that's fine. I'm glad you talked to him at any rate."

"Really?"

"You two wouldn't be sitting here right now, so yeah. If that's all it was, though, a way to talk to me. Well, you should tell him that. I mean, no one would think anything about it, but if you keep talking to him after this weekend that would look bad. He thinks you like him like as a girlfriend."

"I know," she said.

"All right, since that's all you want to talk to me about I'm going to get up and see if I can find out what we're doing today."

"Are you leaving today?" Claire asked. She was staring at him. Oh, she tried to pretend she was watching Melissa, but she didn't pretend well.

"No, we head out tomorrow night. We head onto the next town, which we don't have to be at until Wednesday so no urgency."

"Oh," she said.

"And I'm sorry if my sitting here without a shirt on was some sort of thing not done, but she woke me up."

Claire laughed then.

"You're fine."

"Thanks," he said. "Give me about five minutes and then you guys can have the room as long as you need it."

He grabbed some clothes from his bag and went to the bathroom.

"Actually, I'm going to shower, but don't let that stop you from talking."

He showered and dressed in the bathroom, taking the time to shave before heading out. They were talking. He didn't eavesdrop or anything, so had no idea what they were saying, but he heard both of their voices.

He knocked on Claude's door.

"Well, aren't you up early."

"Shut up," John said. "I need some coffee or something."

"All right," he said, shutting his door for a minute or so and coming back out.

"Where's Sean?" John asked. It wasn't like the kid not to make his presence known to John.

"I think wondering if you're going to fire him or send him to jail."

"Not today I'm not," he said.

"She's all right then," Claude asked once they'd gotten to the restaurant and sat down. They didn't always stay at hotels as nice as this one with restaurants and stuff. They were pretty successful as a group, some of them saved their money and spent the money they didn't save more frugally than others. John, Claude, and Billy were among the more frugal ones. All three of them had come from pretty much nothing. They knew success could be fleeting and none of them wanted to be playing Bat Mitzvahs in a few years because they'd spent their money crazily. This hotel, though, had been fairly economical considering what they got paid for by the city for travel expenses and everything to come here.

"She is."

"And she knows you know and everything?"

"Yes. I think it was fairly evident I knew when she woke up in my hotel room that her mom had just left out of."

"Did the mom sleep with you or the daughter?"

"Get your mind out of the gutter."

"Reasonable question."

"It is not!"

"Did you want her to sleep with you?"

"I wouldn't have kicked her out, but I knew that wasn't going to happen."

"Where'd the mom go?"

"To get coffee."

"Leaving you two to talk."

"Yeah, I guess, not sure that was her plan. She may have assumed Melissa would be sleeping off last night a little longer."

"She wasn't that drunk. I've seen worse."

"You're right," John agreed. They'd both seen worse by one another. "She was still pretty buzzed."

"She was."

"All the pills accounted for?"

"There are some happy fish this morning, but yes they were all there."

"Really?" Claude asked, surprised.

"Yup," he said after they'd ordered coffee.

"Why?"

John shrugged. "I thought about you actually."

"Me?"

"Yeah. Melissa's not my wife, and I certainly haven't known her for years or anything to have any attachment to her beyond the base fact apparently that she is my daughter. Maybe that's why I never let myself admit I had her. I don't know. Whether I know her or not I still helped make her. I've been sending Claire money for her the past seventeen years."

"You have?"

"Yes! That surprises you?"

Had he really not told him about that? He'd told him the story twice practically between July and their month in Canada. He supposed he just assumed it was a given that child support would be part of the deal. Maybe not? He supposed he could see maybe where Claire's father could have done something like that, but Claude didn't know Mr. Standish. John was pretty sure the man wanted John to have that monthly reminder of what he'd done – and what had been done to him. Vernon's ‘mess with the bull' statement had come back to him more than a couple of times over the years. He'd messed around – and gotten caught - with the wrong man's daughter. He hadn't thought she was the wrong girl at the time.

"Well, I don't know what arrangement you two had."

"Her dad's a lawyer. Everything was written out and signed by both parties." Not that he'd seen her when he signed. Her dad (or her, which may have been the case by the time the papers had been drawn up requiring signatures John had no idea) had made sure of that. He'd wondered a time or two over the years while sending his payments to her what he would have done if he'd had the chance to talk to her.

"Huh."

"Was I really that much of a douche bag back then that you thought I'd leave someone pregnant to have the kid and do nothing?"

"I don't know the story, John. I mean I know what you told me, but I wasn't there eighteen years ago, and I know you don't like her father so I'm not sure what is bitterness. I'm not sure when you knew or what responsibility you agreed to"

"Anyway. I was thinking about Lois and nothing happened to Melissa, but it could have and it would have been entirely my fault because Sean wouldn't have thought he could get that shit from anyone else. I realized while I didn't get the full effect or anything that must be what you felt like."

"Feel. Every day, John," he said. "I see you doing that shit and I know it's going to be me that finds you when you've OD'd."

He opened his mouth to say he wouldn't do that, but Lois had probably thought she wouldn't either. She was no inexperienced user by any means. People OD'd on bad shit all of the time.

"Yeah, well, I guess it took the potential of something happening to someone other than me for me to give a shit enough to stop."

"You're stopping?"

"I just told you I flushed them down the toilet. How much more stopping can I get?"

"You flushed the stuff you had last month, too."

John shrugged.

"It wasn't like I was taking that shit every day or anything. I just needed it once in a while."

"I sleep so much better now without that shit in my system. No ups and downs. I get tired without withdrawals or getting sick."

There was that. Coming down wasn't always fun. The pick me up part was great and served its purpose well. But when you were taking something to stay awake and then something to make you sleepy it seemed sort of counterproductive. He couldn't recall one time since stopping where Claude complained about not being able to sleep or be awake enough now that he thought about it.

He caught sight of Claire and Melissa.

"They're here?"

"Yeah," John said, wondering how Claude knew that since his back was to them.

"You actually smiled. Like a real smile. I don't think I've ever seen that in all the time I've known you."

"Shut up."

"It's true." Claude turned and looked at them. "Likely the mom's not going to let you get too close if you continue."

"I know," John said.

"And you actually care that might be true."

John shrugged as they walked toward them.

"Did you eat?" Claire asked.

"No," John said. "We hadn't gotten that far. This is Claude. This is Claire and you know Melissa."

"I know Missy, but Melissa is new to me," he said, extending his hand to Claire first and then Melissa. "John tells me you have a song you wrote."

"I do," she said, blushing.

"That's great. It's good to see you can do more than play a guitar. Any jerk can do that."

"Nice," John said with a shake of his head. "You can go to hell."

"See what I mean," he said, sliding over a bit on the booth and patting the spot next to his. That left Claire with the option of sitting next to John, which John realized was probably his intent.

"What's the song about," Claude asked as John regarded Claire. She sat finally, seeming more curious about Claude's interest in Melissa than an affront or aversion to sitting next to John. He slid his arm around the back of her and leaned in a bit.

"So, you're eating together," John said. "That's a good sign, right?"

"Yeah," she said.

"Good."

"Thank you."

"I didn't do anything."

"You did. You called me. That's everything, John. Thank you."

"No sweat. Say," he said, glancing at Melissa and Claude who showed no signs of paying attention to anything but whatever songwriting process they were discussing currently. "What do you do?"

"Do?"

"Yes, you know, a job. You work, right?"

"Oh, well sure, I did."

"Did?" Had something happened that she didn't work anymore? He didn't see her losing a job, but then maybe when her husband got sick that had caused problems.

"I had a design business. When Stu was first diagnosed we had no idea what time table we were looking at so I weighed my options between taking time off and selling the company."

"Which won out?"

"I sold. I didn't want deadlines or pressure from clients distracting me from taking care of him. When it turned out that the chemo wasn't really doing anything but extending his life by a month or maybe two versus any substantial gain he chose to stop and wanted to do things instead. We traveled a lot. Melissa stayed with Mom and Dad some of the times so she didn't miss school. Sometimes they were just weekend trips wherever."

"And you could do that? Just sell it?"

"It was my company so of course I could. I suppose if the offers I had weren't in line with what I envisioned my company being worth I wouldn't have done it."

"What did you design?"

"Clothes."

"Ah. And now?"

She shrugged. "I don't have to work. The buyer I chose was very generous. If they'd known why I was selling they probably would have haggled more, knowing I wanted to sell."

"I see," he said, glancing at Melissa and Claude then.

"I still design things. It's in my blood, and who knows maybe once Melissa's in college I'll start something from the ground up again."

"You'd do that?"

"Sure. I actually liked that part of it as much as the designing. I wouldn't do it on such a large scale this time, though. I don't have to, you know. So I think I'd go with something more personal. Instead of going after Field's and Macy's I'd go after the small businesses that are owned by people like you and me."

"Huh," he said.

"You email me the demo you made of your songs," Claude said to Melissa. He tore a piece off his napkin and wrote something on it. John glanced at it, seeing Claude's personal email address on it. They each had band email addresses, which John had to practically be forced at gunpoint to check and respond to. The one he'd given her, though, was the one for friends.

"Yeah, sure," Melissa said, glancing from Claude to John and then to Claire as if she thought they were tricking her.

"When did she start writing her own stuff?" Claude asked Claire.

"When did she learn to write?" Claire asked.

"Really?" John asked.

"Yeah. She was always making stuff up."

"Impressive," John said.

"I'm going to get back to my room. You three have a good breakfast," he said. "Don't forget to send me that demo, Melissa."

"I won't," she said. John chuckled at the look on her face. She was wondering how on earth he thought she'd forget such a thing. John knew, though, school would pick up soon with finals and those college applications she filled out getting responses, and she'd get distracted with senior year stuff.

"So, where do you guys go from here?" John asked.

"Home," Melissa said.

"Yeah?" he asked, glancing from Melissa to Claire. "Wow, that's good."

"Yeah," Melissa said.

"Here," John said. "Hand me that napkin."

"Okay," Melissa said, looking a little worried at what he might do with it. He grabbed the pen Claude had used and added his phone number and email to the napkin. "I do not check my email often. Hardly ever to be honest, especially when we're on the road. I don't carry a laptop with me. You can call anytime, though."

"Really?"

"As long as your mom's cool with it, it's fine. We're staying put in the States for the most part with, I'm pretty sure some downtime coming up here. We're heading to Australia for a while, but I'm not sure when that is off the top of my head. I just know it's coming up. My phone works places like that, though."

"Wow," Melissa said. No doubt Claire wasn't nearly as impressed by that tour schedule as Claire traveled a lot. Did Melissa? She'd mentioned traveling before the husband died, but Melissa staying with the grandparents for things other than weekend trips.

"Have you been there?"

"Australia? No," she said.

Breakfast wasn't bad. They talked, mostly John listened, though as Melissa and Claire talked. However small his role was in it, they were talking because he'd called Claire. He felt pretty good about that.

"So," he said when they got back to his room. "I don't think we're getting back near this area again. We might have something in Iowa. Maybe you'd both like to come see us."

"We don't have to leave yet, do we, Mom? I didn't get to see the festival at all yesterday."

Claire sighed softly. "No, I guess not. I should call Ally and let her know to feed Scotty tonight again."

"I forgot about your dog."

"It's okay. He has a room off the garage that he can get out to the yard from and everything, but he can't feed himself."

"A room off the garage, huh?"

"Yeah. It's pretty cool," Melissa said. "It's like his own little doggy apartment. He's got a bed and toys in there with plenty of room to run around if it's raining out or something. The floors are easy to clean if he happens to have an accident, which doesn't happen with him. Princess it did when she got older. She'd forget I guess that she could get out the doggy door."

John chuckled. "I'll have to check it out sometime. Wait," he said, glancing at Claire. "You had a dog named Princess?"

"Melissa named her," Claire said with a shake of her head.

"Uh huh," he said. "If you say so."

"Can I?" Melissa asked, sounding a little shy. "Go see Sean?"

"I guess," Claire said, glancing at John who merely shrugged. He still hadn't decided what he thought about the kid after all of this. "No drinking."

"Mother!"

"Actually I think she was reading my mind because I was about to say the same thing," John said.

"Great," she said. "One time. I'm never going to live it down, am I?"

She left then and John heard her knocking on the door next to his while Claire took her cell phone out.

"Allison will be all right doing that?"

"Yeah," Claire said.

"That's nice of her. I didn't realize you two talked." Melissa had mentioned Allison, and now that he thought about it she'd called her Claire's best friend. John just hadn't realized that close of a friendship had formed between those two.

"Well, she was pretty nice actually when I was pregnant with Melissa."

"Oh," he said.

"She moved down to Champaign to be close to Andy. They lived together after our freshman year, but I was there as often as we could be."

"What did you do with Melissa after you had her?"

"Mom and Dad watched her when I went to school."

"I should have known."

"Yeah," she said, holding up a finger. She left a message for Allison and disconnected.

"What does she want to do?"

"Probably go to the carnival for a while."

"Ah."

"What are you going to Australia for?"

"To play."

"Oh, stupid question I guess."

"Not completely. I don't travel much for fun, though."

"So you've gone all these places, but never seen them?"

"Not really, no. I mean I've done a couple things. We played London and Lois dragged us to see all sorts of shit."

"Lois?"

"Claude's late wife."

"Oh," she said. "How long ago did she die?"

"Three years."

"Is he okay?"

John shrugged. "I don't really know. I think so. He's clean and everything. He doesn't talk about her much. They weren't married for a hugely long time and his first two wives gave him so much shit. He couldn't see his kids for a while after that. Two of them still won't talk to him."

"Oh," she said.

"So, I imagine there are days he'd rather be stoned so he could forget about the fact his own kids won't talk to him."

"And then you come along with yours who wants to talk to you."

"I don't think it's like that, really, I don't. You saw him at breakfast."

"He was very good to her."

"His oldest is a little younger than Melissa. Fifteen, maybe fourteen. The next oldest is a year or so younger. I know he misses them. I never thought he was a bad father, even when he was using. He just wasn't around much. Anyway, I'll let you go do your carnival thing together. Sean's room is right next to mine. You may as well complete scaring the crap out of him and go knock on his door to get her."

"Where to from here?"

"Peoria. Then St. Louis, Kansas City, Omaha, and the Quad Cities, I think."

"Why do you do so many of things in towns like this? Oktoberfest and carnivals?"

He shrugged. "We like them. I don't know. It's different than a concert. We can actually connect with fans, talk to new ones. The new ones tell their friends how cool we are and when we come back through at a venue not a carnival they buy tickets. Plus radio stations talk us up being here so we get more air play. Air play means more records sell."

"I suppose," she said.

"And, it keeps us playing. We all like to perform. We spent most of September in Canada. We'll do those towns I just named and have a break before Australia with more downtime than any of us like."

"What will you do?"

"At that point, probably close up my place in New York and spend a good amount of time at my place in Tampa."

"On the beach?"

"Yes," he said. "My place in New York is the size of a postage stamp, but I'm so seldom there I just need a place to hang my hat and shower. So it suits my needs and when I get tired of beaches and sunshine during the winter I can go up there for a weekend or whatever until I'm ready to leave again."

"Why not do that in Chicago?"

"Why would I want to do that in Chicago?"

"I suppose," she said.

She actually looked as if that answer may have bothered her. Why? He hadn't lived in Chicago in over ten years. New York suited his purposes, and his lifestyle, much better. The place in Tampa he'd bought about two years ago when they were going to have months of a break during the winter. Months in New York during the winter didn't appeal to him so he'd bought the place on a lark while vacationing down there with a girl he'd been dating at the time. She probably thought she'd hit the mother lode or something when he'd bought the place.

"Anyway, I don't mean to hold up your mother-daughter time or anything. I'm sure you're itching to make up for lost time and stuff."

"Yes. Other than a week or two she went to camp over the years this is the longest I've gone without talking to her and doing things with her. It's been awful. I hope she comes home tonight and stays for good this time. At least when she was at camp she wrote me letters. This not talking business hasn't been fun."

"Well, I'm sorry I was the cause of it."

"You weren't the cause of it, John. Without you she wouldn't even be here. I never blamed you for what has been happening between us. I'm still not sure why Stu told her those things. He was jealous of you, I guess, and so sick towards the end there."

"Well, I'm still sorry."

"Nothing to apologize for."

He glanced at the bed they'd slept on. Claire had even made it, which was something John never bothered doing when he stayed in hotels. He'd never thought of a room with just his stuff in it being empty before, but unlike Claude he'd never had a reason to have someone in a hotel room with him before last night. He didn't bring girlfriends with him because he'd never been serious enough with any of them to do that with.

He stepped up to her then, settling his hands against her hips. Fuck, he loved the way she looked at him. Even today. Likely she didn't want to look at him that way today, but she did and it still affected him the same way. He leaned down, kissing her. His hands moved from her hips to her back and lower to her ass.

"So, after the Quad Cities…"

"Yeah?"

"Would I be able to see you?"

"John."

"Is that a no?"

"It's an I don't think it's a good idea. Your life is so different than ours. Traveling weeks, months, out of the year. Women. Drugs."

"I flushed them down the toilet!"

"Yes, last night. If it was that easy to quit no one would lose jobs and marriages because they couldn't stop snorting their life away."

"I'm telling you I'm not like that."

"And if you're wrong?"

"I'm not!"

"Is that really what you want Melissa to see?"

"She knows I've been arrested."

"Does she?"

"Yes," he said.

"I'm sorry. I didn't tell her."

"I'm just asking if it's possible."

"She's in school. Remember? She'll be gone most of the day and some evenings."

"Well, I wasn't asking just to see her. It was a collective you."

"She'd still be in school."

"Well, both would be nice I guess, but I wouldn't complain if I just got some time with you. I mean, it's time. You're not working you said. I'm not asking for…"

"Except we both know what you're standing here asking me for."

"Do we?" he asked, kissing her again. She was kissing him back, too. "Would that be so bad?"

"I don't want to see her hurt."

Likely she wasn't talking just about Melissa there. He couldn't blame her he supposed.

"And you think I do? I know. I fucked up. I was so fucking pissed off, though, Claire, I didn't know which way was up there for a while after I found out what was going on."

"I know. I heard you this morning."

"I meant what I said. You were the best thing to ever walk into my life, just the timing was bad. I'd thought about after you'd gone to school seeing you at Christmas or something. A more level playing ground, and then your dad showed up. I hated the idea of you with someone else."

"You did nothing to stop me from doing that!"

"Because I didn't think you wanted me to."

"Shows what you know."

"Your father made it abundantly clear your life did not have room for me in it."

"I know. You're going to Australia and wherever else you're going. You gave her your phone number, but you'll get busy and she won't be there for you to see and think about."

"You think I'm going to forget about her? You think I've ever forgotten? No."

"Yes, that's why no one even knew she existed."

"Oh, come on," he said. She wasn't pulling away from him, though, and he wasn't letting her go so he hoped this was a conversation and not an argument. "Don't throw that at me. It hasn't hurt you over the years nobody knowing."

"I know," she said. It hadn't. He had no doubt her life, and Melissa's, would have been quite different if anyone knew.

"And you want that? People finding out?"

"That's part of my hesitation. She's just fine without throwing that at her. My parents…"

"I don't give a flying fuck about what your parents say eighteen years later, Claire. They had the ability to control me back then because I didn't know better and I was scared. I didn't have the money to fight them even if I'd wanted to. They don't have a statutory rape charge to dangle in front of me as a threat today."

"No," she said.

"I know she sought me out because of what your husband told her and stuff, but the fact of the matter is she did. You can't put the horse back in the barn. I'm not going to go back to sending you checks once a month and nothing more."

"I understand that."

"The drugs went down the toilet and will stay there. I didn't use anything in front of her and wouldn't ever do that. I am not an addict. I didn't have to flush that shit down last night or the night in July. I could have put those pills back in the container and gone about my way. You wouldn't have been the wiser."

"Sean told me this morning about the pill."

"He did?"

"Yes. Maybe he suspected you already had or would if we talked and I didn't mention he'd told me about it."

"Huh," he said.

"He assured me it wasn't for her."

"I'm still not sure I believe him."

"I'm not either."

"Why did you let her go talk to him?"

"I don't think he's going to drug her with you and me right next door to them."

"Good point," he said.

"I'll think about it," she said.

"That's all I was asking you to do! I asked if I'd be able to. I mean if you don't want to be part of that well then I guess that's up to you. I'd like it to be, but I'd work it around her being in school. It's not as if I don't know anyone else in Chicago to see if she's tied up."

"I know," she said.

"Does it bother you she's musical?"

"Bother me?"

"Yeah."

"No, it doesn't bother me. I wouldn't have encouraged it if it did. I'm glad she has something in common with you."

"Does she with you?"

"Yes. She can draw. I don't know if it'll turn into designing, but she can draw like crazy."

"Drawing and music. Your parents must be scared shitless."

Claire laughed softly at that before placing a kiss against his jaw.

"They haven't said."

"They don't have to. I'm sure they have nightmares about her slipping out of their grasp."

"She's never been in their grasp, John. They helped me, of course, but she's always been my daughter."

"Yet they're pushing her to law school."

"I've told her it's entirely up to her and that I'll support her whatever her decision is."

"Good."

"What will Claude do with her music?"

"Listen to it, and if he likes it he'll make her an offer on us recording it."

"Offer? As in money?"

"As in money."

"I'm not sure I want her to get money."

"I'm not sure you could stop her at this point, and it's better someone like Claude. He'll treat her fairly. It depends on the song. If it's something that would sound better by a woman he might make her an offer that involves her recording it."

"I'm not sure…"

"You asked what he'd do. I'm telling you."

"And if he doesn't like it?"

"Well, he's not an asshole, if he doesn't like it I think for someone like her versus a stranger sending him a demo asking him to listen to it. I think he'd offer her some advice on what she could do next time or whatever."

"She'd love that. She's comfortable playing, the writing she's shy about."

"I can't guarantee for someone not her he wouldn't be an asshole if it was bad, but I promise you if it is he'd be nice about it."

"Thank you."

"So, you leave the room here," he said, stepping away finally.

"Yes."

"Melissa has my number, I have your house number. Can I call?"

He hadn't asked permission the previous calls, but he was now. If she said no he wasn't quite sure what he'd do. Not call? He didn't like that idea, though, and he wasn't sure which bothered him more. Not talking to her or Melissa.

"Sure."

"Okay."

He tried to envision not having to work at their age. He couldn't do it. He had a nice bit saved up so he wasn't destitute. If he was smart he'd sell his place in New York because he seemed to be spending less and less time there. He'd gone there originally because the busyness appealed to him. Now when he had time on his hands he was less worried about night life than he had been ten, even five, years ago.

"Do you need help taking your stuff down?"

"No, it's only a bag."

"All right. I'll walk you down anyway I guess, say goodbye to her."

He grabbed his key from the dresser.

"You could come with us," she said.

"Really?"

"You said you didn't play tonight."

"No, we don't."

"It's up to you."

"When would Allison go by to feed your dog?"

"About five or six."

He glanced at the clock on his nightstand. That was hours from now yet, and if Allison fed him they wouldn't be in a huge hurry to leave due to a starving dog.

"Yeah, sure," he said. "Sean's going to want to go too, I bet."

"After you're done in the Quad Cities, would you bring him, too?"

"No," he said. "Does that help my chances at getting a yes out of you?"

"It might," she said.

Chapter Text

Chapter Twelve
Word Count: 3,286

November 2002

"Where are you going, John?" Billy asked when he dropped his group off at the airport so they could fly to their respective homes.

"Chicago."

"Oh," he said with a frown.

Oddly, Sean hadn't blabbed to anyone that Melissa was his daughter. John wasn't sure if that was because he didn't believe it was true or if he was scared John would beat the shit out of him if he did anything else wrong for the next little while. Regardless of the reason, no one else seemed to know who Melissa was to him. He was, for the most part, all right with that. He wouldn't have cared if they did find out, which was a new frame of mind for him. He'd spent a long while after they'd had their first hit record wondering who was going to dig up that morsel of dirt on him. No one had and he'd been glad about that. That wasn't so much the case anymore. He wasn't rushing out to tell everyone or anything, but if people asked he wasn't going to deny it any longer. (Not that anyone would ask at this point, honestly, since until now he had no family to speak of. He never acknowledged his parents. Ever. He didn't pull a Jim Morrison and claim they were dead or anything, but it was John Bender alone against the world in interviews over the years.)

He was keeping the one car through the end of the day. He'd drive to Shermer and Claire had insisted she could give him a ride to O'Hare when he flew back to New York in a few days' time. There were other people he could have hit up for rides, but he didn't bother looking any further when she'd made the offer.

"Well, have a good time, I guess," Billy said.

"Thanks, I plan on it. You don't have to look so confused. I'll be back in New York soon enough."

"Oh, I know, I just didn't think you actually liked going there."

John shrugged. "It is what it is."

He waited until everyone had their bags and everything before pulling away from the outbound unloading area. Even airports like this small town ones were different these days. Sean was not thrilled that he wasn't included in this leg of John's trip. No way in hell was he doing that.

He made pretty good time. It wasn't the most scenic drive, but at least it wasn't snowing. He pulled up at her house, pulling onto the driveway. He wasn't exactly sure what she had in mind as far as where he'd be staying while he was in town. The implication was that he'd be able to stay there, with them, but he'd made arrangements with a friend from another band who was leaving for tour in a couple of days. John would have unlimited access to his place if need be.

He had no idea why she went from not thinking seeing him after they were done in the Quad Cities changed to him being able to stay here. A change of heart? Melissa convinced her? Something else? Inability to say no even if she'd wanted to?

"You're early," she said when she opened her door.

"Uh, I am?"

"I guess I thought it would take you longer to get here."

"Oh, no," he said with a shrug. He lowered his hand to her dog, letting him sniff. He couldn't remember his name. He remembered it was male and the old dog's name was Princess. "What's his name?"

"Scotty."

"Ah," he said. "Hey, Scotty, nice to meet you."

"He was really supposed to be Stu's dog. Princess died about a year and a half ago, and I was just fine not getting another one."

"Why?"

"Oh, Melissa was going to be graduating and I didn't want the responsibility and demands of something that would force us to be home."

"I suppose," he said with a nod. It was certainly the main reason he didn't have pets or anything. No time.

"He was good company while Melissa stayed at Mom and Dad's though."

He patted the top of the Airedale's head before dropping his hand back to his side.

"I was actually just getting your room ready for you."

"Listen," he said. "I'm not sure how or why I've been invited to stay here."

"Because you have been. You need a reason?"

"Well, no, I just. That's not what I was expecting."

"You want to spend time with Melissa, right?"

"Yes," he said.

"What good would you being in town staying somewhere else be for that?"

"Well, none, I guess. I just wasn't expecting. I mean, that's not what I was asking."

"Noted. You didn't ask. I offered. Would you like to see your room now?"

"See it? Like you think I'm going to wager a complaint or something?"

She shook her head. "Well, I don't know what you had planned for today."

"This," he said. "I have nothing else to be here for."

"Melissa will like that. I'm sure she'll want to show you where she records."

"Here? She does that here?"

"She does," she said.

"Nice Mom."

"Paranoid Mom who doesn't want her having to go anywhere else with creepy people."

John chuckled. "Valid concern I imagine."

"Are you hungry or anything?" she asked once they got to his room. His room was on the other side of the house than the stairs leading to what he presumed were their bedrooms. It was a pretty nice setup.

"Nah," he said, glancing at his watch.

"I thought you didn't have anything else to do."

"I don't," he said.

"Then why do you care what time it is?"

He chuckled, stepping closer to her. "Because I'm going to kiss you and I wondered how long I had to do that until she gets home from school."

"Oh," she said.

She didn't say no so he did just as he'd said he was going to and kissed her, sliding his arms around her as he did exactly that. He groaned softly, timed almost exactly with a soft sigh on her part as she slid her arms around his neck.

He'd never been kissed like she kissed him before that day at school, or after that day if he wanted to be honest with himself. He'd sort of forgotten what kissing her felt like and did to him. He'd chalked it up to being his fault, but he realized maybe actually having feelings for the person he was kissing was the key. Her lips parted a beat behind his, allowing him entry into her mouth as he slid his hand up along her hip and side.

A soft groan as his fingertips met the underside of her breast. Hers or his he wasn't sure.

"John," she murmured.

"Relax," he whispered.

"We have lots of time." He may not have been in school for close to twenty years, but he remembered very well what time he got out every day.

"But…"

He slid his hand a bit so it was his thumb sliding along the underside of her breast, and up a bit to a peak.

"Not fair," she whispered and he chuckled softly.

"Is, too," he murmured, returning to kissing her.

He moved his hand only long enough to use it to reach under her shirt, returning to its place against her breast. She hissed softly at that, but pressed herself into his hand so he took that to mean she was okay with this. He pushed the cup away so he could touch her without it in the way.

"God, I'd forgotten what real breasts were like," he murmured. He couldn't remember the last time he'd been in a position to touch real ones.

She sighed and pulled away a bit at that.

"Relax. It's a compliment."

"I'm sure to someone it is," she said.

"I didn't say it to someone. I said it to you."

She pushed on his chest and he stepped back.

"I can't do this."

Fuck.

"Do what? We were kissing. Last I checked it wasn't illegal."

"It should be illegal for me to do that with you."

He smirked a bit at that.

"I can't do it, knowing the life you live in is so different."

"I'm sorry. How did we get there from here?"

"Men I know don't think about real breasts being an anomaly."

"Well, maybe not, but…"

"I just can't. I shouldn't have kissed you back."

"You did, though!"

"I know," she said. "It's just you do that so well."

"Well, let me do it well a little longer. Trust me I've been thinking about doing little else since I saw you in Kankakee and what we just did here wasn't nearly long enough."

She drew completely away then and walked to his door.

"What?" he asked with a frown. What had he said wrong? It'd been a compliment. He thought it was anyway. Didn't women want to hear they were thought about? He hadn't said he'd thought about having sex with her again. Not to say that thought hadn't crossed his mind, but he didn't care so much about that happening as he had what they'd just done. That was unusual for him. He wasn't interested in kissing most of the time.

"You can bring your things in here. If you have laundry or anything I can show you where the washer and dryer are. Missy and I can take you to return the rental if you still wanted to do that today."

"Okay," he said, knowing he sounded as confused as he felt. That was it? She wasn't even going to tell him why she was just leaving? Why? What the fuck just happened?

He got his things from the rental car, pausing at the kitchen on his way back in to watch her. She didn't look at him, busy doing something. Or pretending to be busy doing something. Missy got home about the time he'd found the washer and dryer. They weren't hard to find from the kitchen.

She wasn't alone either. There were three other girls with her, which he had no idea what to do with. Had she brought them home with her to avoid talking to him? She'd introduced him to them as John. He saw a flicker of recognition by one of the girls, but she didn't say anything. And then they were gone, down to the basement she'd said to work on a project that was due on Monday.

"Is she mad at me, too?" he asked her. He was watching her do something in the kitchen. He'd offer to help, but all these years later he still couldn't do much more than boil noodles.

"I wouldn't know."

"So, her bringing them here wasn't to avoid having to talk to or see me?"

"No, I don't think she knew you were coming here."

"I'm sorry. What?"

Claire turned then, wiping her hands off on a towel.

"I wasn't going to tell her you were going to be here and then have you change your mind for whatever reason and not show up."

"So you just didn't tell her."

"Yes," she said simply.

He nodded a bit, letting that sink in. He could get good and pissed at her, except he couldn't really blame her he supposed. He had absolutely no track record for her to base decisions like that on, except for the fact he hadn't looked her up after that day at school.

"Fair enough. Is that why you wouldn't…"

"No," she said simply and walked away again. "I didn't realize she was bringing friends home with her, so I can take you to return the rental if you want."

"Sure," he said. "There's one nearby?"

"Yes," she said.

"Great. I'm ready whenever you are."

He got into her car once he'd returned his rental and gotten things all squared away. He reached over then, turning the keys in the ignition to shut the car off and taking them out.

"Hey."

"Now that I have your attention. I'd really like to talk about what happened in my room earlier."

"Nothing happened. Or at least not as much as you were expecting to happen."

"I wasn't expecting anything to happen! I wanted to kiss you because I'd really enjoyed doing it last month. Is that a crime?"

"I can't believe I fell for your lines!"

"What lines, Claire?"

"That. What you just said wanting to kiss me."

"I did! It wasn't a line! What the fuck makes you think it was a line."

"You and your trail of women without real breasts."

"Jesus. It was a comment, intended to be a compliment about the fact yours are very real and very nice."

"Right. Well, I offered you to stay at the house. There was no payment due with that offer."

"Payment? You think I kissed you out of…" Fuck. He reached for the handle to open his door.

"Hey, you have my keys! You can't just leave," she said just as he shut the door. He walked around the car to her side, opening the door.

"Get out."

"I will not."

"Just get the fuck out of the car, Claire."

"Why would I do that?"

"Because I asked you to and since it's that or drag you out and I'd rather not have the police called on me in this town anytime soon I'm hoping you'll get out as I'm asking you to do."

He stood there, waiting. She took her sweet time about it but eventually she slid out of her seat. He settled his hands against her cheeks and kissed her. He didn't wait for her to respond before deepening it. He wasn't sure there was a way to kiss that absolutely crazy idea out of her head, but he was sure giving it a try.

"I don't know what the fuck you think, Claire, or how good of an actor you think I am. You think that's fake? That it's out of some obligation? You think I'm kissing you out of anything but a real need to do that with you?"

She nibbled on her lower lip a bit and he groaned softly, reaching down to kiss the spot.

"Now you're teasing me," he whispered.

"No," she said.

He chuckled a bit.

"I just. God, John. I can't compete…"

"Who the fuck is asking you to compete against anyone?"

"Your world is just too different than mine."

"It can't be that different."

"What do you mean?" she asked, glancing at him then. Finally, she looked at him and for the first time her eyes showed maybe she liked him. He was betting she wasn't sure she could or wanted to trust him.

"You designed clothes. You had to have worked with models and all sorts of people over the years."

"Yes."

"So, don't lay that shit on me."

"I don't compare my models' breasts."

He snorted softly at that. "I wasn't comparing. It was an observation. And if I was comparing. You'd win."

She scoffed then. "Right."

"No one else has ever distracted me enough not to wear a condom."

"Shut up," she whispered, blushing and he chuckled.

"Ever," he said simply. He kissed her again because somehow he didn't want her focusing on that too much. That could lead to questions he didn't want to answer. Not that he was ashamed of who he was or what he'd done. He wasn't.

"Melissa," she whispered.

"Is not going to miss us for an extra few minutes."

She sighed softly then and kissed him back. He groaned a bit as she parted her lips first, inviting him in. He took the invitation, lowering a hand from her cheek to her waist and drawing them closer together.

"People…"

"I don't care," he murmured.

"I live here!"

He groaned a bit, but drew away.

"Sorry," he said softly, kissing her jaw.

"I don't think there's anyone with a camera sitting here on the off chance you return your rental car here or anything, but I still shop here. Our daughter goes to school here."

"I know."

"Can we go home now?"

"Are you done being mad at me?"

"I wasn't mad at you, John. I just don't understand."

"Me neither. I didn't realize I had to understand kissing, though. Certainly not where you're concerned at any rate. And before you go and get mad at me again for saying something inappropriate, I just meant whatever it was I liked about you that day is still there. I wanted to kiss you that day, I want to today. I didn't think that was a bad thing. I don't understand it either."

"My husband only died months ago."

"That didn't stop you from going on a blind date," he said.

"How could you possibly know that?"

"Your daughter told me about it when we talked on the phone before my trip to Canada."

"Oh," she said.

"You seeing that guy? Is that what has you upset?"

"I've gone out with him," she admitted.

"So you can go out with someone months after he died, but can't kiss someone? Forget someone. Me."

"I haven't kissed him like that!"

"That's immensely good to hear."

She narrowed her eyes a bit, regarding him. She hadn't drawn away from him yet and he wasn't of the mind to let her go until she did. "Why?"

"Well, it sounded like that night I talked to Melissa was your first date."

"It was."

"If you were already to the point of kissing him like that that would mean I couldn't look forward to more of that."

"And you want to?"

He leaned in again to kiss her. "Yes," he whispered before slanting his lips over hers again.

She didn't believe him. He could see it in her eyes. There was nothing he could do to make her believe it. He supposed he could sort of understand where her doubt was coming from, but he had absolutely nothing to gain by coming here and making out with her.

"We need to get back or she's going to wonder what happened to us."

"We happened to us," he whispered, kissing her jaw. "Is she going out tonight?"

"I'm sure she is, there's a football game. Why?"

"Of course," he said. "Just wondering."

"I don't believe you."

He reached, touching her lower lip with his thumb. She kissed it, eyes fluttering closed as she ran her tongue over the tip of it.

"I was thinking it might be fun to do that with my night."

"Fun?"

"Yes. It's been a very long time since I've sat at someone's house and made out with them."

"Me, too," she said.

He arched a brow at that, but didn't ask because he absolutely didn't want to know the answer. He didn't want to picture her sitting at home making out with her husband or anyone else. There was no justifiable reason for him not wanting to hear it, he just didn't.

"I look forward to it then."

"She'll be coming back home."

"We better be sure to make good use of the time we get then."

"I thought you wanted to see her…"

"I do. I told you it was a collective you. She has her friends there and is going to the football game. I hope she'll show me her recording area tomorrow and everything."

"Okay," she whispered.

He slid her keys into her hand. "Sorry I stole your keys."

She laughed softly, clutching them. "I'm not."

"No?"

"No," she said. He opened her door for her then before going over to his side to get in.

Chapter Text

Chapter Thirteen
Word Count: 4,882

"Who was the guy at your house today?" Trish asked

"Why?" Melissa asked.

"Just wondering if your mom's dating someone already. Your dad hasn't been gone that long."

"He wasn't my dad," Melissa said quickly.

"Sorry. I forgot," Trish said.

"He looked familiar," Stacey said.

"You think so, too?" Trish asked. "I thought he was pretty cute."

"Ew," Melissa said.

"You don't think so?" Trish asked. "I wish I could remember who he looks like."

If Melissa had known John was going to be there she would never have brought her friends home or make plans to go to the game tonight. Had he just shown up? She doubted that for some reason.

She hadn't heard from Claude yet with the information and demo she'd sent him, but they'd been on the road since he'd told her to send her stuff so she was trying not to get paranoid he'd hated her music. She'd made the demos in the privacy of her own home studio not really planning on anyone ever hearing them. The desire to make them, though, wouldn't go away.

"I think he's our parents' age."

"Your parents' age maybe," Trish said. Trish's parents were about fifteen years older than her mom and dad. She wasn't even the youngest. Her parents had just waited to have kids.

Unlike her parents.

She still couldn't believe they'd come to Shermer this summer. Last summer she would have been so close to him with no clue. Part of that was her fault maybe. She hadn't asked questions as she got older. Her mom's answers as a kid of her dad not being here sufficed and she'd never really thought to challenge them.

After Stu told her his name she'd gone to the school library and looked through yearbooks from when her mom was in school. He wasn't in one of the yearbooks. Anywhere. She'd almost thought Stu had lied to her, except she didn't think he'd really do that. He'd always been nice to her and treated her as if she was his own daughter for the short time he was able to do that.

Trish was familiar with Shooterz. They were, given their age, a band that her parents liked well enough growing up. It wasn't through her mom she'd even known the band existed. There'd been a hit song of theirs years ago that Melissa remembered her mom not liking. She'd disliked it to the point of turning it off anytime it came on the radio, which is why it stood out to her. Her mom wasn't usually that picky or opinionated about music. She'd certainly survived Melissa's love of the Backstreet Boys, Boys II Men, and the Spice Girls. (Melissa had to admit she still kind of liked the Spice Girls.)

She'd listened to the song for the first time in years after Stu had told her who her dad was, and she wondered if he hadn't been honest to her about songwriting. She'd looked on the liner notes for the name of who'd written the song, but it had been credited to the band as a whole as they usually were. She didn't get the impression they'd dated or even been involved with one another so she had no idea why she thought that song was about her mother, but she did listening to it then and still did today.

The game was kind of a bore. Shermer blew the other school away.

"You're not coming to Denny's?" Trish asked.

"No, I'm going to get home. Guest and all," she said with a shrug. She tried not to be obvious about the fact she wanted to get home. Trish, like it or not, was like a bloodhound if she sensed gossip. Melissa did not want to be the focal point of her gossip anytime soon.

Scotty wasn't out, so she took that to mean he and her mom were up in bed. Scotty spent the night with one or the other of them. Melissa knew her mom hadn't wanted another dog and when Stu got so sick toward the end there care for Scotty sort of fell to Melissa. She certainly didn't mind because she knew her mom had more important things to deal with. He hadn't wanted to die in a hospital, so her mom had done so much toward the end there. They were lucky Scotty was so smart because a puppy on top of all of that was a lot of work, even with Melissa helping.

She knocked lightly on John's door. If he was sleeping maybe she wouldn't disturb him.

He opened it a few minutes later.

"Hey," he said.

"Hi," she said.

"I was wondering if you weren't talking to me or something."

"No," she said, ducking her head a bit at that. "Just one of my friends likes to tell anyone who'll listen stuff that's none of their business."

"I remember that phenomenon very vividly despite it being a long time ago."

"I just didn't want her to think you were anyone important."

"As long as you think I'm someone important that's cool."

"I do!"

He chuckled a bit at that.

"I was teasing. I'm not, really, but thank you for saying so. So, who won the game?"

"We did."

"Still tearing through the opposition then."

"I guess. Did you follow football?"

"No! Not Shermer football anyway. I didn't have any choice in my house but to watch the Bears if my father was home and sober enough to remember it was Sunday. So, I know the sport and everything, but I had little to no school spirit."

"I remember you talking about that," she said, glancing at his arm.

"Yeah, well. What can I do for you? I mean, did you need something? Or were you just seeing if I was still here?"

"I don't know. I felt sort of bad I couldn't talk to you earlier. I didn't know you were going to be here or I would never have brought them home."

"You had a project, though."

"Yes, but, we could have worked on it tomorrow at someone else's house."

"Well, I'm here for a couple of days so it's all right. I think your mom didn't tell you because she was worried my plans would change and I'd end up in Boise or something."

"So, you spent the night with my mom?"

"Uh, well, yeah. She took me to turn my rental car. I guess you two are going to take me to the airport when I do leave. We had dinner. You know."

"Have many dinners at home on Friday night?"

"No, never," he said. "I can't remember the last time honestly. Way younger than you."

She had no idea what to really say to him. He didn't look like she'd woken him, but it was after eleven o'clock. Her mom was rarely up this late. Then her mom didn't play concerts either night after night. He was probably used to being awake this late.

"So," he said.

"I should let you get to sleep."

"You could. I'm awake, though. You're awake. What's on your mind?"

"Honestly?"

"That'd be nice, yes, because I don't know how to read your mind."

"I'd like to play with you."

"Come again?"

She pointed at his guitar case behind him. He glanced behind him and saw what she was pointing at.

"Oh, yeah, sure. We can do that. We'll probably wake your mom, though."

"No, we won't," she said. "Grab your guitar and follow me."

"All right," he said, looking very much as if he enjoyed hearing her say that. Maybe he did.

She led him to the basement and her studio down there. It was soundproof even so she could play to her heart's content down here and never wake her mother.

"This is really nice," he said, setting his guitar case down as he took it all in.

"I'm sure it's nothing compared to what you're used to."

"Don't sell it short. Your mom obviously went all-out for you."

"I think she just didn't want to hear me play at all hours of the night."

John laughed a bit at that. "I understand that completely."

"Where did you play?"

"At my house when my parents weren't around as much as I could. Otherwise, wherever I could. A guitar isn't the most portable of instruments. I mean, it is, but it's not like a flute. I didn't have a car so I couldn't take it everywhere with me. I tried, though."

"Oh," she said.

She watched him as he walked around, looking closer at everything.

"You going to send your demo to Claude?"

"I did," she said.

"Good," he said.

"Will he really listen to it?"

"He will. He wouldn't have told you he would if he wouldn't."

"Because you're my dad."

"Sure, that may be. Does it matter why he's doing it? If you're good and it gets you in the door, that's all that matters. It's not like anyone but Claude is going to know that's who you are. Your last name isn't the same as mine."

She'd sort of wondered ever since Stu told her who her father was why her last name was Standish and not Bender. The only lawyers she knew were her grandfather and uncle. From what Stu said they were no fans of her father, so she'd kept her questions to herself.

"Would you listen to it?"

"If you wanted me to, sure. As of right now, it's between you and Claude. I'd be flattered if you wanted me to."

"And if I'm not good?"

"Well, he'll be honest, Melissa. He's not going to lie to you, but he won't tell you to go dive off a cliff or anything. He'll tell you what he liked and worked and what didn't."

"Okay," she said.

"Which one do you like to play best?" he asked, gesturing to her guitars. She had three.

"Depends on what I'm playing and the sound I'm going for," she said with a shrug. "Overall, though," she said, stepping next to him and pointing at her favorite.

"Can I?" he asked.

"Yeah, sure," she said. "I wanted to play with you, though."

"Well, you have three others to choose from here."

"There's two."

He nodded his head a bit. "I don't know about you, sweetheart, but I count four guitars in the room right now."

"It is, but he was yours, too. Well, I guess great, right? That's how it works. You're not going to hurt it. Playing it when I was growing up I'd wished my dad had taken one second to play it for me."

"Then why don't you play it for me?"

"You've heard me play it, I heard you play it, too, I realize. I like playing new guitars. I mean if you don't want to. I mean, it's old and …"

"No," she said.

"I can admit I liked seeing you play it," he said softly. He was tuning the guitar he'd chosen, and tried to make what he'd said sound casual but she suspected somehow it wasn't.

"Honestly, I prefer acoustic to electric."

"Me, too," he admitted. "Unfortunately, acoustic tends not to sell more records." He shrugged.

She already knew he preferred acoustic because when he'd let her play for him in July he'd chosen this guitar over the one he used for shows. She opened the case and regarded the picks that were there. He always seemed to have one in his hand, she'd noticed. These, though, in the case were … The color of her mom's favorite nail polish. She strayed once in a while, tried new things, but as long as Melissa could remember her mother wore this shade. It wasn't a true pink, wasn't really a mauve either. She'd seen plenty of guitar picks since she'd been playing, but never one this color.

She wore pretty similar colors, too, since she had the same hair and skin tone as her mom.

"So, you've never been married?" she asked.

"No," he said, glancing at her curiously. "You think my answer changed on that since July?"

"You said you had no kids, too."

He took a seat in a chair, holding the guitar and she saw a lot of her in that movement. She always thought she was like her mother. They looked alike and she was who raised her, but she supposed there was something to the whole nature versus nurture thing. Her mom wasn't musical. She drew, which some would argue was creativity just different than music so not a leap that Melissa had that same creativity just in a different form. She sat like him, though. Maybe there were only so many ways to sit while holding a guitar.

"It was the easiest answer. It's not like it came up in every interview I've given."

"A few."

He arched a brow, regarding her a bit with those words.

"Sure," he said. "I think you get to be my age and unlike Claude I don't have a string of ex-whatevers and kids to support the questions get asked. I had one reporter ask me, off the record, if I was gay."

"Really?"

"Yeah." He shrugged.

"I can't imagine anyone thinking that."

"I can't either, but it's a fickle business, and there are people who are that who are very good at hiding it because it may affect record sales. We're all in this business to make a buck."

"Serious girlfriends?"

"Define serious?"

"I think we'd define serious pretty differently. My idea of a serious boyfriend is Sean right now."

John grimaced a bit at that.

"You don't like that idea?"

"I think you should be careful. I'm not entirely sure I trust him."

"He told me that he took something from you."

"He did?" John asked.

"Yeah."

"I threw all of that shit away. I haven't touched it since that night. I didn't have it for extracurricular purposes either. I had it because it's hard sometimes to function. You're up all night and then you have to travel all the next day and then you're expected to go on that night. He shouldn't be talking to you about my business, likely I shouldn't be either."

"That's why you don't trust him, though?"

"Yes. I'm not convinced he took what he took for himself and not for you. He didn't know you were my daughter until after the fact. He shouldn't have been giving you alcohol either."

"I honestly didn't think I'd get that drunk."

He chuckled softly.

"Well, it got you and your mom actually talking again I guess and you staying here full-time again."

"It did."

"So, I guess it worked out all right."

"Girlfriends?"

"I thought you wanted to play."

"I do, but you're going to leave and I don't know when I'll see you again."

"I gave you my phone number."

"I'm not sure these are things I want to talk to you about over the phone."

"And past girlfriends is something you want to know about?"

She shrugged. She wasn't really sure. She just wanted to know the answer.

He nodded a bit, plucking one of the strings on the guitar he held. In the light and with the way his hair moved she almost thought she saw a hickey on his neck, but he hadn't had one earlier in the day so she was obviously seeing things. "My longest girlfriend was fourteen months. Most of them don't last much longer than six maybe nine. The last one didn't even last four."

"Why?"

He snorted softly. "I met her right before I met you. I've always been okay with the no wives or kids thing. Like I said, just an easier answer. I got back after seeing you and just felt as though I was lying to her. I wasn't sure how to go back and undo it. So I just told her I couldn't see her anymore."

"You'd told her you didn't have kids?"

"No! But how do I over three months into it suddenly tell her about you? And that days before was the first time I'd ever seen you? I didn't think it'd go over very well so I just said nothing about you. And if I did tell her and then we broke up there was always the risk if it was a bad breakup she'd tell people. That may not bother me so much. I don't care. I mean if people find out I'm not going to deny it or anything. I'm not, like ashamed of you or anything. However, that may be more than what you and your mom want right now. Claude and Sean know they're to keep it under wraps for now until I know what your mom wants me to do about it. I don't want to upset your life either. Then there's your grandparents. I don't think there's anything they can do this far into it. You're almost eighteen, but they made it abundantly clear they'd go after me with all they could to keep me from you."

"Oh," she said. "No other kids?"

"No!"

"You don't want any more?"

"I never wanted one! I mean, no offense to you. I just didn't have the best example growing up so that was not something I ever planned on doing. You've turned out okay, but I've spent a lot of time thinking since July on what you might have been like with any influence by me. I don't know how I would have reacted to crying babies or whatever. My dad didn't so well," he shrugged. "As much as I am still not happy with the way it all went down your grandparents had your best interest when they did what they did."

"I know," she said. She knew that. She didn't know the details. Stu had given her some, but he wasn't there so didn't know them all. She'd never forget seeing him without a shirt that morning in his room. She'd never been around anyone who'd been abused.

"Can we play now?" he asked and she laughed softly.

"Yeah," she whispered. "Sorry."

"No need to apologize. It's just late and if I'm going to be up this late I'd much rather play music than think about that shit."

"I understand."

"Not that you're shit. You absolutely aren't, but growing up and stuff."

"I get it, thanks for being honest."

"I have nothing to gain by lying to you, so you can count on me being honest."

"One last question?"

He sighed.

"Yeah?"

"Did you love my mom?"

"I never really got the chance to figure out that's how I felt, but yeah. I meant what I said. She was the best thing to ever happen to me and the idea of seeing her and you happy with someone else really bothered me."

"She was never serious about anyone until Stu. She dated, I guess. I never met anyone but him, though."

"She mentioned that, yeah."

"Really?"

"Yeah. I came here after I figured out who you were while we were in town in July."

"Oh," she said. It was her turn to pluck one of the strings, grabbing one of the picks. He scowled a bit, and likely knew what had given her the idea of asking him if he loved her mom.

"So, what are we playing?" he asked.

"Oh, I don't know."

"You're the boss. This was your idea. You must have had something in mind," he said.

"Well, sure."

"Then, let's go."


***

John glanced up when the door opened.

"There you guys are," Claire said.

He put a finger up to his mouth and gestured with his head to a sound asleep Melissa on the couch in a corner. It was actually a pretty nice setup down here. Not state of the art as far as the equipment itself, but clearly this wasn't the first time she'd fallen asleep down here working on stuff.

"Oh," she said. She came and sat next to him, glancing at what he was doing. "I'd forgotten you write."

He snorted. "I've dabbled. I don't think I'm very good at it, but I can."

"How long has she been asleep?"

"About an hour maybe," he said, glancing at his watch.

"Looks like you guys had a party down here."

"She was hungry. I guess she didn't eat dinner so we ordered a pizza."

"I slept through that?"

"Must have. We told him to knock on the door instead of ring the bell and just hung out up there for about ten minutes from the time they said it'd be delivered until he got there. I haven't had Chicago pizza since July so it was no hardship ordering it for her."

"Oh," she said. "You didn't have to. I can pay you back."

"Don't be ridiculous. It was a pizza. It was no big deal."

"You're drinking root beer?"

"That was her drink of choice for the night."

"Yeah, she still likes it better than Coke or Pepsi."

"I haven't had anything stronger than Coke since that night in my room."

"Alcohol, too?"

He shrugged. "I told you I'm not an addict."

"I just wasn't thinking you meant all of it."

"You asked me to take a look at what kind of example I'd set. That night made me do it a little faster than maybe I was ready to do it, but I did."

She picked up one of the picks Melissa had used from his case. John would bet a million dollars that those picks were where those questions came from about marriage, girlfriends, and kids.

"How long have you had these?"

"About the time I moved out of my parents' house."

"And no one's commented on the color of your picks?"

"They're my personal picks. I don't use them to perform with so no one's seen them. Until Sean saw them last month in my room. He noticed their similar color to Melissa's nails."

"They are."

"Yours, too," he said, running a fingertip over one of them on the hand holding the pick.

"I haven't changed much. It works."

"I liked it," he said with a shrug.

"Really?"

"Really."

"What are you writing?"

"She had a song she'd written but no music to put to it. We worked on how she thought it should sound, so now I'm writing it down."

"Just like that?"

"That's usually how it works. Yes."

"Did she wake you up?"

"No, I was still awake when she got home."

"Oh."

"I thought she was you coming back to see me."

"What time did she get home?"

"A little after eleven."

"I thought she'd be out a lot later than that. She usually is on football game nights."

"I had my shirt back on and everything," he whispered.

"Good," she said, blushing and he chuckled softly before leaning in to kiss her. "I didn't even hear her come in."

"Well, if you want to sleep that well again tonight you know where to find me."

"You shouldn't say that."

"Why not?"

"She's going to hear you!"

"She's asleep and we're whispering. Besides why are you worried about her hearing that but not her seeing me just kiss you?"

"You shouldn't do that either."

He chuckled and placed his hand over hers still holding the pick.

"I let her play my guitar again."

"Really?"

"Yeah. I kind of like seeing her play it. She doesn't look like me or anything, but it makes me think back to being that age and meeting Claude, Billy, and X."

"Whatever happened to him?"

"He quit a few years in, thought he could make a go of it on his own and didn't. Last I saw him he was waiting tables at some Friday's type place in Times Square."

"Wow."

John scoffed.

"You asked me why we play all of these shows. That's why. Claude, Billy, and I at least we know we're just one step away from being like Xavier. We don't want that so we play any gig that comes our way and try to sock enough away for when our records don't sell as well anymore."

"And you've done that?"

"To this point. I'm thinking of selling my place in New York."

"Why?"

"I don't need it anymore, really. I liked the nightlife the city had to offer when I first landed there. Now, though, I find myself not needing it as much. I still like it, but it doesn't call to me like it used to. I know that probably means I'm growing up or something."

She shrugged. "So, just Tampa then?"

"I guess. That's where I'm going after I leave here. Well, I'll stop in New York for a couple of days, but then I'll head there. Say," he said.

"Yeah?"

"Why don't you two look at coming down there after Christmas?"

"John…"

He turned a bit, glancing at Melissa a bit to make sure she was still sleeping before he reached to touch Claire's cheek.

"You have better New Year's Eve plans, Princess. That guy's already asked?"

"No! I'm just not sure that's a good thing to do."

"I've seen where you live. Maybe you'd like to see where I live. And the beach is right outside. You can't tell me she wouldn't love that."

"She would," Claire said, biting her lower lip as she had done yesterday. It gave him the same thought as yesterday, too, and he acted upon it the same way.

"I would, too," he whispered.

"I wouldn't sleep with you."

"I didn't ask you to. There's plenty of space for both of you."

"Plenty, huh?"

"Yes. It belonged to some former Buccaneers player so is pretty spacious."

"Oh."

"He got traded in a pretty nasty parting of the ways so he sold the place for a song just to have it off his hands." He had no idea why he'd bought it. He had more space than he'd ever use, but he supposed it was the coming from nothing thing that drove him to pursue it. "Melissa could see my recording studio."

"You're serious?"

He shrugged. "Why not? Have you had any time off since your husband died?"

"I don't work!"

"That's not what I mean, and you know it. Time away from the everyday grind. A vacation. You went on trips with him you said, but that couldn't have been easy either. Going on trips knowing you were going because he was sick and dying."

"No," she admitted.

"So, take a vacation. She's off from school, I'm not asking you to pull her from classes or anything."

"No," she said. "I'll think about it."

"She could bring a friend."

"What?"

He shrugged. "Maybe they'd go out a night or two and leave us alone again. I liked being alone with you last night," he said, trailing his thumb along her lower lip before kissing her again.

"I'm not going to ask her friend to come with us so that you can…"

"We can…"

"I don't know that she'd have a friend she'd want to bring with."

"Yeah, she mentioned that. There must be someone."

"I'll see."

"She asked me if I had wives or girlfriends, more kids," he said.

"Well, I'm sure she has a lot of questions."

"Yes. I can imagine. Do you want to know my answer to that?"

"I know your answer to that."

He laughed softly. "So you want to hear what we worked on?"

"She'll wake up."

"Guitars are portable," he said.

"Well, then sure, I'd love to. She doesn't usually let me see or hear things she writes."

"Well, I'll just let her know I'm looking for an objective opinion on whether what I wrote goes with her lyrics."

"I'm sure it's fine."

"I wrote a song about you once," he admitted.

"I know," she said softly.

"How?"

She shrugged. "I knew. I know your music, John. Your bands I mean. I knew that song hadn't been written by Claude."

"Yeah, I wrote it years before it was released. Our label kept telling us it didn't fit. Once we had a few successful records, one of them with two multi-platinum songs on it, under our belt we insisted because Claude and I both thought it would sell."

"It did pretty well if I recall."

"It did."

"I hated it," she admitted.

"Me, too," John said with a shrug. "It begged to be written, though. And that's why I don't like to write. I don't like what comes out. Good thing about having no personal life to speak of, no one would ever believe that song came from me."

She laughed softly, pressing her cheek against his hand. "Let me hear it," she said.

"Lead the way," he said, grabbing his guitar and the papers he'd been writing on as well as the pencil. "She's not going to wake up and freak out I'm gone, is she? I don't know where her room is or anything or I would have carried her up there."

"She's a little big for that."

"I would've done it if I knew where to go."

"She'll be fine," she said.

"All right, you're the mom."

"I am," she said.

Chapter Text

Chapter Fourteen
Word Count: 4,514

"What is that?" Billy asked.

"What do you mean?" John asked.

"I mean, I know what it is. It's a laptop. What is it doing with your stuff?"

"I bought one before we left," he said with a shrug.

"Get out of here."

Everyone except Sean and Claude were in on that statement. Neither of them seemed surprised. Claude would probably know the reason behind the laptop. Sean wasn't surprised because John had taken him along to buy it. He knew nothing about computers and had no real desire to change that, but being in Australia for a month email was certainly a better option to communicate with people who were twelve or so hours behind him.

"All right, wise asses. The world isn't ending or anything."

"I think this might be one of the signs. What happened to if anyone needs to get in touch with you they'll leave a message?"

"Fuck. You guys are acting as if I murdered someone. I bought a laptop."

"Yes, but you don't even check your email unless we practically force you to at gunpoint."

"So, I'm starting to check it. We're going to be gone for over a month I figured it was about time."

"Okay," Noel said.

"If you say so," Jazmin said.

"Can we go up to our rooms now? Is that okay? You want me to turn it on and prove it's real or something?"

"No, no," Noel said.

"Thank you."

John wasn't surprised to answer the door and see Claude standing there. He stepped aside, letting him in. They had the night to themselves and would be playing tomorrow night.

"So, laptops huh?"

"Shut up."

"No, I'm not giving you shit. That's cool. Is it for Melissa?"

"Yes."

"Mom, too?"

"Shut up," John said.

"I'll take that as a yes."

"They might be coming to see me after Christmas."

"They, huh? Interesting. And the laptop is for?"

"Being able to communicate. I don't want to be inaccessible for a month if either of them has questions and find out those questions led to them not coming."

"What's the mom going to think of your house?"

"I don't know."

"You haven't told her about it?"

"Nope," he said. He shrugged. "What am I supposed to do? Describe it to her?"

"Well, no, but she might be expecting a house."

"Not my problem," John said.

"So no effort to impress her with your success?"

"No, that's not what I want to impress her with."

"But you do want to impress her?"

"I'd like to try. Another reason I bought the laptop is I am waiting on some information from a lawyer our lawyer referred me to."

"About?"

"Making sure there's nothing eighteen years later her parents can go after me for."

"She sought you out."

"I realize that, but she didn't ask me to go to their house or invite them to come spend New Year's with me."

"You two got along when you were there?"

"Yeah, well enough."

"Melissa's not getting a brother or sister in the near future, is she?"

"No! Not that well."

Claude laughed at that.

"Not from lack of trying?" he asked.

"Not really."

"Really?"

"No, my goal was not to get her into my bed with our daughter in the same house."

"I'm kind of proud of you."

John snorted. "Not to say we didn't get reacquainted with kissing."

"Kissing is a lost art. Maybe it's good, the distance."

"Why?"

"You two will actually have to, like, communicate."

"That would be why I got the laptop, so the ability is there."

"So, she responded to my offer," Claude said.

"Really?"

"She didn't tell you?"

"No," John said. "I told her it was between you two."

"I told her I'd really like to record it with her. She's got a nice sound, fresh. I think if we pay her and let someone mainstream record it that it will lose that."

"Okay."

"She wants to be credited with your name," he added.

"I'm sorry, what?"

"She didn't tell you that?"

"No! Why?"

"I think she's worried about being connected to her mother. Her life there. Her friends finding out."

"I think using my name will ensure that happens. Don't you? I mean, if she performs it her friends will see her and wonder why she's using a different name."

"But there is no Melissa Bender, right?"

"No," John said. "And as far as I know my name is not on her birth certificate. You'd have to confirm that with Claire."

"Claire, huh. I guess I didn't know her name."

"You did, too, you just haven't paid attention. Claire. Claire Standish."

"I know. I'm giving you shit. She told me her mom's name and I did some research when she said she'd like to keep the Standish name out of it."

"Yeah, her grandfather's a pretty big lawyer. They want her to become a lawyer so I'm sure she doesn't want them to know she's doing this."

"No, not her grandfather. I mean, sure I found plenty on him. I understand what you're saying about them. I don't get the impression she cares because her mother doesn't care. You've got a computer now, use it. Google her mother."

"Why would I do that?"

Claude chuckled a bit, patting John on the back.

"Because that's what you do when you want to find out information without asking directly."

"Why am I doing that on Claire?"

"Because you might learn some things."

"Like what?"

"I don't know. Find out what she's been up to the past eighteen years."

"I'm not spying on her."

"It's not spying if it's out there for anyone to find."

"I guess."

"I think she believes she'll be able to stay anonymous if she does that."

"Tell her to make up a name then."

"You don't want her to use your name?"

"I didn't say that, Claude, just that it seems using my name would lead to piquing people's interest. If she's trying to be discreet and not garner attention I'd think using anything but one of our last names would be best."

"And if she just wants to use your name?"

"I'd clear it with her mother first. I'm not making that decision. It was a good song?"

"It was," Claude said.

"She was worried."

"I admit I listened to it a little quicker than I would have if it was something just randomly sent to me."

"I know. I appreciate it."

"She said you two wrote a song together while you were there."

"We did."

"You have it on you?"

"I do," he said.

"Anything we can use?"

"Not really. Not really our style."

"Would you record it with her?"

John shrugged. "I don't know. She hasn't asked. If she did, sure."

"Her grandparents would love that."

"I know, right? It probably won't happen anyway."

"Why not?"

"It was just for fun, something to do while we were playing. You know how that goes. Not everything you write is usable."

"Sure. Well, I'll let you go, I guess. You going to email her and let her know where we are."

"I might."

Claude smirked then. "That's kind of sweet."

"Shut up."

"You bet."

"Hey," John said.

"Yeah?"

He took the laptop out of the case and handed it to him. "Help me set it up to use?"

Claude laughed then. "Yeah, sure. It's not that hard."

"Says you."

He left once he'd set it up so John could use the laptop to his heart's content. He hated computers. It wasn't technology he wasn't fond of. Clearly, technology allowed him to have a successful career. It was the immediacy. The need for people to have access to anyone right there and then. He didn't like it. It really wasn't just because he was a loner either. He just didn't like people thinking he was at their beck and call.

He went to the refrigerator and grabbed a Coke, setting the pick down he'd been carrying with him that day. He sighed softly. Would it be taken the wrong way if he sent her an email this soon after checking in? He wasn't sure. He'd never done this before.

"Fuck it," he said, taking a sip of the Coke.

He logged into his email. No surprise he only had like five unread messages. Other than the people in his band he could probably name off a dozen people who knew how to reach him this way. One of them was his neighbor in New York. They were friendly, but John also liked knowing someone was looking out for his place while he was away.

One email was from Ricky, in fact, letting him know that they'd shown his place twice yesterday. He was glad to know the realtor he'd gone with was really trying to get the place sold. He'd been afraid being gone like he was the realtor would focus on someone who was actually there, worrying about their place being sold.

Claire:

So, we made it. That was my first flight across an ocean without something in my system to relax me. No fear that we were going to plunge into the ocean along the way, so either I'm just used to it by now or I never needed the aid to begin with. I guess I'll never know. You're probably used to flights across large bodies of water, but we don't do it frequently enough really for me to be used to it.

I don't know if you want to know that Claude liked Melissa's stuff she sent him and plans to work something out with her. He said something about her wanting to use my last name. I don't have a problem with that exactly, but I don't know. Maybe you want to talk to her about the ramifications of that? She was worried that her friends would know who I was and gossip about her. If she uses my name I think that may lead to more gossip than she's ready to deal with, and not just by her friends. I feel sort of caught in the middle. I can understand why she'd maybe like to be anonymous, but I just can't help but think a name that isn't associated with either of us might be better.

My neighbor in New York emailed me that the realtor had shown my place there a couple of times already. That's good. The couple of days I spent there before heading to Tampa I couldn't wait to get out of there. I think I'm just tired of being on top of other people. Does that sound ridiculous? I don't know. Maybe I'm just getting old.

Anyway, I just figured I'd say hi and stuff. I can give you the number, but we'll only be here for a few days until we're onto the next city. Feel free to use it, though. I wouldn't complain or anything. I'll email Melissa, too, so you don't need to tell her I sent this to you. You probably figured that out already.

Oh, hey, one thing I should tell you is that if you guys do come down after Christmas for New Year's you both will probably want to bring something formal. One of my neighbors usually puts on a party and I go. It's a pretty good time. I assume formal attire for the two of you isn't a problem. If you do come down and we decide not to go, no sweat but I'd rather you be prepared. I think you'd both enjoy it.

That was an understatement. Melissa would love it because of some of the people she'd see. She'd certainly have a story to go back to school and tell if she wanted to.

All right. I'm going to see about dinner. Claude wants to see the song Melissa and I wrote together. He asked me if I'd record it with her without the band when I told him it wasn't really our thing. I said no, but I suppose that'd be a possibility. I certainly have the equipment to do it and the connections to get it heard if she wanted to. Maybe if she wanted to we could pencil in doing that in December.

I hope you have a good day.

-John

He hit send without reading through it a second time. If he did that he'd probably edit or delete the whole thing and send nothing.

He went on to email Melissa, saying not nearly as much.

He reached into the stupid case that gave what it was away and drew out the song they'd written. He'd brought it along to look it over, sure. He was pretty impressed with her abilities, though. He didn't begin to think that talent came from him. Her mom was clearly talented. Her family was full of smart people. Smarts didn't equate to talent, he realized that. Achieving success, though, whether it was as a lawyer spoke to some talent, too. Even John could admit that.

He brought up a search engine and shook his head as he entered Claire's name. He'd never searched information on a person before. Well, not like this. Sure he'd looked up information on people, but not someone he knew for purely personal gain.

She hadn't been kidding about the offers on her company. The actual figure involved wasn't revealed, but her not having to work made a hell of a lot more sense after reading the rumored offers. She'd carved out a very profitable business for herself. He had no doubt it wasn't easy, and she'd likely gotten some help from her parents in the beginning. If he had parents with money he would've taken their help, too, to get started. One thing was for sure he doubted he'd have to worry about her or Melissa embarrassing him on New Year's Eve by showing up underdressed or not knowing how to act.

He closed the laptop then, not sure how to even process what he'd learned about her. It was nothing earth shattering, but certainly informative. Nothing about the late husband, though, beyond his name and some pictures. He was an agent of some sort, but John had no interest in finding out more about the man. He wouldn't say he was jealous, but he hadn't liked his reaction to the pictures the past few years of them together he'd run across.

He finished his Coke before going to see what everyone was doing for dinner.


***

"You want to go, don't you?" Ally asked.

"Kind of," Claire admitted.

Melissa was spending the night at her friend Trisha's house after the football game. Andy wouldn't get home until late because he was traveling with his team for their meet. So, she and Ally decided to take advantage of a Friday night alone.

"Well then go."

"Ally, you're entirely too nonchalant about this."

"I'm not. You want to go, go. He's not that guy. You're not that girl. The attraction is still there, though, clearly. I can't tell you the last time Andy and I spent hours just kissing on a bed without it leading to more."

"You're married!"

"Not the point, and you know it. I mean. We kiss and stuff, but when we're in a bedroom it doesn't just stay innocent."

"If I'd known what time Melissa was going to be home it may not have."

"But it did. And that's okay. It's probably good that didn't happen."

"Thank God Melissa didn't see the hickey! I don't think I could have explained it."

"You know we'd take Scotty."

"I do."

"And you've heard from him since he's been in Australia?"

"Yes. He's emailed a few times. Not obsessively, which I'm not sure I'd know what to do with. I've called him once when I guessed he'd be in his room."

"And Melissa?"

"She hasn't said, and I haven't asked. He tells me when he emails me that he's going to email her, too. So I don't imagine he's emailing her more frequently than he is me."

"And the name thing?"

"I haven't asked her about it yet. I figure we have time yet. I understand what she's getting at by not using her name. My name."

"Maybe she wants to come out."

"Maybe she does, but that's up to them. I think John's being cautious. Sean and Claude both know not to say anything yet."

"Speaking of Sean."

"Oh, God, don't even get me started. He does email her with regularity."

"She tells you?"

"I ask, she admits it."

"Has John said anything else about him?"

"No. I don't think there's a whole lot he can say. He can't do anything to her from Australia. He has told me that he's not the type to bring girls to his room. I'm not sure he'd actually tell me if he did do that, though."

"I think Sean would be pretty stupid to do that."

"I think so, too, but men aren't logical especially at that age."

Ally laughed.

"And the dress?"

"Oh, God, it's been so long since I've had to wear something formal that part is almost a reason for me to go."

"You know, if you wanted to not go with Melissa she could stay with us, too. Erik and Ashley would love it."

"No, I couldn't do that. She'd never forgive me."

"You're probably right."

"Tampa in December does sound nice."

"Okay, that may be more of an incentive than the dress," Claire admitted.

"You want me to tell you you're crazy?"

"A little. It'd make me feel better."

"All right. You're crazy. Except why not?"

"That's not helping."

"The attraction is still there. He's including your child. Your child together. He's not asking you to bail on her."

"He suggested she bring a friend!"

"Do you really think he was serious?"

"No," she said. "I'm sure he wouldn't mind."

"Except I bet he wants to spend time with you two not a third person who'd make it even more uncomfortable."

"I suppose."

"Do your parents know?"

"No! Are you kidding me? That's the other reason I'm hesitant."

"They can't do anything eighteen years later, Claire."

"I know."

She hadn't meant to tell her parents as soon as she did about being pregnant. She'd confessed her suspicions to Christopher, thinking he'd help her. He'd helped her all right. He'd made her feel like such shit and then immediately got their parents involved as if she was two instead of eighteen. (No, she hadn't been eighteen on that day, but she was by the time she realized what the problem may be.) He hadn't given her the option of talking to John first. He'd never let her forget it either. Ever. In eighteen years. Somehow it even came up when Stu had been diagnosed that her transgression was coming back to haunt her and poisoning anyone's life who got close to her.

It was one of the reasons she hadn't dated. She had no babysitters at the time except her family. They would never have understood her desire to go on a date so she just hadn't. Or she'd lied about it and felt terrible about it afterward, so one date never turned into two.

Instead of her love life she'd put her blood, sweat, and tears into her business. It was the one thing Christopher couldn't pass judgment on her about because he knew nothing about being a business owner. She wondered sometimes what he'd think if he ever found out how much she got for that "hobby" of hers he'd tried to convince her to give up in favor of law school.

"I'm sorry. I shouldn't have brought it up," Ally said.

"It's okay."

"No, I'm sorry. This is supposed to be a fun night, not thinking about stuff better left in the past. You've done amazing, Claire. I know your family don't tell you that, but anyone else with eyes can see it. Melissa is so good. She's never lacked for anything, never felt out of place despite you being her only parent for years. And look at her, writing songs that a famous band is thinking of recording."

"Don't sell her short. Yes, knowing John helped, but John didn't write the songs or anything."

"I know."

Their night went about like that for the rest of it. Allison left about one o'clock. Her kids had gone with Andy to the meet so it had been a nice evening. Claire liked her kids and everything, but it was nice just to be them for a while.

She took her glass of wine with her up to her room, turning the light on in the extra closet she used for clothes she didn't wear often or that were seasonal.

How formal was he talking? Black tie? Something not quite that formal?

God, she couldn't believe she was considering this.

She glanced at the clock, adding the time for where he was and realized it might be a decent time to catch him.

She had his number by her bed because that's where she'd written it down.

'Hello,' he said.

"Hi, it's Claire."

'Oh, hey, what's up? Everything okay?'

"Yes. I have a question."

'Okay,' he said, sounding cautious.

"How formal are you talking?"

'Uh, what do you mean?'

"Well, you're in Tampa. So is it beach formal? Cocktail attire formal? Semi-formal? Black tie optional? Black tie required? White tie?"

'Oh, well, honestly, it's pretty much anything goes. I've seen it all, just formal. No shorts or anything like that.'

"What do you wear?"

'Black tie.'

"Really?"

'Uh huh.'

"You're not saying much."

'Well, it sounds like you're considering coming. I guess I'm afraid if I do that you'll change your mind about coming.'

She laughed then.

"Can I send you pictures?"

'Pictures?'

"Yes, of options."

'No! You design clothes for a living, Claire. I think you can pick something out for a formal New Year's Eve party where I'll be wearing a tux and black tie.'

"Long or short?"

'Oh,' he said, sounding as if he was thinking that over. 'How short we talking here, Princess? Because that could be kind of fun.'

"Get your mind out of the gutter."

'Honestly. If I had a choice. I'd say long.'

"Really?"

'Yes.'

"Why?"

'I don't know. I don't get dressed up very often, you know, so when I do it I like to do it right. A long dress fits the picture better.'

"Is my dress going to be compared to many others?"

'I suspect your dress will be one in a million and everyone there will want to know the name of the designer.'

"That's not…"

'I know what you meant. Yes, I've gone with people in the past. They were plus ones, nothing else.'

"Nothing else?"

'They weren't the mother of my child, that's for sure.'

She sighed softly at that.

'Too much?'

God had he heard her?

"No," she said quickly. Ridiculously, she liked hearing him say that, which clearly meant she needed to have her head examined.

'All right. If you absolutely want an opinion, fine, but please not twenty different dresses. If it's between one or two or something, fine. Otherwise, I trust you. Or if it's between one or two, bring them both and you can model them for me in person. Much better way to choose.'

"You'd like that."

'You're right. I have no doubt that I'd thoroughly enjoy it.'

"How has your trip been?"

'Long,' he said. 'I mean, fine, but I hate trips like this and the one we took to Canada. We spend so much time going from one town to the next, though, I just feel like I've got another stamp in my passport and nothing to show for it.'

"Oh," she said, understanding that.

'Anyway. It's fine. We're playing well and everything. Jazmin has met an Australian woman that may be coming back with us.'

"Really?" Claire asked.

'Uh huh. They've been inseparable since we first got here, and that's not like her at all.'

"And Sean?"

'Sean has been a good boy.'

"That's very good to hear."

'I'm surprised you asked, honestly.'

"Me, too. Anyway, I'll let you go. If I make flight arrangements, I assume we're flying into Tampa?"

'Yup. Email me the details and I'll be sure I'm there to pick you guys up. If Orlando is cheaper, you can do that, too. It's not that far of a drive. I wouldn't fly into anywhere else though.'

"Okay. I'll let you know."

'Suddenly I'm looking forward to New Year's Eve.'

"You weren't?"

'Going to my first big party sober? No.'

"Ah. I understand."

'Good. Thanks for calling.'

"Sure."

'And have a good Christmas.'

"You don't think we'll talk then?"

'I wasn't sure. I assume you'll be with the family and I don't want to interfere.'

"Not all day."

'Well, call me before you leave or something. Why are you up so late anyway?'

"Ally was here for the evening."

'Where's Melissa?'

"Spending the night at a friend's after the game. Ally and Andy's kids went to his out of town meet with him."

'Ah, no further explanation needed. Did you have a nice time?'

"Yeah, it was."

'Good. She's not setting you up on any blind dates between now and Christmas, is she?'

"Not that she's said."

'Good.'

"I'll talk to you soon," she said. She hung up then and sat on the edge of the bed. She reached into her nightstand and took out the guitar pick that he'd left on his pillow from when he'd stayed here. Such a stupid thing to keep or even be effected by. Guitar picks were a dime a dozen. She should know. She had no idea how many she'd bought for Melissa over the years. No two were the same, and no one was good enough for acoustic versus electric. It was a world Claire knew nothing about. Neither Melissa nor Allison knew about the pick, and Claire knew why she hadn't told Ally. If he'd just wanted sex he wouldn't have left something like that behind for her.

She had no doubt that plane tickets to Tampa would cost a fortune this time of year on such short notice, but it wasn't as if she couldn't afford it. She'd worry about that tomorrow. First, though, she had to pick out a dress. She had no idea who his plus ones had been in the past or how well they'd impressed anyone, but she absolutely wanted to be sure she looked her best. She had a number of gowns that she could wear and achieve that. Long versus shorter narrowed it down a bit. Tampa in December versus Chicago in December ruled out a couple of others.

Except… Who said she couldn't wear velvet in Tampa? It wasn't going to be one hundred degrees there. Was it? She'd have to check that, she supposed before deciding for sure. Tomorrow. She'd figure it out tomorrow and ask Melissa for help while she was at it.

Chapter Text

Chapter Fifteen
Word Count: 7,061

December 20002

He played on stage in front of thousands of people on any given night. He'd come face to face with celebrities that were bigger names than he'd ever be in his lifetime. He'd hung out with lots of them, partied with a ton of them. He honestly couldn't say there was a time he was more nervous than standing outside of the security check area to wait for them.

What if she'd changed her mind at the last minute and decided not to come?

Unlikely, but possible given she had to think the idea of coming down here was pretty crazy. She was initially going to come down for only a couple of days. He'd told her that was ridiculous. Even if for some reason they were at each other's throats he'd just go up to his place in New York for a few days or something and let them enjoy an actual vacation for a while.

What was more?

He'd be spending Melissa's birthday with her. He picked out a gift that was probably worth more than was probably warranted on a gift for her. She'd said her Mustang had been a birthday present, and his wasn't quite in that league but it was pretty fucking close considering it was the first thing he was going to be giving to her.

Nerves.

Stupid to be nervous, but he was. He knew going to Claire's house in July about what to expect from her and the neighborhood. He hadn't told her anything about where he lived aside from mentioning the party they'd be going to.

He had no idea if she'd be impressed or think he was compensating.

He was signing an autograph when he spotted them. Some guy who saw a concert of theirs with his son and now his son wanted to grow up and be in a band after college. The after college part was odd, so he took that to mean the guy was doing all right for the most part with the kid.

"Thanks, man, my son will never believe me."

"You bet," he said. "Thanks for listening and tell him I said to keep studying hard."

"I will," the man said, shaking John's hand. He knew when Claire and Melissa had spotted him and were heading in his direction.

It was weird that there were kids who were familiar with not just their band but him. He supposed kids listened to what their parents listened to by default and they were getting to the age that their initial fans had kids old enough to listen to them for themselves.

He gestured to the sunny view outside.

"Is this better than what you had in Chicago or what?"

"It is," Claire admitted.

"Off to a good start then. So," he said. "You hungry? Want to go back to my place and settle in?"

"Whatever you want. I still wish you'd let me rent a car."

He waved her off. "Not necessary. I have one you can use if you want to do your own thing or whatever. I know the plane ticket probably cost a ton this time of year on such short notice, so it's no big deal. It's a convertible, too."

"Wow, really?"

"Yes. Then again, I may rethink letting you have that one."

"Why?" Claire asked with a frown.

"Because I don't want to have to beat men away with sticks."

"Very funny."

"I'm pretty sure I wasn't joking."

Melissa still hadn't said anything to him. He wasn't sure if that was good or bad.

"What are you in the mood for?"

She shrugged a bit. Hmm. Had he done something wrong? He didn't think so. He'd been pretty consistent with his contact with her, and Claire, without being crazy about it.

"Food would be good."

"All right. Hey, whatever you guys want. Except snow, I'm afraid I can't pull that off."

He offered to take her carryon from her, which she gave him. "Did you have a good flight and everything?"

"Yeah."

"Well, good. We can go this way to the baggage area," he said, gesturing.

Lunch wasn't as uncomfortable. John took them to a place he went to pretty regularly when he had people in town with him. They treated him pretty well and the service was always good. The food was always better than good. Claire and Melissa both seemed more than a little impressed that a restaurant like it knew him by name.

"This is your house?" Melissa asked when they pulled through the gate and onto his property.

"It is," he said, glancing at them once he pulled into the driveway and shut off the car.

"That's the car you guys can use," he said, pointing at the Thunderbird. He was a sucker for the retro look and bought one. He didn't drive it often so it hardly had any miles on it. "I bought it right after I bought this place. Seemed like the kind of car to have living here."

"And you don't spend all of your time here?" Melissa asked.

"I've been spending more time here now that I bought this place. Until then I'd rent a place for a few months or something."

"Oh," she said.

Claire hadn't said a word yet.

"Not what you were expecting, Princess?" he asked.

"No, never in a million years."

He chuckled at that.

"I told you it belonged to a former football player."

"I know. I guess I've never paid attention to the homes owned by football players. I mean I've seen Walter Payton's house from the street but never closer than that to see what it was really like."

He pushed the button to open his trunk and got out.

"Leave it," he said when Claire and Melissa went to grab their bags. "I figured I could show you around and they'll be in your rooms by the time we're done."

"Yup," he said. "It's not a huge staff since I don't live here every day of the year, but someone has to clean all of the rooms. He lives in an area off the kitchen designed for more staff than I'll probably ever have so he's not hurting. If I wake up at three in the morning and want something to eat I'm pretty much on my own, though. I mean I guess if I was a demanding fuck I'd wake him up, too, but I haven't quite gotten the at my beck and call side of things down. I think that's maybe one of the reasons we get along."

"I see," she said.


***

Melissa had seen pictures of homes – and home was being modest – like this on TV shows. Like her mom had just said, never in a million years did she think she'd be spending a week in one. The pool was amazing with a waterfall and everything. And the beach? Was literally right outside his door and as private as could be.

She chuckled a couple of times when John showed them a room that was virtually empty and he had no idea what purpose it served. Did Sean know what his house looked like and had said nothing to Melissa about it?

The last thing he showed them was his studio, which put hers to shame so incredibly she was almost embarrassed she'd showed it to him. He mentioned the band recording a couple of tracks here, so that answered her question about Sean and whether he knew about this place.

"So, that's it. Make yourselves at home. I'll give your mom the keys to the car so you two can come and go as you please. Just be home in time to go on New Year's Eve."

"You're not going to do anything with us?" Melissa asked. She wasn't sure how she felt about that.

"If you want me to. If I'm invited, sure, but I just thought you'd like to get away from December in Chicago for a while. So, whatever. I have nothing on my calendar. I wasn't going to assume I'd be included. I know this is kind of weird. It is for me, so I can only imagine what it is for you two."

"It's all right," her mom said.

"I can show you where you two will be sleeping if you want. Your stuff is probably up there by now. If it's not it will be shortly."

"Do you have a cook and stuff?"

"I do. I just have the one guy, but that's only because I'd forget to eat if left to my own devices. Not to mention I'd starve since I don't know how to cook."

"What have you done before buying this place?" Melissa asked him.

"Well, I can make pretty basic stuff. Sandwiches, microwavable dinners, pizza, pasta with jarred sauce, and so on. Otherwise. I lived in New York. Whatever food I wanted was practically right outside my door. We travel so much I just never bothered to learn."

"I suppose," Melissa said.

"I was thinking maybe if you wanted to we could work some more on that song we did at your house."

"You want to?"

"Why not?"

"It's not really your thing."

"No, it's not, but it's music and I like making that. If it was handed to me ordinarily I'd pass, but it wasn't so I'm not passing."

"Thank you," she said. Ridiculous that she knew she was blushing from him saying that. She'd liked working with him that weekend, even if it never saw the light of day. She had lots of things in common with her mom, but not music. Not like that, and it was incredible to be able to do that with him.

"So, rooms," he said. "All right then, let's go. I assume you brought your swim suits we can do that if you want once you've settled in."

"Sure," Melissa said, eyeing everything as he led them to their rooms.

"You're in here, Melissa," he said, opening a door. "You have your own bathroom through there," he pointed to a set of doors. "And those doors open if you want to. There's a balcony out there. You can sit out there and stuff. I don't think you can get down to the pool from your room," he frowned as if thinking that over. "You might be able to, though. If so, have at it."

"Okay," she said.

She walked toward her stuff, eyeing the bed more than a little enviously. God, it was ginormous enough for her to get lost in.

"I'll show your mom her room."

"Okay," she said, pulling out her cell phone to call Sean.


***

"You've been quiet," he said as he led her to her room. She had no idea what to expect from her room because the entire house exceeded anything she'd imagined he'd have as far as a home.

"I've been processing." That was an understatement. Her house was nice, spacious even. She was pretty sure two of her houses would fit inside of his house and there'd still be some room leftover.

"Yeah? Processing good? Processing bad?"

"Just processing," she said. She wasn't sure how to explain it. She was glad for him, totally. If anyone deserved some good it was John after the crappy childhood he'd had.

"I see." He opened the door leading to her room. "Now, there's one thing about your room I should tell you. Whether you want Melissa to know about it is up to you."

"Okay," she said.

He chuckled, shutting the door behind them. He slid an arm around her, drawing her to him. She went willingly, easily. Too easily. He kissed her and she realized she'd been sort of disappointed he hadn't been able to do that at the airport.

"Relax, it's nothing bad. You do share a bathroom with me, though," he said, walking to the other end of her room and flipping on a light in the other room.

"Why?"

He shrugged. "We share the closet, too," he said. "I guess it's the master suite. I don't know. I've never stopped to think about it, and I've never put anyone in this room before for the very reason I don't want to share my space. There's a door to the closet from the bathroom, but I never go in that way." She met him at the door to the bathroom and peered inside. He had a Jacuzzi in here. Sitting in there with a glass of wine would be incredible.

"And I'm in this room because?" She had to draw herself away from thoughts like reclining in his tub. What was he expecting exactly by giving her a room that joined his? And why did the fact she was the first person to have this room make her feel good?

"Well, I put you here because I wanted you here."

"John…" She started to get panicked. She should have known better than to think the invitation to come down here came without any strings.

"Hear me out."

"Okay," she said.

"I'm not trying to sleep with you or anything. However, if the opportunity for a few hours like that Friday night at your house presents itself I wouldn't say no. This is a vacation for you, and your first time here. Not to mention you two are still getting back on even footing, so I figure you're not going to run off and leave her on her own."

"No!"

"So, that ruled out time alone because why would we want to be alone? We can be alone without her knowing that's what we're doing."

"Oh," she said, nibbling on her lower lip as she did sometimes.

"Oh as in that's a good idea, John?" He slid his arms around her "Or, oh as in you fucked up, John?"

"It was a nice thought," she said.

"It was better than nice, Princess."

"Doors lock from in here, so you don't have to worry about me barging in on you. The closet is a little trickier, but I always leave my door open leading to it. So if you're in there changing or something shut it and when you're done open it again. Your side usually stays open so I'll do the same if I'm in there. I don't ever really change in there anyway so can probably refrain from going in there undressed for a week."

"Sounds reasonable."

"Now if you don't want to shut it…"

"John."

"I'm kidding. Relax."

"I just…"

"Can I kiss you now?"

"Melissa."

"Is unpacking and looking around her room. And so what anyway?"

"I just don't think it's a good idea."

"We made her!"

"Yeah, eighteen years ago. I'm not sure I'm ready for her to see us kissing."

"I sort of figured that was the case. I almost forgot about the love bite you gave me that night when I was working with her. I caught myself a couple of times over the weekend pushing my hair out of the way and remembered at the last minute."

"Thank you."

He chuckled, settling a finger under her chin so he could tilt her face toward his a bit and kiss her.

"You're welcome," he murmured. "So, does your room pass inspection?"

"You're joking, right?"

"A little, but maybe you don't want a room next to mine."

"No, it's fine."

"All right then."

"Why'd you buy this place?" It was absolutely none of her business and beyond rude of her to ask, but she was immensely curious.

He shrugged, glancing around the room they were standing in a bit. She wondered how many times he'd been in this room and how many times he'd looked at it like this, as if he was really thinking about why he was here.

"I don't know. Why do people do anything? Compensating? Proving I am actually worth something? I don't know. It was a whim. I was down here and we were driving around. I'd been in the neighborhood before for some parties. The New Year's Eve party we're going to is one of them. The player and the team were going through this awful breakup and some birdies whispered in my ear it'd be great to have roots down here. And so I bought it. It seemed like a thing to do, you know. Roots. Stability. A place to throw parties."

"And you don't think it's a little much for one person?"

"I do think it's a lot much for one person, especially one person who isn't here all of the time."

"You're thinking about being here more, though, aren't you?"

"I am. The man who cooks sort of doubles as a housekeeper. I don't know what men who do that are called. He keeps things organized and clean while I'm gone that's all I know. A surrogate head of the house I guess. He's the only full-time employee I have all year long. He has the ability to contact my lawyer for any money he needs for upkeep if I'm out of the country or something. Otherwise, I just use a service for when I know I'm going to be in town for a while and need more. If I lived here full-time I'd probably need more than one. Then only being me maybe not. A landscaper comes by every week, of course. Pool guy. Inside the house, though, that's it. Weeks like this when it's just a couple of guests I don't need more than him. He had plenty of notice to get your rooms ready and shop for you. I should show you the kitchen, if I missed something Melissa might like let me know. I told him she was seventeen."

"I'm sure it's fine, and it must be nice."

"I'm not used to it, but this place won't clean itself. And when we're on a break from touring but want to get some work done. We can all stay here under one roof for a hell of a lot cheaper than days or weeks at a hotel while we hammer out an album. The recording studio is as top of the line as I can have it."

"Melissa seemed very impressed."

"I'm glad," he whispered, leaning down to kiss her again. "Do I get to have my shirt taken off later?"

"Maybe," she whispered.

"You touching me still feels amazing."

"Now…"

"It's not a line. You touch me like you don't care about anything. You know?"

"I guess I don't."

He shrugged, kissing her lower lip.

"You want to know me. All of me. Even that part of me I don't want people to know."

"Oh," she said.

"Are you going to go swimming?"

"I don't know. Are you?"

"I was planning on it."

"You're not anymore."

"I think I need a cold shower first."

"Why? Oh," she said, blushing and he laughed softly.

"I'll let you settle in I guess. You have dresses, both of you? Do you need them pressed or anything?"

"Yes! Please!"

"All right. We can take care of that. Are they something you've made?"

"They both are, yes."

"So, no chance of anyone else wearing them?"

"Not in this lifetime."

"Very cool."

"Both will go with a tuxedo very well."

"I think most anything would go with a tuxedo, Princess. I'm going to be the envy of every guy there."

"Why?"

"Not just one gorgeous redhead on my arm, but two."

"Some might think you're insane."

"Perhaps you're right."

"Melissa's nervous I think."

"About the party?"

"Yeah," she said.

"Why?"

She shrugged. "I don't know. She's still figuring all of this out and you're bringing her to a formal party. She hasn't said much, but I know how to read her pretty well."

"I'm not telling anyone anything. You two are my guests for the week. That's all anyone needs to know and I don't think anyone's going to jump to the conclusion that she's my kid."

"I wouldn't think so."

"So, it shouldn't be a problem."

"You've never dated anyone with kids."

"Huh?"

"Never in all of these years have I seen you with a girlfriend with kids."

"Oh, no," he agreed. "Never."

"And you don't think people will think it's strange?"

"Well, I'm not planning on introducing you as my girlfriend. I mean, I'm not, am I?"

"No, I just wasn't sure people wouldn't find it strange we just show up all of the sudden with you at a New Year's Eve party. I think people might assume that's what I am."

"Well, I am getting to an age it's harder to find women without kids."

"Is that why you stay single?"

"I actually broke up with someone right after meeting Melissa."

"Why?"

"I told Melissa about this, too. I felt like I was lying to her. I couldn't come back and say nothing now that I'd met her. Telling her that I'd met my seventeen year old daughter for the first time seemed wrong, and like a good way to lose a woman. It was really way more than I cared to delve into with her. I felt that was probably a pretty good indication she wasn't someone I had any sort of future with. I wouldn't want someone like that having that information about me. So I just told her we couldn't see one another anymore."

"Oh. And she was okay with that?"

"It'd only been like three or four months. I don't think she was invested or deeply surprised. I'm not even sure she really cared. She was one of those people that liked to be dating someone in a band. I'm sure she's found another guy in another band who will make her happy."

"Ah."

"I have a question," he said, bringing his hands to the front of her blouse and working a button.

"Yes," she whispered.

"Do I get to take off your shirt later, too?"

"I…" He expected her to think logically and give him an honest answer when he was touching her. He had no idea how long it'd been since she'd been touched. Then, he knew Stu had been sick so maybe he had an idea.

"How about you don't answer, just know I've posed the question because I'd really like to and think on it some, I guess."

"I should go find Melissa."

"Chicken," he whispered.

"I won't deny that."

"Hey," he said, grabbing hold of her arm.

"What?"

"What do you have planned for the week?"

"I don't know. We talked about things we'd like to do, but nothing concrete."

"You tell me what I am or am not invited to go with you on. I have nothing to do, but I don't want to intrude either. You're my guests, don't think that means I expect you to do everything with me."

"I know."

"You like the room?" he asked.

She thought for a moment he was fishing for a compliment, but she saw in his eyes that he was sincere with his question. Had he ever had anyone here who wouldn't look at everything based on how much it was worth? She'd probably never know.

"It's gorgeous, John. The whole house is."

"Yeah, your two rooms and mine are my favorites. As you could tell walking around I haven't done a whole lot with most of the place. I needed rooms, though, so that everyone had a place to crash if they wanted to while down here."

"Right," she said. "I'm honestly not sure I'd know what every room is for. That ballroom, though, John."

"I know, right? I could give my own concert in there if I wanted to."

"You could."

"The neighbors would hate me."

"Unless they were invited."

He winked. "I always knew you were smart."

He leaned in kissing her again. "To tide me over until bedtime."

"If I'd said no?"

"I would have moved you across the hall."

"Without getting upset?"

"Without getting upset, though Melissa may have been curious why you wanted your room switched."

"Thank you."

"Sure. So, swimming? Is that on your agenda? Or did you want to actually do something?"

"No, that sounds like a great way to pass the time until dinner."

"All right, then. Your balcony is my balcony and does lead down to the pool, by the way. I don't think they all do, but there are a couple of others that, too. I think the rooms that were setup or designed to be kids' rooms don't have that access. I don't think Melissa's is one of them."

"Are we eating here?"

"Yeah. Dominick likes the idea of cooking for more than just me for a change. He usually goes all out whenever I have company, so you can expect the full-court press. You know, a million forks and knives, wine and water goblets, the whole nine yards."

"Sounds good."

"I'll let you change and check on Melissa, I guess. See what she needs."

"She's probably talking to Sean."

"I expect so. It's only been a couple of months since they saw one another. I figure the true test will start about now when we won't get back there again for months."

"No?"

"Unless something comes up, no."

"I see."

"Something coming up could be me being asked to go back there."

"Is that right?"

"It could," he said.

"I imagine Oktoberfests and carnivals are done until spring."

"I bet they are, but I think I could be enticed to head that way."

"You or your band?"

"I was talking about me, but I'm sure we all could if the right opportunity presented itself."

"Oh," she said.

"So, I'm going to go change then. Come on down whenever you two are ready."

"Okay. We shouldn't be long."


***

Dinner had been good. He'd insisted to Dominick he not go completely crazily overboard. He'd obeyed John on that for a change. Sure, John wanted to impress, but he didn't want to be obvious about it. Usually it didn't matter what John said if he had company, Dominick liked to show off his prowess in a kitchen and he usually ended up with food he couldn't pronounce. Maybe it was the way he said it this time that the other man had listened for a change. Maybe Dominick sensed there was something different about these guests. John would never know.

After dinner they'd spent the night in John's entertainment room, watching a couple of movies. The way the room was setup with a sound system and everything it was as good, if not better, than a theatre.

Tomorrow they were going to Sea World, John was going along. He'd heard them mention Disney and a couple of other things, so he had no idea how many trips to Orlando they were going to make. It was only a little over an hour's drive, so not a big deal to do it.

He finished in the bathroom, opening the door leading to her bedroom when he was done.

"So, I was thinking," he said softly.

"Yes?" she asked.

She'd changed for bed, but hadn't done what she needed to in the bathroom yet.

"I didn't show you my room earlier."

"You didn't."

"Did you, uh, want to see it?"

"Right now?"

"Well, if you wanted to brush your teeth and stuff first so you're all set for bed that would be fine, but yes. Now seemed like a good time."

"Sure," she said.

"All right. Well, I'll be in there whenever you're done then."

He laid there, staring at his ceiling with a hand under his head. Why was it exciting him more than it should at the idea she was going to join him in his room? That night at her house they'd spent kissing hadn't been planned for or talked about. It had just happened. Was that the difference? He had no idea.

She opened the door eventually, leaving it open after she'd turned off the light in the bathroom.

"You don't have any lights on," she whispered.

"I know," he said.

"How am I supposed to see your room?"

He chuckled as she found her way to his bed and pushed the covers back on the opposite side from where he was.

"Don't you have like a sixth sense or something?" he asked as he turned onto his side once she'd shifted on the bed closer to him.

"No," she whispered.

"Pity."

"You don't get to go to movies often, do you?"

"What?" he asked. What did that have to do with anything? Why was she thinking about movies when she'd just gotten into bed with him?

"I was just thinking about your room with the big comfortable chairs and everything."

"Yeah," he said. He had a real popcorn maker, which they'd used tonight. He also usually had some pretty good candy on hand because some people weren't popcorn eaters when they watched movies. (Not that he understood that.) Dominick always stocked up on that stuff when he was having people here who'd eat it.

"It just dawned on me that you can't just randomly go to a movie without your night being disrupted."

"Oh," he said with a slight nod. "It's a little worse down here than it was in New York. Up there, almost everyone is someone or wanting to be someone. So if they think they recognize you but you don't acknowledge it they'll dismiss it as being wrong."

"That must get tiring."

"Sometimes. Honestly, I can't even imagine seeing a movie at a theatre anymore after living here and having that at my fingertips. It spoils me."

"I can understand that."

"I mean, I'd go to a movie. If you two wanted to go to one. I don't care."

"It just dawned on me. I mean, you talk about our lives being somewhat similar. I guess they are, but not like that."

"I think you're underselling your name recognition quite a bit."

"Okay, that may be, but people aren't going to stop me at a movie and ask me for my autograph or something like that man did with you at the airport."

"It happens all of the time."

"You sign them all of the time?"

"Within reason. I was waiting for you today, so had nothing but time on my hands but if I was hustling to make my flight or something, no."

"I see."

He slid his hand under the comforter, sliding it along her hip a bit to draw her closer to him.

"Hi," he murmured.

"You said you were going to show me your room."

"I'm showing you the most important part of my room."

"Is that right?"

"Right now it is absolutely the most important part, yes," he whispered, leaning in to kiss her.

They got pretty good at this in his bed at her house a couple of months ago. Tonight was no different, only he knew this go around they weren't going to get disturbed. Barring Melissa walking into one of their bedrooms, but he didn't see her doing that. She'd have no reason to. She wasn't a little kid where she'd get scared sleeping in a new place, and likely she'd be talking or texting with Sean until she fell asleep. That night at their house, Claire wasn't sure when she'd get home and if she'd want to see John when she did. They were also under the covers tonight where at her house they hadn't been.

He groaned softly when she slid her mouth lower along his neck and throat, and along his collarbone before finding his chest. He'd decided to forego the shirt tonight. She'd seen him without his shirt on while they were swimming today so he didn't think it was a big deal to go without one now. He'd been more concerned about Melissa seeing him without his shirt on even though she'd seen him like that at his room in Kankakee. That had been different somehow. He hadn't expected her to see him that morning. Today there was no doubt she would and he couldn't help but wonder what she'd think.

Would she wonder what Claire ever saw in him? He wouldn't blame her. No doubt her step-dad didn't look like he did.

He let out a soft hiss, sliding a hand through her hair as her tongue stroked his skin there. She nipped at the skin, bringing him out of his thoughts. He'd think she knew he was thinking things he shouldn't be right now, but he doubted she could know that.

"You can't do that," he murmured when she switched from licking and nipping to something more.

She started to pull away and he used his other hand to stop her from doing that.

"I didn't say to stop entirely," he whispered. "It's not what you're thinking either. There's no one who's going to see it and get mad or anything. You don't want Melissa to, uh, know. She saw me swimming today without a shirt on. That weekend at your house I could have passed it off I suppose, but tomorrow I don't think she's going to buy I went out between now and morning to hook up with someone while I had you two in town. I hope she wouldn't buy I'd do that anyway."

She didn't stop then, keeping the kisses just that as she kissed along his chest and shoulder. She slid her tongue and lips along his arm, which he moved so she could have full access to it. He gave a soft chuckle as his fingers wiggled almost on their own as she kissed each one before moving to his other arm and hand.

From there she slid her mouth to his stomach and he cried out softly as she reached for the waist of his pants and slid her hand inside of them.

"Shh," she murmured with a soft giggle.

He forced his eyes open, staring at the ceiling, knowing his heart rate was pumping double time right now. He had to think, focus on anything but the fact Claire Standish was currently giving him a hand job. Because if he didn't focus on other things, he was likely to embarrass himself.

"Feels good," he murmured, trying to think of anything but her hand around his shaft and stroking him. She slid her mouth lower, pushing the waistband down a bit. She pushed them down enough his head was exposed and darted her tongue along the tip of him.

"That feels real good," he hissed.

"You taste good," she whispered, swiping his tip with another stroke of her tongue.

He chuckled softly at that. "That's not even the main course."

"I know," she whispered.

"Fuck it," he murmured.

"What?"

"I've been laying here trying to count to a million or whatever I can do to distract myself."

"It's not working?"

"I don't want it to work," he whispered.

"Oh," she said. She went back to what she'd been doing, and doing it very well.

She felt absolutely fantastic around his shaft, warm and wet as she worked him in and out of her mouth. He wasn't shy about telling her that either, though, he'd maybe owe her an apology for a couple of words that came out of his mouth when he was perilously close to finishing.

She licked along his shaft casually afterward, finding his inner thigh and completing what he'd stopped her from doing on his chest earlier. He didn't have it in him to stop her, and he really didn't care. So, instead of try to reason with her (really he hoped Melissa wasn't going to be looking at him that closely) he shifted his leg a bit so she had better access. Her hand rested along his shaft, fingertips running along his length and his tip.

Eventually she stopped and slid up a bit, kissing his stomach and chest as she did.

He cleared his throat softly.

"So do I get to, like, return that experience to you?"

"You don't have to."

"Well, I know I don't, I don't think the words have to or obligation entered my mind. They certainly didn't come out of my mouth."

"No," she whispered, running a fingertip along his shoulder. She leaned up and kissed him. He kissed her back, sliding his arms around her before shifting them so he was on top of her.

"You have a ridiculous amount of layers on," he whispered, finding her neck.

"The shirt unbuttons," she whispered.

"Does it now?" he asked with a soft chuckle. He sounded much calmer than he felt. He found the top button and worked it and the rest of them as quickly as he could. His breath hitched a bit as he slid the back of his hand over one of her breasts. He'd touched her under her shirt that night at her house, but her top hadn't come off or anything. She had no bra on tonight either.

"Please don't get mad at me for thinking again how amazing you feel."

"I won't," she whispered.

"Thank you," he said, dropping his mouth to a breast. He was much more focused on this part of her than she'd been on his chest. The sounds she made guided him whether she realized that's what she was doing or not.

He reached into her shorts, surprised she had nothing on under those either. (Then maybe he shouldn't have been.) A fingertip slid over her nub and she gasped softly so he slid it over the spot again. Her hands at his shoulders gripped him tighter the more he stroked the spot.

He was pretty sure there was nothing in the world more fucking arousing than to hear her call out his name as he brought her over.

He slid his fingertip lower then, dipping it into the spot between her legs. He groaned against her breast at how wet she was. She arched into his hand and he chuckled a bit, sliding his finger further into her.

Her murmured "yes" told him she liked that. She slid a hand to his wrist, gripping it tightly as he moved his finger out of her.

"Not stopping," he murmured.

"John," she whispered.

"I swear to you, I'm not," he said softly, sliding a little lower to kiss her stomach. She didn't let go of his wrist but loosened her hold on it a bit as he slid a second finger inside of her. He worked the waist of her shorts down with his free hand far enough so that he could slide his tongue over her nub before settling in to use his mouth on her.

He was far more thorough than he could recall being doing this before. Usually it was a means to an end, but he wasn't going to assume there was going to be any more end tonight than this. Did he want to ensure she enjoyed herself so that she'd want it to happen tomorrow night, too?

Damn straight.

"I don't want to move now."

"I take that to mean I did my job."

"You did, but now I don't want to go anywhere."

"Who says you have to?"

"Well…"

"Is she going to wake up and come into your room?"

"No, she wouldn't do that I don't think."

"Then stay. I'm not kicking you out."

He circled a peak with a fingertip before kissing it.

"I would definitely enjoy doing that some more."

"Shut up."

"What? I would."

"Really?"

"Really. What kind of question is that?"

"I don't know. I've just," she paused and he felt her shrug under him.

"You've just?"

"No one's ever…"

"Really?"

"No," she whispered.

"What about your…"

"No," she said. "Never."

"Huh," he said. "No space that day for me to or I would have."

She laughed softly. "We may not have Melissa if that was the case."

"Oh?"

"I just want to go to sleep now. That day with your fingers I had to have more."

"I remember," he whispered, kissing her. "Vividly."

"Don't embarrass me."

"I'm not. I can honestly say that was pretty fucking exciting, which would explain why Melissa is here. That was the first time I'd ever had anyone tell me they wanted me to replace my fingers with a more useful part of my anatomy."

"The first time?"

"Only time, but it was so exciting I almost came just from you saying it."

"Really?"

"Uh, yeah," he whispered. "You being the one saying that may have had a lot to do with the turning me on part."

"I could say it again," she whispered.

"Right now? I'd need to have a finger some place you'd want that other part of me instead."

She laughed softly. "I suppose you're right."

"Easily fixed," he said, tracing a finger over her breast and lower. "I mean, you know, if you have a deep desire to say it again I'm happy to oblige."

"Would it turn you on again?"

"I'm already there, but anything about you does. So, yes."

"You shouldn't say things like that."

"Why?"

"I don't know," she whispered and shrugged under him.

He settled his hand against her stomach, running his fingertips along her skin there. He wondered when the last time she'd done any of this was. Her husband had died in March. He'd had cancer she said so, likely, they didn't for a while before he died. Add in the guy being sick before finding out what was wrong with him. That didn't leave very much time from when they got married to have an active sex life.

"You still don't feel like moving?"

"No," she whispered. "This is nice."

"It is. Stay," he whispered.

"Dominick."

"Is not going to barge into my room. He's used to me sleeping until noon."

"I'm not sleeping until noon!"

He chuckled. "Just assuring you he's not going to do that."

"Okay," she whispered.

He slid beside her then, reaching for either side of her shirt.

"Just leave it," she said.

"All right," he said, more than a little surprised at that. "Just don't slap me if I wake up and want to take you up on such an enticing offer."

"My top being open is enticing?"

"Your breasts are incredibly enticing."

"I'll try not to then."

"That's better than no guarantee, I guess."

Chapter Text

Chapter Sixteen
Word Count: 8,820

He woke to her touching him. Not in a sexual way exactly, which was kind of a weird thing to think. He couldn't recall ever being woken up before by someone's hands being on him and not thinking they wanted sex of some sort out of the deal. Her fingertips against his skin felt good. It made him think of what those fingers felt like against certain parts of him, which led to him thinking she was touching him in a sexual way.

"Can't sleep?" he asked, glancing at his alarm clock. It was still pretty early.

"Don't we have to get up early in order to get there at a decent time?"

"I'm not sure this early was called for. I figured we'd leave around seven or maybe half past."

"Oh," she said.

"I mean, if it takes you," he glanced at the clock again. "Over two hours to get ready. Fuck, we could really leave at eight even and still be fine."

"It'll probably be busy today."

"Everything will be busy all week," he said.

"Melissa likes the animals."

"I can see that," he said. "It's not like we have a little kid in tow where walking a bit will hurt us."

"No, I know," she whispered.

He glanced at her then, settling a hand over hers. "It doesn't take you two and a half hours to get ready to go to Sea World, does it?"

She laughed softly. "No."

"Thank God."

"Now Tuesday night."

"Tuesday night I will let you two have all day if that's what you need."

"Thank you. Did you get the numbers for salons for us?"

"I'm sure Dominick will have them for you at breakfast. He can make the appointments for you two if you want him to. Just tell him what you want. He's more than capable."

"No, that's not necessary."

"That's what I pay him to do!"

"For you," she whispered.

He shrugged. "He's here a lot without me so it's fine."

"Okay," she said.

"He already brought the dresses in for you, so clearly he doesn't mind."

"I hadn't thought about it."

"So, did you mean to wake me up?"

"Not really."

"Oh," he said, not sure how he felt about that. He was kind of hoping she'd been trying to wake him up. Like she wanted to do what happened earlier again.

She shifted her head on the pillow next to him, leaning in to kiss him.

"Since I did, though," she whispered.

"Yeah?"

She slid her hand at his chest lower inside of his shorts and cupped him. She giggled softly into his kiss.

"Why are you laughing at me? That's not very nice."

"I'm not laughing at you. I guess you like the idea of me waking you up on purpose."

"Oh, well, yeah, very much so."

"Do I?"

"Have something?"

Fuck was he ever glad he did at the moment.

"Yes," he whispered. Was he mishearing her? Misreading her question to mean what he thought it meant.

"Show me."

"Well, not in my hands right now, no. I have to get one…"

She laughed softly, kissing his jaw. "No, silly. I meant show me how much you like the idea of me waking you up on purpose."

Jesus. Was he dreaming? This was almost entirely too easy. Not that he thought she was easy or even had having sex with her in mind when he invited her down here. But, he certainly hadn't expected her to just tell him she wanted him to do that with her.

He leaned over her a bit, kissing her before nipping at her lower lip a bit harder than he usually would.

"Ow! What was that for?"

"Just making sure we're both awake and stuff."

"We are. At least I am. Now if you're not…"

"No, I'm more than awake now. Trust me," he said, sitting up a bit so he could grab what she'd been asking him if he had. He pushed the covers down a bit as he returned to her side. He put the packet in her hand.

"What are you doing?"

"Proof it's in there and you're going to hold it for a little bit."

"Why?"

He didn't answer her. Well, not directly. He settled between her legs once again.

"Oh," she whispered as he slid his tongue over her nub the way she'd liked earlier before sliding a finger inside of her and then another one. Fuck, he wasn't the only one ready and that turned him on more.

He kissed her stomach and her breasts for a while before taking the packet out of her hand.

"Can I ask a favor?" she asked softly. Almost too softly for him to actually hear her.

"I think you're in a position to ask me for whatever the fuck you want, Princess."

She laughed softly, gasping a bit as he circled a peak with his tongue.

"Ask," he whispered.

"Anything but you on top of me," she whispered.

"Uh, well," he said with a slight frown. What did that mean? She didn't want him on top of her. What kind of favor was that? "I mean, sure. Whatever you want. You tell me."

She was oddly quiet after that. Maybe not so oddly consider the request. He moved beside her onto his back to slide the condom on.

"You need to clue me in to what you want here, Claire. You want on top, climb on. You want something else, you're going to have tell me."

She didn't move for a minute or two and he wondered what could possibly be going through her mind. He knew what was going through his. Curiosity and then some. Until she moved onto her hands and knees. An odd choice for their first time in eighteen years maybe, but considering what their first time had been like maybe not so odd.

He didn't make her wait long as far as whether he was going to give into her favor. He moved behind her, trailing his fingertips along her back and ass before setting them on either hip. It seemed sort of wrong on a few levels taking her like this. Women, in his experience, weren't overly keen on this position. Something about not being personal enough and it being too much like fucking just for fucking's sake. He wasn't going to argue with her, though. Afraid she'd tell him to forget it? Maybe, a little.

He took a sharp breath as he slid inside of her. He wouldn't deny he'd dreamt about being inside of her again after that day quite a few times. He hadn't lied to Claude when he said she was the only one he'd ever forgotten about a condom with. She made a sound or two as he pressed his length as deeply as he could and held it there for a minute. It took a couple of thrusts by him before she responded, but she did more than a little enthusiastically. She wasn't shy about letting him know when he'd hit a good spot either. He loved that about her because as good as he tried to be it wasn't easy to be that when there was no communication of some sort. Verbal or not didn't matter, some guidance or acknowledgement went a long way.

He loved the way she gripped him when he drew out of her as if trying to stop him from pulling out. Pulling completely out wasn't on his mind until he had to. He reached under her to stroke her nub and she finished almost immediately. He continued touching her like that, bringing her over once more before he finished. He leaned down a bit, kissing her shoulder blade and the back of her neck. She groaned softly at that, pressing against him. Evidently she liked that, so he stored that away hoping he'd have occasion to use that knowledge again very soon.

She had the covers around her when he got back from the bathroom. She was on her side so he slid behind her, setting an arm around her. She'd put her top back on, but not her bottoms.

"Are you going back to sleep?" he asked.

"For a little while," she whispered.

"Do I get to wake up like that again?"

"In an hour? Again? Really?" She sounded … surprised by that. Why?

"You have no bottoms on, Claire. Trust me, laying here with you like this I'll be ready again pretty quickly."

"Should I put them back on?"

"That's not what I said," he said, kissing her shoulder.

"You didn't put yours back on either," she murmured.

"Nope," he said, kissing the spot on the back of her neck she seemed to like earlier. She groaned softly when he did so he guessed she really did like it. "You didn't need to put your top back on."

"I know, I just," she shrugged.

"Whatever makes you comfortable, Claire," he whispered.

"I'm not sure comfortable is the right word," she whispered.

"Been a while, huh?"

"Yes," she whispered.

"Sorry."

She shrugged against him.

"Nothing to apologize for. It's not your fault."

"No, I know. That had to be hard, though."

"You sort of learn to not think about things like that. I had more important things on my mind most days."

"I can imagine, but that is pretty important, too. Not that you had a choice, I understand. Doesn't mean you didn't still have needs that weren't met."

"Thanks," she whispered.

"Sure," he said,


***

Sea World, Gatorland, and a further drive to Daytona so that Melissa could get the experience of driving on a beach were all done in one day. He was glad they weren't the type that felt that need to stay at Sea World for hours and hours. The next day they went to Busch Gardens.

He'd never really had occasion to do this type of stuff before. He'd come down here to relax and get away, not be around throngs of people at parks that cost crazy amounts of money to get into. They were having fun, though, and he knew he could opt out of anything they were doing. He didn't want to.

It was the most time he'd spent with anyone in years socially. Sure he was with the band, but that was different. He'd never really had company in the true sense of the word before now to where he had nothing else to do while they were here. He'd had women here with him before, but they never really did things. No one until now expressed any interest in taking a drive along the coast as they'd done today before their salon appointments.

Claire spent each night with him. Also different for him. He was used to clinginess after sex entered the picture and she was as opposite of clingy as she could get. He wanted to believe that was because of Melissa, but there was a part of him that wondered. When they weren't alone there were no looks on her part that made him think she wanted him. She didn't try to touch him or anything like that either. She didn't even seem phased or upset when they were waiting to be seated for dinner last night; she and Melissa had come back from the bathroom to a woman obviously hitting on him. And that was something he wasn't used to at all especially since the woman wasn't being at all subtle.

They'd left a while ago for their appointments. He had no idea how long they'd be. He hadn't been overly surprised when his phone had rung or by the fact it was Claude. Claude knew they were coming down here and would know very well John wasn't used to company in the true sense of the word. The band would come down here and they'd do their own thing when they weren't recording.

'So you're getting along?' Claude said.

"Yeah," John said. "Fine."

'Yeah? Should I ask how well?'

"No," John said.

'You sure?'

"Positive."

'Where are they anyway?'

"Hell if I know. Dominick set them up with appointments at some salon."

'At your request?'

"Well, yeah," John said with a roll of his eyes at the question. Wasn't that obvious?

'Who's buying?'

"I am," John said.

Claude chuckled then.

"Why is that funny?"

'No reason.'

"I don't believe you."

'I'd say it again, but you'll just deny it again.'

"What?"

'You like her.'

"Because I paid for her salon appointment?"

'I think she can afford a couple of salon appointments.'

"Sure, but these today are because of me."

'If you say so.'

"Tell me again why you called?"

'Oh, I was just wondering when they were leaving so I knew when I could come down.'

"Saturday."

'And making sure you're surviving all right.'

"It's not like I haven't had guests before."

'Not your daughter and her mom, though.'

"No."

'So it stands to reason it's different.'

"Things are fine. We did some touristy things and today we just drove around a bit."

'Has Melissa figured out you like her mother?'

"Fuck off, Claude."

'Just be careful if she starts to think you really did this to spend time with her mom and not her. She may not like that so well.'

"I didn't do it to spend time with her mom."

'Because at seventeen she couldn't have flown down by herself?'

"I thought about that. The invitation came out without my really thinking about it, but I also figured there was no way her mother was going to just let her come spend a week with me without seeing where I live and everything herself."

'Valid point. She's a widow, right?'

"Yes," John said cautiously.

'I dated a widow once.'

"Why doesn't that surprise me?"

'I actually liked her.'

"Yeah? So what happened?"

'Not really sure. We never saw much outside of her or my bedroom and then she just stopped calling. I sort of figured maybe I gave her what she needed at the time and when she was ready for a long haul thing she decided I wasn't the one.'

"Oh," John said. "Did I meet her?"

'Maybe. She was at a couple of our shows in New York. She wasn't at all like your run of the mill woman we meet ordinarily. Never wanted to come backstage or anything.'

"Huh. How'd you meet her then?"

'Out one night. We started talking. It was after Lois died. I don't know,' he trailed off.

"Ah," John said. "And you never called her again?"

'Nah, I got the hint and took it. Figured maybe she felt guilty for needing that and she knew I couldn't judge her or rat her out. Who was I going to tell? And it's not like I'm going to run into her with long-haul guy and say anything about our time together. She was a lot of fun, you know what I mean? I don't think the word no was uttered once by her, so maybe she needed to let loose a bit and have fun.'

"Why are you so chatty today?" John asked, realizing they'd been on the phone for a while. He and Claude got along and talked, but lengthy phone conversations was not common for them.

'I don't know,' he said.

And then John remembered. It was his oldest's birthday today. He only knew that because of it being so close to Melissa's. Otherwise he had no clue when his other three kids' birthdays were.

"You going out tonight?" John asked.

'Probably,' he said.

"Be safe."

'I'm clean, remember?'

"I do, but I don't worry about you. There are nut jobs out there who don't know how to handle their alcohol and think New Year's Eve is a great time to drink and drive."

'I'll be careful. You have a good time. And compliment her, John.'

"I'm sorry. What?"

'Don't just tell her she looks nice. Be specific.'

"What are you talking about?"

'You know what I'm talking about.'

"Whatever."

Be specific? How much more specific did he need to be other than telling her she looked nice? He expected no less from her simply because of who she was.

'Your first New Year's Eve sober. You nervous?'

"A little," he admitted.

It was going to be his first public appearance sober in an environment where he never said no to something being offered.

'Is that one of the reasons you invited her?'

"I hadn't thought about it that way, but maybe. I know she won't let me…"

'And that's how I know you like her.'

"Come again?"

'If you didn't you wouldn't care if she'd let you or not. You'd find a way. Trust me.'

"If you weren't sober I'd wonder if you'd been drinking. Go back to bed, Claude."

He laughed softly.

'Enjoy your midnight kiss.'

"I plan to," John said without thinking and Claude laughed harder "Fuck off!"

'Is she as good as you remember?'

"Don't be an asshole."

'I'm not trying to be.'

"I wouldn't know," he said quickly.

"Uh huh, okay. Have fun."

'You, too,' he said before disconnecting.

He had quite a bit of time yet before he had to get ready. Chances were he had quite a bit of time before they'd get back if he knew women at all. Not that he claimed to know women like them. John tried to picture any woman he'd encountered at more than one of their concerts who could have been with Claude. He couldn't, but that didn't mean much. He wasn't the most attentive and if they were concerts John had a girlfriend or someone paying attention to him those nights he wouldn't have noticed.

"They'll be back in plenty of time," Dominick said, as if trying to assure John.

"I know," he said. "I'm heading to the studio until it's time for me to start getting ready."

"I'll let them know when they get back."

"I'm sure they'll have other things on their mind, but thanks."

Dominick would drive them and pick them up later. It was only a short drive, and John always felt stupid having his car parked when he could theoretically walk. So, the past couple of years when he'd lived in the area Dominick drove. It had allowed him to drink as much as he wanted also, which wouldn't be a concern tonight.

He took his dad's guitar out of the cabinet he kept it in with his other ones. He had a couple he didn't play because they were collector's items. A guitar he'd bought at an estate auction for Waylon Jennings was the one he took the most pride in because it was just cool.

He did something he hadn't done in a long, long time. He just didn't need to do it anymore. Tonight, though, he turned a classic rock station on and played with the radio.

"Who did you want to play like?" Melissa asked.

"Holy fuck. How long have you been standing there?"

"About two songs," she said with a shrug. She looked a little embarrassed maybe that he truly hadn't realized she was there but not really.

"Oh, sorry. I didn't hear you," he regarded her closely then. "I like it," he said with a nod.

"It?"

"Yeah, your hair. It looks nice. It makes you look a lot older than seventeen, which I'm not sure I'm ready for."

"Thank you," she whispered.

"Where's your mom?"

"Upstairs checking our dresses."

"She think they got ruined between the cleaners and here?"

"She's a perfectionist," she said with a shrug.

"I guess she has room to be that."

"Can I?" she asked, gesturing to one of the guitars in the cabinet.

He set his guitar down on the stand and walked to the cabinet with her.

"You might chip a nail or something," he said, taking hold of one of her hands to look at it.

"I suppose."

"Your mom would have a fit if you did that I imagine."

"She would," she said.

"When we get home if you want to I'm game."

"Really?"

"Yeah. I don't know why that surprises you. I've played with you anytime you've wanted to except in July."

"I know. I just. It's going to be late and it's New Year's Eve."

"I'm not sure what that has to do with anything."

"I don't know. There's probably stuff you'd rather do."

He scowled a bit and moved his hand a bit so he could lace his fingers through hers.

"I can't think of anything I'd rather be doing than exactly what I'm doing tonight, Melissa. If I didn't want you here I wouldn't have asked."

"Yes, but…"

"No buts. I wouldn't have asked."

"People could find out."

"I doubt people are going to put one and one together tonight and jump to two. However, if that happens so be it. I'm more worried about you guys if that happens than me. Your lives would change pretty drastically. Your grandparents," he shrugged. "I'm not good at this stuff. I'm not. I know I'm your dad but I don't see myself as a dad. I'm learning and I know I'll never be the dad you should've had growing up."

"I know."

He leaned in, kissing her forehead.

"I'm afraid I'll ruin anything if I kiss you anywhere else. I'm not rushing out to tell people, for you not for me."

"I believe you."

"All right, good. Should we go find your mom?"

"Yeah, I suppose."

He chuckled.

"This isn't the first of her dresses you've worn is it?"

"No! I don't think I've ever owned a dress for something formal or special from a store."

"Ever?"

"No," she said with a shrug.

"I never realized your mom did that."

"You didn't really know her, though, did you?"

"No," he shrugged. "No more than she knew me I mean. I had her pegged as a type same as she did me. I didn't have the chance to find out she did things like sew."

"But she had the chance to find out you played guitar?"

He chuckled. "I was a clueless dolt back then and didn't know I should've been asking about her." He shrugged. "She knew she was supposed to ask about me."

It'd come up when they were talking about stuff in the library that he played. He'd never thought to ask if she did anything that would lead to a career for her. He would never have thought sewing would result in a career for her knowing her dad was a lawyer.

"Honestly, I had no clue how to talk to someone like your mom."

"I get that sometimes, too," Melissa said. "I guess that's why I like Sean. He doesn't see my name or my mom."

"He sees your dad now," John said with a chuckle.

"I know, but he didn't know you were my dad."

"No."

"And then Stu told me about you and I had no one to tell. I had this huge secret that I couldn't tell."

"No one to talk to about it?"

She shrugged a bit. "No one I didn't think would go blabbing it to everyone who you were."

"I'll say the same thing to you I told your mom back then. Get new friends. Everyone needs someone they can trust."

"Who do you have?"

"Claude," John said without hesitation. "That's about it. I've known him since before you were even a possibility."

"What about Billy?"

"I trust him, but not with something like this, no. Just not that kind of friend."

"I see," she said.

He glanced at the clock on the wall. Sometimes if he or the band were down here and were being creative or under the gun with a deadline the clock would get covered so they couldn't see the time. Tonight though that wasn't the case.

"We should think about getting ready."

"Are the people nice?"

"They're not going to stick you with hot pokers or anything. You've been to parties like this I'm sure with your mom for her or for your grandparents."

"Yes."

"No different. Just different types of people."

"Okay," she said.

"And you look beautiful."

"You haven't even seen my dress yet."

"I think you look beautiful just like that."

"Thanks." She frowned a little as she looked at him.

"What?" Was that the wrong thing to say? He was allowed to compliment her, wasn't he? Telling her he thought she was beautiful wasn't weird, was it? He certainly hadn't grown up in a household full of compliments and he was incredibly new at this, but he'd seen enough parents with their kids over the years to know that complimenting them was usually a good thing. He hadn't seen her dress yet, true, but he had no doubt she'd be even more beautiful wearing that. He'd never seen her with her hair done up and everything like she was now.

"You are going to shave, right?"

He chuckled softly. Obviously he was thinking too deeply into that look she was giving him. He couldn't deny he wasn't upset about the subject change. He'd observed how normal parents treated their children (and vice versa) over the years, sure, but that didn't mean he was completely comfortable with all of it.

"Yes, I plan on doing that."

"Okay."

"You and your mother keep telling me to shave. I guess neither of you like scruffy guys."


***

She found him in the bathroom when he was shaving. He eyed her briefly as she leaned against the doorjamb and watched him shave. She was wearing a pretty nice robe and he couldn't help but let his eyes roam a bit.

"I'm not showing you," she said with a slight smile.

"Showing me what?" he asked. "I didn't say anything."

"You wondered what I am wearing under my robe."

He chuckled. "I'm only human, sweetheart."

"I know that," she said.

"So, if not to entice me with what you have under that robe…"

She shrugged. "I was just watching."

"Making sure I actually shave? Your daughter told me I should, too."

"Did she?" Claire asked with a soft laugh.

"She did."

"She's our daughter."

"Technically, yes. It took both of us to make her, but her being who she is today is all you. I had absolutely nothing to do with it. I can admit that freely."

"Thank you."

"Thank you," he said.

"Don't let me stop you."

"Something on your mind?" he asked. He'd never had someone stand and watch him while he shaved. It was a little unnerving and kind of exciting in a weird sort of way.

"Why did you ask us to come with you tonight?"

He shrugged, rinsing his razor under the water for a second.

"What kind of question is that?"

"You could have invited us down here for the week but not the party."

"That would have been pretty rude, wouldn't it have been? I thought you'd have fun. I thought Melissa would have fun."

"That's all?"

He wiped his face with his towel and she walked toward him, sliding the towel out from around his neck.

"You missed a spot," she whispered.

"Thanks," he said, tugging lightly on the belt holding her robe closed. "Nice," he murmured as he settled his hands against her hips.

"Thank you."

He slid his hands to her ass, tugging her to him.

"And yes, that's all. I mean maybe I like the idea of going with someone who's not going to be coked up out of her mind and tempt me to do that."

"And if I drink?"

"It might be kind of fun to be the sober one in my bed for a change."

"You have been all week."

"I know."

She bit her lower lip lightly and he leaned in to kiss her.

"What?" he asked.

"Have you not…"

"Not?"

"Are you wishing you were drunk?"

"Jesus fucking Christ, no. Where the hell did you get that from what I just said?"

"I don't know. It's what you're used to. Maybe it's not as good for you."

"Princess, my only complaint is me wondering what's wrong with me that you only want me behind you."

He hadn't asked why up to this point she only wanted him behind her. Who the fuck was he to complain about such a thing?

"It's not you."

"Okay."

She sighed softly, running her fingers along his cheeks and he closed his eyes at the contact. She leaned in to kiss him then.

"Reach into my pocket," she whispered against his mouth.

"Is that code, Princess?"

She laughed softly, kissing his lower lip. "No."

"Damn," he whispered, but did as she asked.

"Here?" he asked when he drew the packet out of her pocket.

"Uh huh," she whispered.

"Where'd you get it?"

"From your room while you were showering," she said.

"Oh," he said. "Thank you."

"You're thanking me?"

He shrugged, sliding his hand along her leg to push the hem of the slip she had on under her robe up.

"I like that you took the initiative when that was your mood."

"I've been in the mood since Saturday it seems."

"Funny, me, too," he said.

He helped her onto the counter once he was sure she was ready for him.

"Stop staring at me," he whispered when he was rolling the condom on.

"Why?"

"You're going to make me nervous and I'll rip it or something."

"I like watching," she said with a shrug.

He shook his head a bit. "No longer nervous." Fuck did that turn him on immensely.

Hands at her hips he tugged her toward and onto him. She wrapped her legs around him and settled a hand behind her against the counter. Fuck, he could get used to this entirely too easily. He broke their kiss only to focus on her breasts. Until now he hadn't been able to pay them the attention they deserved when he was inside of her.

"You planning on being somewhere else tonight that we wouldn't do that later?" he asked when they'd finished.

"Just in case I do have too much to drink."

He chuckled. "Do I have permission to go down on you if you have?"

"You do."

"Fantastic."

He stepped away, discarding the condom in the toilet before returning to her.

"Do I have permission to do that again?"

"You do," she said with a soft laugh.

"Yeah?"

"Only because I know you'll make it worth my while."

"I will do my best."

"I do need help with my dress."

"Oh?"

"I could ask Melissa to do it if you don't want to see it before we leave."

"Do what?"

"The zipper."

"Oh, yeah, I can do that. There's no bad luck thing to see you before a party, is there?"

"I'm surprised you know there is such a rule."

"I've been to a wedding or two. Claude's!"

She laughed softly, kissing his chest.

"I bet you have."

"I didn't even muss up your hair or anything. I'm pretty fucking good."

He helped her off the counter.

"You don't have more than one in there, do you?"

"No, I only took one."

"Just making sure because I am going to go get dressed now."

"And that would stop you?"

"If you had a second one in your other pocket? Maybe."

"Only maybe?"

"Well, you know, it would depend on how convincing you were."

"Having a second one wouldn't be convincing?"

"It would be pretty convincing, yes."

"I'll remember that for next time."

He snorted softly. "Do you need the closet?"

"Not yet, and I'm not sure it really matters at this point does it? You just saw me pretty naked."

"Not completely naked. Trust me, I plan on fixing that later."

"Oh?"

"Yes, if you've had too much to drink I'm going to leave the lights on so I can look as well as touch you to my heart's content. Even if you haven't had too much to drink I might still do that."

She blushed then and he leaned in to kiss her.

"Let me know when you need me to zip you up."

"Okay."

"And hey, I'll make a deal with you on the zipper?"

"A deal? I have to zip my dress!"

"That wasn't the deal I had in mind, but if it's negotiable, let me know."

"No!"

He laughed with a shake of his head. "Help me with my stupid tie?"

"Yeah, sure."

"I figured you'd know how to do those bow ties in your sleep."

"Not quite, but I've tied a few."

"I'll bet. Thanks."


***

He took a deep breath after she'd fixed his tie. He knew how to tie it himself, but he wasn't fast or neat about it. He usually asked Dominick, but figured this was better.

"Why do you sound nervous?" she asked.

"Oh, I don't know," he said with a sigh. "I haven't seen Melissa's dress yet, but you look…" He tried to remember what Claude had said to him about a compliment. Specific. How specific was he supposed to be? He couldn't for the life of him and he never thought there was something wrong with telling a woman he liked her dress. "Fucking amazing."

She bowed her head a bit.

"What? You do. I mean, I know you do that for a living, but never in my wildest dreams did I envision you looking this nice." He paused. "And I don't mean that I thought you wouldn't look nice."

Her dress was, much like her preferred nail polish, not a color he would describe as purely pink. It wasn't strapless but from her chest to her neck and shoulders it was some sheer lace-like material. That went around her neck and down to about half of her almost totally exposed back. The zipper she'd said she needed help with? Wasn't a very long zipper at all. There were very thin straps where her arm met her shoulder, but they blended in so well with the lace-like material that he almost missed them. The lace-like stuff was almost like a halter-type wrap or something. And the skirt part? It clung to her hips and legs with a pretty long hem that made him wonder how she'd get through the night without tripping.

"Thank you," she said.

"No, thank you, really. I mean, I know you didn't make it for tonight or anything, but you could've picked out anything and I'd never have known the difference."

"I like getting dressed up, and I haven't had a reason to for a while."

"I suppose," he said, lips getting tight at that. Had she been able to go out last New Year's Eve? It sounded like her husband had wanted to get as much in as he could, so maybe. He honestly didn't want to know, though. So, he refrained from asking.

"I'm going to go check on Melissa."

"Please tell me more of her is covered."

She laughed softly. "Worried?"

"I know Sean and got pissed off when I thought he'd done something to her. There's going to be a lot of people there tonight, not all of whom I know or know personally if I do know them."

"I know," she said. "She'll be fully dressed and we'll be ready whenever you are."

"All right. I'll come find you in a few minutes. I just need to get my shoes on and stuff."

He was very glad that Melissa's dress was far more conservative than her mom's was. He supposed to this point the occasions she'd needed formal dresses for had been school dances, maybe a wedding or something like it. If Claire made her dresses, which it sounded like she did (and who could blame her for doing that), he doubted Claire would send her out in something too revealing. Funny, he'd never thought there was such a thing before tonight.

Her dress was a pretty nice shade of green.

"Shoes to match, huh?" he asked, regarding her feet when she walked toward him.

"Yeah."

"Yours match, too?" he asked. He couldn't see Claire's feet when she walked. That's how long her dress was.

"Yes," she said, tugging her skirt up a bit so he could see that they were indeed matching.

"Nice. All right."

This was such a strange concept for him. His life before Shooterz was really nothing more than a band in Claude and Xander's garage who played for fifty bucks a piece at dives meeting up with his life today. John had no one from his past. His parents weren't in the picture and he had no siblings or other relatives who came to concerts or anything. No friends either other than Claude and Billy anymore. People asked sometimes, but John was pretty evasive about why he had nothing from his past to speak of.

One thing he knew about both of them as Dominick let them off in front of the house they weren't going to stand there and gawk at anything or anyone. While a little different league than Claire's parents' house, he knew both of them were still pretty used to not just nice things but coming face to face with well-known people. He'd brought someone to a party like this years ago who wanted to get an actor's autograph. John had to explain to her why that wasn't possible. He was pretty sure she never understood why it was impolite to do that. Oh, sure the guy probably would have given her the autograph, but John would've looked like a fucking idiot. (The only way he'd gotten her to give up was to assure her he'd get it for her, which he did. The autographed picture was better than a cocktail napkin or something she would've gotten from a party.)

He wasn't the only one who thought they looked nice either. Neither of them lacked for a dance partner if the desire to do that struck them. The desire struck them quite a bit. John was, unfortunately, not a dancer.

He did manage to cut in on a slow dance with Melissa before the dance actually started. The guy wasn't too happy about it, but Melissa seemed to prefer John to the guy so he didn't feel bad about it or anything.

"You having fun?" he asked. He didn't stay by their side every second or anything. The first hour or so he stayed pretty close to them, but as it was clear they were both comfortable talking and mingling he'd sort of wandered around. He didn't stray far or for long. He wasn't a completely rude asshole, but he knew they were capable of handling a conversation on their own and had one another if needed.

"I am," she said. "I can't believe how many people are here."

"This is the party of the year. Pretty much anyone who's anyone shows up."

"I see that."

"Should I be worried that you're not going to think I'm important anymore?"

"What? No," she said.

"Relax, I'm teasing. Sorry."

"Oh, good. I was going to say, here I'm worried I'm going to embarrass you or someone's going to find out and you're going to get mad. If you were worried about that I'd feel bad."

"You're not going to embarrass me, you would have already if that was going to happen." He leaned closer, pressing his mouth against her ear. "People are going to find out, eventually. I have no doubt that's going to happen. If it's tonight or next year or ten years from now, I don't care. I'm not ashamed of anything other than perhaps my inability to be ready eighteen years ago."

"Thank you. I worry, I guess, and especially being here."

"I don't think anyone's going to make that leap. Your mother and I talked about this, too."

"Okay."

"Speaking of your mother."

"Yes," Melissa said.

"Who's she dancing with?"

He tried to make it a casual sounding question. She'd danced with the same guy more than once now. He had absolutely no business asking the question, or caring what the answer was. She was certainly entitled to dance with people. He did, though.

"Mm," she said with a slight frown. "Anthony somebody. He's from New York he said."

"Yeah, he is," John said, recognizing the guy now. He was a professional hockey player. He didn't follow the sport, but living in New York it was hard to avoid the press coverage of one of the city's favorite players.

"You know him?"

"Of him," John said.

"He seems pretty nice. He knew who Mom was."

"He did?"

"Yeah, I guess," she said.

"Oh," he said.

Did she design men's clothes? He had no idea. He supposed she would. Why not? He wasn't a suit or dress clothes connoisseur by any means. He owned this tuxedo because over the years they'd had to go to awards shows and formal release parties. He had suits and stuff, of course. Generally, though ninety-nine percent of the time he was still a jeans and flannel shirt with a T-shirt worn under the flannel shirt kind of guy. He supposed hockey players traveled to away games in suits and stuff all of the time.

"You don't like him?" Melissa asked, sounding worried.

"What? No, I don't know him, just of him."

"Okay. I mean, she's only dated that man her friend Allison set her up with since Stu died."

"Right."

"I like seeing her have fun. She never does at home."

"Why not?"

She shrugged. "She's a widow. Her mom and dad…"

"I can just imagine what her mom and dad say. She should still be wearing black, I suppose."

"Something like that."

Would they flip a lid knowing she'd had sex several times now, and with John to boot.

"You haven't had any champagne," she said after a little silence between them. He'd never had the chance to dance with Claire until tonight, but he imagined how Melissa fit against him was pretty much how it would have been had they had the chance in high school.

"No," he said.

"Why?"

He sighed softly. "Haven't touched it since October."

"Really?"

"Yeah," he said.

"I didn't even notice."

He snorted softly. "Well, it's not like you're around me all the time to notice."

"No, but at our house and here now these last few days."

Christ. Is that how she thought of him? As the guy who wasn't ever without a drink in his hand? She thought he'd show up at their house and bring stuff with him?

He shook his head.

"No," he said.

She reached up and kissed his cheek.

"Good," she said as the song ended. He was going to go with her and weasel his way into the conversation with Claire and athlete Tony, but he was grabbed.

"John, man, good to see you. I didn't know you'd be here."

"Uh yeah," he said. It was one of their record label guys so he sort of had to talk to him. Melissa slipped away. She was good at doing that, almost as if she didn't want people to associate them being together as a thing.

Why the fuck did that bother him?

Why the fuck did he give a fucking rat's ass who Claire talked to and danced with?

"I hear you guys are going to start recording in the next couple of weeks."

"Oh, yeah," he said. "Everyone will be coming down here, but, yup, we hope to have something to you by March."

"Good, good. You having a good time?"

"Yeah," he said.

"You're empty. Need something?"

"No," John said quickly.

"You sure?"

"Yeah, positive. I'm set," he said.

"All right. Let me know if you change your mind. I've got some pretty good stuff."

John was certain he wasn't lying. He never disappointed where that was concerned.

"I'm good, really, thanks."

"Sure, sure. Have a good time. Where'd that pretty woman you were dancing with disappear to? I hope I didn't interrupt."

"Uh, no. You're fine." He supposed dressed as she was she didn't look like a teenager, but it'd been a while since John showed up to something like this with someone as young as Melissa.

"Good, good."

Larry went about his business and John glanced around for a sign of Melissa or Claire, but didn't spot them immediately. They had a little while to go until midnight yet and everything.

He walked in the direction he last saw Claire. Why was it when he didn't want to socialize he was stopped every ten steps or so? By everybody who'd heard a song of his ten years ago and thought they were his biggest fan.

He found them outside the ballroom near the gardens.

"Maybe the next time we play the Blackhawks you could come to the game, show me the city. I think we get there again this season yet. I bet you two know all of the best places to eat pizza that cab drivers either don't know about or won't drive you to."

John rolled his eyes slightly at that. Of course the guy would have an in like traveling to Chicago.

"Well, it would depend on when."

"Right, of course."

"And you have the night off?"

"Well, we are playing tonight, but I'm down here for my friend's wedding tomorrow. I'm his best man. He and his fiancé are inside somewhere. So, I was scratched from the lineup tonight."

"I see. How fun to have a wedding on New Year's Day. And down here! I guess they'll never forget their anniversary."

"That's one way of looking at it."

John approached them then, regarding hockey guy Tony as he did. He wondered if he had any real teeth left, and if Claire had even thought on that. Did she know about hockey? He had no idea.

He tried not to feel like a slouch compared to the guy. He wasn't. Just because he didn't wear suits to get on an airplane didn't mean he wasn't successful. He could wear suits if he wanted to.

"There you guys are," he said.

"John," Claire said. He couldn't read her to know if she was glad he had found her or not.

"Am I interrupting?" he asked.

"No, we were just talking. It's so nice out we came out here for a while. This is Anthony."

"You're John Bender," Anthony said.

"I am."

"I've been listening to you since college."

"Thanks for being a fan. Maybe Anthony should find someone to take out to the garden right before midnight who isn't already here with someone."

"John," Claire said.

"She said she and her daughter were here with a friend."

"Maybe you should have asked if the friend was male or female. They're with me."

"John," Claire said again, setting her hand against the forearm of his jacket. He glanced at her hand, noticing for the first time her nails were a different color than they usually were when he saw her. Way to be observant. Was that the type of specific Claude had been talking about earlier? He'd never know.

"It's fine. I'm sure Anthony understands what I'm saying."

"We were just talking."

"Find someone other than my date and her daughter to talk to."

"John, don't be rude," Claire said, but Anthony was already walking away.

"I wasn't being rude."

"He was talking to me."

"He was hitting on you."

"John," Claire said.

John glanced at Melissa. "Was he or was he not hitting on her?"

"He was," she agreed.

"Thank you."

"He," Claire said.

"He wanted you to take him out for pizza the next time he was in Chicago. That's hitting on you."

"You were listening?"

"I was looking for you. I listened for a minute, yeah."

"Why?"

He shrugged. There was the rub. Why indeed? Why the fuck did he care what she did the next time hockey player guy was in Chicago? Why the fuck did it bother him to think of someone else kissing her at midnight?

"I don't know," he said simply.

"He's going to tell people I'm your date."

"So," he said.

"John! That's absurd."

"Why is it absurd?"

"I'm not your date!"

"You aren't? Did you not come here with me?"

"Yes."

"Are you not staying at my house?"

"Yes, but you invited us!"

"Do you really think I'm going to let someone else kiss you at midnight?"

"He wasn't going to!"

"He was working on it."

"You can't possibly know that."

"I know that because I have eyes and if I was a single guy and you were here with a friend I'd try like hell to be your choice in kissing partners. Since I am the friend you're here with I luck out."

"You're crazy! It wasn't like that."

"Think that all you want."

"But John, people are going to think we're together."

"So? I don't care. Let them think that."

"But!"

"Yeah? I don't care. How much clearer can I be about that? Neither of us are doing anything wrong to where if someone thinks that we'd have something to feel guilty about."

She sighed and shook her head.

"What did I say?" he asked Melissa. Then an idea occurred to him.

Maybe she didn't want people to think that.

What the fuck did that mean?

What did them having sex mean if that was the case?

Melissa excused herself and went further into the garden on her own. She probably didn't want to listen to the conversation any more than John wanted to be having it.

"What?" he asked. "Am I supposed to go find him and tell him you're not with me?"

"No, it's fine."

"Great. Thanks."

He sighed then.

"Maybe I was kind of rude," he murmured.

Claire scoffed softly.

"Sue me! I overhear this guy asking you out for some unspecified date I didn't like it."

"Well, it's certainly not going to happen now."

"You could take me for pizza."

"John…"

He shrugged. "I can do better than the next time I play in Chicago."

"I know," she said.

"You already have my phone number."

"I know," she said.

"I already know your secrets," he whispered.

"The biggest one anyway. And it wasn't really my secret."

"Okay. You know my biggest secret."

"He was just being nice."

"He was hitting on you. Perhaps it's been too long since that's happened if you don't understand it."

"It has been a while."

"That is a crime."

"Shut up," she said, crossing her arms in front of her.

"Cold?"

She shrugged, tucking a few strands of hair that had come out of her hairdo behind her ear.

"We can go back inside."

"You're not going to, like, start a fight or anything."

"You planning on kissing someone else?"

"No! I wasn't going to kiss him."

"He was working on that, too."

"I think you give him too much…"

"I do not. I know exactly what he sees."

"What's that?"

"One of the most gorgeous women at this party seemingly without a date and no ring on her finger."

"Stop," she said.

"I'm not going to stop. That's what I saw that day when I walked into the library and that's what I still see tonight. Eighteen years older but I'd still do whatever I could to impress you if we were just meeting tonight for the first time over anyone else here."

"Thank you," she whispered.

He stepped toward her then. He took hold of her arms, sliding them to his neck while he put his arms around her.

"I'm going to kiss you now."

"It's not midnight."

"Fuck midnight," he whispered, slanting his mouth over hers.

They both broke the kiss at the same time at the sound of a gasp.

"Please tell me that's not…"

"I can't tell you that because I'd be lying."

"She didn't look mad or anything," he whispered.

"Really?"

"No, a little confused maybe but not mad."

"Well, that's good at least. Wait. You said didn't?"

"Yeah, she turned and walked right back where she'd come from."

"I should go talk to her."

"In a minute," he said, not letting go of her yet.

"John! She's liable to think…"

"That her parents are kissing. She probably surmises we've done at least that before."

"That's not funny!"

"It's a little funny," he whispered. "You can go to her. But first," he said, settling a fingertip over her mouth when she started to talk again.

Her eyes opened a bit. Clearly she hadn't realized how close to midnight it was when he found her with hockey player Anthony.

"Happy New Year, Princess," he whispered, moving his finger away to kiss her again.

"You, too," she said when they stopped.

"You let me know when you want that pizza, by the way."

"I'll work on it."

Chapter Text

Chapter Seventeen
Word Count: 3,398

"Did you really think I'd kiss someone in front of Melissa?" she asked later. Much later. They'd gotten back to his place around three in the morning. He'd proven to Claire that he could very capably carry Melissa. Claire did what she needed to do in Melissa's bedroom from there. If it had been him with one of his friends he would have just left them on the bed, but he supposed that wouldn't fly for a mom to do with her child.

As if he'd know what normal mom's did with their kids.

Claire had joined him in his room eventually, wearing the robe she'd had on earlier (and nothing else he discovered pretty quickly).

"I don't know," he said, sliding a hand along her hip. "I don't know what you do."

"I've never kissed anyone but Stu in front of her. You now I guess."

"Really?"

"Yes, really. I told you she never met anyone until him."

"Maybe you did, I guess I didn't think you meant ever."

"I was very careful."

"Why?"

Claire shrugged.

"I didn't want her to get attached to anyone. I didn't want to judge anyone based on how they got along with her or how they treated her. I didn't want her to be a ploy to get to me."

"Oh," he said.

"We did all right."

"I'd say you did more than all right."

"Thanks."

"Sure. I kissed her earlier," he said.

"What?"

He chuckled softly. "Sorry. Bad segue I guess. You're not in my mind to follow my train of thought. When you got home from your appointments. You were checking on your dresses and she came to see me in the studio."

"Oh, yes."

"We were talking. I don't know what about exactly. She wanted to play a guitar and I told her she might chip a nail and you'd get mad. I told her we could play tonight if she still wanted to, which seemed to surprise her. We talked about the fact I really do want her here and that I don't think of myself as a dad even though that's what I am. So like a moment, I guess and so I kissed her. On the forehead, which she probably thought was ridiculous. She could apply more lipstick," he shrugged. "That doesn't come naturally to me because I didn't have it. You know? Affection."

"I know."

"I didn't know what to do then either, so I just asked her if we should come find you. I mean, I have absolutely nothing to pull from on how to behave in situations like that. She probably thinks I'm an idiot or an asshole."

"Are you asking me if she said anything?"

"No. I just wanted to say it, I guess. I tried not to think about it at the time."

"I didn't really know either at first, John. I'd never held a baby in my life until her. My parents while better than yours weren't great either. I did get kisses, I suppose."

"You've done fine, though, obviously."

"Sure because I had no choice."

"Ouch."

"I didn't mean it like that. I'm just saying I didn't have one. I knew I didn't want to be like Mom and Dad so I did the opposite as often as I could. That meant loving her and being there whenever I could be. Having my own business helped immensely. I could do field trips and school plays."

"I'm glad."

"Me, too."

"I bet she is, too."

"I think she got tired of it after a while and then I got married. Things were a little different. She was no longer my sole focus. Then Stu got sick and she wasn't even really my focus anymore."

"I'm sure she totally understands that."

"I know. I mean, realistically, but then she got mad at me and it's just been a big blur of emotion since then. You know?"

"She's not mad anymore."

"No. At least not as mad."

"Good."

"There are varying degrees of anger, though, and I'm sure there will still be some bitterness due to the fact she wasn't there eighteen years ago to understand where we were and how my father was. He's grandpa to her and can do no wrong."

"You were fairly fond of him, too."

"Sure, between the two of them he's the most functioning and level-headed."

"So, can I ask a question?"

"Besides that one, you mean?"

"Ha ha, smart ass. Yes," he said. He really wanted to get off the subject of her dad if he could. Another time and place maybe he'd love to discuss him further, but not tonight.

"Sure," she said.

"You said earlier it wasn't me. Wanting me behind you."

"It's not," she said.

"Okay."

She didn't say anything else.

"Sorry. None of my business. I know, stupid of me to ask."

"No, that's not it."

"Okay?"

"You're the only one I've done anything but that with."

"Come again?"

"My experience before marrying Stu wasn't vast. A few times here and there. It always changed things afterward, though."

"Huh?"

"Oddly, the guys I did that with seemed to take it as a sign I was ready to settle down with them."

"Oh," he said. "You weren't?"

"No, but Jesus, I was in my twenties. I had needs."

"Sure," he said.

"We didn't have a choice that day but to do something other than you on top of me."

"Right. I remember."

"I've never had that otherwise, and I knew because of that day you wouldn't think there was something wrong with me."

"Wrong with you?" He laughed softly at that.

"Yeah, for wanting that."

"You think that's wrong?"

"I don't know. No one's ever tried to do anything but that."

"Not even Stu?"

"No!"

He kissed her shoulder and shifted them a bit so he was on top of her instead of behind her.

"Did you ask?"

"How do you ask something like that?"

"You asked me."

"Sure because I knew you'd at least been open to the idea once before."

He shrugged. "I suppose," he said.

"I felt weird asking, I guess."

"Not with me?"

"You don't think this means I'm going to marry you. You're not going to see me next week. You're not going to walk around telling people that Melissa's mother likes weird things."

"There's nothing weird about what we've done, Claire."

"Yes, but…"

"There is no but. Did we both consent?"

"Yes."

"Did we both enjoy it?"

"Presumably."

He chuckled.

"Then there's nothing wrong or weird. I assure you I'm not going to tell anyone what we do."

"I know. You would have then if you were going to."

"Oh, it was tempting."

"Why didn't you?"

How to explain it?

"I didn't want people knowing that about you."

That was as simply put as he could make it. Why he'd cared about people knowing that she'd had sex with him and not anyone else hadn't occurred to him for a while. He knew nothing about love to understand that's what he felt until it was too late.

He could just imagine what her dad would have done if John had uttered the word love when he'd come to tell John he was going to be a father. He would have laughed at him and gone to the cops with the rape charges.

"There are some fun me on top positions, you know," he said.

"No," she said, blushing and he chuckled.

"I'd ask for names so that I could educate those men, but I don't want to know."

"There haven't been many. Maybe it was just me?"

"It's not you. Trust me I've been behind someone on our sides before and it wasn't nearly that enjoyable."

"You're just saying that."

"I'm not! It was awkward and just not really enjoyable. Neither of those things came into play tonight."

"No," she said, shaking her head a bit.

"I have four more nights to show you."

"You do."

"I plan on doing just that, but you know if you decide you really want me behind you instead speak up."

"You do seem to like that."

"Well, yeah," he said, sliding his hand between her legs.

"What are you doing?"

"Going to start right now showing you. Being a new year and all, may as well start it out right."

"Already?"

"Yes already. Sue me that you excite me." He was going to guess Stu hadn't been a more than once kind of guy based on her surprise that he did want to and could. He was guessing that was pre-health issues at any rate. None of his business and he didn't want to know the answer when all was said and done.

He had no desire to see her leave here doubting him. About his being ready or the enjoyable ways he could be on top of her.


***

Here was a first. The women were ready and waiting on him. He was on his third tie and feeling absolutely ridiculous at the idea that he was nervous about having dinner with his daughter on her birthday.

He'd left it up to Dominick to book the reservation so they were going to a pretty nice restaurant that was more for dates than the type of dinner they were having. Dominick's idea of a joke? Perhaps. John hadn't told him who Melissa was. It was none of his business. He'd never gossiped that John knew of, but he wasn't going to take the chance with this.

Finally he decided on a tie, wondering as he adjusted it if he'd ever owned anything Claire had designed. He'd never know, he supposed.

He was saving her gift for when they got home, and hoping Claire wouldn't get upset with him about it.

Dinner was fantastic, which John knew it would be. He wasn't an overly frequent customer of the place since he didn't go on romantic dates very often. He'd been there a time or two over the years, though, and had never been disappointed. He wagered that was why Dominick had chosen it. That and it wasn't a place where John would be a super well known commodity.

They drove along the coast again, heading north and west instead of south as they'd done on New Year's Eve. They got out in Clearwater Beach and walked for a bit. Neither of them were wearing stockings so they took off their shoes while they did that. Claire even held his hand, which surprised him.

Melissa didn't seem bothered by that, if she even noticed. He presumed she did, but she was more interested in seeing what kind of shells she could find along the beach.

"Did you collect shells?" he asked.

"Sure. Not down here so much, no. We never did something like walk along the beach. At my grandparents' lake house, though, I had a bucket that I'd add to every year."

"What happened to the bucket?"

"You know, I don't know. I stopped spending several weeks at a time there when I was about thirteen, I guess. I was too cool to do that anymore."

John snorted softly at that.

"I imagine it's still there. I'll have to look the next time I'm there."

"You own it?"

"I do. They left it to me. Christopher didn't want it."

"That's nice. That they left it to you, I mean."

"I loved going there. He never did as much. Even after I started high school I still went there for a week or two at a time. Usually I'd go a week after school let out and then two weeks in August."

"Is it nice?"

"It is. It's pretty basic. It was my mom's parents. Grandpa built it with one of his friends."

"Really?"

"Yeah."

"You're really lucky then."

"I am. I'm even luckier that Melissa never got to that point I did. She loves going up there as much as I do. She didn't go last summer, obviously. The summer before, though, Stu wanted to spend as much time there as we could. He didn't need twenty-four hour a day medical attention at that point, so it was feasible to do that. Toward the end there it wouldn't have been because the nearest hospital is about an hour away."

"No doctor?"

"Not nearby, no."

"Huh. Sounds rustic."

"It is. There's a restaurant, a bar that is also a restaurant, a general store, a couple of churches, and I think a couple of other bars."

"You think?"

"I've never gone to them since I've had Melissa since I was legal to go into one."

"I suppose," he said.

"It's small, though."

"I'm not sure I've ever spent time somewhere like that. I guarantee I never had you pegged as someone who had and enjoyed it at that."

"I guess I didn't know any different. By the time we met I wasn't going there for more than a week maybe and I usually brought a friend with me so I wasn't bored."

He chuckled softly at that.

"Hey, Melissa," he said.

"Yeah?" she asked, turning to face him. She looked happy as she pushed some hair away from her face due to the wind. It wasn't crazily windy, but they were on the water so there was wind.

"You ready for cake? I think there's something else for you at the house, too."

"Really?" she asked, sounding surprised.

Maybe she was.

Maybe he wasn't supposed to buy her a gift. He was in very new territory here. His old man's way of celebrating John's birthday was giving him some cigarettes and holding off with the night's beating until the next day.

"You bought her a cake?" Claire asked.

"Dominick made a cake. I was going to order a cake, but he said he'd make one. He likes baking, I guess, and doesn't get much of a chance to do that working for me."

"No cookies?"

"Not really, not when it's just me there."

"I suppose not."

Claire didn't seem mad about the guitar, which may have been because she didn't realize how much it cost. Melissa had an idea, and she was more than a little surprised. Claire had gone up to bed over two hours ago, leaving them to play together. John always loved playing a new guitar for the first time, learning the ins and outs of how to make it sound the way he wanted it to. Melissa was no different, and he loved seeing the look on her face as she worked at tuning it just the way she wanted it.

"Why'd you choose this one?" she asked when they finished up for the night.

"I don't know. I liked the look of it. The fifties," he said with a shrug. "Makes me think of Buddy Holly, I guess."

"It's beautiful," she said.

She didn't want to put it away, which was obvious.

"We'll play more tomorrow. We've been down here for over two hours since your mom went to bed."

"Are you two dating?"

"No," John said.

"You kissed her…"

"I know," John said.

"You were holding her hand tonight."

"I won't deny I like your mother more than a little. Maybe I shouldn't have kissed her at the party like that. I got caught up in the moment, I guess. Her looking nice like that. I wasn't thinking you'd see us."

"Oh," she said.

"I like having you here," he said. "Enough I'd want you to come again if you'd like."

"With Mom?"

"That'd be up to you two."

"You're selling your place in New York?"

"I'm trying to. That doesn't mean we couldn't spend time there if that's what you wanted to do. They have more than a few hotels there."

"I know."

"So, think about it, I guess, when you get home. Maybe you'll get home and this week was too much. I don't know. Maybe I didn't use the right fork at dinner and you're embarrassed to possibly be linked to me."

She laughed at that.

"Don't be ridiculous."

"Your grandparents…"

"I suppose they would, but I'm not like them."

"No, you're not."

He took the few steps he needed to so that he could hug her. She hugged him back. He kissed the top of her head, surprised at how … easy it was to do things like that. He'd never had anyone in his life to be nice to. He'd had girlfriends, but they seldom just wanted him to hug them. Not like this anyway.

"Happy Birthday," he said.

"Thank you," she whispered. Her voice catching a bit made him think she was crying.

"You're welcome. Thank you for being curious enough about me so that you can be here for it with me."

She didn't seem in any hurry to let go of him, so he just stayed like that. Eventually, she let go of him and he stepped away. He wasn't sure how he felt about that look on her face. Surprise. Affection. Affection with no expectations of stuff. He'd never had that. Other than with her mom maybe. And one day didn't count in the grand scheme of things. A glimmer of something that was possible but was forbidden like everything else most everyone else in Shermer took for granted.

"Dinner was okay and everything?"

"Yeah, it was really nice."

"Good. I'm glad."

He watched as she put the guitar back in its case before flipping off the light and heading upstairs with her.

"Your mom mentioned shopping tomorrow."

"Yeah, I know."

"I think I may sit that out," John said.

"I like shopping with her."

"Yeah?"

"Yes."

"You're definitely her daughter then, so that's good. I'll be here when you're back, though."

"All right."

She went into her room and John walked down the hall to his. He was almost positive Claire was going to be in his room so he didn't turn the light on. He went to the bathroom to get ready for bed before joining her.

"Hi," she whispered when he kissed her shoulder once he slid behind her.

"Why do you insist on wearing clothes?"

"Habit?"

"it's a horrible habit," he whispered.

"Sorry."

"It's a crime keeping your body covered."

"Very funny."

"I'm not joking or lying."

"Did you two have a nice time?"

"Yeah, it was, thanks. Sorry we took a while."

"I figured you would be. I can't remember seeing her eyes light up like that."

"Not even over her Mustang?"

"That was different, but yes."

"I'm glad she likes it. I like those retro guitars," he shrugged.

"It looked very cool."

"I'll make a deal with you," he whispered, working one of the buttons on her top.

"What?"

"You go to bed tomorrow night the way you're supposed to and I'll play for you."

"Why?"

"Why? Well, to make up for not dancing with you the other night. Before midnight we were both occupied and then afterward you were so concerned people were going to think we were dating." He shrugged. It bothered him she cared that much about that. He supposed she had a point, but he didn't care and didn't know how many times he could say it before she believed him. She hadn't been upset with him they hadn't danced or anything, but she had commented about Melissa getting a dance instead of her. He hadn't worried about Melissa judging him either. He did with Claire, knowing there were plenty of guys who could dance circles around him. "Plus, tomorrow night is our last night."

"I know," she whispered. She shifted a bit so he could take her top off.

"I want you naked."

"I've been naked!"

"From the moment you get into my bed."

"And you'll play for me?"

"Uh huh," he murmured, finding her belly button. He circled it with his tongue before kissing along the edge of it.

"Anything I want?"

"Uh huh," he said again, sliding lower. He kissed a path down as he did that, settling between her legs.

"Fine. Yes," she hissed and he chuckled at that. "You still owe me a dance, though," she whispered under her breath as she gasped. Owing her one meant maybe she planned on collecting. He was okay with that.

Chapter Text

Chapter Eighteen
Word Count: 3,159

February 2003

"What are you doing?" Claude asked.

"Checking my email," John said with a frown. "Why? What are you doing?"

He shrugged. "You've been quiet for days now. Everything okay?"

John regarded him over the laptop. No, everything was not okay, but he wasn't sure he wanted to admit that.

"Dandy," he said then.

"Everything okay with the girl?" Claude asked. He and Sean were still the only two that knew anything about Melissa and he planned on keeping it that way for a while. Especially now. He didn't care really who found out, but now he wasn't sure what the fuck was up.

"Yes," John said.

He'd just finished reading an email from Melissa, in fact. She asked if she could call him over the weekend. He hadn't replied yet, but of course she could call him whenever she wanted. He was guessing she wanted to tell him over the phone about some college acceptance letters versus an email. He knew she applied to some pretty top notch colleges, and from what Claire had described she had the grades to get into any of them. Claire had mentioned a couple of scholarship opportunities for music, too. He wasn't sure how seriously she would take those offers.

"Good. I mean, it is good, right? She left here you were on good terms and stuff."

"Yes," John said.

"Okay. So what's up?"

"Nothing's up, Claude. Believe it or not, I can be in a bad mood once in a while without a reason."

"True, but you were in a good mood when I first got down here and we started working on some songs."

"I know."

"If she's pulled away or something, that's probably kind of normal."

"John has a girl," Noel said, walking into the room.

"Fuck, really," John said, glaring at Claude. "No," John said to Noel. "John does not have a girl."

"Thank you," John said. Whether it was the pot or the look on John's face he'd never know.

"John wants to have a girl," Claude said.

"Really?" Noel asked. "Is she hot?"

"She is," Claude said.

"Wait. You've met her? Have I?"

"I saw her," Claude said.

"You're an asshole, Claude. I don't want anyone."

"Really? When was the last time you went on a date?"

"So? That means I want someone? I've been busy. We were in Canada for a month and Australia for a month. Remember?"

"I remember," he said.

"Okay."

"You've had time to date."

"Sure. If you say so. Maybe you're thinking of yourself. I'm not the one that gets married and engaged every time I'm out of a relationship."

"Ouch," Claude said.

"Yeah, well, fuck you bringing this shit up when you know I don't want it brought up."

"Then tell me what the fuck is wrong."

"Nothing," John said.

"Uh huh, okay. Well, whatever then. I'm going out."

"Okay."

"Wanna come with?"

"Why?"

"Maybe it'd be good for you to get out and away from here for a while. We've been working hard. We deserve some fun, too."

"I know," John said. They'd been busy working because they were on a deadline. Coked out of his mind the producer he'd run into on New Year's Eve remembered John mentioning March and so now they were getting the screws put to them to produce. Not usually a problem, and it wasn't really. They all got punchy sometimes, though.

John regarded his computer again and Melissa's email.

Mom went out with her best friend Allison and her husband Andy and that guy again. She said she wouldn't be late, which probably means she'll be home by ten o'clock. I don't get it. Is it me? Does she think I can't handle her dating the guy? Does she think I'll think badly of her because of Stu? She did nothing really but care for him the entire time they were married. She had to be ready for him to be gone before it actually happened. Maybe that's not a good thing to say? I don't know. I just want her happy, you know? Allison obviously does, too. So, it's not just me. Allison wouldn't set her up with someone if it was wrong to do that. Would she?

She'd said some other things. Then she closed with something that bothered him more than the thought of Claire going out on a date with the guy she'd gone out with before. Did Melissa not realize he knew who Allison and Andy were? Apparently not. (He still couldn't get over the fact those two ended up married.)

I'm sorry I rambled. You said I could talk to you about anything. I know you're sitting there thinking that I need to get new friends that I feel comfortable telling you this, a man I hardly know, over the girls I've grown up with and known all of my life. Image, though, you know? I don't want people talking about Mom. All of my life she was the victim of stories and you, or the lack of you, in my life. I'd try to defend her against people who called her a slut because she was obviously young when she got pregnant with me, but the more I defended the more it seemed like I was arguing because I knew it was true. So I've learned just not to talk about her. My friends know the truth. People who know her know the truth. There's always someone who has to talk bad to draw attention away from their life, I guess. I mean, I know she dated when I was a kid. I'm not stupid. I guess at the time I didn't know what she was doing, but I remember going to Grandma and Grandpa's or Uncle Christopher's house because she had plans. Anyway, if you don't want me to send emails like this again, let me know, and I won't.

She ended with hoping the recording was going well. Sean likely had been filling her in on things from that point of view.

And, no, he absolutely did not want her to send him emails like it again, but not for the reason she would likely think. He'd never tell her that. If she needed to get something off her chest better to him who wasn't going to tell anyone, except maybe Claude, then to keep it in or tell someone who would tell people.

He absolutely did not want to think about Claire going out on a date. What the fuck did that mean? He thought… Well, he wasn't sure what he thought, but assumed something happened between them when she was down here over New Year's.

Even less than that. He didn't want to think about Claire alone. He'd never thought on things like that. He'd never put himself in a position to think about anything but how fucked her family was, and she was lumped in with them. He was the victim.

He'd called her some not so very nice things, not to her face and not in the presence of anyone else, but he'd said and thought them many times those first few years when he was sending money that he could ill afford. That changed after the first couple of years, the ill affording part. Then the cursing was aimed at her taking his fucking money for a few hours' worth of time. The money she was getting was, after all, interfering with him getting the booze and drugs he wanted.

He'd never stopped to think what people said about her over the years. He'd just assumed she was all right. She was Claire Standish. Who the fuck would think she was a slut?

Parents of other kids who hadn't grown up in Shermer knowing her.

"You," he said to Noel. "Get the fuck out of here."

"Uh, yeah, sure, whatever, Man," he said. He didn't look pissed, but it was hard to tell with Noel.

John stood then, grabbing his ashtray.

"So you're going with me?"

"Yeah, sure," John said, taking a drag off his cigarette. "I'll go get ready. Read that for me, will you?" John asked, pointing at the computer.

"Okay," Claude said with an amused look on his face. "It's nothing naughty, is it? I'm not sure I'm ready to see someone trying to have cybersex with you."

"No, it's from Melissa."

"Oh," Claude said.

"Is that really a thing?"

"It is," he said.

"Really? People do that over a computer?"

"You've never talked dirty to someone over the phone?"

"Well, yeah, sure. That was verbal, though, you know? Talking."

"You don't need a phone these days, John."

"I suppose not," he said, mulling that one over.

Claude chuckled then. "We'd better hope for Sean's sake he and Melissa haven't thought about that, eh?"

"Now I know you're tempting me to beat you over the head with my rolling pin."

"Do you own a rolling pin?"

"Yes, Dominick has one in the kitchen, I'm sure."

Claude chuckled again. "Go get dressed. I'll read."

"Thank you," John said, stubbing out his cigarette as he went to his room. "Close it when you're done."

"Uh huh," Claude said, clearly reading already. John knew he'd heard him. John also knew he probably would've shut it without John's asking. He knew John was pretty private, especially about this.

"Yeah," John called to the knock at his door.

He wasn't surprised to see Claude. He shut the door behind him once he'd come in.

"She trusts you," Claude said.

"Huh?"

"She trusts you. Is that what you were wanting me to clarify for you?"

"What? No. What are you talking about?"

"The stuff she said. She's telling you because she trusts you."

"Okay."

John hadn't thought about it that way. He'd just thought about it from the perspective of someone to talk to who wasn't going to gossip.

"Don't fuck it up."

"I'm not trying to."

"What did you want to know?"

John shrugged.

"Ah, the mom."

"I guess."

"Which part? The dating part? Or the disparaging remarks part?"

"Both?"

"Well, she didn't leave here with any sort of commitment from you, did she?"

"No," he said.

Claude shrugged. "Maybe she thinks that's the way it has to be. You live here."

"The place in New York has sold."

"Okay. You still live here."

"I had two places. I could have a second place again."

"Did you tell her that?"

"No! We didn't talk about anything like that."

"Why not?"

John shrugged. "I don't know. It seemed too soon. It was the first time we've ever spent any time together really."

Claude chuckled at that.

"I don't know what you want me to say, John. If you tell the mom you know she's going to know that Melissa told you. You violate that trust."

"Yeah," John said with a slight nod.

"So, that's up to you. You wouldn't know she went on a date any other way."

"No," John agreed.

"Is she why you haven't dated?"

"No," John said.

"John? Be honest. You haven't since we saw them in July. Not really."

"So I'm not a horn dog."

"Except with her."

"Neither of us left that week feeling sexually deprived."

Claude scoffed at that.

"Are we going out or not?" John asked.

"You wanted me to read the email."

"Yes. I don't know what it means."

"It means if you like the mom you probably need to act fast. What has she said?"

"Nothing," John admitted.

"Not about a relationship."

"No, I mean, nothing. I haven't heard from her other than a card since she was here."

"A card?"

"Yes, a card telling me what a nice time they had. Handwritten, of course." John rolled his eyes at that. She'd said absolutely nothing personal in the note that indicated she'd spent every night for a week in bed with him.

"And nothing?"

"No."

"Have you called?"

"I have," he said.

"And she doesn't answer?"

"I either get the machine or Melissa."

"What does Melissa say?"

"I talk to Melissa, I don't ask for her mom."

"Maybe you should?"

"You're the one who told me to be careful if she thinks I'm spending time with her to get to her mom."

"Have you left messages?"

"I have," John said.

"And she hasn't called back?"

"No," John said.

"Maybe she didn't have a good time," Claude said. "Maybe she got home and realized she had too good of a time and felt guilty. The husband just died not that long ago, right?"

"Yes," John snapped.

"Sorry to speak the truth, Buddy."

"Yes, a year ago now. Almost anyway. March, I think I read."

"I don't know then. I really don't. I don't know her, and her world isn't familiar to me."

"Me either," John admitted.

"Grief can be very strange. Everyone is different."

"So I'm supposed to pretend I don't know she's going on dates?"

"I guess that depends on what you want."

"Want?"

"If you just want to fuck her then yes you're supposed to pretend that you don't know."

"I don't just want to fuck her," he said. "I know that look. I swear to God if you tell me that I like her again I'm going out without you."

"I actually think I underestimated how you felt about her."

"Whatever. Let's go."

"No, no. You don't get to bail on the conversation just because it's starting to hit too close to home. You love her?"

John sighed softly. "Yes, always have."

"Then you have a decision to make."

"About what? She's not talking to me!"

"Yeah, do you blame her? Nineteen years ago you had sex with her and got her pregnant. Nothing from you for years. You show up eighteen years later…"

"I paid child support. Don't throw this nothing from me for years shit at me."

"Child support is not the work, John. You know it, or what Melissa said in that email wouldn't have bothered you. She was the one raising your child. And she did a pretty fine job from what I can tell."

"She did," John agreed. "I never questioned her ability to mother. I questioned my ability to father."

"She's not going to let herself get hurt by you again, John. You had sex. No big deal for you, and she knows that I'm sure. So, she maybe feels guilty about that, too. Who knows? Throw into it if people really called her names like that and she heard it. Maybe she feels guilty that that happened again with you and it's true."

"It's not true! Jesus Christ, one day of having sex doesn't make her a slut or anything else."

"People can believe what they want to. Herself included."

"Yeah," John said.

"You've stayed away you said because of her dad, not knowing what he'd do. You need to find that out, too."

"Fuck. If I never see him again…"

"But you're contemplating getting involved with his daughter and granddaughter, John. You're going to see him again."

"I don't have to."

"You will have to."

"It's a fucking a lot of trouble to go through for someone who won't even fucking talk to me and is going out with other guys."

"Sure, and Melissa said she was probably going to be home by ten o'clock. It doesn't sound like a hot date. It sounds like a widow whose best friend wants to get her out of the house."

"Great."

"What would you tell her if she was talking to you?"

"I'd tell her I wanted to see her again."

"She let you in the house once before without an invitation."

"Are you suggesting I just show up there?"

"Why not?"

"And she slams the door in my face?"

"Then you'll know."

"Fantastic. Let's get the fuck out of here," he said, grabbing his wallet and keys from his dresser.

"Done talking, I guess."

"Yes," John said.

"One last question?" Claude asked as John was about to turn off the light to his room.

"What?"

"Your room or hers?"

John chuckled. "Mine."

"So she had to come to you every night?"

"Yes," John said.

Did that mean something? He wasn't sure. He would've gone to her if she'd said she wanted him to. "She didn't seem to mind."

"I'm sure she didn't."

Fuck if he understood what Claude was trying to say. Like the specific compliment shit. Then again, John wasn't sure he should be taking love life advice from a twice divorced, two more times engaged guy.

"It's Valentine's Day next week, isn't it?" Claude asked.

John grunted.

"You could always send her some flowers."

"Just what I want to do."

"No man wants to do it, but it sure gets a woman's attention when we do it. No offense, John, but if you're actually thinking of getting involved with her I think Valentine's Day flowers are the least of the things you're going to have to do."

"I imagine you're right."

Sean opened his door then, looking as though he was heading out, too.

"Where are you going?" Claude asked.

"Food," Sean said. "I'm going to chat with Melissa later."

"I swear to God, Sean, if I look at your computer or phone and see one inappropriate picture of either of you two…"

Sean paled then and Claude laughed.

"She's eighteen now," Sean said.

"Wrong response, Sean," John said simply.

"So you want me to treat her the opposite way you treated her mother is what you're saying?"

It'd been a long, long time since John had thrown a punch. He couldn't recall ever doing it sober, but his arm shot out so fast, connecting with Sean's jaw and then a second one followed to his cheek without thought of what he was doing or why. It was just instinct. Sean fell back against the wall behind him, his head hitting it pretty hard in the process. John grabbed him by the shirt front with one hand and hit him again as Claude grabbed John from behind. John got a couple good punches in before Claude pulled him off of Sean. Noel and Billy came out of their rooms to see what was going on. Candy and Farrah opened their doors, too. No one seemed to know what was going on.

"You're a nurse you said, right?" John said looking at Farrah.

"Yeah."

"That'll come in handy, I guess. He probably needs some help," he said. "Dominick will get you anything you need."

Farrah knelt by Sean and Candy went back to her room. Noel and Billy were just staring at John as if he'd sprouted a second head or something.

"Let's get the fuck out of here," he said to Claude.

For once Claude said nothing.

Chapter Text

Chapter Nineteen
Word Count: 4,473

February 14, 2003 (F)

Valentine's Day.

He had no idea why he was doing this.

A glutton for punishment? Maybe so. He wagered at the very least he'd get dinner out of Melissa since Sean did not live here and was spending the weekend with his family down in Texas. As far as John knew Melissa was not aware of John being the reason for Sean's face being bruised the past week. John hadn't spoken to him since that night

The days since that night hadn't gone smoothly at all. They managed to get one song done, but that was about it.

That was the reason he was here this weekend. They all needed a break. Over a month together under the same roof was too much. Sure, they each had their own room and stuff, no one had to share a bathroom or anything except the women who didn't seem to mind that, oddly. Everyone could come and go as they pleased. They still had to share the kitchen, pool, and living space since John didn't outfit each bedroom with cable TV and stuff.

So, everyone was going their own way until Tuesday. Dominick was probably as glad for the time off as John was.

He parked on the street in front of her house and put the car in Park. He had never done this before. He'd never had reason to chase after a woman.

Ever.

He probably would have chased after her nineteen years ago given some time to process she wasn't coming after him. He hadn't gotten to that point, though, when her dad showed up at Claude's house during band practice.

He eyed the boxes on the seat next to him with a scowl. He'd never bought Valentine's Day things before either. He'd never had reason to. Anyone dating him knew he didn't go in for all that romantic shit. Maybe he'd gotten stuff for his mom as a kid, but he couldn't recall doing that. He'd never been able to participate in the Valentine exchanges at school growing up. Kindergarten and first grade maybe he had, but not after that he was sure of it.

If Date Guy was pursuing her these things likely wouldn't be the only ones she got today. She'd gone on her first date with him back in September if he recalled correctly. That was five months ago and he had no idea how many dates they'd gone on.

That bothered him.

Her dating someone.

Her getting gifts from someone.

He didn't want her dating someone.

He didn't want her getting gifts from someone.

Well, that wasn't completely true. He did, just he wanted that someone to be him.

That pretty much urged him to see this through. He put the car in Drive and pulled onto her driveway.

It was cold here. If it was above freezing it wasn't much above that. He stamped his feet on the step after he'd rung the bell and waited for her to answer. He'd timed this portion of his day with Melissa being in school. He had no idea what the deal was, but he preferred to not do whatever they were going to do in front of Melissa.

Especially since she told him over the weekend last weekend that one of the schools she was considering was University of Florida. She'd thought he'd mind, and he assured her he wouldn't so long as she understood that it wouldn't mean he would be in Tampa all of the time. He'd love being a couple of hours away from her.

She'd also gotten accepted to some colleges on the upper East Coast and out west as well and stuff, so she had her decision cut out for her. The idea that she was considering University of Florida was pretty awesome to him.

Claire opened the door and was clearly surprised, and didn't look pissed to see him. She didn't look as though she'd been pining away for the last six weeks waiting for him to get his act together and come to her either, though.

"Hi," he said.

"John. What are you doing here?"

"Uh, well," he said, gesturing a bit with his arms to the boxes he was holding. "It's Valentine's Day."

"Yes," she said.

"Can I come in and give this stuff to you?"

"To me?"

"Yeah, you. Who else would I be coming here to give this stuff to?"

"Melissa."

"Oh, I have something for her, too, sure, but no," he said.

She stepped aside and he stepped over the threshold.

"So, uh," he said. "I had to order these by phone from Florida so I'm sorry they're not in a vase or anything, but I knew I wanted to deliver them to you myself."

He handed her the longer, bigger box, which she took and stared at him for a second.

"What? It's not a trick," he said. Christ. Wasn't she supposed to be excited at the idea of getting flowers?

She opened the box then and gasped a bit. She glanced from the box to him and back to the box again. He couldn't tell what she was thinking, but she didn't appear excited. Or very thrilled.

"They're beautiful," she whispered.

"I should hope so," he said. They'd cost more than he realized a dozen roses would cost never having reason to buy one before now let alone twelve of them.

"I can't accept them."

"I'm sorry?"

"John. I can't accept them."

"They're a gift."

"Yes, I understand that, and I appreciate the effort that you went to, but I can't accept them."

"Why not?"

She sighed heavily, and looked at her feet then. "I've been seeing someone."

He turned then, walking to the window next to the front door. He glanced outside for a second.

"Why?" he asked.

"What kind of question is that?"

"It's a reasonable question after what happened between us at my house."

"We had sex."

"It was better than sex."

"It was still sex, John. I knew that then."

"Did you consider yourself seeing him then?"

"Not exclusively or anything, no. I wouldn't have had sex with you if I was."

"But you considered yourself seeing him?"

"I'd gone out with him, so yes."

He turned then, regarding her.

"What? We had a couple of nice phone conversations and made out one night that I'd sit and wait for you?"

"Well, no, of course not. I just assumed I meant something."

"You do, John, but you're not here."

"I'm here now."

"Sure. For how long? A few days again? Then you'll be gone and I wouldn't know when I'd see you again or if I'd see your picture on some website somewhere with someone else. I won't live like that."

"We hadn't gotten to that point."

"No, and I can't get to that point. I'm sorry if I misled you somehow."

"Having sex with me for a week, yeah, that's kind of misleading."

"Like you've never had sex with someone for a week before without it meaning anything?"

Well, of course he had, plenty of times. Not with her, though. And why did he feel like she'd just cut his heart out saying it meant nothing? Christ.

"I like him. He's a good man."

"I want to meet him."

"Excuse me?"

"I want to meet who's going to be around my daughter."

"She hasn't met him yet. I'm nowhere near that point."

"But you're near the point of telling me to take my flowers and get the fuck out?"

"I didn't ask you to bring me flowers."

"No, but you had to know…"

"How could I possibly know in this lifetime you'd show up here today with flowers?"

"Because you know that week meant more to me than just sex."

"How do I know that?"

"Other than shopping I did everything I could with you. Does that point to someone who was just out to have sex with you?"

"John," she said, handing the box back to him.

"I'm not taking it. Throw them away. Do whatever the fuck you want with them, but I don't want them back. I bought them for you. You think about them laying in your trash can when you're out with whoever tonight. May as well throw these away with them," he said, handing her the box of chocolates he'd bought. Cliché as hell. He knew that. He'd assumed she'd understand he hadn't done this before. "Let Melissa know I'm in town, if she wants to have dinner with me tonight I'm apparently available."

"You thought I'd just drop everything and have dinner with you on a Friday night? Valentine's Day?"

"No, I thought you'd appreciate that I flew here to surprise you with gifts, as basic as they may be, and agree to have dinner with me."

"Without any notice?"

"You won't return my calls!"

"There's a reason for that!"

"You make no fucking sense, do you know that?"

"Why?"

"I have never done this. Ever. I've never in my life given anyone anything for Valentine's Day. I've never in my life contemplated taking someone to dinner on Valentine's Day. I've never been ignored."

"It must be rough for you, I'm sorry. I'm not ignoring you, John."

"Could have fooled me."

"You can have a relationship with Melissa without me as part of it."

"I want you as part of it!"

"I don't," she whispered.

And there it was. She didn't want him.

"Fine," he whispered. He wasn't going to beg her. Good God if people saw him doing this much he'd never live it down.

He turned to leave then, stopping once he'd open the door.

"Here. May as well complete making an ass of myself. This is for you. Do what you want with it just like the rest of the stuff," he said, handing her the jewelry box. It wasn't a ring or anything, but it had been a pretty nice necklace that he'd seen and liked. He could have taken it back, returned it, but he didn't want to. The jeweler would remember him because it hadn't been a cheap necklace and he'd tried to sell John a ring to go with it. The jeweler would remember him because he'd known who John was. He wasn't going to go back there to return something he'd bought. Talk about humiliating.

"John," she said.

She made no effort to take the box so he set it on the table by the door.

"Later."

He wasn't a crier. He had to search long and hard to even come close to a time he'd hurt enough to cry. His dad had beat the crying out of him long before that day he'd talked to Claire for the first time. He'd learned by not responding, holding it in, the beatings didn't last as long. It was the crying, the pleading his dad had gotten off on.

He pulled over a couple of blocks from her house and did just that then. Did she not understand?

Fuck. What could he have done differently? He didn't live here so it wasn't as if he could have seen her after their week in Tampa. He ran the side of his index fingers along each eye, pushing on his eyelids a bit as he got himself under control.

Fuck. Who the fuck would want to bother pursuing loving someone if it felt like this?

He sighed a while later when he realized where he'd driven to. No conscious decision, just automatically this is where he'd come. He let out a breath, realizing the tears had dried up but the feeling of needing to let it out hadn't.

He thought he'd experienced hurt before with his old man and his mom. He thought there was nothing worse for him to feel. He'd been wrong.

He drew his cell phone out of his coat pocket and hit the first speed dial number, letting his head fall back against the headrest. He didn't pray often for Claude to actually be home when he called him, but he was doing it right now.

'Yeah,' Claude said, sounding as if he was driving.

"Hey," John said, hoping his voice sounded normal.

'Hey, Buddy, what's up? You make it to Chicago?'

"Yeah," John said.

'Oh? That doesn't sound like an enthusiastic yeah.'

"She's involved with someone."

'Oh,' Claude said.

"I'm parked in front of a dealer's house…"

'I'm sure you are. You called me, though, John. You didn't go inside.'

"Not yet."

'That's huge, John.'

"Sure. I really want to go inside, though."

'I bet you do. I told you it wasn't going to be easy, John.'

"She's involved with someone. Did you not hear that part? I don't see it getting much more difficult."

'She can't be serious about the guy if you two were having sex a month ago.'

"A month and a half ago."

'Two weeks shouldn't matter.'

"Yeah. I fell in love with her in ten minutes."

Claude sighed.

'So, what did she say?'

John repeated as much of the conversation as he could remember.

'Well, what are you prepared to do, John?'

"I don't fucking know! I've never been here before."

'I know,' Claude said. He did know. Unlike John, Claude had pursued most all of the women he'd been involved with heavily. John, on the other hand, let women come to him. He preferred it that way. 'You have two choices here. Well, three I guess, technically.'

"Okay."

'Let her go and just have a relationship with Melissa without her.'

"I don't like that option."

'Let both of them go and just go on about your life as you were before July.'

John sighed. "I like that option even less," he said, surprised by that honestly. He liked Melissa. A lot. He didn't want her gone from his life now that he'd had her in it.

'Pursue the fuck out of her and convince her you're not joking around.'

"I don't know…"

'You do know. It doesn't take a brain surgeon to figure out how to woo a woman. If you want her, don't take no for an answer and do something about it. If you give up the other guy's going to win.'

"I know," John said. "I hate that idea."

'Drive away, John. Go back to your hotel room and think about what you can do for her to want to choose you over the other guy.'

He sighed.

'I'm happy to help where I can, but as you've pointed out I'm probably not the guy to take advice from when it gets down to it.'

"You know how to get women to marry you at any rate."

'Is that what you want, John?'

"I'd sure like to find out if that's what I want."

'Huh," Claude said. 'Drive away. You need me to call the cops and have them come arrest you? I will.'

"No," John said. He took a deep breath, exhaling sharply.

'Did you cry yet?' Claude asked

"Fuck you."

'You think I was happy when Paula dumped me like she did. I spent about four days in a hotel room stoned and drunk out of my mind so that I wouldn't hurt so bad to need to cry.'

"Oh," John said.

'Your situation isn't the same. Any idiot can tell you she likes you, John. Probably a lot. Prove to her you're not the John from eighteen years ago and aren't going to bail on her.'

"I think that'll take a while."

'It probably will. You need to decide if it's worth the time.'

"She is."

'Are you seeing Melissa?'

"I'll probably call her when school lets out and tell her I'm here. I told Claire to tell her, but I'm not sure she'll pass along messages from me today."

'Was she mad?'

"You know, no. She just seemed," he shrugged. "I don't know as if she just didn't want to get involved."

'Well, make her think you're worth wanting to be involved with. That's all I can say.'

"Yeah."

'And being at the house when she gets home from her date might be kind of fun.'

"Fun for who?"

'For you. She knows you know, yes?'

"Yes."

'Let her know that knowledge isn't going to dissuade you.'

"Assuming Melissa isn't busy."

'Assuming.'

"Thank you for being around."

'You're welcome. Thank you for calling me.'

"Sure."

'No, John, really, that was huge. You may not see it as that, but I've been where you are. I've walked into the dealer's house. Think of how far you've come since the last time you were at that guy's house.'

"Yeah," he said simply. He remembered.

'Call me back if you need to. I'm not doing anything tonight that important.'

"Thanks."


***

'Do you want me to cancel dinner tonight?' Allison asked.

"I don't know," she said. She'd been fine until she opened the damned jewelry box out of morbid curiosity. It was too big to be a ring she'd known that much. He'd given her a necklace with a heart charm on it with Melissa's birthdate on one side and a garnet stone on the other side.

'I mean, no one would blame you.'

"You would."

Allison sighed. 'Not really. He really gave you roses?'

"Not just roses, Allison. They're gorgeous. It was like he told the florist to box up a dozen of their best roses just for me."

'Maybe he did, Claire. Ironic, I know, but if he went around here they'd love to get his business.'

"I guess."

'I'll cancel. It's fine, really. Andy and I really just wanted you to have a nice time tonight, that was all.'

"I know. Alan's going to think I'm a flake."

'He's not. I'll tell him something came up.'

"Yes, me with no job and an eighteen year old daughter."

'Things still come up.'

"What do I do?" she asked.

'Sweetie, I don't know that I can tell you what to do. You want to call him, don't you?'

"I do," she said. "And that's ridiculous."

'You love him. Call him if you want. On the other hand,' she said, trailing off.

"What?"

'It might be kind of fun to actually be chased by John Bender.'

"I'm not going to play games with him."

'You've already started, Claire. You lied to him!'

"I didn't lie to him! I do not want to get hurt. I don't have room in my life to get involved with someone who doesn't want to make time for me. I don't want to be an occasional stop that he sees as an obligation."

'I know. I just meant it'll be kind of fun to see what he does next.'

"Next?"

'Sweetie, he's not going to just go away. You do realize that, right?'

"No," Claire said, biting her lower lip. God. Was he going to try again?

'If he loves you, he'll come back until you say yes.'

"Great," Claire said.

'Does Melissa know he's in town?'

"No. I figured I'd wait until she got home from school to tell her," Claire said.

'I'll tell Alan you need to be a mom tonight.'

"Thanks, Ally, I'm sorry. Really. I just wasn't expecting this."

'I honestly wouldn't have been either. How good was the sex anyway?'

"Ally!" Claire said.

Her friend laughed. 'If he's bringing you roses, chocolates, and jewelry it must have been pretty damned good.'

"All I will say is that for the first three nights no missionary at all."

'Really? Good for you for speaking up.'

"How do you know I spoke up?"

Allison laughed then.

"Shut up," Claire said, realizing it was probably obvious.

She'd complained about Stu's inability to do anything but that position more than once. Allison had told her to speak up, but Claire had been too embarrassed. How did one go about asking your husband for something like that? She hadn't known. Maybe one day she would've gotten brave enough but he'd gotten sick and the issue went away on its own.

'I do know that Alan did not get you a dozen roses.'

"You do?"

'I do. I think he got you something, but not that. He asked me. He wasn't sure, I guess.'

"I don't blame him." Until the past month they hadn't seen one another more than a couple of times. The past month, though, they'd done something with Allison and Andy every weekend. They'd had dinner a couple of times just the two of them as well when Melissa had something else she was doing.

'No, not like that. He didn't want to scare you off and get you too much. He does like you, though, I know that.'

"I like him, too."

'I know,' Ally said.

Unspoken was that she liked him, but she wasn't crazy about him.

'Anyway. I'll take care of it. We'll be around tomorrow if you need to talk more.'

"Thanks," Claire said. She disconnected and glanced at the roses. She hadn't had the heart to throw them away. They were gorgeous. Each and every one of them was as perfect a rose as it could be. She hadn't taken the necklace out of the box, but it sat on the counter next to her open. She ran her finger along the stone. Garnet was Melissa's birthstone, which meant John actually had to think about and research what he was going to get her. He hadn't just gone to a store and bought any old thing.

"I don't know what to do, Scotty," she said. The dog didn't answer her, of course. She honestly had not expected him to come here again. She figured he was calling and emailing her to be nice so she wouldn't think he'd used her or anything. He likely wouldn't want something like sex between them to interfere with him getting to know Melissa better.

This, though.

She had no idea. She closed the jewelry box, pushing it closer to the vase she'd put the roses in. "All right, Scotty, let's find something to do until Melissa gets home." Thinking about this was doing her no good at all.


***

He checked into his hotel room. He'd made the reservation but had sure been hoping he'd end up staying at Claire's house for the weekend. He knew she wouldn't have let him sleep with her, but at least he would've been there. He'd been looking forward to that. He'd had sex before lots of times. He'd had women stay with him lots of times and stayed with some a few times, too. He'd never just sat around the table at breakfast talking with anyone, though. The three of them had done that. It was probably a common everyday occurrence in their household, but for John it was a completely foreign thing. He'd never experienced it before that week with them.

He glanced at his watch and drew his cell phone to him from where it was on the nightstand. School was close to letting out so he decided to head over there. He knew where the student parking lot was, so he figured he could just wait there for her to come out.

He could call her, but he sort of thought seeing her reaction would be kind of fun. Surely he had to get a better reception from her than Claire.

He parked on the street, walking to the student parking lot from there where he found her car with ease. She wasn't the only one to have a nice car, but hers was one of the newest.

And he was right about her reception being better than Claire's. She even hugged him in front of her friends, which she hadn't done at her house when he'd been there in November.

"What are you doing here?"

He shrugged. "Florida in February is so boring."

"Yeah, right. Oh my God, are you staying at the house again?"

"No," he said. "I'm staying at the Hyatt," he said.

"Oh," she said. She seemed a little confused by that answer, but he wasn't going to elaborate when they weren't alone. "This is Stacey and Trish," she said, gesturing to her friends. She seemed to realize why he hadn't said more.

"Hi," he said. "Good to see you both again."

"You, too," they both said, but he could tell by the look in their eyes that they were trying to figure out where they recognized him from.

"So," he said. "I figured I'd see if you wanted to get something for dinner. Unless you had plans?"

"No! I'd love to."

"All right. I'll pick you up around six?"

"Sure," she said. "Uh, where are we going?"

"Dress nice," he said.

"Okay," she said.

"Do I know you?" one of the friends asked. He didn't know which was which.

"Me?" John asked.

"Yes. You look real familiar."

"I have one of those faces. So I've been told anyway. Other than that night at Melissa's house I haven't seen you before."

"Oh," she said.

"Anyway, I'll see you about six then."

"Yeah, sure," she said.

"John," she said after a few seconds, walking up to him.

"Yeah?"

She reached up on her toes and kissed his cheek.

"Thank you."

"For?"

She shrugged. "Surprising me. That was so cool."

"Really?" he asked. He hadn't thought he was doing anything special or anything. He just thought it'd be sort of fun. Better than sitting in a hotel room, wishing he was somewhere else.

"Yeah."

"Well, yeah, sure. Happy to do it. We can meet sooner than six. If you want to come to the hotel and swim or something, you're welcome."

"Oh, yeah, that'd be fun. Are you sure?"

He chuckled with a shake of his head.

"Absolutely positive. I'm in room thirteen twenty. I'm heading back there, so get there whenever you want to. Just bring a change of clothes if you want to swim."

"Okay," she said. "I'll see you in a while."

"Yup," he said, glancing behind her at her friends.

"They're going to figure it out, you know."

"They may figure out who you are, but that doesn't mean they're going to figure out that you're my dad."

"Just making sure you thought of that, kissing me on the cheek and stuff. You were worried about them gossiping."

"Not so much anymore. I mean, a little I guess."

"Oh?" he asked, surprised at that. What had changed? And when had it changed?

"No," she said.

"Well, when it's more than not so much anymore let me know."

"Why?"

"Then I'll know I can talk about you."

"Oh," she said, blushing at that.

He chuckled, reaching to touch her cheek. He was going to touch her hand, but realized they were both wearing gloves. So he settled for her cheek.

"I'll see you later then."

"Yeah," she said.

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty
Word Count: 6,062

The weekend hadn't gone at all as planned or hoped, but it hadn't been bad. He'd spent pretty much all of his time with Melissa. He'd learned from her that her mom hadn't gone out on Friday night at all and that she hadn't thrown the roses or anything he'd given her away. He wasn't sure if the two were connected, but he took heart in the fact she hadn't thrown the stuff away. He'd admitted to giving it to her when Melissa asked and described the necklace's charm to her.

He'd liked the way the charm had turned out. The jeweler had tried to talk him into a charm of the silhouette of a girl's head, but John hadn't wanted that. Melissa wasn't a baby so he hadn't thought that was appropriate. He'd tried to talk John into engraving her name on it instead of her date of birth, but John hadn't wanted that either. What he'd ended up with had been exactly what he'd wanted.

He'd gotten Melissa some chocolates, too, as well as a simple gold ankle bracelet. He liked ankle bracelets for some reason. She'd put it on that evening in his hotel room and to this point had been wearing it ever since.

He hadn't seen Claire again, but he planned on changing that today after his appointment.

His appointment was the part of this trip he'd dreaded most. He'd made the appointment last week, under Claude's name because there was no way John Bender was getting an appointment at the Standish Law Firm.

He hated that he felt the need to wear a suit for the appointment, but here he was doing just that. It was a nice suit, too. Melissa had been impressed when he wore it to dinner on Friday night. He'd shaved and everything, too. He drummed his fingertips on his knee as he waited for the receptionist to call him back. Claude had helped him research who to say referred him to Claire's dad since he likely didn't take people in off the street. John wasn't savvy enough to use the Internet for that sort of thing. So, he knew he wasn't going to get pawned off to a lesser partner or something.

He stood when Claude's name was called and followed the woman back to a meeting room. He was alone, of course. It was absolutely crazy that he was paying to have this meeting, but he hadn't known how else to go about doing it.

He drummed his fingers along the table, shifting a little in his chair. There were all sorts of books in the room. He imagined this room was used as some sort of library when it wasn't used for meetings.

The first thing John noticed when he came into the room was that he'd aged. John had, too, of course, but it was more noticeable on him. Or at least John thought it was. He closed the door and turned to face him. John realized he didn't recognize him. Why would he? He'd only seen John once before almost nineteen years ago.

He opened his mouth and John stood, cutting him off.

"I'm not Claude Jennings and I'm not here because I need legal counsel, so you can save your speech. You'll get paid for your time and everything."

"I'm John Bender."

He was surprised. He couldn't hide it. Did he have any idea what John had amounted to? Maybe not. He doubted either of her parents followed the type of music they played.

"I came here simply as a courtesy. You don't need to say anything at all really. I have some things to say to you, though. I've been seeing Melissa. She found me this past summer and I have no intention of pushing her away. I also plan on actively and rigorously pursuing your daughter. There's nothing you can say or do to stop me. You can't threaten me with rape charges today, which, by the way, I know now wouldn't have stood in court. I didn't know that at the time and couldn't afford to find that out, but you knew that. I can afford it now, and I can afford a lawyer equal to your caliber if not better."

Her dad opened his mouth and John cut him off.

"I have no plans on telling Melissa anything you said to me that day. I think Claire has an idea what you said, but if she were to ask me I'd be honest with her. I have nothing to hide, but I'm not out to make your granddaughter dislike you as I do either. I don't plan on failing in my pursuit of Claire. They spent a week with me over New Year's and if I have anything to say about it that will be the first of many."

"And you think I'm just going to sit by while you…"

"No, I'm sure you'll talk to Claire and voice your displeasure at her choice in escorts or whatever you call people she dates. She's an adult with life experiences under her belt this time as am I so you have nothing to really say about it. I love her. I loved her then, but you knew that, too. That scared you I imagine, and that's why you came up with the rape charges. It worked, too. Scared the shit out of me and made me think for a hell of a long time that she'd told you that's what happened. I realized eventually, though, she wouldn't have done that."

"You don't know her as well as you think you do."

"You're right, I don't. I knew her then, though, better than you did, and I plan on knowing her better than anyone ever will. I'm going to go now. The address I gave your secretary is legitimate, you can bill me for your time. Let me be clear, though, if I hear that you're trying to ruin my reputation. If I find out that you leak who Melissa is before she's ready for that information to be out. If I find out that you've done anything to stand in the way of my getting to know her I will come after you. You clearly don't know what I've done with my life. Have your secretary do some research and you'll find that I could successfully do that without losing any sleep or the roof over my head."

He walked to the door then.

"Excuse me," he said, opening the door and leaving. He had no doubt it'd been a while since anyone walked out on him.

John got back to his rental and only then did he exhale deeply in relief of getting through that. He'd thought over what he'd say, how he'd say it, what he'd do. He hadn't been at all sure what would come out of his mouth today, seeing him for the first time in so long.

He drove to her house then. He didn't stop on the street or hesitate in any way before pulling onto her driveway and getting out. He rang her bell, fiddling a little with one of the buttons at the front of his coat.

"Hi," he said when she opened the door. She was clearly surprised to see him. Did she think he'd gone back to Florida already? He'd told Melissa he was leaving tomorrow, but maybe she hadn't relayed that information to her mom.

"Hi," she said.

"Can I come in?" he asked.

She sighed softly, but stepped aside.

"Thanks," he said.

"Can I take your coat?"

"Uh, sure," he said, surprised a little by the offer. "Thanks." He shed the coat and handed it to her.

"Melissa said she had a nice time with you over the weekend."

"I hope so. I mean, I'm glad."

"She liked it."

"Good."

"You met Trish and Stacey she said."

"I did. They were here when I was in November."

"I know, I remember. You didn't meet them, though."

"No. One of them knows who I am she just hasn't placed it yet."

"I'm sure," she said.

"Hey, Scotty," he said to Claire's dog about the same time she said "Scott, no."

"It's all right," John said with a frown.

"But you're wearing a suit."

"Yeah?" he asked. He patted his leg so Scotty knew it was okay to come to him. He scratched his ears.

"You're going to get dog hair…"

"So? It's dog hair. That's what a lint brush is for."

"Stu just didn't…"

"Ah. Well, it's fine. Really." He stooped a bit and pet Scotty for a bit, regarding Claire after she'd hung his coat up.

"So," he said, standing. "I had an appointment with your father today."

"What?" She looked panic stricken.

"You heard me."

"Why?"

"I needed to say some things."

"What could you possibly have to say to him, John?"

"That I've been spending time with Melissa. And that I plan on pursuing you."

"You told my father that?"

"I did," he said.

"Why?"

He shrugged. "It's the truth. I didn't want him not knowing hanging over my head. I don't know when anyone's going to find out who Melissa is. If she comes to any shows or anything. Sooner or later people are going to ask. I'm not going to lie."

"I know."

"I figured him knowing now I've met her will prevent him from having a heart attack when it's reported on the news I have a daughter."

"Oh," she said.

"Because you do realize when they find out it will be that type of story."

"I do," she said.

"I'd really love to be able to do this with you."

"John…"

"I don't expect an answer out of you today or anything, but I wanted you to know what I'd done. I don't know if he'll tell you or not, but I didn't want you to be surprised."

"Thank you."

He closed the distance between them. She hadn't stepped away from her coat closet yet.

"Melissa said you didn't throw the roses away," he whispered, sliding a hand to her cheek.

"No," she said.

"Why not?" he asked.

"They were beautiful."

"They had to be perfect. I made sure of it." And had he ever. Claude told him Saturday during a conversation they'd had in the morning how much a dozen roses usually goes for. John overpaid, but he'd made sure they used the best of the best for her dozen. There were times dropping his name benefitted him. That was one of those times.

"Why?"

He lowered his head a bit. "Nothing but perfection would be good enough for you," he whispered, slanting his mouth over hers. She grabbed onto his forearms, clutching him.

"I think a part of me died inside that I couldn't do that on Friday," he whispered, drawing away.

"Shut up," she said softly.

"No lie. I'd thought about little else but that on the flight here."

"Really?"

"Really," he murmured, kissing her again.

"I'm not going away," he murmured, kissing her lower lip when they both had to take a breath.

"John," she murmured.

"I'm not, Claire. I know I have shit loads to make up for and I know the distance sucks."

"That's not the only…"

"You can watch any websites you want you won't see me doing anything wrong."

She whimpered softly.

"Besides, Claude tells me cybersex is pretty fun," he whispered, kissing her lower lip again.

"Did he?"

"Uh huh," he whispered. "Want to find out with me?" he asked, finding her mouth with his once more.

She slid her arms around his neck and he sighed in relief into the kiss.

"Did you really tell my dad that you were going to pursue me?"

"I did," he said, finding her neck.

"I'm still not sure…"

"Take all the time you need to figure it out. I'm not asking for a commitment beyond you'd be willing to try."

"And do what?"

"What do you mean?"

"When you're gone?"

"See one another when we can. Email and talk when we can. My place in New York sold."

"Did it?"

"Yeah."

"That's good."

"It is, but that also frees up some money every month. I told Claude there was nothing saying I couldn't have a second place in this area. However, that's not going to happen immediately and for the money a decent place would cost me I could just spend the money on airfare and come here."

"You'd do that?"

"If you'd have me, yes. It would also free up money for airfare for you two to come down to see me once in a while. Like Spring Break."

She whimpered softly and he chuckled softly as he found her jaw, kissing her there.

"My bed misses you," he whispered.

"I bet."

"A week wasn't nearly enough it thought."

She snorted softly at that.

"I can imagine."

"Yeah. I have this amazingly sexy and beautiful woman in my grasp. It thinks I'm a dumb fuck for letting you leave at all."

"It does, huh?"

"It does. I tend to agree with it. I should have spoken up, I guess, about what I feel."

"Maybe," she whispered.

"I'm not good at that. I've never had a reason to before."

"I know," she whispered.

"I'm speaking up now. I've never been unfaithful. This day and age you almost have to be," he shrugged. "I always was, though when I had to be."

She slid her arms out from around his neck.

"What did I say wrong?" he murmured. Why the fuck would she stop touching him now?

She slid her hands to his chest, though, working his suit coat off. He groaned in surprise, moving his arms away from her so he could shed the jacket.

"Thank you," she whispered against his mouth as she started working the buttons on his shirt.

His hands moved to her top, working the buttons on it. She got a head start, but he got done unbuttoning her top first sliding it out of the waist of her skirt before he slid a hand to her breast.

"Fuck," he whispered.

"My thoughts exactly," she said as she worked the fastening on his trousers and slid her hand inside.

"I guess so," he said with a soft chuckle. "I, unfortunately, don't have anything…"

"You don't need it," she whispered.

"Claire…"

"I'm on birth control."

"Since January?"

"No, since before I got married."

"Oh," he said. Why'd he need condoms then in January? He wasn't going to ask that now, though, as he used his hands to slide her skirt up higher to her waist. He dropped them to her hips, helping her onto him before pressing her against the door.

"This," he whispered as he moved inside of her.

"What?"

"This is what I want. You needing me as badly as I need you."

"I do!"

He chuckled softly, pushing her blouse out of the way a bit so he could kiss and suck on the skin above her breast.

"Every day," he whispered.

She gave the most arousing groan and he wasn't sure if it was his words or a particular spot he'd thrust against at that moment. Whatever the cause, she clenched around him so tightly that he finished. He knew he'd finish sooner than he'd like without the barrier the condom offered. Hopefully she understood that, too.

"Why'd you let me without one today?" he asked after a few minutes. He hadn't let her go yet, but knew he'd have to soon.

"You went to talk to my father," she whispered, kissing his jaw and then his mouth.

"Hell, if that's all it took…"

"Shut up," she said with a soft laugh.

"I've never without one with anyone else."

"I believe you."

"Thank you," he whispered. "I wasn't expecting that out of today."

"What were you expecting?"

"I don't know. You to talk to me."

"I did."

"Sort of," he said. He drew away from her then, both of them groaning softly as he pulled out of her completely. He was very glad she didn't want him to do that anymore than he did.

"We'll figure it out, John. Spring Break sounds great."

"Yeah? Now I have to make sure I'm actually there."

"Very funny."

"Well, I'm not joking. I don't know the dates. Whatever the dates, wherever we are, come."

"Really?"

"Really."

"If we met you somewhere out of town we'd share a room with you."

"That's all right. I don't care. I mean, I care, you know, but not. One condition," he whispered, shaking his head at Scotty who'd made himself at home on John's suit coat.

"What?"

"You sleep with me instead of Melissa."

"John!"

"I said sleep. I can behave myself."

"You could have fooled me."

"Very funny. I can't help it that you came onto me, using that incredible mouth on me."

"I'm not very good."

"You are just fine. Trust me."

"You're just saying that so I'll do it again."

"Well, maybe, but you had no objections to me showing you the funner ways of me being on top of you so that would lead me to believe if I wasn't thrilled with what you were doing you'd take some coaching."

She laughed softly. "Maybe," she said.

"You do just fine, honest."

"Okay," she whispered.

"I think Scotty likes my jacket."

"I guess so. I'm sorry. He doesn't shed real badly, but I can pay to have it cleaned."

"Shut up," he said with a shake of his head. "I'm not worried about a cleaning bill. I am worried about what time Melissa's going to be home though and both of us looking very much like we just did that."

"Oh God!"

"I'm glad I could distract you to the point of forgetting about her."

"I just wasn't paying attention to the time. Your shirt…"

"Yeah. I can go to my hotel and come back for dinner?"

"Sure."

"Or you two could come have dinner with me. I leave tomorrow, but you could swim tonight. She liked the pool."

"She loves the water. Always has."

"Well…"

"That sounds nice."

"All right."

"Where to tomorrow?"

"Back home to hammer out this album we're supposed to have to our label in a month."

"Oh. Was it not going well?"

"It was going all right until I got an email telling me you went out on a date."

"Why would she tell you that?"

"Don't be mad at her, and don't tell her I told you. I want her to trust me. She was telling me her thoughts, which I won't delve into. Then Sean said something about my wanting him to treat Melissa better than I treated you and I hit him."

"John!"

"The past week wasn't very productive so we all took a long weekend and went our own way. Sean I think was thinking of coming here until he found out I was and he went home to Texas instead."

"I see."

"I'm thinking I owe him an apology."

"I'd say!"

"I just don't like the idea of them…"

"I know, but we can't really stop them even if we wanted to try."

"I know that. Claude made a joke about cybersex and that got me thinking about them…"

"Oh God. They can't?"

"That's what led to me hitting Sean," he said with a shake of his head.

"I see," she said.

"As far as I can tell he hasn't told Melissa I'm the reason behind his face being bruised so maybe he understands he said something maybe he shouldn't have said."

"Yes, but, John."

"I know, beating people up isn't the solution."

"Good."

"So, any chance you'll send her to your parents' house and stay the night with me tonight?"

"No!"

"It was worth a shot, but if you both wanted to bring stuff for the morning I wouldn't complain."

"She has to get to school."

"She could drive her car tonight and I could drive you home in the morning after she leaves for school."

"What time is your flight?"

"Six o'clock."

"So you have all day here tomorrow?"

"Pretty much."

"I'll see what she thinks."

"All right," he said.

He bent over then, tugging on his jacket a bit. Scotty took the hint and moved off of it.

"I really am sorry."

"It's fine."

"I have one of those rollers, it may get some of it off."

"Sure," he said. "Bring it with you when you come."

"She's going to wonder why you need it."

"I'm sure you can come up with some reason for Scotty hairs to be on my coat that doesn't involve it being on the floor."

"I'll try."

She reached for the closet.

"I'll get my own coat. You don't have to wait on me."

He leaned down, kissing her.

"See you later."

"Was my father mad?"

"Actually, I didn't give him the chance to say anything. I said what I went there to say and left. I was kind of afraid if I did more than that I'd get mad or something, you know?"

"I understand."

"Think he's going to be surprised when he finds out what I've done with my life?"

"I think so, yes."

"He still would've wanted to keep me from you back then. I mean, even if he'd known we were going to be as big as we are."

"I agree," she said.

"One of these days…"

"Yes, we'll talk about it. Nothing happened how I envisioned it happening, John."

"I believe you."

He kissed her again after he slid into his coat.

"Tell me when Spring Break is, too."

"Okay," she said, blushing and he chuckled.

They got there before five. Melissa drove she said so John took that to mean he was bringing Claire home tomorrow, which was fine with him. That meant he'd have most of the day tomorrow with her. He'd had a lot of time with Melissa this weekend so he didn't feel bad for thinking that way. Chances were he'd see her before leaving for the airport tomorrow, too.

"You're wearing it," he whispered, noticing the necklace.

"I am. It's the other reason I let you earlier," she whispered.

"Come again?"

"You actually had to put some thought into it."

"Yes." He frowned a bit.

"That's a good thing, John," she said. "I assumed it was something you just went and bought."

"Oh, no. I mean, the chain part, sure."

"I know. But you didn't stop at just the chain."

"No."

She reached up and kissed him.

"Wow," he said, glancing at Melissa. "You must be serious doing that in front of her."

"I am."

"Good to know."

"Remind me tomorrow to tell you about the phone call I received after you left."

He scoffed at that. "I can just imagine. I'll remind you. You're here, though, so it must not have been too bad."

"Not too bad. I just felt like I was a toddler again getting scolded for coloring on the walls."

"You colored on the walls?"

"Yes," she said, blushing. "I suppose you didn't?"

"Uh, no," he shook his head.

"I'm sorry," she whispered.

"That I didn't?"

"No, that you knew you couldn't even that young. I'm sorry."

"It's all right. So, I was looking at our website and it seems like we have some shows around this area coming up. I don't know when spring break is, but a couple of them are on Saturday nights so even if it's not your break you could come."

"That would be very cool. Can we Mom?"

"I'll have to take a look."

"Look away, just let me know so I can be sure to get you guys passes and everything."

"You sure you want to do that?"

"Of course I want to do that."

"Okay," she said.

"My biggest concern was your father finding out in some off the wall fashion. That can't happen anymore so it is what it is. If people want to investigate why you two are coming to my concerts, let them."

"All right."

"Why can't that happen anymore?" Melissa asked.

"I went to see him today to tell him I'd seen you and your mother."

"Oh," she said. "He's going to be mad at me, isn't he?"

"No, honey, of course not," Claire said, but John thought Melissa was probably at least partially right.

"Whatever his feelings are his problem not yours or your mom's."

"I know," she said.

"All right. Let's go eat. You guys just be sure to tell me which shows you want to come to."

"And if you're not done recording by her spring break?" Claire asked.

"I hope we will be. I'm hoping this weekend was good for all of us, but if not you can still come to the house. It'll be crowded, but that's fine with me." He slid his arms around her. She'd kissed him in front of Melissa so he felt okay doing this. "Let me be clear. There is absolutely no reason I wouldn't want either one of you at my house, at a show, or anything. You want to be there, come. I'd say surprise me, but then you wouldn't get the passes. If that's what you want to do, though. More power to you."

"All right," Claire said.

"I would say if just Melissa's coming to let me know so I can look for her."

"I can't think of any reason she'd go without me."

"I don't know either, but just saying. I'd feel better if I knew to look for her."

"Me, too."

"All right. Dinner and then swimming. Sound good?"

"Yes," they both said.


***

So that's how he got back to Tampa in a much better mood than he'd left. He had dates they were going to fly down for Melissa's spring break. He was going to talk to Claude about just staying here because he knew Claude was planning on contacting Melissa about her song. It wasn't going to be something they'd put on their album or anything, but John knew Claude wanted it to see the light of day. He made sure Melissa knew to bring all of her stuff with her when she came down.

It was real late when he got home so he went up to his room immediately. He took the time to unpack before he got ready for bed. In New York he'd put off unpacking until the next day (sometimes the day or two after that depending on his mood), but if he did that here Dominick would just go through his bags so he learned just to unpack right away and be done with it. He picked up the phone once he'd gotten into bed, sliding his hand under his head when it started ringing on the other end.

'Hello,' she said.

"Hi. It's me."

'Is everything okay?'

"It is. I was just calling to say I made it home all right and that I had a very nice time today."

'Me, too,' she said.

"I'm very glad to hear that."

'I bet you are,' she said with a soft laugh.

"I am because I look forward to spending a day like that again and I want you to as well."

'It won't happen real soon.'

"I'm aware, but when it does happen it will be as enjoyable."

'I hope so.'

"I know so."

'Melissa asked me if we were officially dating.'

"What did you tell her?"

'I told her that we were.'

"And?"

'She seemed all right. Surprised. A little quiet, but all right.'

"Good."

'She'll have questions for both of us.'

"I'm sure."

'So is everyone back tonight then?'

"All the cars were here, so must be. I'm the last one in it seems."

'Oh. So back to it tomorrow?'

"Yup," he said with a soft sigh. "I'll probably find some time in the morning to talk to Sean."

'You know he didn't call Melissa all weekend.'

"Really?" John asked, surprised.

'No. She told me tonight that she hadn't even realized you guys were taking the weekend off.'

"Huh. Well, if he says something about that I'll let you know."

'You don't have to.'

"No, I will. I'm kind of curious about that myself because they'd been talking pretty regularly."

'They had been.'

"College!"

'What?' she asked.

"You said it won't happen again for a while. She'll go to college."

'Oh. Yes, she will, I suppose you're right.'

"Maybe she'll even come to college down here so you'll have more of an incentive to visit Florida."

'That would be an incentive.'

"Not the only one I hope."

'No. I'll let you know about our plans for your shows once I figure out how that will work.'

"All right. No worries. It's not like you need to make hotel arrangements because you can stay with me. I do know when you two come down here for spring break I'm going to try to talk Claude into being here."

'Oh?'

"Yes. He wants to work with Melissa."

'Oh,' she said.

"Anyway. I just wanted you to know I'm all safe and sound."

'I'm glad you called.'

"Me, too. I'm not used to doing that."

She was quiet.

"That's a compliment, Princess."

'I'm just not sure what to say to that.'

"I just never cared enough about anyone else to let them know I made it home."

'But you dated someone for like a year you said.'

"Sure, and the bulk of that time we were touring. I didn't have a computer and I am not known for using my cell phone so she was lucky to get a call from me at all."

'I see.'

"I unpacked my stuff from the weekend so Dominick wouldn't do it for me at like seven in the morning."

She laughed at that.

"You laugh! You think I'm kidding! I swear to God he gets off on doing that sometimes."

'You poor thing.'

"I know, I know. I have nothing to bitch about. Anyway. I unpacked, got ready for bed, and called you."

'I see.'

"My bed could use another person in it."

'Your bed would seem empty with four people in it.'

He chuckled softly at that.

'And no, I don't know want to know if you've had four people in it before.'

He laughed louder at that.

"I do have one question for you," he said, thinking of bedrooms and sleeping arrangements.

'I'm not sure why that made you think of a question, but go ahead.'

"If everyone's still here when you come down that will leave the room you slept in as the only room empty."

'Yeah.'

"Which would leave Melissa without a bedroom."

'Oh,' she said.

"So, you tell me how you want me to set you two up."

'I…'

"You don't have to let me know tonight. It may not even be an issue. I hope we get this done and everyone can go on their way before we start touring. We get along better when we haven't seen one another for a while in such close proximity like traveling so extensively means."

'I get that.'

"You two could share that room. That's fine with me, but she's going to figure out that the entire time you were down here our rooms connected."

'She would, wouldn't she?'

"She would. That doesn't mean we have to admit we used it for such purposes."

'We don't.'

"Maybe I could finagle two of the girls to bunk up or something. Girls never seem to mind sleeping in the same bed."

'I don't even want to know how you know that.'

"I travel with three of them seven to nine months out of the year."

'I suppose.'

"And Jazmin isn't exclusive to men."

'You've told me that.'

"So, sometimes there's four."

She laughed softly.

"You're teasing me, aren't you?" he asked.

'I was,' she whispered.

"I liked the teasing you were doing with your mouth earlier today much better."

'You did?'

"Yes," he said. "If I wasn't clear on my enjoyment do it again the next time I see you."

'I'll keep that in mind.'

"I'll let you get to sleep."

'As if I have anything to wake up to.'

"I suppose you don't. You wake up with Melissa, don't you?"

'I do. I still make her a hot breakfast every morning. I almost feel like I have to.'

"Why?" he asked with a frown.

'I have nothing else to do! What kind of a mother would I be if I sent her to school on a bowl of cereal or a Pop Tart?'

"Well," he said.

'I do it because I want to.'

"Okay."

She sighed softly.

"What?"

'Nothing. I forget sometimes…'

"Don't worry about it."

'You have Dominick, though. I know he'd make you a hot breakfast if you wanted him to.'

"He would. I'd much prefer your hot breakfast."

'I don't think so after tasting his cooking.'

"He is pretty good."

'He is.'

"I think he does some catering stuff when I'm not here."

'Really?'

"Yes. He asked me if I minded and I said no. I don't care what he does as long as my house doesn't fall apart. Now that the place in New York sold and I'll be spending all of my downtime here that may change, but he'll still have hard dates to know when I'll be here and stuff."

'True.'

"So, how's Scotty?"

'He's good. He says he's sorry about your jacket again.'

John chuckled. "It's okay. What did you do with him when you two came down here?"

'Ally and Andy took him.'

"Oh," he said, nodding. "Will they again?"

'Yes. Why?'

"Just wondering. I don't know how that works with dogs his size on a plane, but if you had to bring him with you could."

'No, Ally doesn't mind and if for some reason she and Andy are busy or can't a mom of Melissa's best friend would. She lives out in Barrington, though, so don't like to unless it's an emergency.'

"How do they know one another?" John asked.

'They've been riding together since before they started school.'

"Oh, is she the one that got thrown from her horse last summer?"

'Yes,' Claire said. 'It's strange how they've stayed friends. They compete against each other, and they don't hold back when doing so, but they know the difference.'

"That's good."

'But anyway, yes, Cindy's mom would do it.'

"Okay. Well, just so you know, if you had to. It'd probably freak Dominick out."

'I'm not going to do that!'

"I'd enjoy it!"

'Get your own dog then.'

"No, no. I have no time for that. I mean, I have time when I'm here and Dominick is here, but I'm not going to get a pet that someone else will spend the bulk of their time with."

'I understand.'

"Good."

'How was your flight?'

"Fine."

'I'm sorry it was sort of a wasted trip.'

"It wasn't. It didn't go how I imagined, I'll grant you that. I got to spend some time with Melissa, though, so I can't complain."

'She raved about dinner on Friday night.'

"I'm glad."

'You were assuming that would be me with you?'

"I was, yes. I did make the reservations for three."

'She mentioned that.'

"Was that wrong? I wouldn't show up and just take you out. I mean, not without her knowing that was going to happen."

'No, you did right.'

"Good."

'I'm glad you called.'

"Me, too. I'll talk to you soon then in some fashion."

'Yes.'

"Sleep well, Princess."

'Funny, when I spend time with you I sleep incredibly well.'

"Do you now?"

'Yes.'

"Back at you."

'Good.'

"I agree. That'll happen again real soon."

'I know.'

"Night," he whispered as she did the same before disconnecting.

He hung the phone up on the stand next to his bed, grabbing the remote for his TV. He scrolled through the channels until he found a movie that looked remotely interesting. He was tired, but he wasn't going to fall asleep right away. The sound would help. He set the sleep timer on the TV before setting the remote back down. He wondered if she had a TV in her room. He hadn't been paying attention to that sort of thing today to look for one to notice.

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty-One
Word Count: 2,051

March 2003

"Did you enjoy watching?" Claude asked.

"A little different, though," he said.

"Yes," Claire said.

"John and I would like to get it on this album if we can."

"Wait. On your album? I thought…"

Claude shrugged. "She's good. John and I both like working with her. It's very different then our usual stuff, but we're in a position to be able to do that. We've done it before."

"I know," Claire said with a sigh. Claude chuckled at that.

"You know what song I'm talking about?"

"I do," Claire murmured. She wondered if Claude didn't realize that the song was about her. She'd known. She'd known from the moment she heard it and hated it. Hated it in a she loved it way. It was another twist of the dagger in her heart. He cared enough, felt enough, to write a song about their day together but couldn't find it in his busy schedule to seek them out. She'd been irritated and hurt.

"You're not what I pictured."

"Is that good or bad?" she asked.

Claude shrugged, taking a sip of his Coke.

"I don't know. You're just not, you know."

"Oh," Claire said simply.

"I knew that song meant something, too, you know. John writes, better than he thinks he does but he's never pushed to get a song on an album so hard with any of his other songs. Usually he gets a chorus or a verse and then he stops."

"I didn't even know he wrote until I heard that song in my office one day."

Claude chuckled softly at that.

"He's written more than he wants people to think. He doesn't like to take credit for it, though, even that song. There was no agreement as far as the band being credited for everything. I tried for that song, but he didn't want it."

"How long does it take?"

"Well, we sent everything out already a few days before you got here for mixing and stuff. If we like this song we'd sent it along, too, but we're looking at a single release by June for a tour. If we got this song on the album, maybe even released it early as a bonus track I'd love it if she could tour with us for a while this summer."

"She'd love that."

"Not Mom, huh?"

Claire shrugged. "No, I would be fine with it if she wanted to. I know John's not going to convince her not to go to school in the fall."

"No," Claude said.

"You really think it's that good?"

"I do," Claude said.

"How does that work if your album hasn't been released yet and you're touring?"

"We don't play the whole album, just the tracks that we think will get the most airplay or are our particular favorites for whatever reason."

"And her song would be one of them?"

"If it gets done in time, yes."

"Huh," Claire said.

"And she's going to use your name," he said.

"We'd talked about it. I told her if she wanted to use something else that was fine."

"I think she liked the idea of that connection to him."

"Probably so. I understand her not wanting her friends to know, though."

"John said your school was kind of brutal."

"Oh, it wasn't all bad, but Melissa is like I was and hangs around with people who will drop you like a fly if you do or say the wrong thing. Once she's in college, though," she said.

"Ah," Claude said.

"Like you were in college?"

Claire laughed softly at that. "Yeah," she said, growing quiet then. Claude seemed to understand she didn't want to talk anymore and focused instead on John and Melissa in the next room who were playing together.

"I'm going to go on up to bed," she said a while later. The night before last John hadn't come up to bed until close to two in the morning. She suspected tonight wouldn't be any earlier. It was interesting watching them work, and fascinating listening to them sing and play together but she felt as if she was sort of intruding in a way.

"I'll let them know," Claude said.

"Night," she said.

"Night," he replied, but she could tell he wasn't focused on her at all anymore. He wrote something on a piece of paper and held it up to the window, facing toward John and Melissa.

MAKE IT POP it said she noticed when he drew it away from the window.

She stood by the door for a second, listening as they played the section again and sure enough there was a pop to it that had been missing just moments before. Even she knew what the note meant. She thought it sometimes when she heard a remake of a song when thinking what the difference was. Sometimes that was all that she could use to describe the difference and why she preferred one version over another, one popped and the other didn't.

She got ready for bed and slid into his bed. Everyone was gone by the time they got down here so they didn't have to worry about where Melissa would sleep this time versus last time. As far as Claire knew her daughter still had no idea that their rooms connected. She wasn't sure she was ready for her to know that yet.

One thing she liked about going to bed before him he usually woke her up in the most enjoyable ways when he did eventually join her. Tonight was no exception. She was going to get incredibly spoiled after these ten days she imagined. New Year's was different. She hadn't really expected to have sex with him. It had just happened. Her doing, for sure, but it hadn't been a thought before she walked into his room that night he'd offered to show her his bedroom.

"So," he whispered after he'd woken her up completely. Her body was still humming from it, too. His hand sliding along her thigh was helping it keep humming.

"Yes?"

"I got an invoice in the mail today," he said.

"Okay," she said cautiously. Why would she care about an invoice?

"From your father's firm," he said.

"Oh," she said.

"Does he really charge $400 an hour?"

"I think so. I don't know."

"Well, he charged me $100 and I wasn't in there for more than ten minutes. I assume he rounded it up to fifteen minutes."

"I'll talk to him…"

"Don't you dare! I'll pay it. It makes him feel as if he has some sort of control over us."

"He's not a horrible…"

"Just stop. Don't make excuses for him. Do you have any idea what that felt like. Your dad showing up, laying it out for me. I barely had time to digest the fact you were pregnant and then he threw the rape charges in there."

"I'm sorry," she said, leaning over and kissing his shoulder.

"Why'd you tell him before me?" he asked.

"I didn't."

"Claire!"

"I'm serious, John. My first instinct was not to tell my father that I was pregnant. I told Christopher."

"Oh," he said, sounding puzzled.

"I thought he'd help me. Listen to me and help me figure out my options."

"And he didn't?"

"No, he did the opposite. I always thought we were close and that he loved me, but he told me how he figured because I was so uptight about sex that exactly what happened would happen."

"Nice," he whispered.

"That wasn't all," she whispered. "He was the first one I'd told. I was still wrapping my mind around it. I mean, one time. How was that even possible? I know people who were having sex every weekend."

John scoffed softly at that.

"I was expecting support, to talk me through it. To just have someone to talk to for a little while before I told anyone else. He told our parents, after telling me that if our mom drank herself into a coma it would be my fault for stressing her out."

"And you still talk to him?"

"No more than necessary, honestly," she said.

"Good," he said.

"I was stuck, John. I couldn't support a child without being able to work and I needed a degree in order to do that. Dad didn't talk to me for a while. I'm not sure if during that time he wasn't speaking to me is when he visited you. I'm really not sure. My mother tried to talk me into having an abortion every day for months."

"Months?"

"Oh, yes. She was too young to be a grandmother and didn't want the blemish of me having one without being married let alone even a boyfriend that could be a potential husband."

"Jesus," he said.

"My dad presented me with the offer of still paying for my college, housing, and daycare."

"That was good, right? I mean I've never researched it, but I know Claude has talked about how much daycare costs."

"There was a condition, though," she whispered.

"Me," he said.

"Yes."

"Funny, he pretty much gave me the same condition."

"I didn't know what to do! I had no idea how you'd react. Bear in mind this was a matter of hours after I'd told Christopher so I had no time to process."

"I get that, yeah."

"I had to go to school. I didn't want to be in debt for the rest of my life just so I could support my child."

"And you had no idea I'd step up," he whispered.

"Not really. Reputation said…"

"I wouldn't have," he said, turning then to face her. Until that moment she'd been talking over his shoulder.

"I hated it. I hated he made me choose that, but I didn't know what else to do. If I'd had more time…"

"I get it. I probably would've done the same thing."

"I had no idea he was going to tell you he'd file rape charges against you. Honest. Never in my wildest dreams did I think he'd do that. I absolutely did not imply that's what happened."

"I didn't think you would, but I had no idea what you'd do to save face either."

"I loved you. I had no idea what it felt like until that day, but I wasn't going to tell you. I didn't want to be that girl who made that into more than it was. Then I found out I was pregnant. I thought it was fate, you know, that we were supposed to be together or something. Then when my parents found out and Mom kept telling me to get an abortion. I couldn't even think about it. That was our child."

"I'm glad you didn't," he whispered.

"Me, too. Every day. It hasn't been easy and I won't deny my parents and my brother are not my favorite people."

He scoffed at that.

"It was more than it was, by the way. You weren't the only one who had never felt that until that day. I would have talked to you, but I figured you got to school on Monday and decided I wasn't worth the potential blowback."

"I didn't want to be made fun of or give you a reason to tell anyone."

"I wouldn't have, Claire."

She shrugged. "I guess if we'd both known that things might have turned out differently because I would've certainly told you first if we'd been together."

"I hate to say it because I really hate to think it, but it probably wouldn't have turned out well. Neither of us would've known what to do, you know?"

"I think you might be right."

"I still hate your fucking dad, though."

She laughed softly. "I don't hate him, but I don't like him anymore," she whispered.

"And I swear to God if I ever see Christopher…"

"You probably will."

"I guess."

"John?" she whispered.

"Yeah?"

"I don't want to talk about that anymore."

"Sure, no problem. I wasn't trying to. I just wondered if that was really what your dad charged."

"I know. Can you do me a favor?"

"I will do my best to try. What?"

"Make love to me," she whispered.

"Absolutely."

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty-Two
Word Count: 1,977

"Are you going to come to my graduation?"

"Uh," John said, not sure how to answer that question.

Claire was out shopping and Melissa had decided to stay put with him and Claude. He didn't mind. Claude was currently busy listening to what they'd just finished recording.

"I'm sorry. I guess that wasn't the right way to tell you that I'd like you to be there."

He hadn't even thought about that. Stupid him. He'd known she was applying to colleges. He knew that she had narrowed it down to a handful from the way more than that she'd been accepted to. She'd mentioned Florida, but John suspected she'd be heading to Yale or somewhere else like it. John wouldn't blame her at all. He hadn't thought of the activity and right of passage leading to her going to college. Graduation.

"I guess your mom and I would need to discuss that."

"I can invite who I want."

"Yes, that may be true, but we don't want to piss off your grandparents. They were pretty nice to you last summer when you weren't speaking to your mom. From my understanding they've been pretty nice to you all along."

"Yes."

"Well, in my experience, limited though it is. When someone's nice to you, do your best not to piss them off. You never know when that niceness will be needed."

"Yeah, but you're my dad."

He sighed softly.

"I know I am. Some would argue that point maybe. The difference between a dad and a father. However, I'd like to talk to your mother. Maybe there's a way I can go without upsetting your grandparents. Not sitting with them or something."

"That's ridiculous!"

"If it helps keep the peace it's something to consider."

"Yes, but you're together."

"I know, Melissa. I plan on us being together until whichever one of us kicks the bucket first, but that doesn't mean we need to shove it down her parents' throats months into things."

"I suppose."

"So, we'll see what options your mother comes up with. Maybe she's thought on it. I admit I hadn't. I suppose that means you have prom this year, too. Did you go last year?"

"Yes, and sophomore year, too."

"Really? An older guy asked you?" Claire had told him she hadn't really had any boyfriends before Sean.

"Yes. He was just a friend. He didn't have a girlfriend so he asked me because he wanted to go. He lived two houses down from us until we moved into the new house a few years ago. So we sort of grew up together."

"Ah. I'd like to see pictures."

"Really? I'm sure Mom has a ton. She took plenty."

"I bet she did. Are you going this year?"

"Yes," she said.

"With Sean?" He hadn't heard one word about it, which he, Claude, and Billy should have to be sure nothing was scheduled that weekend. (The same with her graduation, too, now that he thought about it.)

"No," she said with a shrug.

"Why not?"

"We aren't really talking anymore."

"Oh?" He'd sort of wondered, but hadn't realized they weren't talking at all. "Why not?"

"He told me about the argument you two had, what he said. I think he thought I'd take his side or something."

"Oh," he said.

"I don't want to go out with someone who's going to say stuff like that. No matter what happened between you. He knows you. And that's kind of insulting not just to my mom but me."

"I'm sorry he told you. I was in a bad mood that night. I'd read your email and was jealous I guess," he shrugged. He'd never admitted that outright and he couldn't say he'd ever experienced true jealousy before.

"I didn't say that. I want you to be able to tell me anything. Everything. No limits or taboo subjects. Don't take that away from what I just said. It was just new to me and unexpected. Feeling that way. It had nothing to do with you. However, it made me realize that I needed to tell your mom what was on my mind. Something that is absolutely not my strong suit. I assumed after you left here in January she knew how I felt."

"Okay."

"I'm sorry about you and Sean. Distance is hard at any age, but throw you going to college into the mix and I imagine it'd be harder."

"That's sort of what he said," she said with a shrug. "You think you and Mom can do it?"

"I think Mom and I have a few things going for us you and Sean don't. Your mom doesn't work right now so she's a lot freer. I'm fortunate to work a job with a lot of time off as well. You won't be able to come and go as you please next year and Sean doesn't have the money saved up I do to afford things like plane tickets frequently."

"Yeah, he said that, too. He drove to Texas?"

"He did," John said. "I know he likes you, but maybe being my daughter was more than he wanted to handle right now with everything else."

"I know. I'm okay and everything."

"Good," he said, relieved to hear that.

"So. Graduation?"

"I'll talk to your mother."

"Would you come?"

"I don't know what part of I'll talk to your mother suggests to you I don't want to be there. I just don't want to cause problems. So if she can think of a way to avoid that, yes, I'll be there. Gladly."

"Okay."

"Good."

"Why don't you sing more?"

John coughed softly at that, glancing at where Claude was.

"Uh, because it's just not my thing. It's one thing to play my guitar and another to sing."

"Is that the only reason?"

"Yes."

"Why will you sing with me then?"

He shrugged. "Because there's no way I can possibly catch up or make up for the past eighteen years, but we have something in common. Something we both do and do well. I'd like to do that with you."

"And if I wanted to make a record?"

"I'd help you."

"Would you play with me? Could you?"

"Sure," he said. He shrugged, glancing in Claude's direction again. The guy probably was choosing now not to listen in on the conversation in here. Or just enjoying John being asked such questions. "Why not? I'm not under any contract or anything. So, whatever you'd need. I'm pretty sure Claude would help. I can't speak for anyone else. Claude can play bass, though," John said.

"I knew that, I think. You had someone before Noel."

"Yup, Xavier. He, Billy, Claude, and I started Shooterz in Claude's garage. That's where I was, in fact, when I found out you were going to happen."

"Oh. Does Claude go home?"

"No. His parents don't live there anymore. They moved to Mississippi, I think."

"Louisiana," Claude said over the speaker from the other room.

"There you go," John said.

"And, yes, I'd help you," Claude said.

"Thank you," she said.

John chuckled at that.

"Now, we may not be the sound you want, though, and you really need to think about if you want to do a record of your own what you want. If you'd rather audition people and have us help you with that we can do that, too."

"I know. I'm okay with this for now."

"All right."

"I'm going to be kind of busy."

"Well, if you're like Claude you need to write that stuff that comes to you so busy or not with school work you'll still write."

"Probably," she said.

"I can assure you that whatever you need if I can give it to you I'm in. Even if it's just to use my recording equipment. Yours is pretty good, though."

"I know."

He chuckled softly.

"You're lucky you have a mom who was willing to do that. Even if it was simply so she'd have quiet in the rest of the house. I can assure you not all parents would build you a studio."

"I know."

"Good."

"You guys would really help me?"

"You bet. Whatever you need. I mean if that's what you wanted to do. This here what we're doing, we're doing more for fun. I mean, sure you'll get money out of the deal from any sales and what have you, but if you were serious about wanting to do something and wanted to audition people or whatever. For sure we'd help you. Honestly, I wouldn't want you doing that without one of us in the band present."

"Why not?" she asked.

"Because, sweetheart, this business can be pretty brutal to young, pretty girls and I hate the idea of you being chewed up and spit out, used, or anything else."

"Thank you."

"You bet. Even if it's only this you do and you decide to sell your written work instead of perform it yourself I want you to have a positive experience."

"You guys haven't always."

"No, but we were together, a group. You're you and some people may try to take advantage of that."

"If they knew who you were …"

"Sure, but then you get the reputation of thinking you're entitled versus the next girl who writes music. Never mind I can't be with you every time you do something."

"I get it."

"Good. And, well, I've heard from talking to other people that it's just different for women. I don't want any of the stories I've heard to come true with you. Ever."

"He's right," Claude said from the other room. "I've told Paula if the girls want anything to do with any sort of show business she must talk to me before doing that."

"That bad?" Melissa asked.

"Worse," John and Claude both said.

"And it's not just girls, but I think they get the brunt of it," John said. He shrugged a bit.

"You make it sound so …"

"Hey, we've gotten lucky. We've had no problems. We've had good producers and good agents over the years. Some people aren't so lucky. It's a fickle business and it's not for the weak. For every Madonna there are one hundred girls trying to be here. One hundred girls who think if they do this or that they'll get the chance to be here, and it just doesn't work that way."

"And yet isn't that what you're doing for me?"

"We're not asking you to do anything in exchange for recording your song or getting it on our release. We just want your stuff to be heard because you're good and it deserves to be."

"Thank you."

"It's true."

"Your mom was surprisingly all right with you going on tour with us this summer," Claude said.

"She'd never say no if it was something I really wanted to do," Melissa said.

"And you're lucky for that," John said.

"Would I stay with you?"

"Yes," John said. He chuckled softly. "I guess that's one way your mom can be sure I'm not misbehaving."

"I don't think she's worried about that."

"I hope not," he said. He wasn't so sure. It was easy to say that now. When they took off at the end of May he likely wouldn't be free for months. A night here or there between shows, sure. It was always particularly brutal after a release.

"Can we go swimming now?"

"You bet," John said with a soft laugh. "Claude? You coming?"

"Nah," he said. "You two kids have fun."

"Thanks," John said before they put their guitars away.

"You getting out of here so you can't tell me not to send it?" Claude asked.

"Kind of," she said.

"It'll be good," he said.

"If you say so."

"We know so," John said.

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty-Three
Word Count: 1,379

"So about graduation," John said much later in bed.

"What about it?"

"Should I go? She asked me if I was, but I don't want to cause any problems."

She scoffed softly.

"Okay. Any additional problems. I realize I'm responsible for her needing to graduate and everything."

"We're both responsible."

"You're right. Come to think of it I should hold you way more responsible than I ever have."

She laughed against his chest. "Why?"

"It's your fault! Kissing me."

"No one had kissed you before?"

"Not like you did," he whispered.

"Hmm."

"Yes, you've told me before no one's asked you to do that."

He chuckled. "Begged me would be more like it."

She shrugged. "I was curious. And I loved you."

"Anyone would think we were nuts saying we felt that in less than a day."

"I know. We're not anyone, though."

"No," he whispered.

"Yes, you should go," she whispered.

"All right."

"I'll clear it with my dad and everything. If they have a problem with it they can stay home."

"Claire…"

"No, really. She's entitled to have her father there if she wants to."

"All right. She told me the date and we're free, but I wouldn't be able to get there until Saturday morning. Possibly Friday night late. We're playing in Dallas that night I think Claude said."

"Oh," she said.

"I'd fly to Chicago and then fly to meet them at our next city. I won't complain about a weekend not spent with them on a tour bus," he said dryly.

"I bet. Why didn't you use it this past summer?"

"We played only at Shermer Days so no need really. We had a van that we towed behind the bus until this past April when it died. We'll probably look at getting something else before we head out again so that we have a ride without the expense of a rental in every city. I guess we figured without the van we may as well fly. I don't know any of us really thought about it. It was a little different this past summer. We weren't touring like we will be starting in June so it wasn't moving from one town to the next constantly. We had breaks where we could go our own way for a few days if we wanted."

"But buying a car…"

"We just need it to get around towns in so it's not like it needs to do anything but run decent."

"I suppose."

"You going to come out on the bus with us?"

She snorted softly. "No, but I suppose Melissa will, won't she?"

"Yes."

"And you're comfortable with that?"

"Yes. No one's going to do anything to her. She'll have her own bunk and it has a curtain-like thing that closes it off from the aisle. We can go take a look at it before you leave if you want."

"It's down here?"

"Yes. The guy who did the detailing on the bus lets us store it there when we're not using it. Free advertising and stuff."

"Oh," she said.

"You worried about her and Sean?"

"A little, I guess."

"She said they're not really talking anymore."

"I know. I guess I worry that she'll try to do something to make him change his mind."

"I don't think they'd do that on the bus and she's going to be in my room for a reason," he said.

"And you don't care that people see her leaving your room?"

"No, I've already told both of you I'm being cautious for your sakes more than mine."

"Just making sure you've thought of that."

"I have."

"You're going to get asked a lot of questions."

"I imagine I am."

"Like where she's been the past eighteen years."

"I know. I haven't figured out how to answer that one yet."

"Do you have to answer?"

He shrugged. "I don't know. No answer is going to paint anyone in the greatest light. I've paid child support and haven't seen her. You've taken my money and haven't encouraged me to see her."

"John…"

"I'm not angry. I'm just stating the facts."

"I know. You just make it sound so calculating."

He shrugged. "I was pretty mad at you for a long time."

"I'm sure. I was, too, though."

"Rape charges, Claire. I couldn't fight those back then. Let alone I had no idea if that's what you'd told him happened. I wasn't going to go look you up after that on the chance it wasn't."

"I know."

"I had thought about it. Before he came to the house that day, I mean. I'd thought about once I had some cash in my pocket, knew I had something to offer you, finding you at school."

"Did you?"

"I absolutely did. I just knew I couldn't show up broke with no job to speak of."

He chuckled softly. "Your silence tells me I was spot on."

"You were."

"I wish you would've."

"I couldn't have paid for your school and stuff, and you said those were your dad's conditions."

"I know."

"You would have gone against him?"

"At least I would have known you felt the same way."

"And what not see me for four years?"

"He couldn't have stopped you from seeing her."

"I'm not so sure about that. I'm sure he would've come up with something. Drug charges or just suspicion of drug use. You lived at home until graduation, right?"

"Yes, but not when I was at school."

"I suppose," he said, not having thought on that. "I was so pissed that wasn't on my mind."

"I know," she whispered.

"As far as what to say. We should both sort of agree on something, shouldn't we? So we don't look like liars."

"I suppose."

"Something like the agreement we had was to keep her out of the limelight."

"Yes, but that wouldn't explain why you didn't see her."

"I was eighteen and a dumb fuck. That should be pretty self-explanatory."

"I'm not going to say that."

"You wanted to have a baby. I wasn't ready to be a dad. By the time I thought I might be it was sort of too late."

"That sounds a little more reasonable except I didn't get married until three years ago."

"Well, yes, but you dated him for quite a while before that, right."

"Yes," she said.

"Why?"

"What kind of question is that?"

"Why'd it take you so long?"

She shrugged and sighed. "I don't know. He was older. I've told you that. I just really wasn't convinced he wanted me and not just some symbol of something he could obtain." She slid a hand along his thigh. "I'd never let myself get close to anyone again really. I don't know."

"Was he a good guy?"

"He was a very good guy. He deserved so much better than a wife who wasn't completely in love with him. I did the best I could and I don't think he had anything really to complain about in the grand scheme of things. He knew that I'd never quite gotten over you."

"I'm sorry. You wouldn't have wanted me ten years ago. You wouldn't have wanted me a year ago more than likely."

"That was the problem. I always did."

He shifted a bit, sliding his hand along her ass and lower between her legs. She pressed her ass against him as he slid a finger inside of her and kissing the spot on the back of her neck she was pretty fond of him doing that to.

"I think I always did, too. I think you were the reason I couldn't have a lasting relationship. I never felt for them what I'd felt for you."

"It sucks, doesn't it?"

"You have no idea," he whispered. He'd craved it. Belonging. Something solid. A relationship to prove he wasn't his old man. That he was better than his parents. The more it didn't happen the further he delved into the bottle or the drugs.

He didn't want to think about it anymore. Not tonight.

"John," she whispered.

"Uh huh," he murmured, kissing her shoulder. He brushed his cheek against her skin there.

"I want you on top of me."

"Me, too," he said.

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty-Four
Word Count: 3,364

May 2003

'Hello,' Melissa said.

"Hey, it's John," he said. He'd been sort of hoping to get Claire. It was Saturday evening. He assumed Melissa would be out somewhere already. It was the reason he'd timed his call this way.

'Hi. How are you?'

"Oh, all right. How are you?"

'Good.'

"Nervous?" he asked.

'More than I've ever been in my life.'

"That's expected. You'll do fine."

'I hope so. I don't want to disappoint you.'

"Hey," he said, closing his eyes a little at her words. He'd never worried about disappointing his dad or mom. He was a disappointment according to them since before junior high school. He had worried about pissing them off, though. He talked big to his friends and stuff, but he got accustomed to treading very carefully at his house to avoid beatings whenever possible. "Melissa, there is no disappointing me. You are amazing. You had no idea how I would react to you yet you sought me out. I was a shit to you and you still asked to play for me. You are way braver than I was at your age or, well, your mom and I would've been together when she found out she was pregnant with you."

He shrugged, not that she could see him do it.

"I consider you and Claire fortunate we've gone eighteen years without anyone finding out."

'I guess.'

"If you've changed your mind."

'No!'

"That's good."

'It's too late, isn't it?'

"Well, for the single to be released? Yes. For you to come out with us, no."

'No, I want to.'

"All right."

'Mom's laughing at the list you sent home with us.'

"Laughing why?"

'She doesn't think I can pack that light.'

"Oh. Yeah, it is an adjustment. Do the best you can." She'd have an empty bunk above her, possibly two depending on how they worked the bunk arrangements. So she would be able to put stuff on one if she had to, but he wasn't telling her that. He'd rather she pack less and have to add stuff then too much and he'd have to be the bad guy going through her stuff like Willem Dafoe did to Charlie Sheen's character in Platoon.

'I won't. We went out and bought a duffle bag.'

"Perfect. It bunches up when you don't need it and it's lighter to carry than a suitcase."

'And we're going to go to the bank before I leave and get rolls of quarters.'

He chuckled softly.

"Have you ever had to pay to do your laundry before?"

'No,' she said softly.

"You'll have plenty of experience for college next year."

'That's what Mom said,' she said.

"Speaking of your mom," he said.

'I suppose you didn't call on a Saturday night to talk to me.'

"I always call hoping to talk to you, but I did have something to ask her."

'Ask her or just making sure she's home,' she said.

"What?"

'It's Saturday night.'

"She has friends. At least I hope she does. So, no, I'm not calling to ensure she's home on Saturday night."

'Oh. Just called to say you love her then.'

"Melissa," he said.

'You mean you haven't said it yet?'

"Well," he said, thinking about that. "No," he admitted. They'd skirted around it, said it in the past tense but not for the here and now.

'Why not?'

"I don't know. It's not an easy thing for me to say."

'Is that why you say that it's John when you call me.'

"What else am I supposed to say?"

'It's your dad.'

"Oh," he said. He hadn't even thought that was an option. "I didn't think of that."

'Well, you are him.'

"Sure."

'Scary?'

"No scarier than putting it out there for the whole world to see that I have you."

It hadn't taken their producer more than a week to call after they'd overnighted the two songs Claude, John, and Melissa had worked on the ten days she was in Florida over spring break. He'd wanted to know where they'd found her and why no one had heard of her yet. John had been surprised both of their songs were going to be put on the release. Claude said he wasn't surprised. They weren't their style of music, but they were good.

One of her songs would be hitting the airwaves with the release of a track of Shooterz from the new album. With that release it would come out that his daughter was not only singing and playing with him but had written the song, too.

Claude and John had talked for hours one night about how to handle getting it out there. John hadn't thought just putting it out there like this would work, but Claude figured the release of the song with the information that she was his daughter might make that stand out less. It was worth a shot.

"You, uh, want me to say that?"

Silence.

"I'll take that as you'd like it?"

'Yeah,' she whispered.

"I'll work on it."

'Me, too,' she said. 'I'll get Mom. You should tell her, you know.'

"That I'm your dad?"

'No, smart ass. You know what I mean.'

"I'd rather not do that over the phone."

'Why?'

"I don't know. I guess I'd like to see her face and make sure she doesn't laugh at me when I say it."

'She won't laugh at you.'

"Says you!"

'Have you ever said it before?'

"Not and meant it, no," he admitted. "The one woman I dated for over a year. She said it and after like the third time I figured I had to say it back."

'I see.'

"Pretty good sign that she wasn't who I was supposed to be with I guess."

'I'd say.'

"Speaking of. You and Sean are going to be okay on a bus together for three months, right?"

'Yes.'

"All right. None of us want drama."

'There won't be any drama. We still talk and everything, but we sort of agreed to see how my freshman year goes.'

"Makes sense."

'He's nice and everything, but I guess we're both still getting used to my being your daughter.'

"Well, overall I think he's a good guy."

'Even if you're not sure who he took that pill for?'

"Even if. I promised your mom your bunk would not be across from or right above or below his."

'Ew!'

"Ew?"

'Yes. No. Just no.'

He laughed at that. Did that mean she hadn't even thought about sex with Sean? Boy would he be in for a world of disappointment if that was the case. He'd been working pretty hard with no results if that was the case. Or was that an ew she didn't want her parents thinking about her like that? He wasn't sure.

"Well, just so you know."

'Am I going to sleep with you?'

"With me, no, but I imagine we'll be close together, yeah."

'Okay,' she said.

Was that good or bad? He wasn't sure. She was nervous, she'd admitted that much.

'And, yeah, that's what I meant, by you.'

"Yes."

'All right. I'll get Mom.'

"All right."

'And I'll see you in a couple of weeks, right?'

"You will."

'Good.'

"If you change your mind between now and then."

'No. Even if I never do it again I want to. I mean, how many other girls my age can say they toured with Shooterz.'

"None," he said.

'I know! Anyway, I'll get Mom. You should tell her, though.'

"You're entirely too interested in what I do or don't say to your mother."

She set the phone down then.

'Hi,' she said.

"Hi."

'I didn't even hear the phone ring.'

"She answered almost before it rang completely. She must have been waiting for a call."

'Oh, yes, she and some of her friends are going shoe shopping.'

"Why?"

'For prom.'

"I see."

'They need shoes to go with their gowns.'

"Oh," he said, that made it clearer. "You'll send me a picture or two, right?"

'Yes.'

"Good. I'm debating whether I should accidentally leave my computer open for Sean to see the pictures."

'Be nice,' Claire said.

John chuckled. "Does she like this guy she's going with?"

'I don't know if she does or not. I think she assumed Sean wouldn't go so she had him in mind all along.'

"Does he know that?"

'I don't think so.'

"Poor guy."

'Guys do it, too.'

"I suppose. Listen. I won't keep you too long. I know it's Saturday night. I just realized I need to buy her a gift for graduation and I have no idea what kind of gift to get her."

'You don't have to get her a gift, John.'

"I may not have had a graduation party or any big fanfare for getting my diploma, but I'm aware of what went on. Your parents will be there more than likely. I can't show up without a gift."

'Anything for her dorm room. If you want to be real conservative you could do some savings bonds or something.'

"Hmm," he said. "Do you have a list of stuff she'd like for her dorm room? Or something for me to look at?"

'You've never been in a dorm room?'

"Oh, Princess, sure I have but I wasn't paying attention to what they had in their rooms."

'Oh,' she whispered.

"Sorry. Was that the wrong answer to give?"

'No. I don't want you to lie to me.'

"Okay."

'And yes, I can send you a list of ideas.'

"Thank you. The guitar was easy. I knew that. I don't know anything about college. I don't really know anything about her when it gets down to it. Basic, general stuff."

'You'll get there.'

"I hope so."

'You want to, both of you, so you will.'

"Thanks."

'She's very excited about the summer. If she hasn't told you that, she is.'

"She said she's nervous."

'She is that, too. She's definitely excited, though. I think the nervousness comes from her friends finding out more than anything. She's hoping the single won't be released until after graduation.'

"Not going to happen. It should be hitting the airwaves within the next week."

'I think she realizes that, but she's nervous.'

"Is Vernon going to give her a hard time?"

'You know I hadn't even thought about him. She obviously doesn't know about how fond you two were of each other when we were in high school.'

"Fond," he said with a scoff. "That's one way of putting it."

'Anyway, she'll be fine, John. She's nervous. I think it's normal given the circumstances.'

"Sure."

'She's still excited, though.'

"Good. I am, too."

'Good.'

"One thing I'm not so excited for, though."

'What?'

He chuckled. "Nothing bad. I mean serious bad. Just that when you come to see us we won't get to be alone. I got very used to being alone with you."

'Me, too,' she whispered.

"Yeah? Good used to it?"

'Yes,' she whispered.

"Is she there?"

'I'm not sure.'

"I see. Well, she's going to be staying in my room. It seems ridiculous to get her her own room, and I refuse to put her with Candy. Farrah maybe…"

'Yes, but if you did that only when I …'

"She might figure out her parents are having sex?"

'Well, yes, exactly.'

He laughed. "You want me to see about Candy or Farrah letting her bunk with her. Jazmin picks up people all of the time so I wouldn't put her with her."

'No, it's fine.'

"Fine? Says you!"

'John.'

"I'll figure something out."

'That would be nice.'

"I could show you the bunk in our bus."

'That would fit?'

"Both of us? Is that what you're asking? I think we could make do, yes. Might have to be the me on top you're not crazy about."

'I have never said I'm not!'

"I'm teasing," he whispered. "You requested it. I remember that."

'I did. I wanted that.'

"Me, too. And I said so that night, too."

'I remember.'

"Good. I told you I'd make it good for you."

'You did.'

He chuckled.

"Not that I'm complaining about the behind you thing. Far from it. I could do that every time and be a happy guy."

'You shouldn't say that.'

"It's true! I love watching you. Us. That way. It's a turn on. You liking it is an even bigger turn on."

'I'm glad.'

"Me, too!"

'That's not the only reason you want me to come is it?'

"No! I mean. I want to have sex with you. If that's a bad thing or a crime so be it, but no that's not the only reason I want you to come when you can. I want you there, Claire. I don't know how much clearer I can be about it. I told you there's never a time I don't. You could come with the whole summer if you wanted to."

'If I didn't have Scotty.'

"You'd never be able to live out of a dufflebag for three months."

'You might be right.'

"I'd love to see you try."

'Scotty couldn't come?'

His eyes widened at the question.

"Are you serious?"

'Why not? Truck drivers have dogs.'

"Well, sure, I suppose. I'd have to consult with everyone to be sure, but I can find out if you're serious."

'I don't know. I have a lot of stuff to do around here.'

"Stuff?"

'Yes. Some fundraisers for Stu's company I have to go to.'

"Oh," he said with a slight scowl.

'They asked. I said yes.'

"Is that normal?"

'I'm his widow. His grandfather started the agency and he worked there until he died. I guess they want his name associated with the events.'

"I see," he said.

'Is that a problem?'

"No, you just hadn't mentioned it."

It wasn't a problem, but he still had a problem picturing her being anything but Claire Standish. He knew she was legally Claire Addison, Mrs. Stewart Addison III he supposed.

"Who runs the company now?" Stu hadn't married before Claire and had no kids.

'A couple of nephews.'

"Ah. How old are they?"

'Archie is forty, I think and Larry is our age.'

"Huh," he said.

'I actually still control the company. Until one, or both I suppose, proves they can run the company Stu left it to me.'

"Because he knew you knew how to run a business."

'Yes.'

"He obviously trusted you."

'He did.'

"I'm glad. I'm glad you had that."

'Me, too.'

"So, Melissa asked me something while we were talking."

'She did?'

"She did. She asked me if I'd told you I love you yet."

'Why did she ask you that?'

"I'm not sure. Curiosity? Nosiness? Wondering where we were at?"

'What did you say?'

"I told her I hadn't."

'I see.'

"She asked me if I was going to tell you."

'I'll talk to her. I'm sorry. She shouldn't be asking you things like that…'

"No, Princess, you're missing my point."

'Okay.'

"That is that I want to say it. To you. I've only said it once before and like I told her I didn't really mean it."

'Oh,' she said.

"She said it first and stuff, more than once sort of putting me on the spot."

'Mm,' she said. Was she mad? Should he not be saying this stuff? She'd been married. She'd admitted to having sex before marrying Stu. He had no idea how many times or guys she was talking about either. He imagined it wasn't a lot, but even if it was he wouldn't be mad about it. Well, not really.

"It made me think, though, about you leaving in January thinking I didn't want anything."

'John…'

"Let me finish," he said.

'Okay.'

"If you left my place in March not understanding clearly that I love you I was obviously derelict in my duties as your boyfriend."

'John, really.'

"I make no promises I'm going to say it every conversation or anything. This is new for me. Please, though, take my actions to heart and know that I do."

'Okay,' she whispered.

"Okay?" he asked with a slight frown. She didn't sound very excited about what he'd just told her.

'Well, I just wasn't expecting you to say that over the phone.'

"With Melissa nearby."

'Yes,' she said.

"I see. And you don't want her to hear what you have to say?"

'I'm not sure yet.'

"Okay."

'I mean. I do, too.'

"You do?"

'Yes.'

"That's good enough for me for tonight."

'Okay.'

"What are you doing tonight?"

'I'm actually going to a dance with a friend of mine.'

"A dance?"

'Yes.'

"You're not telling me more?"

'There's nothing more to tell.'

"I find that hard to believe."

Silence. She was still on the line he could hear that much. What could possibly be bad about a dance?

'It's a Parents Without Partners mixer.'

"I'm sorry?"

'It's a group…'

"Believe it or not I'm familiar with the group." One of his friends' dad's had met his step-mom through something like it when they were in junior high.

'Okay.'

"So, you're going to this dance because…"

'She doesn't want to go alone.'

"And you volunteered?"

'Kind of,' she mumbled.

"Are you looking for a partner?"

'No!'

"Claire, I swear to God, if this isn't working out for you…"

'No, John, I swear to you, that's not it. I remember what it was like having Melissa when she was little and being the only one with a kid. I couldn't do anything at the drop of a hat like my other friends could. I remember not being able to go out because she was teething so bad and running a fever so high I didn't feel right leaving her with a sitter or my parents.'

"She did that?"

'She did,' she said.

"Is that normal?"

'Yes,' she said. 'So, we had lunch one day and she was talking about seeing this ad at her church.'

"And you weren't going to tell me?"

'I didn't think there was anything to tell.'

"I might like to know you're going to a single's dance, Claire."

'It's not! I mean, sure, I guess, but it's so that people who are single parents can meet other single parents. Not just romantically.'

"Have you gone?"

'No!'

"Ever?"

'No, not really. It never interested me.'

"I see."

'I was pretty busy.'

"I suppose."

'Are you mad at me?'

"I'm not mad at you, but I can't help but think you were sort of deliberately not telling me about this."

'I wasn't sure how you'd react.'

"To my girlfriend going to a singles dance? Yeah, that isn't something I enjoy hearing."

'I can call you when I get home.'

"Yeah?"

'Would that make you feel better?'

"Maybe."

She snorted softly at that.

"If you call me later it'd be from your bedroom, wouldn't it?"

'Yes.'

"Melissa won't be in there."

'No.'

"That would make me feel better."

'It might be late.'

"I'll be up."

'Okay.'

"I'm not sure if I should tell you to have fun or have a terrible time."

'For my friend's sake I hope it's a good time.'

"What's her name?"

'Laura.'

"Well, I hope Laura meets Mr. Wonderful."

'So I don't have to go with her again?'

"Yup," he said.

'What are you doing tonight?'

"Actually I'm working on a song."

'Really?'

"Yes."

'Better than the last one you wrote, I hope.'

He laughed at that. "It is. A lot happier at any rate."

'Good.'

"If you're good I'll sing it for you the next time I see you."

'On the bus?'

"If that's what you want me to do with you while we're on the bus together, sure."

'That's a start.'

"That isn't where I'd start."

'I bet it's not.'

"Good night, Princess. Have fun."

'You're not mad?'

"No, I'm not mad. If you were trying to hide it from me you wouldn't have told me."

'I'm just not used to…'

"Having to be accountable? Yeah, me neither. Not really. We'll get used to it. Call later if you want."

'Okay. Night.'

"Night," he said, hanging up.

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty-Five
Word Count: 3,574

June 7, 2003

Claire reached for the phone, missing it the first time.

"Hello?"

'Hey. You want to come let me in?'

"John?"

'Unless you're expecting someone else to show up here at four in the morning, yes.'

"No, it's just so early," she said, glancing at the alarm clock. She'd assumed, well, she'd assumed maybe he wouldn't make it. He was supposed to call when he was on his way.

'I'll explain when you open the door.'

"Yeah, sure," she said. "I'll be right down."

She grabbed her robe before opening her door and making her way down the stairs. Scotty followed, heading in the direction of the garage and the doggy doors that would take him outside. She'd thought the idea of a room for the dog off the garage was ridiculous when Stu suggested it, but there'd been times over the past couple of years that it'd been a godsend. What was more the door from the garage to the house locked if they were going to be gone for any length of time so there wasn't really much of a security hazard.

She worked the deadbolt so she could open the door. He looked beyond exhausted, but she loved the way he looked right now. Tired, but happy to be here. Happy to see her.

He stepped inside, setting a small bag by his feet before he took her into his arms and kissed her. And kissed her. He'd stop so they could take a breath and go right back to kissing her to the point she whimpered.

"That is what has kept me awake until now."

"Kissing me?"

"Yes," he said gruffly, sliding his hands to cup her ass and draw her against him.

"Why are you here now?"

"Well, I got word that my flight for this morning was cancelled because it never got into Dallas last night. Plane issues or something. They weren't sure they were going to be able to get another plane here in time. So, I got the number for a private pilot and here I am. He flew me into Palwaukee and then I had to get a cab from there."

"Called? Yeah. This all happened in about fifteen minutes at one o'clock. I figured the most important thing was ensuring I actually got here."

"I'm glad you did."

"Me, too," he said. "I'd really love a shower and a nap. Can that be arranged?"

"Yes," she said.

"Thank you," he said. "If you wanted to join me in the shower I wouldn't complain."

"I don't have as big of a shower as you do."

"I know," he said, kissing her again. He found her ear, kissing it before nipping on her skin just under it. "I have this image of me behind you…"

"Yes," she whispered.

He chuckled softly.

"You didn't let me finish."

"You don't have to finish."

"Lead the way then," he whispered.

"Where's Melissa," he asked, sitting on the edge of her bed so he could slide his feet out of his boots.

"Sleeping."

"Here?"

"Yes," she said. Was she supposed to be somewhere else the night before graduation?

"And I'm not delegated to that room downstairs again?"

"Do you want to be?"

"No," he said with a shake of his head, sliding his socks off. He stood then, working the belt out from his waist. She watched and he knew she was doing just that. "You could come over here and help me instead of just looking."

"I like looking," she said.

"Yeah?" he asked.

"Yes," she said simply. She loved looking at him. She always had. She'd stared at him more than she cared to admit after that day of detention whenever she saw him. It wasn't real often, but occasionally she'd see him and she'd watch.

He peeled his jeans off then, stepping out of them before working his jacket and shirts off.

"You sure you want a shower?" she whispered.

"Yes," he said, not sounding so sure of his answer. "You joining me will give me the chance to cross two things off my list for this morning."

"Two things?"

"Get clean and get sweaty with you."

"Then a nap?"

"Yes," he said. "I've been up since ten o'clock yesterday morning and somehow I suspect I'll be up for the duration."

"Uh huh," she said.

"So, let's go then, Princess," he whispered, closing the distance between them. He slid his hand to hers. "You've got something to tend to."

She scoffed at that, sliding their joined hands between his legs. "I see that," she whispered, kissing his jaw.

"You're not helping."

"I am, too," she said, laughing softly.

"You still have clothes on," he murmured.

"Not many."

"Fix it!"

"You're kind of bossy at four in the morning."

"Don't I know it. I'm tired and horny," he said, sliding her robe over her shoulders and off. "Lead me to the shower."

She did just that, immensely grateful that she had a good water heater because they stayed in there way longer than was normal.

"Do you want anything before you go to sleep?" she asked once he'd gotten ready for bed.

"No, just you here next to me. Less clothes would be preferable."

"I can't! If Melissa walks in here not realizing you're here."

"She's going to see my clothes all over the floor."

"Oh God," Claire said, pushing the bedspread off of her. He grabbed her arm.

"Don't you dare. She's eighteen, not eight. That's what she gets for just walking in here anyway. We're not going to be having sex in front of her."

"John…"

"Claire. Stay where you are until you have to get up. I want you here. That was another of my needs. Sleeping next to you."

"You're just saying that because my bed is better than your bus," she mumbled. She couldn't deny she loved hearing it regardless of how serious he was. She believed him, but she doubted it was a real need.

"Yup, you caught me. Work my ass off all night and the stress over making sure I get here all for your bed."

He slid his arm around her drawing her against him. She brushed her ass against him feeling he was hard again.

"I thought you were tired," she whispered.

"I guess parts of me aren't in agreement on the level of our exhaustion."

"I see," she whispered, shifting a bit so he could enter her this way.

"Fuck, you feel so fucking good like this," he murmured once he was completely inside of her.

"You do, too," she whispered.

"Yeah," he murmured, brushing his mouth against her shoulder.

"Yes," she hissed as he pressed into her just right.

"I guess so," he said with a soft chuckle.

"What time am I waking up?" he asked a little while later.

"Well, the ceremony starts at two o'clock."

"Nothing before then?"

"No, just some pictures."

"All right."

"And then after there's a party. I sure hope the weather got the rain out of its system yesterday."

"Outside?"

"Yes. I have a tent, though, but obviously it'd be nice if we can use the whole yard."

"Sure," he said.

"Melissa will be glad you're here."

"Is Melissa's mom glad I'm here?"

"I've already demonstrated I am."

"You have," he said, kissing her. "You could demonstrate it again when you have to come wake me up for the day."

"I'll try."

"Okay."

"How much did that flight cost you?"

"It's just money," he said.

"John…"

"Don't worry about it. There was no way I was missing today, Claire."

"Her friends would have been deeply disappointed."

"Her friends, huh?"

"Oh, yes. She's been the focus of quite a bit of attention, more than usual even."

"I'll bet she has. All good?"

"For the most part. One of her friends didn't talk to her for a couple of days, thinking she'd withheld some huge secret from her all of these years."

He chuckled. "Women are so weird."

"We are," Claire admitted. "Men aren't so logical either, though."

"No," he said.

"Thank you for doing what you could do get here, John."

"Just don't leave me alone with your father and we'll be even."

She laughed softly at that, turning away from him again. "I don't think he has any desire to be alone with you."

"This is good. I'm not in the mood today."

"Good."

"Wake me up about twelve, I guess. You got my suit pressed?"

"I did," she said. He'd sent her back with the suit he'd wear to her graduation today when they left in March, knowing he'd be on the road before coming here.

"Thanks."

"Sure."

He slid his arm around her, gathering her to him. A totally different way than earlier, too. She was still pressed against him and everything, but his touch then and now was just different. Right now he just wanted her close to him. She wanted that, too, so they were in agreement.

"Claire?" he murmured.

"Uh huh."

"I love you," he said.

"I love you, too," she whispered.


***

The ceremony wasn't bad. John barely remembered his ceremony because he was pretty trashed for it. Claire sat in between John and her parents. They sat next to them for image, John knew, no other reason. If they could have gotten away with sitting elsewhere and not having it look bad they would have.

Their granddaughter had been thrust into the public eye and they had to be careful because likely they knew any misstep on their part would lead to things coming out they probably wouldn't want to come out. John had no desire to disparage their good reputation. In the couple of comments he'd made to this point about Melissa he'd kept it very generic and vague. They'd been young, they'd done what they thought was best for all concerned at the time.

No mention of her parents had been made, by either of them. Melissa had pretty much elected not to comment when she'd been asked anything. Of course, that didn't stop her friends from hounding her. Whether he was her father or not they were going to treat her different once she had a song getting played on the radio. Things always changed after that.

Especially since none of her friends seemed aware she had any desire to actually record anything from what he'd been able to ascertain.

The party wasn't bad. It was mostly adults at dinner, a few of her friends, and then throughout the evening she and her friends came and went. At the end of the night, though, most of her friends ended up back here. Claire's parents left early on, not early enough to be rude or anything.

It did not rain either so no one was restricted to being under the tent, which made things a lot less claustrophobic.

John and Claire were in the living room watching TV while Melissa and her friends did whatever they were doing downstairs. John thought the whole day had gone pretty well. No one seemed to dislike or distrust him. Well, except for Claire's father. Melissa's friends had been curious and asked some questions, but they hadn't pried too deeply or anything. One of them asked for an autograph, but his girlfriend told him that was rude to ask.

"You must be exhausted," she said, resting against him.

"I will sleep very well tonight for sure," John said.

"She's very glad you're here."

"Me, too," John said.

"Where to tomorrow?"

"Uh, Austin?"

"Such a shame you had to fly all the way here just to go back down there."

He shrugged.

"It was worth it."

"I'm glad."

"I've never flown with my daughter before."

"Is that going to be weird?"

He shrugged. "A little. Just different."

"She's been packed for days."

John chuckled at that. "That's good. I'm glad she's excited. I think by the end of June she won't be so excited any longer."

"She'll have fun. She's spending time with you."

"And you?"

"I'm looking into it."

"Good. Whatever time you can work in. Just let me or Melissa know where you'll be meeting us so we know."

"And Sean?"

John shrugged.

"I don't know what will happen. I really don't. He's not going to sleep with her. He won't have the chance. I mean, I guess there's the chance if she's hanging out in his room. I can't watch her every second."

"I know."

"What's going to happen is what it is. They may spend every day for the next three months together and realize they hate each other. I don't know."

"He's okay though?"

"Yeah, he didn't say anything against her coming along."

"Good."

"You do a nice party," he said.

"You liked it?"

"It was pretty good."

"You didn't think it was too much?"

He shrugged. "She's your kid, so no."

"She's your kid, too."

"I know that, but she's been raised by you so she'd expect that type of party. My producer, when I first told him who Melissa was. He asked me if I was sure she was mine."

"Why would he ask that?"

He shrugged. "Oh, he was making sure you weren't some woman showing up eighteen years later out to make a name for yourself."

"Oh," Claire said.

"Yeah, I told him who you were and that shut him up immediately."

She laughed softly.

"I also told him that I'd known all along so it wasn't like you just showed up today."

"Right."

"Does she know yet that I've given you money all of these years?"

"I haven't brought it up, no."

"She'd have to sort of assume, wouldn't she?" he asked.

"I'd think. It just hasn't come up, and I haven't really known how to bring it up."

"I suppose. Do you think that will make her mad at me?"

"I don't know, John. Maybe. Confused. I'm really not sure."

"Yeah, me either. I can see it going a few ways."

"Me, too."

"So, she saw me coming out of your room earlier."

"I know."

"That means you don't have to pretend you're sleeping in the other bedroom at my house anymore?"

"I guess."

"You guess?"

"I've never done that before."

"What?"

"She never met anyone I was dating. She certainly never knew I was sleeping with someone until I married Stu."

"She didn't say anything?"

"She was fifteen. I think she knew we were going to share a bedroom once we got married."

"I guess. He never stayed here before that?"

"No!"

"Huh."

"I didn't want her to think it was no big deal."

"Has she yet?"

"Not that I'm aware of. She hasn't told me if she has. I asked her when we came back from your house in March if she wanted me to take her to go on the pill or something."

"You did?"

"Yes!"

"What did she say?"

"She said no."

"Poor Sean," John said with a soft chuckle.

"Yeah, I don't think she has gotten there yet."

"Well, she knows you'd take her, though, that's good."

"Yes, but she's going to be gone for three months!"

"If it came to it I could take her."

"You'd do that?"

"I really don't want to be a grandfather at thirty-seven, so yes. That's assuming she'd tell me."

"I don't know if she would."

"I don't either, I'm guessing probably not."

She laughed softly.

"What?" he asked?

"Oh, nothing, just trying to picture you in the waiting room of Planned Parenthood or something."

"Laugh away. If she asked I'd take her."

"I know. It's still funny."

"Ha ha," he said, kissing the top of her head.

"I like this," she whispered.

"What?" he asked.

She shrugged, glancing up at him. "Just sitting with you like this. Watching TV. Kids downstairs doing their thing."

"Oh," he said with a nod. He glanced out the glass doors that led to her backyard. She'd had the food and everything catered so there was no mess to clean up, but the tent was still out there. "It is nice," he said.

"Different than when we're at your house," she said.

He frowned a bit. "Different bad?"

"No," she said. "I didn't say that. Just relaxing where I feel like when we visit you you think you have to show us stuff."

"Oh," he said. "I guess I don't want you to be bored and not want to come back."

"And I guess, other than in your room, we haven't gotten any time to just relax like this."

"No," he said. "We can now, right? I mean, she knows. So you can sit with me like this all you want now."

"Yes."

"You still feel weird?"

"A little."

"I get it, I guess."

"Good."

He shifted a bit so they were facing each other now instead of her leaning against him.

"So none of her friends have ever seen you kiss a boyfriend?"

"Not until today, no," she said. She frowned a bit.

"What?"

"Nothing. I'm just wondering if any of them ever saw me kiss Stu. Maybe, I doubt it."

"No?"

"Her best friend Cindy came to the wedding, so she would've."

"Not an affectionate guy?"

She shrugged. "I think he took his cue from me and I wasn't really into being affectionate in front of Melissa."

"But I'm okay?"

"You kiss me!"

He chuckled softly, leaning in to do just that.

"It's because you have very kissable lips, Princess," he murmured before kissing her again.

"I think you think so."

"I think I know so. I wanted to be that lipstick tube that day of detention."

She blushed, laughing softly. "Shut up."

"I did. At that moment there was nothing I wanted more. I didn't think it would happen."

"So you acted like an ass."

He shrugged.

"Defense mechanism."

He slid a hand to her top, working one of the buttons.

"John," she whispered.

"Relax," he said. "I know the rules even if I haven't been in a house full of teenagers before now since I was one myself."

He worked another button slowly, watching to see if she'd stop him or trust him not to try to undress her with a basement full of teenagers a floor below them.

"Now, I get way better than that lipstick tube ever did," he whispered, sliding a finger over the top of a breast.

"You think so?"

"Yes."

"Thank you," she whispered.

"I'd never been jealous of an inanimate object before that day, or since then."

She nipped her lower lip with her top teeth, tucking it in a bit as she did that and he groaned softly. He leaned in to kiss her again.

"How late are they going to stay anyway?"

"I don't know."

"And we can't go upstairs…"

"No! When their parents' come to get them I can't be in bed."

"I suppose," he murmured.

"You can go to bed," she said. "I know you're tired."

"I'll have the plane to sleep. You let me sleep until noon," he shrugged. "I'm all right."

"Is that why you look like you don't really have sleeping in mind?"

"No. I look like I don't have sleeping in mind because you're here and I'm leaving tomorrow and don't know when I'll see you again."

"Soon."

"Alone," he murmured.

"Soon."

"Yeah, yeah. Where's the kid she went to prom with?"

"He was here earlier."

"Ah. I guess I missed him."

"Why?"

He shrugged. "Just wanted to size him up compared to Sean I guess."

"Tell Sean what he was like, you mean?"

"Well, that, too, sure."

She laughed softly. "Be nice. Especially since they have to be on a bus together."

"I know, but if I twist the knife a little bit I doubt I'll have to worry about what she does in his hotel room."

"There is that."

"I have an idea," he said.

"Yeah?"

"There was a pool table downstairs, right?"

"Yes."

"We can go down there, right?"

"Sure," she said with a shrug. "You want to play pool?"

"I want to play pool against you."

"Okay. I'm really not that good."

"Whoever wins gets to choose who's on top tonight."

"John! I just said I'm not that good."

"I highly disagree with that assessment."

"At pool."

"Well, then you better hope if I win I choose the way you want."

"This is what you want to do?"

"Barring going up to your room and deciding who gets to be on top another way, yes."

"Why?"

He shrugged. "Maybe I just want to be a cool dad for a night."

"Sure," she said, standing then.

"Yeah?"

"No cheating."

"I'd win either way, but you'd never know if I did cheat, Princess," he said as he stood from the couch.

"At pool?"

"At pool," he said evenly. "I think you'd find out if I did any other kind of cheating."

"How?"

"Between Melissa and Claude…"

"I suppose."

"He likes you."

"He's nice."

"We've made him work harder to get Paula to let him talk to his kids."

"We have?"

"Yeah."

"Well, good, I hope for their sake it works."

"Me, too. He loves them, really."

"You know, we don't have to play pool for you to …"

"It'll be fun."

"For you," she said.

He slid his arms around her, drawing her to him for a kiss. "I'll make it good for you, too."

"That's what they all say."

"Ouch," he said.

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty-Six
Word Count: 2,504

John tapped her on the shoulder, so she slid one of her earbuds out. It was so strange to be sitting next to him, flying with him to spend the entire summer touring with him and Shooterz. It was the stuff dreams were made of.

"You not talking to me today or what?" he asked.

"I am," she said.

"Okay," he said. "What's with the silent treatment then?"

"I'm just quiet," she said.

"Did I do something wrong?" He looked puzzled, as if he really thought he had. The closest he'd come to doing anything wrong was signing an autograph for the flight attendant who was obviously flirting with him. He hadn't really flirted back, though. He'd smiled and stuff, but he hadn't checked her out or anything. Melissa had watched, too.

"No!"

"Okay. Would you tell me if I did?"

"Probably," she said with a shrug. She wasn't sure. To this point he hadn't done anything really wrong. Not seeing her for eighteen years some could argue with, but she believed both of them when they said they did the best thing for her. Would she admit it if she was mad at him? She wasn't sure. She and her mom, despite last summer, were pretty close. She'd always thought there were no real secrets from each other. It was the reason the things Stu had told her hurt so much. It wasn't John she'd felt betrayed by, not really. She didn't know him. He was just an idea, a thought. Her father. A faceless person who was responsible for her being here today. Her mother, though, hadn't been honest. Melissa had been devastated because until then she'd thought her mother could do no wrong and was as close to perfect as she could be.

"Well, that's better than no, I guess. What are you listening to?" he asked, gesturing to her iPod.

"Us actually," she said, holding one of the earbuds out to him. He took it. She took the one in her ear out and put it in her other ear closest to him. He did the same. He listened for a few minutes to their song, nodding a bit.

"Weird?" he asked.

"Yes," she said.

"Good weird?"

"Yeah. I like it. Now. I'm not sure how I'll feel another month from now."

"Your friends being different?"

"Some of them."

"Different bad?"

She shrugged. She wasn't sure how to explain it. The way her mom had explained it to her, John had gone to Shermer but hadn't been in the same crowd as Claire. Or Melissa.

"Missy," he said. "Come on. Honesty, remember. That's not just for emails. You can tell me anything. I swear. I want that between us."

Most of her friends. Her real friends. The ones like Cindy, not like Stacy and Trisha, didn't act any differently. Cindy thought it was pretty fucking cool. All of it. Who her dad was, that she had a song being played on the radio that had her name attached to it, and that she was going on tour with them this summer. Some, though. She wasn't sure who was really her friend anymore and who wanted to stay on her good side to reap any benefit knowing her may have.

She was coming to learn the past month she had a lot fewer friends like Cindy than she thought.

"Well, I'd told some people that Sean was my boyfriend without telling them who you were," she said.

"Right," he said.

Likely he knew that. She hadn't rushed out to tell people. Her friends had all seen her hang out with him at Shermer Days. They knew she went down to Kankakee to see them play.

"So when the song first came out and people realized it was me singing," she sighed.

"What?"

She shook her head. "I can't. You're my dad."

"Right now I'm sitting here talking to someone I made a pretty damned good song with and you're saying people said something about that. So what?"

"Some people. Not people who know me well or anything, but some asked me what I'd done to get my song on the radio."

He nodded a bit, but he didn't look mad. Or even surprised. He was obviously still listening to the song. It had turned out to be a fairly longer song even with editing. She didn't mind because she agreed with him. It was a pretty damned good song. Claude had tried singing with her instead of John and for whatever reason it didn't sound right.

"Then it came out you were my father," she added when it seemed he wasn't going to say anything to what she'd just said.

"There's a reason I don't want to just cast you out there and say 'good luck' with trying to make a career out of it. It sucks at first. It really does. Claude, Billy, Xavier, and I lived on one another's couches at times because that was all we could afford. There were weeks, months, I lived on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. There were weeks during those months I couldn't afford the electricity to keep the jelly cold so it was just peanut butter. Women, though, especially women without a band. It can be brutal. Those comments you heard are pretty tame."

"Tame?"

He shrugged. "Yeah. I don't know why. Just because you have breasts and no penis doesn't mean you can't have talent, but some people still view it that way."

"I guess," she said.

"I'm sorry they said that. No one has the right to belittle your hard work that way."

"I know," she shrugged. It had bothered her. A lot. She hadn't told her mom about the comments because her mom might think it meant she shouldn't do this. She wasn't going to blow off college or anything, but she wanted to try and she had the means to try right here with very little potential blow back. If she discovered she didn't like it? She'd have her degree to fall back on.

"So, what did you say?"

"I didn't answer," she said. She hadn't even known what to say in response. Did people who knew her actually think she'd do that? Do what exactly she wasn't sure, but clearly they thought she'd done something sexual in exchange. She'd thought anyone who knew her was aware of how important music was to her and how much she loved it. Anyone who had been to her house knew she had a recording studio in her basement. Did that imply someone who just had a casual interest in music?

"Good choice. Very good choice. The more you deny it, the more they know it will bother you and they'll say stuff. You're out of there now anyway."

"I know," she said.

"You're good. I'm not saying that because I'm your father and I have to. Claude says it, too. After our tour if you were up for it we'd love to work with you so you can have your own band."

"Really?"

"Really. Maybe you want to wait until college is done. I don't know. I really do want to work with you on that, though. And I really do want to work with you until you decide you don't need to anymore."

"I don't think I'd ever decide that."

"There will come a day," he said with a soft chuckle. "Did you tell Sean what those people said?"

"I did," she said.

"Is that one of the reasons you're cooling things off?"

"A little," she admitted.

"Not a bad plan. I like Sean, I do, but if you really want to make a career out of this. It'd go a lot better without a boyfriend who's already in a band."

"Unlike a father?"

He shrugged. "I've been around for twenty years. They know I'm not going to flake out. I'm not going to get jealous or pissed off if they want you to wear this dress over that dress because it shows more cleavage."

"You're not?"

"Well, if they wanted you to strip naked I'd put my foot down, yes, but within reason."

"You would?"

"Yes. You're talented. Immensely. You don't have to dress or act like a slut in order to have a career."

"Yes, but people like Madonna and Cyndi Lauper had their thing."

"Sure, they did. When you've done more than two songs we can talk about it, but I stand by my statement."

"I suppose."

"You feeling good about it otherwise?"

"Yes. The gossip, though."

"Yeah, well, you'll be gone all summer so that should help a little."

"I suppose, except they know I'm going with you."

"Yeah, touring. While they're back home in Shermer listening to your song being played on the radio. Let them chew on that."

"I know."

Her iPod shuffled to something classical.

"What's that?" he asked.

She blushed. How embarrassing!

"What?"

"Sorry," she said.

"No, I don't know why you're apologizing. I asked a legitimate question. What is it?"

"Uh, Berlioz."

"Who?"

"He's a French composer."

"Yeah? Composer, huh. Someone Mrs. Norman probably tried to teach me about."

"Yeah."

"I like it," he said.

"Really?"

"Yeah," he said with a slight nod.

She turned the volume up a bit, letting her head rest against his. They were flying First Class. His idea or her mom's she wasn't sure. She and her mom usually flew First Class.

"Didn't your mom ever teach you not to share earphones with anyone?" he asked during a quiet part of the song.

"I guess she forgot that rule," she whispered

He kissed the top of her head. "What else do you have on that thing?"

"A little bit of everything."

"Yeah," he asked.

"Uh huh. You like classical?"

"I haven't been exposed to much of it, but I like this."

"I could make you a playlist."

"Sure," he said.

"Really?"

"Why not? I like music. I'd especially like to hear what kind of music interests you."

"Okay. It'll be a while."

"Yeah, I figured that. It'll give me something to look forward to."

"Me, too," she said.


***

"So, this is our room," he said. "I'm going to try to get a nap in."

"You didn't sleep on the plane."

"I had an attractive woman playing music for me. I listened."

"Why?"

He shrugged. "Music is pretty personal. Your likes and dislikes tell a lot about you. You were willing to share that with me. I was willing to listen."

"Thanks."

"Thank you for sharing."

"Will you pay it back sometime?"

"Anytime, sweetheart. Just ask."

"Thanks."

"So, which bed do you want? The guy's supposed to take the one nearest to the door, I think. Something about chivalry, but if you want that one."

"Window's fine."

"All right."

"Any rules?"

"Rules?"

"No drinking, no drugs, and no guys. Most of all, no lying."

"I have no reason to lie to you."

"I don't want that to change. I want you to have fun. This is your summer vacation. You happen to be doing it with my band. Have fun. If you want to swim or do whatever, do it."

"I'm going to go see if Sean's in his room," she said.

"Yeah, sure. He's usually on either side of me."

"Why?"

"I don't know. It's just the way it's played out. The girls are usually grouped together and then us."

"Do you ever share rooms?"

"We have. It depends on what we can negotiate in our contract."

"So, I'd be with one of the girls if that happened?"

"No, because there's an odd number of guys so they'd probably just leave you with me and one of the girls would get her own room."

"Oh," she said.

"Why?"

She shrugged. "Just wondering."

"All right."

"I'll let Claude know we're here."

"He knows."

"How?"

"He just does. He's Claude. He knows everything."

She laughed softly.

"He has kids he told me."

"He does. Four of them. They're sixteen and fifteen and then ten and nine I think. I know the oldest is two years behind you."

"He doesn't see the older two?"

"He told you that? No. His ex-wife, their mom is a little crazy. He did some not so good things and she holds that against him."

"That's too bad."

"Some people can't get over the past."

"I'm glad you and Mom can."

"Me, too, kiddo, me, too."

"I'll be back."

"Yeah? You going to take a nap, too?"

"Probably. I didn't get to sleep until like four o'clock."

"I know!"

She laughed softly.

"I'm sorry."

"Don't apologize. You were having fun, that's what it's all about."

She reached up then, kissing him on his cheek as she took her room key. "I'll be quiet."

"Sure."

She left and he pulled his cell phone out.

'Hello,' Claire said.

"Princess," he said softly.

'If I'm your princess are you my prince?'

"Hmm. I guess so. I like the sound of king better."

'I can't be a princess to your king.'

"It depends on what kind of monarchy we have."

'I don't want the kind of monarchy where a king is with a princess.'

"Maybe you're both?"

'Hmm,' she said.

He chuckled softly.

"I'm just letting you know we made it. I'm going to catch a few winks. Melissa is off in search of Sean and then said she may take a nap, too."

'How was your flight?'

"It was good."

'Boring?'

"No. Actually. We listened to some music on her iPod."

'Really?'

"Yeah. It wasn't bad."

'Well, good.'

"Anyway, I'll talk to you in the morning or whatever."

'Okay. Break a leg.'

"Thanks."

'Is she going to play tonight?'

"That's kind of up to her. She'll have a backstage pass with unlimited access. It'll get her into our green room and stuff. If she wants to play we'll make room for the song. If she doesn't, we have stuff to fill the time with. It's her first night. Claude and I both realize she may not want to dive right in."

'Right. I'm glad you've thought of that.'

"She may want to, too. Whatever she wants we're cool with."

'Have fun.'

"I will. And you'll get a video of it. I've already made sure that will happen."

'Thank you! I wouldn't have thought of it.'

"That's why they pay me. I like the way you pay me better, though."

'Do you?'

"Yes. You took losing our bet like a real pro."

She laughed softly.

"I do think you're better at pool then you let on, though."

'You'll never know.'

"I'll find out."

'You think so?'

"When she's at school. We'll play and we won't need to wait until anyone's gone to pay off our debt."

'I kind of like the idea of seeing you play pool naked.'

"I love the idea of you leaning against the pool table, both of us naked."

'That does sound fun.'

"Very."

'September.'

"September," he said. "Talk soon."

'Yes.'

He hung up then, claiming the bed closest to the door.

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty-Seven
Word Count: 3,948

'It's strange how you're without her this summer the same as last summer, but it just feels totally different,' Allison said.

"I know," Claire said. She'd been thinking the same thing. Of course, Melissa had only been gone a week. She would be back, though, and Claire knew that this time. This time last summer Claire wasn't sure that would happen. Realistically, she supposed, she knew she wouldn't stay at her parents' forever.

Her father and brother were not thrilled with Claire letting Melissa go with John for the summer. Never mind that she was an adult and could legally do whatever she wanted with or without Claire's blessing. Deep down Claire thought it would be a good learning experience for her daughter on whether this was a career path she wanted.

Hearing her song on the radio was so strange. Wonderful, but strange. Hearing her name in conjunction with John's publicly was nerve wrecking. She'd lived pretty privately over the years. Allison and Andy were among only a few who knew the identity of Melissa's father. What other people thought Claire had no idea and she'd never really cared. She knew and those that mattered knew. She kept waiting for people to gossip, wondering why it took eighteen years for him to admit he had a daughter.

John was concerned about Melissa finding out about the child support. What John didn't know was that she hadn't needed to spend very much of his money over the years. She'd invested most all of it so that Melissa could buy a house or something when the time came. Claire supposed she should tell him, but she hadn't really thought about it until all of this came out. She really didn't think Melissa would get upset about finding out now he'd been supporting her all along. If she'd found out years ago, yes, but now. Then, maybe she was wrong.

'So where are they today?'

"Um, Albuquerque. Or maybe that was last night."

'I hope their bus doesn't break down on that route.'

"Me, too! At least they all have cell phones."

'True.'

Claire heard the beep come through the line that indicated she had another call and pulled the phone away from her ear to check the number.

"Oh, Ally, it's Missy."

'I'll talk to you later. We have to get ready to head to the zoo anyway. Tell her I said hi and that Uncle Andy and I are so proud of her. We can't wait to hear all about it when she gets back.'

"I will. Thanks."

She pressed FLASH on the phone to get over to the other line.

"Hello."

'Hi, Mom.'

"Hi, sweetheart. How are you?"

'Good. Tired,' she said.

"Tired?" Claire glanced at her watch. "It's noon."

'I know. I didn't sleep well last night,' she said.

"Oh?"

'Yeah, we didn't get done until almost three o'clock and then just trying to sleep on a bus when you're kind of hyper,' she said.

"It's an adjustment."

'It is.'

"Where are you?"

'Um, I'm not sure. Flagstaff? I think that was tonight.'

Claire laughed softly.

"You left Albuquerque?"

'Yeah,' she murmured.

"Aunt Ally says hi and that she and Uncle Andy are proud of you."

'Tell them thank you.'

"She said they can't wait to hear all about it when you get home."

'I'm sure I'll have plenty to tell them.'

"I'm proud of you, too."

'I know, thank you.'

"So, a week?"

'I know. I'm sorry I haven't called, but I sort of needed to get into a routine, you know?'

"I get it," she said. That didn't mean she liked it, but she understood it. "What are you doing now?"

'Laundry,' she said, sounding exasperated. She knew how to do laundry. Claire had ensured she did even if she did it for her most of the time.

"At a laundromat?"

'Yup,' Melissa said.

"How have the concerts gone?"

'Good actually. It's fun. Tiring, and I only do a couple of songs with them a night.'

"A couple?"

'Yeah. Um, the first night we did my song and then Dad let me play their next song."

"Really?"

Since when was she calling him Dad? He'd always been John whenever they'd talked about him. It was so strange because for the past eighteen years there'd been just Mom. She certainly never thought she'd be hearing Melissa saying Dad about her actual dad.

'Yeah. It was a song we'd played the three of us when we were in Florida together. So, they've been doing that song after my song.'

"I see," Claire said. "And you like that?"

'Yeah,' she said.

"Well, good then."

'It's so cool, Mom. I mean, I never really thought about it. Why would I? I don't think I'm any better than anyone else.'

"Well, I'd argue with you on that point."

'You're my mom, you have to say that.'

"Yes, but I'd also never encourage you to do something I knew you'd fail at or embarrass yourself doing."

'True,' she said. 'It's just. They're real musicians, and I'm playing with them. Noel is kind of quiet, like he doesn't care or something, but he hasn't said anything bad.'

"Well, that's good, honey."

'Dad said he sent you a video from Sunday night from Albuquerque.'

"I'll look for it later this week then."

'Okay.'

"I don't know if I should say I miss you or not. I mean, I do, but I don't want you to feel bad."

'I don't. I mean it's totally different than last summer. I know I can call you anytime.'

"You can."

'I love you, Mom.'

"Love you, too, honey."

'Thank you for letting me do this.'

"Well, I couldn't have stopped you really."

'Yeah, except you control my college fund and everything.'

"If you think I'd withhold college from you because you wanted to spend the summer doing this you have really underestimated me."

'No, not really, just I know some friends parents'.'

"I'm not their parent. I'm your parent."

'I got pretty lucky.'

"You did," Claire said, smiling a little.

'I should go, my dryer is about done so I need to fold and go so I can get a nap I guess.'

"Okay. Where are you staying tonight?"

'Well, the girls got a room, but the guys are staying on the bus.'

"Oh?"

'Yeah. I guess they do that sometimes and just ask for a couple extra towels so everyone can take a shower.'

"I suppose," Claire said.

'I'll sleep wherever Dad sleeps.'

"And he's sleeping on the bus?"

'He said that's what he'd normally do when they're just here for a night like this.'

"I see."

'Is that wrong? Should I make him stay at a hotel?'

"That's between you two. If you're okay on the bus."

'I am. It's not so bad.'

"Okay. Well, if you change your mind I gave you that credit card for emergencies."

'I have it. He wouldn't let me do that, though.'

"Well, I'll talk to you soon. Thanks for calling."

'Sure. I'll talk to you soon.'

"I can't wait."

'Aren't you going to ask about Dad?'

"What about him?"

'I don't know. Something? Anything?'

"I was excited to hear from you, so no, that wasn't on my mind. Is he okay?"

'Yeah. I just figured you'd ask something.'

"My daughter called me, I wanted to hear about you."

'Okay,' she said. Claire suspected she gave the right answer there, though she wasn't sure why. Was she not sure Claire would rather talk to her over John? She loved John, but she hadn't spent the past eighteen years with him either. There were some things that just couldn't be taken away.

"You can tell him I'll be awake later if he wants to call when you're done."

'It'll be close to four your time, I think. Last night we didn't get done and out of there until about then.'

"I'm not going anywhere. The phone will be on by my bed."

'I'll tell him. Bye, Mom. Give Scotty a hug from me.'

"I will."

She disconnected then, setting the phone down on the table next to her coach. She took a deep breath.

She tried to picture what her dad would say at the idea of Melissa sleeping on a bus instead of in a bed at a hotel. He'd have a fit and say something disparaging about John being unfit or uncaring or a poor provider. Claire knew it wasn't a matter of affording a hotel, but when they were on the road as they were for months at a time they had to cut corners when they could.

He'd told her as much. She'd seen the bus so she knew where she was and everything. She didn't say anything about Sean, and Claire hadn't thought to ask. Claire suspected their break was more Melissa's idea than Sean's. She hadn't said so, but she recognized things about herself in Melissa. Her attitude towards guys was one of them. She'd never really been interested in anyone before. She'd been one of the few parents of her group of friends who didn't have to worry about her daughter coming home pregnant. Missy just didn't do those things, and Claire suspected she wasn't all that comfortable when all was said and done with someone who would want those things from her.

She'd worry that she was sleeping on the bus because Sean was, but she knew John wouldn't let that fly. She also trusted that Missy would have asked her to take her to the doctor for something if she was thinking about taking that step with Sean. They'd always been pretty open about things like that. True, she hadn't told her about John, but she hadn't lied about the general circumstances about Missy coming to be.

She sounded good, a little lonely maybe but good. Claire had no doubt it was a very different way of life. She was used to it pretty much being her and Claire most of her life. To have to share space with so many other people was going to be a learning experience. She tried to picture her sharing a bathroom with three other women let alone the men, too.

Of course she'd be doing that next year, too, in college. For whatever reason she'd chosen to go to Wellesley. Claire didn't understand it, but she couldn't argue with the opportunities the school offered her. It's where she wanted to go, though. Claire about had a heart attack the first time she saw what the tuition was going to cost for a year. She didn't balk at paying it, but hadn't expected it to be that much. Private schools cost more she knew that.

As Ally said this summer was totally different from last summer. She knew exactly when Melissa was coming home, and exactly when she was leaving again. It was the filling the time while she was gone that was stumping Claire. She'd spent so much time helping to take care of Stu the year before he died that she honestly had no idea what to do.

Pathetic.

It was different now, too. Since it'd come out that Melissa was John's daughter she had people looking her up who she hadn't spoken to in years. To what end she wasn't sure. She figured anyone who was coming out of the woodwork eighteen years later wasn't worth returning a call to. If they really needed something important they'd call her back.

So, she was sort of stuck in that she wasn't completely sure who she could even trust right now besides Ally and Andy.

Pathetic.

It hadn't come out that Claire and John were together. She didn't care, and in fact sort of welcomed the reprieve she was experiencing. She had a feeling once that tidbit came out she'd never have peace and quiet.

For that she was glad Melissa had chosen the school she had. It was small, private, and they wouldn't allow craziness on their campus.

They weren't lying about it, but to this point no one had asked that question so it hadn't come up. Claire tended to agree with John that less was probably better. If they didn't want to know something why volunteer the information? Living in separate cities as they did and the band now being on tour. Well, it wasn't blatantly obvious. She imagined even if she did go see them perform and was spotted people would attribute it to her seeing Melissa.

The phone rang again and she glanced at it, sighing seeing that it was Christopher calling. She didn't want to talk to him today. He was probably just reminding her about lunch tomorrow. As if she'd forget. As if she'd ever forgotten. He still treated her like his baby sister who hadn't not just run a successful business, but been able to sell that business before the age of thirty-five and be pretty well set if she never wanted to work again. She'd done that. He hadn't, but he still called to remind her of things like lunch appointments.

Of course he was probably reminding her today because he'd know she didn't really want to go. She wasn't too pleased with her parents right now.

She set the phone back on its charger without answering before heading up to her office. Office was putting it nicely. No other children were going to come so she'd had this room designed with being able to work from home in mind if she wanted to. Everything she needed to design and create was here. It had come in very handy when Stu was sick and she hadn't wanted to leave him alone.

Scotty followed her in and she shut the door. It was a habit. There was no one here to disturb her, but Stu and Missy knew that if the door was shut she wasn't to be bothered unless it was an emergency.

She had a couple of things that she was working on. More importantly she had a couple of clients that she knew would eat what she was working on up. If she could get these things done before school started so those few stores could have them on display in time for Christmas she'd do very well. She couldn't deny that she liked the idea of one or two stores selling Standish exclusives.

"Ow," she said, poking herself with a pin at the sound of the phone. It was rare for her to get this many phone calls in a day. She had friends, but most of them had jobs. Ally was the only teacher Claire knew with summers off.

Pathetic.

She put her fingertip to her mouth as she glanced at the phone, expecting it to be Christopher again. He knew she was home and had a tendency at times to call until she picked up because he was just that controlling. It wasn't Christopher.

"Hello," she said.

'Hey, did I catch you at a bad time?'

"No," she said, smiling and unable to stop herself from doing so.

'You sure? I almost hung up.'

"I thought you were Christopher."

'Why is he calling you?'

"Probably to remind me about lunch tomorrow."

'Oh. Everything all right?'

"Yes. I just usually have lunch with him and Dad once a month or so."

'I see.'

"I don't want to go tomorrow."

'I bet.'

"It'll be all right."

'Don't go.'

"John."

'No, really. Why are you going? To make them happy. You don't need their shit, Claire. Don't go.'

'The people who did everything in their power to make sure you and I never saw one another again after school?'

She sighed.

'I'm telling you. Meet us.'

"I can't walk away from my obligations, John. And Scotty."

'You could bring the dog along.'

"Really?"

'Yes. I asked. No one minded. Farrah expressed concern about the fairness of keeping a dog his size on a bus all summer, but she wasn't against it.'

"I still have things…"

'I know,' he said.

He hadn't said so, but she knew the things she had to do for Stu this summer bothered him.

"How are things going?"

'Good.'

"Yeah?"

'Yeah. You know, busy. Never enough time to do anything.'

"Missy called earlier."

'Good. She said she was going to while doing laundry.'

"She did. Was she doing it by herself? I guess I didn't ask."

'No, a group went.'

"You didn't?"

'You asking me if I have clean clothes, Princess?'

"I wouldn't mind you not needing clothes."

'Really now?'

"Really, but not when you're so far away."

He chuckled at that.

'I'll go after the concert. The laundromat is twenty-four hours.'

"Oh," she said.

'It gives me time to unwind afterward. Then I'll crash when we hit the road.'

"It's quiet, too, I bet."

'It is.'

"That's welcome?"

'It is.'

"You should give that tip to Missy. She sounded good."

'She seems to be having a good time.'

"You're sleeping on the bus tonight?"

'Yeah, she said she was okay with it. Farrah, Jazmin, and Candy offered to get a second room if she wanted to stay at the hotel and split two and two. The three of them have shared a room many times. I guess she thought four women in the same room might be too much.'

"She said she was. She asked me if she was supposed to make you pay for a hotel."

'I would if she wanted me to.'

"I know. She knows, too. She's fine."

'So, when are you going to come see us?'

"Miss me?"

'That's a ridiculous question, but yes.'

"Me, too," she said.

'Good. Fix it.'

She laughed softly.

"Well, if you really want to know."

'I do.'

"I'll be seeing you this weekend."

'Yeah?'

"Yes."

'All right. I'll call ahead and…'

"I already did."

'Oh?'

"Yes. I'm going to rent a car anyway, so figured you and Missy can stay wherever I stay."

'Absolutely.'

"Okay then."

'Uh,' he said.

"What?"

'That mean you don't want to get a tour of the bus?'

She snorted softly at that.

"By bus you mean your bunk?"

'Uh, yeah. That specifically.'

"Because I've seen the bus."

'I know. You haven't seen the best part of the bus, though.'

"I haven't?"

'No. Because the best part of the bus would be you and me in my bunk.'

"I agree."

'Yeah?'

"And, yes, we can figure something out."

'Thank God.'

"You were envisioning three months of no sex, weren't you?"

'Well, I mean, I could if I had to.'

"That is good to know."

'I mean, I went from January until you came down for Spring Break. And then until now, obviously.'

"I'm relieved to hear that."

'Good,' he said. 'Wait. You had doubts?'

"Well…"

'Claire, really?'

"Not since Valentine's Day, no, but before then I'm not sure…"

'I was fucking trying to get you to talk to me!'

"I know, and you could have gotten frustrated or something."

'Well, yeah, sure. It confused the fuck out of me, but I didn't go out and fuck anyone.'

"John. Don't get angry at me."

'I'm not, I just didn't realize there was any doubt.'

"Well, I didn't leave in January with any commitment."

'There was on my end. Maybe I should be wondering about you and date guy.'

"No!"

'Ally and Andy sure seem to like him.'

"John, really, no. If you think I had time between getting home from your place and Valentine's Day."

'You don't work!'

"He does! I absolutely was not looking for that from him. They were dates. Andy knew him and thought it would help me get back out there without being too scary. They didn't think I'd marry him or even date him more than I did. They just wanted to get me over that hurdle of a first date after Stu died."

'Has he called?'

"He has," she admitted.

'And?'

"You're cute when you're jealous, you know that?"

He scoffed. 'If you say so.'

"I told him I couldn't see him anymore." She had been surprised he'd seemed disappointed when she told him that. They'd liked one another well enough, but she hadn't gotten the impression he was rushing out to pressure her for a commitment or anything.

'I see.'

"He hasn't called since, and I doubt he will."

'Fine.'

She chuckled softly.

"I noticed on your schedule that you have a few days in between shows at the end of July."

'You did? If you say so, I guess I don't know.'

"Would you and Melissa like to come home?"

'I'll look into it.'

"Okay."

'Did you notice that we're playing Shermer Days again?'

"No!"

'We won't be there a full week again like last year, but we'll be there Thursday through Sunday, I think.'

"Okay."

'We can come home then, too?'

"You can," she whispered, closing her eyes a bit at the sound of him calling it home. She shouldn't like that. She shouldn't want him to call it that. She did, though. Immensely. He had a hugely impressive house in Tampa, but she doubted when it got down to it he considered it a home. She didn't think he'd ever really experienced a home and she really wanted to give that to him.

'All right then. The Fourth is a Friday. You'll come?'

She giggled softly.

'To the concert, Princess.'

"Yes."

'Maybe the three of us can watch the fireworks after?'

"I'd like that."

'Me, too.'

"Then it's a date."

'I like dates with you.'

"Funny, me, too."

'That's so you.'

"John!"

'I know what you meant, I just had to say it.'

"You're so funny."

'I know, right? So what were you doing with your day anyway?'

"Working on a design."

'Really? Anything good?'

"Well, I think so. I haven't scrapped it so I must really think so."

'Something you're going to wear yourself?'

"No, I'm going to try to sell it."

'Really?'

"Yeah," she said with a shrug. "There are a couple of boutiques that if I get some nice Christmas things done by fall they'd sell."

'I guess with three months…'

"Never mind her going to school!"

'I suppose. If you need something to do once she goes to school…'

"I cannot travel with you."

'You absolutely can travel with me.'

"John."

'Just throwing it out there, and letting you know I really would like it.'

"I'm sure you would."

'So, will I get to see what you're working on?'

"See it?"

'Yeah. Pictures or something?'

"I suppose if you want to."

'You're doing it, I want.'

"All right. I can do that."

'And you know people who'll just do up things like that?'

"I do know plenty."

'I suppose. Now if you're designing something, you know, sexy, design it just for me and model it for me.'

"I don't …"

'Like you traveling with me, I'd very much like that.'

"I don't think I even know what would like good on me."

'When I see you this weekend I'll tell you in great detail my opinion on that.'

"You will?"

'I will.'

"That sounds very nice."

'I'm not sure nice was on my mind.'

She laughed softly. "Mine either."

'I'll let you go.'

"Okay."

'I'll try to call during the week again, if not this weekend I guess.'

"Yes." She told him the hotel she was staying in so he'd know if for some reason she didn't see him.

'I'll have your pass at the front desk then.'

"Thank you."

'Thank you, Princess.'

"You're welcome."

'Pet Scotty for me.'

"Missy said something similar."

'We like the dog.'

"That's good."

'We love the mother.'

"She loves you, too."

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty-Eight
Word Count: 4,070

John knocked for a second time, smiling with a bit of a shrug at someone who passed him in the hall. She'd texted him that she'd gotten here and her room number early last night, so he knew she was here. He'd assumed she was going to be coming into town tonight, but had been pleasantly surprised to find out that she planned to be here the entire weekend. He told her it might be late when they got done and she'd said fine.

They were originally only supposed to be here in Phoenix last night and tonight, Thursday and Friday nights. Both of their shows had sold out and there was enough demand to add a third night so they were playing tomorrow night, too.

"Finally," he muttered at the sound of the chain on the other side of the door being worked.

"John?" she asked.

"You were expecting someone else at this hour, Princess?"

"Well, no," she said.

He'd obviously woken her up and he felt bad about that. A little. Not really when he realized she was wearing the nightgown she'd been wearing the day she brought a condom with her into his bathroom at his house.

"You look nice," he said.

"I'm sure," she said with tight lips.

"You're here. That's pretty fucking fantastic."

"You look tired," she whispered.

He shrugged. He knew he did. He didn't care, though. He leaned in to kiss her as she let him into the room. He leaned back against the door, pushing it closed as she met him to deepen the kiss. Her lips parted as quickly as his did. He slid his arms around her, cupping her ass before sliding them lower to tug up the hem of her nightgown.

"Now who's wearing too many clothes," she murmured, kissing his neck. She nipped the skin there and he groaned softly. He tugged her even closer against him as she continued nipping and sucking at his skin there.

He was breathing entirely too heavy for just kissing, but "fuck does that feel good," he murmured at what she was doing. It'd been a real long time since he'd had a hickey on his neck. He never liked them, a visible and blatant sign that he was taken. He worked her panties down around her thighs and she shifted a bit to step out of them completely.

She groaned against the spot on his neck she was working on as he slid a fingertip inside of her and he hissed as she clenched around him. She slid a hand to the front of his jeans, working the button and zipper there and reaching in to touch him.

"He missed you, too," he whispered as she touched his head before reaching to stroke his shaft.

She stopped kissing and sucking at the spot on his neck and he groaned softly, pressing into her lips as she moved them. Then she was kissing his ear and he wasn't going to complain about that because that felt incredibly good, too.

"Sit," she whispered.

"Huh?" he asked.

"Sit," she repeated.

"Here?"

She squeezed his shaft gently.

"Yeah, sure, whatever you want," he whispered, sliding his jeans down a bit along his hips as he did as she asked and sat with his back against the door.

She positioned herself over his length, both of her hands beside his head against the door, crying out as she took him inside of her in one solid thrust. Her breath caught a bit. So did his for that matter as she worked herself up and down his shaft. He'd give anything to be able to see her working him in and out of her like this.

He slid her nightgown up so he could pay attention to her breasts as his hands squeezed her ass, encouraging her thrusts against him. Not that she needed encouragement. She rode him pretty fucking hard without him doing or saying anything.

"John," she gasped.

He slid a hand between her legs.

"Right there."

"Okay," he whispered.

"Don't fucking stop."

"Not planning on it," he said with a soft chuckle.

She collapsed against him, arms sliding around his neck once they'd both finished.

"Nice to see you, too," he said.

"Yeah," she murmured.

"Should I be worried as to why you were that horny?"

"I hadn't had sex in over fifteen months before we did in January."

"Feel free to make up for all the lost time you need."

"This going a week is tough."

He laughed heartily at that.

"That's a guy's line."

"It's true!"

"Well, I'll say it again, come with us."

"We can't have sex on the bus with everyone there."

"We could try it once and see."

"No! Not with Missy there."

"You'd try it without Missy there?"

"Ask me after we haven't just had sex."

He chuckled then, kissing her.

"Where is Missy?"

"I, uh, maybe didn't tell her you were here yet."

"John!"

"Hey! We couldn't have done that had she been with me."

"I know."

"So, well, it would seem I made a good choice. I figured we could surprise her. Go get her for breakfast."

"Oh, sure."

"After we had sex."

She snorted against his neck, kissing him in the same spot she'd left him the hickey.

"You marking me?"

"Uh huh," she whispered.

"Can I do it, too?"

She shrugged, kissing him lightly. "Sure," she murmured against his skin.

He slid a fingertip along the spot. "I don't think my hair's going to hide this one very well."

"I know, sorry," she whispered.

"It's all right," he said. In November he'd sort of directed her to a more out of the way spot, but tonight he hadn't bothered.

"What time is it?"

"Four thirty."

"In the morning?"

"Yup. I figured we'd have sex, get a nap, wake up, have sex again, and then take a shower."

"That's a lot of sex."

"No, it's not."

"I agree."

He chuckled.

"Good."

"Want to see my bed?"

"You know I do."

"Mm kay," she whispered as she stood, sighing softly as he slipped out of her. "I hate that part."

"Me, too!"

She giggled softly. "I'll be there in a second."

"Yeah, sure. I'll probably use it after you anyway," he said, standing as she went to the bathroom. He shed his clothes then and was ready to use the bathroom when she came out.

"What time did you have going to get Missy for breakfast?" she asked once they were in bed.

"Whenever I get my fill of you."

"That will happen?"

"I'm going to do my best to put it to the test and see."

"And if you don't?"

"Well, I'm ninety-nine percent positive I won't, so ten o'clock?"

"Okay. Where do they think you are?"

"I told them I was going to drop your pass off for you so I doubt they'll care."

"Is Missy alone with Sean?"

"No, the guys are on the bus with her."

"No one is going to hurt her, Claire. Claude wouldn't let it happen if nothing else. He's got daughters, too."

"He never sees them!"

"Not his choice, and Paula is at least letting him talk to them now."

"You mentioned he was trying."

"He's gotten that much."

"Good."

"Yeah."

"Thank you," she whispered.

"For what?"

"For wanting to see me without Missy."

"Uh," he said with a slight frown, glancing at her. "I'm not sure how to respond to that."

She shrugged. "It's nice to be wanted as Claire not as Missy's mom."

"Well, I'm not sure you'll ever be anything but Claire to me. I mean, you're her mom sure, but I've never loved anyone else so that sort of trumps most anything else."

"And I thank you."

"You're welcome. I didn't realize you doubted I want you?"

"No, I know you do. It's just nice to have it shown."

"Hey! You're the one who told me to sit and had your way with me."

"I know."

"Want me to show you again?"

"I thought you wanted to nap first?"

"My libido apparently doesn't agree with that plan."

"You might want to remind your libido you're not a teenager anymore."

"Around you it apparently thinks I am."

She snorted softly at that.

"What's that for?" he asked.

"Nothing. I doubt your libido has had to worry about suffering a loss in frequency very often."

"Hey," he said, moving on top of her. "Don't say that shit. Okay? We have a past, both of us. I've never been married and I sure as hell didn't share a bed with someone every night for months."

"I'm not mad, John," she said, shaking her head against the pillow. "Just saying."

"Well, I told you, he's always been especially fond of you."

"He has, huh?"

"Yup, it's all his fault."

"You said it was my fault."

"Well, clearly, yes. You came to me. You started it. You got our attention, but he liked the attention you showed him that day."

"I had no idea what I was doing."

"That right there excited him like you can't even imagine."

"Really?"

"Really."

"I'd think it wouldn't?"

"Ordinarily, maybe, but it was you. Fucking Claire Standish was doing that to and with me. And then you said what you said," he shrugged, finding her collarbone and kissing her. He was grateful she'd taken her nightgown off while he'd used the bathroom.

"Does it still excite you?"

"What?"

She shrugged, running her fingers through his hair.

"That I'm not overly…"

"Yes," he said simply. "That's what I was getting at that night you got mad at me when I commented on your breasts. I love that you're still you. Older and more experienced, but still you."

"I'd just never had anyone compliment my breasts before."

"They're fucking insane then for not worshiping them."

"John," she said, sounding kind of embarrassed.

"What?"

"Nothing."

"Come with us after Melissa goes off to school and I will worship them every waking moment I can."

"Right."

"You think I'm lying?"

"Well, no, but …"

"Come with and find out how serious I am."

"We can't have sex every night on the bus with people there."

"I think you underestimate how much I'd love to sit and be attentive to them."

"Just that?"

"Well, not every night with nothing else, no. Right now, too, you know, when it's weeks or more in between. If you were with me every day though, sure."

"I find that hard to believe."

"Why?"

She shrugged under him. He ran a fingertip along the outline of a nipple.

"Why?" he asked again.

"I don't know."

He frowned a bit. "So, you've never just done things without them leading to sex?"

"That first night at your house," she whispered.

And then they'd had sex afterward anyway.

He had no idea what to even say to that. He couldn't deny he wasn't a huge foreplay only guy himself, but that was because he'd always figured that was what having a girlfriend was for.

"Not for lack of it being appealing," she said. "Now that does bother you."

"No! I just feel bad that the one time you got that it ended up …"

"I don't!"

"All right." He slid beside her again, resting his head against one of his hands. "So, Stu?" He didn't want to know the answer.

"No. We dated for years before we ever had sex."

"Really?"

"Yes. My experiences hadn't been that great, I told you that. So I wasn't in any hurry. I also told you I wasn't sure what he wanted from me. He'd never been married and was older. I didn't want him getting the idea I wanted more kids or anything. Then he got sick," she shrugged.

"I suppose."

"I sometimes wonder if he didn't know he was sick when he asked me to marry him."

"Why?"

"I don't know. It was out of the blue. He wanted to adopt Melissa. He'd love for her to take over his business versus one of his nephews."

"Ah," John said. "That's why he left it to you?"

"That and he knew I could run it capably. I don't really. I'm just majority shareholder, but he knows I can read a spreadsheet. He also knows I know how much the business meant to him."

"Right."

"You don't like I have to do the things I have to do this summer."

It was his turn to shrug.

"I get it, but no. It's ridiculous."

"I understand."

"I'm glad, I don't want you upset with me over something like that."

"I'm not, but I can't just shirk what he asked me to do."

"I know. I wouldn't want you any other way, Claire."

"Thank you."

"So, does that idea tempt you to come with us?"

She giggled softly under him. It was so strange when she giggled. He wasn't sure why, it just went against the persona she put out.

"Nights of you doing things to my breasts?"

"Yeah!"

"I don't know, John. I have Scotty to think about, and my designs."

"But you're not under contract to anyone."

"Yes, but I have ideas flowing. That'd be like me telling you not to write music when you've got words coming to you in your sleep."

"You know that phenomenon?"

"I do!"

"Me, too."

"I'm not saying I haven't thought about it."

"Good."

"My father would…"

"Did you have lunch with them this week?"

"No," she whispered.

"Really?"

"Yes, I cancelled. I couldn't do it. I didn't want to hear about how awful I am for letting her go with you."

"Good for you. I don't know how to say that without sending incredibly egotistical or condescending, but I'm proud of you. That had to be hard."

"It was, incredibly."

"Good, though."

"Yeah," she said. "I felt terrible doing it and the day of, but that evening after a couple of glasses of wine with Ally and Andy I felt much better."

He chuckled. "I bet."

"Chris left me about four messages that day and at least two a day since."

"Wow."

"They're not happy."

"Sucks to be them."

"John. Be nice. They're my family."

"I have done stupendously well without mine for eighteen years now. Need some lessons?"

"I can't cut them out completely."

"No, I imagine you can't. They seem like they've been decent to Melissa for the most part."
"They have. I couldn't have finished school without my parents."

"I know," he said. Likely even if he had been involved she wouldn't have been able to finish without them. He wasn't dumb. He knew how much college cost.

"How much is her school?"

"Oh, God," she said.

"That bad?"

"Yes," she said. "I about died when I got the information."

"You'll, uh, let me help?"

"John. That's a huge expense."

"Sure it is, and one you shouldn't have to shoulder yourself. I agreed to support until she was done with college."

"Why did you?"

He shrugged. "It seemed the right thing to do."

"I was surprised."

"Yeah, well your dad gave me a lower amount if I did it through college."

She shook her head.

"I didn't know."

"And while I'll still give you support, I'd like to do more than just that. I mean, if you'll let me."

"I guess. I hadn't thought about it."

"Really? You're dating your daughter's father and you hadn't thought about it?"

"I've been doing it on my own for so long I just, no, hadn't thought about what dating you meant."

"It means I want to help you where I can."

"You'd really be able to do just do that nights on end?"

"Well, some turnabout would be nice, but, sure, I'd completely understand doing it on a bus may not be your thing."

"It's not the bus."

"Okay, doing it on a bus with people nearby."

"Yes, that's it."

"You never know, Princess, you may like it."

"And you would?"

"Yes."

"Why?" she asked.

How to explain it.

"I don't know. I'm not an exhibitionist or anything, but yeah, I guess I'd like to show off that I can actually have a normal, functioning girlfriend and relationship."

"That would do that?"

"It would prove you were fucking real cool, yes."

She laughed, trailing a fingertip along his neck. Likely the hickey she'd left him is what she was touching.

"You're not mad?"

"About a hickey? No."

"It's going to show onstage."

"I don't think they're going to be looking at my neck that closely. And if they are, I don't give a fuck."

"Okay."

"I like that you were that into it. That's worth any amount of shit I might get for having it."

"We're not napping," she whispered.

"I know. We could forget the nap. Have sex again, take a shower, and go get her."

"Is she sleeping?"

"I imagine she is, but for breakfast with you I'm sure she'll be fine and knowing she gets a couple of nights in a real bed."

"At least there are no condom wrappers for me to worry about her seeing."

"There is that," John said.


***

She wasn't thrilled. Well, she was at first when John woke her up and had her come outside the bus to see her mom there. She ran up to her and hugged her so tightly that Claire started crying John noticed. He imagined last year was still pretty fresh on Claire's mind so any hugs like this were welcome.

That excitement changed pretty quickly, though, when she realized where John had been for the past couple of hours.

"You lied to me!"

"I didn't lie to you. I told you I was going to drop off the pass at her hotel."

"You didn't tell me she was in town, though!"

"I don't know what you two tell each other. I assumed you knew!"

"So, you've spent the last three hours with her."

"Yes," John said.

"Doing what?"

He knew when it had registered. She saw the hickey and that they both had damp hair. John was wearing what he'd worn last night, so that wasn't a huge telltale sign of anything.

"Missy," Claire said.

Her face blanched and she covered her mouth with her hand. "You two. No, no no."

"Melissa," John said. She'd seen John share her mom's room. Hadn't she?

"What am I going to get a brother or sister in nine months now?"

"Absolutely not," Claire said.

John was glad about the answer, but he wasn't sure why she was so absolute about it. He remembered her saying earlier in her room that Stu knew she hadn't wanted more. Did she not want more? Had that been why she didn't want to get married before Stu? Why not?

"How can you two?"

"Missy, really. You knew we were together."

"Yes, but I'm going to be sleeping in the room tonight."

"Yes, just like you slept down the hall from us last weekend."

"Yes, but," she said, seeming to mull that one over. "You're my parents!"

John laughed at that.

"This is funny to you?" Claire asked.

"Well, no, but any other kid saying that to their parents it wouldn't be exactly shocking their parents were sleeping together."

"You promise me no brother or sister?"

"Missy. No," Claire said evenly.

"Why didn't you tell me you were coming into town last night?"

"I assumed John would tell you. I'm sorry. You're both so busy I don't want to be the obsessive mother or girlfriend that can't leave you two alone."

"I thought it'd be a nice surprise, seeing her for breakfast."

"You wanted to have sex with my mother!"

"Well," John said, glancing at Claire for help. "Yeah," he said with a shrug.

"John!" Claire said.

"Hey, she's eighteen. She said it and she's right. I'm not going to lie to her."

"Yes, but…" Claire said.

"I'd like to know why the idea of a sibling seems to have her most upset."

"I don't want to go to college and have a literal baby brother or sister! I certainly don't want to have to explain that to everyone!"

"Fair," he said.

"Did you come here to see him or me?" Melissa asked.

Ah, John thought. Perhaps that was the heart of the matter.

"I came here to see you, both of you, but you. You're my daughter, doing this amazing thing. Of course I'm going to come see you. Again, though, I'm trying not to be obsessive about my support. I honestly don't remember not telling you, it wasn't on purpose. I just assumed between the two of you, you'd know I was getting here last night."

"So you didn't tell him not to tell me?"

"Missy! No, absolutely not. He woke me up, I didn't know he was going to come to my room as early as he did."

"I thought you were okay with us being together," John said.

"I am," she said with a shrug. "I guess it bothered me. I don't know. Until now I've always known Mom better than anyone."

"That hasn't changed," John said.

"Yes, but you know things about her I'll never know."

"As it should be since I'm her age not yours. That doesn't mean you don't know her best. You guys had years just the two of you. Something tells me I'm going to get jealous a time or two."

"Right," Melissa said.

"Hey, remember that night you told me about your Rock Lobster dance?"

"Yeah," she said, looking very much as if she was searching through her memory for that conversation.

"I hung up really jealous. It's on me, I totally get that. I could've looked your mom up after a while. My reasons why I didn't were solid, but hearing you talk about something like that really bothered me. I'd never stopped to think about what I was missing out on. Claude has kids, I've seen them and stuff, but I never thought about them in the sense of what were you doing at that age. Your mom can show me pictures and I can hear stories, but it's not the same."

"Oh," she said.

"I should have told you. I won't do that again, I just really thought it'd be a fun surprise for you seeing her this morning instead of tonight."

"It was," she muttered.

"Good."

"Don't do it again!"

He chuckled. "I won't."

"I'm going to college, you know."

"Huh?" John said.

"You can't like wait to be alone until then?"

"No," John said simply. "You'd probably accuse us of trying to hide that's what we wanted if we did that."

She sighed softly.

"You had a hickey at my house last year, didn't you?"

John frowned a bit at the question. She'd seen it? He'd tried like hell to hide it. "Uh, yeah," he said with a slight nod.

"We weren't," Claire said.

"I don't want to hear about it!" Melissa said and John chuckled softly. "I just remember thinking I saw one but didn't think that was right. It was when we were playing in my studio and just assumed it was a trick of the light or something."

"It was there," John said.

"Thank you for being honest."

"I told you I'm not going to lie to you, and I'm not."

"Missy, really, did you not know?"

"No, I mean, I guess, but he could have just been sleeping in your room last weekend. You dated Stu forever before I even knew about him let alone met him."

"I know."

"I guess I just didn't think after a couple of months of dating him you'd be having sex with him," she said.

"Understandable," John said. It was. Who wanted to think about their parents like that? John sure didn't, he was pretty sure Claire didn't either. Claire did wince a little at Melissa's words. "I know your mom has mentioned she took setting an example for you very seriously. That's something I can honestly say I wouldn't have been prepared for. I'm still not sure that I am."

"You're fine," Claire said. "You're not doing things you shouldn't be doing in front of her. I wouldn't have let her come if you were."

"I know," John said.

"I'm really not going to have a brother or sister, though?"

"No!" Claire said.

"Okay."

"Can we go eat now?" John asked.

"Yes," Claire and Melissa both said.

"Thank God."

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty-Nine
Word Count: 3,934

"John," Claude said, shaking him awake.

"Huh? What?"

"Your phone's been ringing non-stop for about thirty minutes now."

"Mm, kay," he murmured.

"John," Claude said. "None of us got to sleep any earlier than you did. Answer your phone or shut it off before we have a coup on our hands."

"Yeah, okay," he said. He usually kept it on a low ring in case Claire called. He must have really been sound asleep if he slept through thirty minutes of it ringing.

And they were all from her, he noticed as he scrolled through the missed calls.

She'd called from her cell and her house phone. Both, several times. That couldn't be good.

"Melissa?" he asked Claude.

"Sleeping soundly. Her phone hasn't made a peep."

"I guess she's worn out then," John said with a scoff.

"I guess so."

They'd had a pretty late party preceding their two nights of shows in Indianapolis to celebrate John and Melissa's song breaking the top 20 on the pop charts. It was actually pushing the Top 10, which was pretty good for only two months of airplay and the first week or two no one took the song seriously. It was too bad it hadn't done that last weekend when they were in Shermer.

There was a huge difference between being up late because of something like a party and playing, Melissa was learning that. Everyone thought touring was great. And, overall, it was. There were lots of downsides, though, especially at the beginning. They were all pretty used to it by now, but it was all brand new to Melissa. She was used to staying at places like the Plaza or Waldorf when she went places. Traveling as they were wasn't all that great for promoting lots of consistent sleep either.

He knew she was grateful for the weekend with her mom in Phoenix and last weekend back home, in her own bed for a couple of nights. They'd be back again in Chicago before she left for school, which was when she'd stop touring with them. They had some tour dates out east after she got to school and John had told her if she wanted to play with them on the weekends they were within driving distance to Wellesley she sure could.

"No messages?" Claude asked.

"No," John said. That probably wasn't good. Had something happened with her parents in the past week?

He slid out of his bunk, taking his phone with him as he ran his fingers through his hair before heading to the bathroom to try to wake up a bit. He grabbed a Coke once done in there from the fridge and dialed her home number.

'You are alive,' she said. She didn't sound too good. Was she sick?

"Uh yeah. We were up late."

'I bet you were.'

"We were. Larry and the guys flew in to give us a party before our concerts here for our song."

'Great.'

She didn't sound as though she meant that. In fact, if he wasn't mistaken she sounded as though she was crying.

"Everything all right?"

She laughed, but it wasn't a real laugh. It was one of those laughs that came out more of a sob when someone was crying real hard. 'No,' she said.

"Okay."

'You are such a fucking liar. I can't believe I fell for your lines. Eighteen years later and you knew exactly what to say to get me out of my panties. Again.'

He pulled the phone away from his ear for a second, certain he was hearing things. Nope, the phone was really connected. He wasn't hallucinating. He pinched himself. Yup, he was really awake, standing here having her say things like that to him.

"What are you talking about?"

'I've never been inside of anyone else without a condom.'

"I haven't!"

'Might want to tell Darcy Singleton that.'

He frowned, pinching the bridge of his nose as he was trying to process what she was talking about. "Who?"

'And the I loved you after that day speech was real convincing. I just can't figure out to what end you said all of that stuff. To get out of child support? You've kept paying it. Maybe you thought I'd tell you to stop?'

"Okay, Claire. I'm functioning on about two hours of sleep here. Can you maybe cut it to the bare basics of what the issue is."

'You having another child!'

"Me having a huh? What?"

'Yes. Like six months younger than Melissa. So clearly you weren't all that shook up about not seeing me again or the fact you'd gotten me pregnant to do it again.'

"Are you on drugs?"

'You know the answer to that.'

"Well, in the world where I saw you last weekend I knew the answer to that. This world where you're talking about me having another kid. I have no idea what you're talking about."

'I'm sure.'

"I don't, really. I have no other kids, Claire. I wasn't with anyone. Well," he paused, thinking it over. "I guess I was the weekend of prom, but that was it before I found out you were pregnant."

'I don't believe you.'

"Claire. Again. What are you talking about?"

'She's on the radio this morning, talking about her son.'

"Who?"

'Darcy Singleton.'

"And I still don't know who that is!"

'You do, too. We went to school with her.'

"We went to school with a lot of people I've forgotten all about since leaving Shermer."

'You fucked her!'

"Claire, I understand you're upset, but I'm not sure the phone is the place to be having this conversation."

'This isn't a conversation, John. This is me telling you after you've dropped Melissa off in August I don't want to hear from you again.'

"Claire, come on."

'No. Lose my phone number. Forget all about me.'

'Why would she lie?'

"I don't know. Why haven't I heard about it before today then? You think I'd lie to you?"

'You do it very well.'

"I haven't said one fucking lie to you, Claire. Never. Not then. Not now."

'I'm not sure you'd even know the truth if it bit you on the nose.'

"Claire."

His phone beeped, indicating he had another call. He drew the phone away from his ear, sighing softly at seeing it was Larry on the line.

'Better go. It's probably her.'

"I don't know who she is and you think she has my fucking cell phone number?"

'I mean it, John. I'm done.'

"Claire, come on," he said, as the phone beeped again. "You've believed me that I haven't been using since November. That I haven't slept with anyone but you."

Everyone thought he'd hit the mother lode when she hadn't to this point gone crazy. No spur of the moment phone calls just to see what he was doing. No accusations that he was doing anything. She called on occasion, but not obsessively and didn't seem upset if a day or two went by without any contact from him. To this point no third degree about what he'd been doing or who he'd been doing it with. No accusations of fucking anyone else.

"I'm hanging up now. Don't call again."

"How the fuck am I supposed to get Melissa home then?"

'She knows the way to our house by now I'm fairly sure. She doesn't need you to call me for that.'

He sighed. "Claire. There has to be something…"

'Good bye,' she said, and hung up.

She fucking hung up. He brought the top of the phone to his lip and leaned his head back against the cupboard behind him.

Fuck. He didn't think it was possible for him to feel as bad as the day she'd told him she didn't want to be involved with him in February. He'd been wrong. This was fucking ten times worse because he really wanted her with him. All of the time. He'd thought about seeing if she wanted to look at a place near Wellesley to go in on together, maybe a place big enough for Melissa to use herself if she wanted to.

His phone rang again. He glanced at it, hoping it was Claire, but knowing it wasn't.

"Hi Larry," he said.

"I just heard about it myself," he said as Larry went on about Darcy Singleton and what they were going to do about it. One illegitimate kid popping up was explainable, but another so close in age to Melissa didn't look good so soon after the revelation of her existence.

"Thanks," John said.

Claude came out then.

"Some chick I've never heard of was on the radio in Chicago this morning evidently saying she has a kid by me."

"You've never heard of her?"

John shrugged. "Claire says we went to school with her, but fuck if I remember her name."

"Is it possible?"

"No! Absolutely not. I'd know if I had another fucking kid, don't you think?"

"Maybe not."

"Fuck, you, too."

"Well, do you blame her?"

"She wouldn't even hear me out, never mind that hearing me out on a bus when she's there isn't exactly the way to hash out such a problem."

"Also can't blame her."

"I suppose not. Larry said he's going to find the woman and talk to her, find out what's going on. I swear to God, Claude, I don't know anything about a son."

"A boy?"

"Yes!"

"Huh. You don't know what she said?"

"No, beyond the brief summary Claire poignantly told me."

Claude chuckled at that.

"I'm glad you can find this amusing."

"You knew it wasn't going to be easy, John. You knew that back in February when you went to her house."

"This isn't her thinking I don't want to be with her. This is her thinking I've been lying to her for eighteen fucking years."

"Well, she's probably realizing you never got down and dirty about details between then and now."

"No," John said. There was good reason for that.


***

"Of all the times for Ally to be gone early in the morning! It's summer. She and the kids are supposed to sleep in!"

Claire was furious. Beyond furious, she was seething and needed someone to talk to. The only person she thought of was Ally. She'd driven over here without calling first, but it was before nine o'clock on a Tuesday. She assumed they'd be home.

She pulled out her cell phone and was about to call to leave Ally a message asking her to call her ASAP when the door opened. Ashley opened it barely a crack, looking sleepy and surprised to see her.

"Aunt Claire?"

The door opened wider.

"Hey, Ashley. Is your mom home?"

"Yeah. She's in the shower, I think."

"Oh," she said.

"Come on in."

"Thanks. Sorry if I woke you."

"It's okay. Erik actually woke me to tell me to go answer the door."

Claire smirked a little at that. Erik was fourteen, and very good at it. He had the attitude to go with eating Andy and Ally out of house and home. Of course, Andy had been that way at that age so they'd known what to expect. Or so Ally tried telling Claire, but some days it seemed his appetite surprised them.

"I'll tell Mom you're here," she said, heading up the stairs.

"Thanks," she said. "Tell her I'll be in the kitchen."

"Okay," she said.

Claire found her way to the kitchen and the coffee maker there. She started to pour herself a cup, reaching into the cupboard for the Bailey's she knew Ally kept in there. She added some to her cup just as Ally walked in. She was dressed, but still had a towel covering her hair.

"Rough day?"

"You don't even know."

"Did we have plans I forgot about? I asked Ashley, but she didn't think so."

"No," Claire said.

"Okay," Ally said.

"He's got another child, Ally."

"I'm sorry?"

"I was listening to the Loop this morning while I was working on something. I never listen to morning radio, you know? I find it too distracting because they're talking all of the time instead of playing music."

"Right," Ally said.

"Today, though I wanted the talking for some reason," she said with a shrug, taking a sip of her coffee. Ally poured herself a cup, joining Claire at the table.

"They were talking about Shooterz. You know, playing at Shermer Days again in the middle of a big release tour. They were joking about how Melissa probably had some influence over that decision. It wasn't hugely negative, but not exactly flattering either. Her and John wanting to come home after their song has been so successful."

"I can imagine," Ally said. They had heard all kinds of remarks the past couple of months. Good and bad, they ran the gamut.

"Then they were talking about Melissa and what it must be like to be recording with her father. Touring with them. Having an in to recording as she did."

Ally sighed softly.

"So then they started taking calls. People commenting on it. Melissa. Shooterz. Me. I hadn't heard some of those things said about me in years. Some knew John, Claude, and Billy from school. Then Darcy called in."

"Darcy?"

"Darcy Singleton."

"Oh," Ally said, lips tightening. She clearly remembered her. She was pretty hard to forget, which was what made Claire even madder about John trying to deny he knew her. It was rumored around high school that she'd had three abortions before their senior year. Claire had no idea if that was true, but due to her position she'd heard all of the stories. And more.

"Says she has a son that's John's who just turned eighteen last month."

"Oh," Ally said.

"Right? He told me he'd never. Ally. I believed him! You know? We've been doing it without anything for months because I believed him!"

"Of course you did, Sweetie. You love him."

"No. I don't. I'm done."

"Claire."

"No! I'm done! How humiliating to hear about another child he has over the radio!"

"Maybe he doesn't know!"

"He says he doesn't."

"Maybe he's telling the truth."

"I doubt it."

Ally was quiet as Claire sipped on her coffee.

"There's another possibility," Ally said quietly after a pretty long bit of silence between them.

"What? One that doesn't paint me as insane for trusting him? Forget my heart. He has my daughter, Ally!"

"He's not going to hurt Melissa. You know that. I know you're mad and hurt right now, but deep down you know he'd never hurt her."

Claire sighed softly.

"She could be lying."

"What good would that do?"

Ally shrugged. "Attention. She always was an attention whore. She said her full name?"

"She did, before they could hit the dump button."

"So, she clearly wanted it out there."

"I don't know. That seems pretty far to go for some attention."

"He's in the news right now not just because of Shooterz but because of Melissa. Maybe she thought it'd give her something."

Claire's phone rang and she glanced at the ID.

"It's Missy."

"Go ahead and take it."

"Hi, honey."

'Mom?'

She sounded like she'd been crying.

"Are you okay, Missy?"

'Dad says I have to go home? Is he telling me the truth?'

"I didn't tell him you had to come home now."

'He said you're pretty mad and he thought I should go home so you don't get madder.'

"I am."

'I'm sorry.'

"For what?"

'For whatever I did that has you mad at me.'

"Oh, Sweetie, I'm not mad at you. How could I possibly be mad at you?"

'Then why do I have to go home? Our song broke the Top 20, Mom!'

"I know, I heard that."

'Are you mad at Dad?'

"You could say that."

'Oh,' she said simply. 'So, he's trying to do the right thing?'

"For once in his…" Ally slapped her hand and grabbed the phone away from her.

"Hi, Melissa, it's Aunt Ally, how are you?"

"Yeah? I bet you're having a blast. It was so good to see you last weekend. We're so proud of you. Even Erik was impressed."

"Yeah, he totally was. He told all of his friends that he knew you and everything."

"Your mom doesn't want you home any sooner than you're ready to come home. Okay? I promise you."

"I love you, too, Sweetie. You have fun, and knock them dead tonight."

Ally hung up the phone, setting it on the table between them.

"Don't do that, Claire. No matter how mad you are at him, don't put her in the middle of it or say things to her you may regret later."

"I didn't…"

"You did. Don't do that. You went seventeen years without saying one disparaging thing about him. I commend you for that. If it had been me I would have filled her head for seventeen years about what a deadbeat he was. You didn't do that because you wanted to give her the chance to be objective if she ever had the opportunity to meet him. You didn't want Stu to adopt her because you didn't want to take that claim away from John. Don't ruin that."

"I didn't…" She put her head on her arms on the table and cried then. Again. She'd been crying all morning it seemed like. "Why does it feel like she tore my heart out?"

"Because you love him, Sweetie," Ally said, moving so she could hug her.

"I don't want to."

"I know," she said, hugging her tighter.

"I told him I never wanted to talk to him again."

"Given the circumstances that's a reasonable reaction."

"Why would he send Melissa home?"

"He probably doesn't want to make you madder. Especially if he really doesn't believe the boy is his."

"Boy! He's a man! He can vote same as Melissa."

"That hurts, doesn't it?"

"Yes! God, if he was older or years younger, but the same age. I thought I was special, you know?"

"You were, Claire. Don't ever believe otherwise."

"Right."

"Don't say that. Come on."

"I'm so stupid."

"You're not. You're hurt. True or not."

"I'm just glad no one knew we were together."

"Are together, Sweetie."

"I don't want to be with him!"

"Yes, you do. That's why it hurts."

Claire took a shuddering breath. She absolutely did not want to hurt like this.

"Wait and see what happens. Maybe she's lying and they'll find out."

"But people will still think I'm just one of many."

"Then you just have to prove to them you aren't."

"It's too much trouble."

"Yes, yes, it is. Love is trouble, Claire. It hurts and it tears your heart out sometimes."

"I've never felt like this."

"Because you've never loved anyone like this except him."

"No," Claire admitted.

"Call Melissa back when you get home and make sure she knows she doesn't have to come home. See if she needs anything. If she's heard, she could be upset, too."

"Oh, God, I didn't even think about that."

"That's okay."

"No, it's not! I'm her mother and I've been sitting here feeling sorry for myself, how I feel. She's about to be put under even more scrutiny."

"Maybe. She knew that going into this, Claire. She's not dumb."

"I know."

"Just let her know you're here for her. You could let John know you're here for him, too."

"No!"

"You weren't together, Claire. Even if this child is his, you weren't together. He didn't cheat."

"He lied!"

"If he didn't know about it, he didn't lie."

"He said I was the only one."

"Those things do break, you know."

Claire sighed softly because she knew they did.

"I guess."

"How about I bring the kids over and we can swim and stuff?"

"Sure," Claire said.

"Maybe see if we can get some manicure appointments for all three of us girls."

"And Erik?"

Ally shrugged. "I don't know. He won't care anyway."

"Probably not."

Claire glanced at her phone again.

"I'm not going to call him."

"Okay," Ally said.


***

"Mom said I don't have to go home."

"I think it may be best. She's pretty mad at me."

"I'm not!"

"Yeah, well," he said.

"You really don't know about this guy?" she asked.

"No! I swear to God, I have no idea who Darcy Singleton is. Maybe we went to school together, but there were six hundred people in our graduating class. You know?"

"I do," Melissa said.

"Right? I mean, your class size has got to be bigger than ours was even."

"No, I mean, I know her. I know him, I mean."

"You do?"

"Yes. I kissed him in sixth grade!"

"I'm sorry. What?"

"Oh God. I kissed my brother!"

"You did not fucking kiss your brother. What the hell were you doing kissing him in sixth grade?"

"It was a party," she shrugged.

"Uh huh," John said. "He is not your brother! Now. You can stay as long as you want to, but know that if this gets too much you can go at any time. I'll put you on a plane."

"I don't want to quit."

"All right."

"What are you going to do if he is yours?"

John sighed softly with a shake of his head, glancing at Claude.

"He's not, Melissa. No one waits eighteen years to say they've had someone's kid."

"I'm sorry Mom's mad at you."

"I don't blame her, I guess," John said. "Larry better get answers on this."

"And if he doesn't?"

"Then I'll get answers! I'm not going to lose your mother over a lie, Melissa."

"Yeah, but…"

"I know she's mad right now. She thinks I lied about a few things right now."

"Besides my being your only child?"

"Yes," John said simply.

"Oh," she said, clearly curious.

"Those things are between her and me, even if she's mad at me. I haven't lied to her, or to you, about kids or anything else. I have nothing to hide."

"All right."

"Go back and try to get some more sleep. I'll be there myself in a few minutes."

"You're going to be able to sleep?"

"I'm going to try."

"Okay," she said.

"She took that surprisingly well," Claude said.

"Yeah. Maybe she expects me to be a fuck up so it doesn't surprise her."

"Or she trusts you."

John sighed.

"Go to bed, John. There's nothing more you can do. We do have a break between Cincinnati and Detroit."

"Yeah, I'm not sure that's going to solve anything this time."

"Talking to her in person may help."

"Maybe," John said. "I'll think about it."

"See you later then."

"Yeah," John said.

"What are you doing?" he asked when he pushed the curtain back to his bunk to see Melissa laying there.

"When I need to sleep I listen to some classical music."

"It helps you fall asleep?"

She held one of her earbuds out to him and he climbed into the bunk with her. He took the earbud from her as she drew his blanket around them.

"Not exactly how I expected to sleep with an eighteen year old girl."

She scoffed at that, snuggling against him.

"What are we listening to?"

"Um. Wagner."

"He's good?"

"How do you know it's a he?"

"They were all hes."

She laughed softly, leaning in to kiss his cheek. "I love you, Dad."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah."

"At least one of you Standish women does today. I love you, too,"

Chapter Text

Chapter Thirty
Word Count: 3,131

John thought he was seeing things when he saw her number come up on his phone. He'd assumed he wouldn't be hearing from her again until this shit was settled and he could talk to her with proof there was no other kid.

"I'll be back," he said as way of excusing himself from the dinner table.

"Hello," he said cautiously.

'Hi,' she said.

He was quiet not sure what to say. Was there a right or wrong thing to say given the circumstances?

"I don't know why you called, but I'm so fucking happy to hear your voice," he said.

'I have a question.'

"Okay."

'If you'd found out I was pregnant because I told you what would you have done?'

"Come again?"

'If I'd told you like I should have been able to do. What would your response have been?'

"And you're asking me this why?"

'I need to know your answer.'

"Uh, well, I don't know. I guess I hadn't thought about it since it didn't happen that way."

'John. I need to know.'

"I probably would have told you we should get married. I mean, right? That would have been what we should've done? At least live together."

'You wouldn't have told me not to have it?'

"No," he said with a scowl. Not to have it? What did that even mean? Then it dawned on him what she meant. "No! What the fuck are you getting at Claire? If you're implying I wish she wasn't here or something."

'Not quite,' she said.

"That's better than a flat out accusation of my meaning that, I guess."

'Something Darcy said the other day bothered me.'

"Well, I hope everything she said bothered you. Larry's hitting the ground hard to get to the truth on that."

'She said you told her she had to have an abortion. You gave her the money to cover it and she took the money, but didn't have the abortion.'

"And only part of that bothered you?"

'Well, no.'

"Thank you." He was immensely glad to hear that. That whole fucking statement should have bothered her.

'You could have, after my dad told you, come to find me and told me to have one.'

"I could have, sure. It would have been a little late then since your parents knew, but I couldn't have afforded it anyway, Claire. So, I would have had to tell you to get one and pay for it yourself."

'I know,' she said.

Ah.

She was doubting the story.

She didn't believe Darcy.

She believed him!

Thank fucking God.

'She said that she never told you because she was scared you'd find out she took your money, didn't have the abortion, and you'd hurt her because of that.'

"She said that? On the fucking radio?"

'She did.'

"I think I may be talking to Larry about more than finding out facts. Like a slander suit."

Fuck. She was saying that shit publicly? Forget the kid part. Rumored kids were nothing and easily proven to be his or not. Paying someone to have an abortion who was pregnant pretty shortly after Claire from the sounds of things did not look good. At all. Even he knew that.

'I don't think she can afford anything.'

"I don't give a shit. Forget the kid factor. I don't ever, fucking ever in this lifetime, Melissa's lifetime, or any of her kids' lifetime, want to be thought of as anything like my old man. I can't have that shit said about me, Claire, and let someone get away with it. You shouldn't want me to let her either."

'I know. I hadn't gotten that far yet. I just needed to know what you would have done.'

"I'm going to say it again. Hearing your voice is the best thing ever."

'I was so hurt, John.'

"I don't blame you."

'It's so hard doing this. I'm away from you. No one knows we're together. I'm surrounded by stories about you and Melissa.'

"I know, Princess. I'm not hiding anything from anyone. I'm trying to protect you from getting more shit than you'll get by being Melissa's mom. None of those reports about me should be saying anything disparaging. I'm being a very well-behaved boy."

'I know.'

"You want me to include talking about us when I'm asked about Melissa and stuff, I will."

'No, that's not necessary, and that's not what I'm complaining about. I'm not really complaining. I'm in a relationship, but not completely.'

"Uh, I don't know how much more complete we can get, Claire. You've got me contemplating winter in Chicago, which is something I never thought I'd think about again."

'You know what I mean. I don't get dates or breakfasts or walks. There are no hugs if I have a bad day.'

"We'll be done soon and I'll give you all of those things."

'You're going to make me breakfast?'

"Dominic can make us breakfast."

She laughed softly.

'What are you doing?'

"We were eating."

'I'm sorry.'

"Fucking don't be. Ever for calling me, but especially tonight."

'Where are you?'

"Outside of Cleveland."

'Then Detroit?'

"Yup. Then up to Mackinac Island for some thing that they're doing. Next is Green Bay I think. We'll do Milwaukee and then we'll be back your way."

'Are you going to bring Melissa home?'

"Is that still an option?"

'It is.'

"Then yes."

'Do you want company in Detroit?'

"Yes."

'I'll look into it.'

"All right."

'I love you.'

"Do me a favor?"

'I can try. I think I owe you one.'

"You don't owe me a God damn thing, but if you'd do me this I'd love it."

'Okay.'

"I understand why you reacted the way you did, but know this. I haven't lied to you about anything. I haven't given you every last detail of the past eighteen years, and I don't think you want to hear it any more than I want to relive it."

'No.'

"But I haven't lied to you. No kids. No marriages. No fiances. No live-ins. No nothing. There is not a single thing anyone could dig up on me that's true, other than stuff you already know about like my dad."

'People don't know?'

"Uh, no. I don't talk about them, and as far as I know they've never been interviewed about me. If they have, it's been years ago now."

'I see.'

"So just know that. Okay? There may not be another kid thing, but it may be someone saying they saw me with someone. Or they saw me snort a line. Or whatever. I can take a lot of shit. I've taken it. You know that, see it every time we're in bed together. I can't with you. Not ever with you, Claire. Having you doubt me crushes me. I've never had that before, trust. I have it with you. I want you on my side."

'I'm sorry.'

"No need to apologize. Again, I get it. I know it's not easy what we're doing, living like this. If we're going to do this, though, make this work for real. I need to know you're with me. Same as I'm with you. I don't want to worry that this or that is going to divide us, tear us apart. Stronger together, right?"

'Presumably.'

"That's what I need. The strength of us. I want to know I can call you and tell you about a shitty day the same as I want you to call me and tell me about your shitty days. I can't give you hugs when you need them all of the time, but I want to listen."

'I'm trying.'

"One last thing."

'Okay.'

"I absolutely have never been with anyone else without a condom."

'And you remember? You've never forgotten?'

"No! Once. That's it. Never again. Even if a woman said they were on something, I still used them."

'Okay.'

"Your daughter is pretty awesome, by the way."

'Why?'

He shrugged. "That morning after you'd hung up I needed to go to sleep. We were up late because of that party I told you about and we had to play that night."

'Right.'

"She was in my bunk waiting for me with some music that helps her sleep."

'Mm. Something classical.'

"Yes. That was one of the nicest things anyone's done for me."

'She's our daughter.'

"You raised her. That part is your doing, and she's awesome."

'I'm glad you think so.'

"Do me another favor?"

'Wow. That's two now.'

"This one is far more enjoyable."

'Oh?'

"Uh huh. Go on to our website and take a look at our tour schedule for dates shortly after Melissa has gone to school."

'Why am I doing this?'

"Because you're going to fly out to see me the night before we have a little break. You're going to see that night's show, and then we're going to go stay somewhere just the two of us. No cell phones. No band. No nothing for a couple of days."

'Yeah?'

"Yes. You pick the place we stay. I don't care. Some place that offers room service so we don't have to leave our room if we don't want to would be nice."

'All right.'

"That a good favor?"

'Pretty good.'

"Yeah, all right."

'How is Melissa?'

"She seems fine. Confused and a little scared maybe by this stuff. Turns out she kissed the kid."

'What?'

"Yeah, that was sort of my response. Some sixth grade boy/girl party is what it sounded like from how she described it."

'God. I didn't know that.'

"Trust me, I could do without knowing she was kissing boys at that age."

'You kissed girls at that age.'

"I did whatever girls would let me do to them at that age, Princess."

'You never tried with me.'

"In sixth grade? No. I knew you weren't the type."

'You never even talked to me.'

'Really?'

"Yeah."

'I didn't know that.'

"Yes, you did, Claire. You know damned well how close you actually were to anyone."

'I guess.'

"How are your designs coming?"

'Oh fine. I had lunch with the owner of one of the stores I'm hoping to interest today.'

"How did that go?"

'Fine. She said she was more than interested in anything I'd have to show her.'

"You knew that already, though."

'Sure. Except that this is freelance. I mean, I still have my LLC active that I started with years ago. So, I'm fine that way. It's just all I have to go on is my name here.'

"I'd say that's more than enough."

'We'll see.'

"You know I'm not going to be able to take her to school with you, right?"

'Yes. I figured that out.'

"Okay. I've told her I'll get there for a visit as soon as I can and that if she wants to come out with us on weekends that we're nearby she can."

'She'd like that.'

"I think so, too. It's probably better right now that I don't go with you guys anyway."

'Maybe.'

"Anyway. I'll let you go, I guess."

'I interrupted your dinner.'

"That's not why, but I do want to call Larry and my lawyer about this shit you told me tonight."

'It's after six o'clock at night.'

"Larry won't care and I pay my lawyer to hear me out on shit like this."

'Okay.'

"I love you, Claire."

'I love you, too.'

"See you in Detroit?"

'Yes.'

"Excellent. Melissa will be ecstatic."

'I'm ecstatic to see Melissa, too.'

"Good to know."

'She's doing all right and everything?'

"Yes. She seems to be having a real good time. She's doing real well and her song is pretty popular."

'I hear it a lot on the radio.'

"That is fantastic news."

She laughed softly.

"Sleep well, Princess. I know I said it at the beginning of the call, but it was fucking good to hear your voice. I'm glad that was bothering you and you called to ask me."

'It was really bothering me.'

"I'm not my father."

'I know.'

"Good."

'It was good to hear your voice, too.'

"You'll hear it up close and personal in Detroit."

'That sounds nice.'

"I'll make it better than nice."

'I'll hold you to that.'

"I meant what I said earlier, too, by the way. If our not coming clean about being together somehow contributes to your doubts we can do it. I'm honestly thinking of you. I'm trying to save you from being hounded more than you already are. I'm not hiding or anything."

'I know. They've been at the house a few times since Tuesday.'

"You haven't said anything?"

'No! I'm not an idiot. I know how to handle the press.'

"Good. Be sure to keep that doggy door locked until this shit blows over."

'They're not going to sneak in my house through a doggy door.'

"No, you'd think not, but there are some people out there pretty desperate for a scoop. I wouldn't put it past them to put a camera on Scotty or something."

'Oh God.'

"Just be careful."

'I will. You, too.'

"They can't really get to me. I'm not alone either."

'Can I ask you something?'

"You can ask me anything."

'Would you have stayed away?'

"No. I was planning on waiting until this has been settled, but I wouldn't have stayed away. I figured there was no sense coming to you with denials and no proof of my denial being true."

'You're going to get proof?'

"If I have to take a DNA test to prove it I will. The kid's not mine."

'Thank you.'

"It doesn't mean someone else won't come out of the woodwork. You know? One starts then more can get the idea."

'I know. I just, hearing it on the radio like that.'

"I can imagine, and I'm sorry."

'And the abortion part. I thought of Melissa and you telling me that.'

"I wouldn't have told you that. If that's what you wanted to do I wouldn't have strong-armed you to convince you otherwise, but I never would have told you not to have her."

'I think deep down I knew that, which was why I called tonight.'

"I'm immensely glad you did."

'I'm sorry about dinner.'

"Melissa or Claude will be sure it's boxed up for me."

'Okay.'

"You could make it up for me by cooking me a home cooked meal the next time we're there in August."

'I can do that. Should I plan for the others, too?'

"You'd do that?"

'Sure. With some notice.'

"They'd love it, yeah."

'Then it's a date. I'll make spaghetti or something that's pretty easy for two or twenty people.'

"You've done that often?"

'Had to cook for people? A few times, sure. Stu liked having a wife who could cook. So sometimes he'd have business dinners here instead of out.'

"Ah," he said. "He was obviously lucky and knew enough to show it off."

'Thanks.'

"I'll see you the day after tomorrow then?"

'Yes.'

"You'll text me which hotel you're staying at?"

'Yes. You're going to tell Melissa?'

"Yes, I won't make that mistake again."

She laughed softly.

'Maybe she'll take pity on you and let you come see me first.'

"Maybe. After this week, though, she'll probably want to see you. She's pretty sure I'm going to send her home at the sign of any trouble or problems."

'I want to see her, too.'

"I know you do. I'd expect no less."

'Night,' she said, hanging up.

He hung up, sliding his phone into his pocket while he glanced at the sky. He wasn't a religious person and didn't pray, but he couldn't help but glance up there and whisper "thank you" to whoever, or whatever, planted the seed of doubt in her mind that led to the phone call.


***

Darcy thumbed through the envelope, salivating at the thought of having so much money in her hands.

"This ain't what we agreed on," she said. She wasn't real good at math, but she knew how to count and this was not one hundred thousand dollars. It wasn't even half of that.

"You strayed from what we agreed on," the private detective said.

She had no idea who he worked for or why she'd been chosen. He'd found her about a month ago, and upon confirmation that Randy had no father involved or on record anywhere made her an offer that seemed too good to be true.

"I did what you asked."

"You embellished from the script."

"I thought it worked. Was convincing."

"We weren't paying you to think."

"I didn't stray that far," she said belligerently. There was only a fourth of the money she'd been promised for simply saying John Bender had fathered Randy. No hardship as she'd always wanted to get with him in high school, but for some reason it had never happened. She was pretty sure he'd never even known she existed despite the fact their paths crossed more than a few times at parties during high school.

"Far enough. Once my employer is certain the desired results occur despite your altering of the story the rest will be paid."

"Right," she scoffed. "You're swindling me."

"You have twenty-five thousand dollars that you didn't have yesterday. I'd say you've made out fairly well on the deal. You'll likely get some interviews out of the deal before he gets a DNA test."

She'd already had two interviews. Nobody anyone listened to for reliable news, gossip rags, but he was right she'd been paid for her story.

"How will I know when I get the rest?"

She was confident she'd get the rest because she hadn't strayed that far! Good grief, saying he'd paid her to have an abortion fit right in with his image back then. Anyone who knew him would believe he'd do something like that. It did make her wonder. Was the other kid of his made up, too? None of her business, but someone sure seemed to be going to a lot of trouble over a closing in on forty year old guitar player.

"I'll be in touch," he said, stepping away from the spot at the bar he'd been occupying for the brief exchange. She shoved the envelope deep into her purse, glancing around at those around her. She'd end up with no money if any of them suspected what he'd just given her.

She tossed back the rest of her bourbon, tempted to order a glass of the good stuff instead of the house stuff she usually got. She didn't want to draw attention to herself, though, so she ordered another of what she always had before heading back home.

Chapter Text

Chapter Thirty-One
Word Count: 2,730

Detroit, Michigan

Melissa was sort of getting used to being with them together. It was still pretty weird, though. There were some days she was sure she'd wake up to all of this being a dream. Stu would still be alive and none of the past year would have happened.

They'd gotten in late last night and the two of them made their way to her mom's room while anyone else staying at the hotel did the same. Not too many were, though, because Mom had chosen a pretty nice hotel. Melissa nor John were surprised by that.

"Is it okay if Sean comes and goes swimming with me?" she asked.

"Sure," her mom said.

"Okay," she said. "I figure that will give you and Dad time to talk without me around."

"You don't have to go swimming!"

Melissa shrugged. She didn't mind. She had to imagine her mom was pretty shaken up this week. She knew she was and she wasn't dating her dad. They probably wanted to have sex, too, but after her crazy emotional meltdown wouldn't do anything to make her think she wasn't their priority. She knew she was. Her mom's especially. Dad's not as much. She was, but she knew it was a different train of thought. She got it. He hadn't had to think about her first until recently.

Like his not taking her to school. She was totally okay with him not doing it. He was all apologetic about it, but while she'd really wanted him at her graduation. Well, she was sort of looking forward to her mom dropping her off at Wellesley. She wasn't sure she would have said anything if he'd wanted to bring her, but it wasn't an issue so she hadn't had to deal with that. She wouldn't have hated it if he did go with them, but she also knew her dad wasn't like them when it came to things. He had a super nice house, but he wasn't comfortable in it. Not really. Even she could tell that without knowing anything about his past.

She was surprised they'd been getting along as well as they had this summer. Sure, it'd only been a little over a month, but they'd been together virtually every minute of every day. The only times she wasn't with him was doing laundry and showering. This week he'd been pretty uncertain. Afraid of what her mom would say to her probably. Afraid of what she'd think of him probably, too.

She wasn't sure what to think. Was it unreasonable to think he had another child? Probably not when it got down to it, but he'd seemed pretty adamant and steadfast that it wasn't possible. Her mom couldn't see that because she wasn't on the bus with them. Melissa saw it, though, and she believed him.

He listened to her music. She loved that about him. He wasn't completely bored by it. Sean had tried to listen to some classical and hadn't been interested at all. John wanted her to make a playlist, and she was pretty confident he'd actually listen to it. She was one of a few who really liked classical, so she felt like a kid in a candy store at the excitement of creating a list for him so he'd want to listen to more.

"Where are you going?" Dad asked when he got back to the room from getting them coffee.

"To swim with Sean," she said.

"Oh," he said. "You want this?" he asked, gesturing to the coffee cup.

"Sure," she said. "Thanks."

"Where's Sean?"

"Meeting me down by the pool. He said he'd just change down there."

"Okay."

"I'll be back in like an hour so you and Mom can talk or whatever."

"Uh, we didn't ask you to leave."

"I know. I want to swim. The pool looked great and," she shrugged. "You're dating, not married. You want to see just her, too."

"I know," she said, blushing, knowing he was thinking about Phoenix. She'd spazzed. It was the first time she'd ever come face-to-face with either of them doing something for one another versus her. Everything until then had been focusing on her. She hadn't known what to do with that when she'd been faced with it. Who really wanted to think about her parents having sex? And purposely wanting to have sex? She shook her head, dismissing that thought from her head. She still didn't want to think about it.

"An hour. So, be all presentable when I get back because Sean may be with me."

He scoffed at that. "Only because Sean may be with you?"

"You don't want to embarrass me!"

"I don't," he admitted. "Enjoy your swim."

"Thanks," she said, letting the door close behind her.

John watched the door closed with a shake of his head.

He set the cup holder with the two remaining cups of coffee for Claire and him on the dresser, realizing Claire must be in the bathroom.

He grabbed his cup then, bringing it to the bed that he and Claire were sharing for the weekend.

"Holy shit," she said when she came out of the bathroom.

"Hello to you, too."

"I didn't hear you come in."

"Apparently," he said with a soft chuckle. "Were you expecting another man to be sitting on our bed?"

"No! I just wasn't expecting to see you sitting there. Melissa left too?"

"She did. Swimming she said with Sean."

"She asked me if she could."

"Ah, okay," he said, eyeing her. "Laziness becomes you."

"I'm not lazy."

"Okay. Sleeping in becomes you."

"I was tired."

"It's been a rough week."

"It has."

"I have a new appreciation for hotel towels."

"Why?" She frowned a bit.

"Because they make it abundantly clear you're wearing nothing but the towel, and I like that."

"I wasn't expecting you to be in here and I forgot my clothes when I went to shower."

"I've seen you with less than that towel on several times now, Princess."

"I know, I just wasn't expecting it this time."

"Come over here and let me see how little else you have on."

"Melissa…"

"Is going to be gone for an hour she said. So we can "talk or whatever" was how she phrased it."

"Did she?"

"She did."

"Maybe she thinks we should talk."

"We are, aren't we? Talk while you walk over here. Talk while I investigate what's underneath the towel."

"You know what's underneath the towel."

"I want to see it again. Now. My memory may not be so good."

"Right."

"What do you want to talk about?"

"I don't know. Melissa…"

"Apparently knows her mom and dad might want to have sex."

"Yes, but…"

"Come on. We're not doing anything wrong. Wouldn't you like her to see that sex can be healthy?"

"Not with Sean around her!"

"Yeah, I don't think this summer has gone at all how he'd planned," he said as she met him at the bed.

"No?" she asked as he sat up on the bed and tugged at the corner of the towel.

"No," he said, sucking in a breath a bit once the towel was gone and he could look at her.

"Stop that," she whispered.

"No," he whispered, reaching up a bit to capture a breast in his mouth as he slid his hands over her hips and waist until he met the small of her back and her ass. He groaned at the feel of her in his hands.

"You swimming?"

"No," she whispered.

"Good," he murmured.

"Why?"

"I think that would show if you were wearing a swimsuit."

"I don't care."

"You may not want Melissa seeing I left you a hickey there."

"Maybe," she whispered as he kissed along her stomach.

"Thinking we're doing things and seeing physical proof may be different."

"Possibly," she said, gripping his shoulders when he kissed her hip and then stood up.

"Hi," he whispered kissing her as she worked his shirt off and then his jeans.

"Hi," she whispered.

"I missed you."

"You, too."

"After August is going to suck," he whispered as she ran her hands along his chest and lower to touch him.

"Why?"

"We're not going to be driving distance from you once we drop her off. I've gotten spoiled seeing you this often."

"I'm picking a few days, though, right?"

"Yup," he said as she moved onto the bed.

"Where are you going?"

He chuckled. "Not far. I assure you," he whispered, walking to the door and working the chain. "Remind me to get up and undo it."

"Okay. Can I tell you something?"

"Anything," he said as he worked at touching her.

"I'm looking forward to those few days."

"Me, too," he whispered with a groan as he slid inside of her.

"Yeah?"

"Uh huh. Making love to you shouldn't be on a schedule."

"I agree."

He chuckled, kissing her. "Somehow I thought you would."

"I want days in bed with you," she whispered after he'd finished.

"Yeah? Funny, me, too. It'll only be a couple in September, but probably around her second semester you can come down to Tampa for all the days in bed together you want."

"Yeah?"

"Yup."

"I like the sound of that."

"Me, too."

"I thought it was just women that wanted days in bed together."

"I don't know about other men and I don't know about other men with you. I want days in bed with you. I've never had that urge before."

"Urge?"

"Yes. To just disappear with you and do little that requires clothes."

"Speaking of clothes," she whispered.

He chuckled. "Yeah, I'll get mine back on."

"At least your shorts."

"Can I ask you something?" he asked as she stood from the bed to go to the bathroom.

"You can."

"She's going to be there for four years, right?"

"Yes."

"Is she going to live on-campus the whole four years?"

"I don't know that she's thought that far ahead."

"Well, I was thinking," he shrugged.

"Yeah."

"What if we went in on a condo or something together there? Somewhere she could live if she wanted to. Somewhere we could stay when we visit her that's not a hotel."

"John."

He shrugged. "Just think about it."

"I will. I'm not saying no, I just wasn't expecting that."

"I get that."

"And you'd want to buy it together?"

"Well, that would be the idea, yes. We'd each have our own places and then we'd have our place."

"Hmm."

"You don't like that idea?"

"Our place wouldn't be permanent."

"That one place may not be, but the idea could be very permanent."

"I suppose."

"Think about it. Obviously we have time until her sophomore year."

"Obviously. And you'd want that type of financial commitment with me?"

"I want every type of commitment with you, Claire. If I haven't made that abundantly clear I'm sorry I'm not good at making my intentions clear. Yes. I'd buy a place with you."

"We could have Missy look at areas maybe when she gets there and see."

"You could do that, yes. Obviously we wouldn't want something way out of the way for her so she'd have say."

She slid the chain off once she'd finished getting dressed. She was just wearing shorts and a top, something to lounge in he supposed. It allowed her to slide back into bed with him so he wasn't complaining.

"Think she's going to freak out seeing us lying in bed together?"

"She's seen us lying in bed together."

"I know, but not in the middle of the day."

"She'll be fine."

"What's going on with her and Sean?"

"Nothing that I can tell. I think they kiss when they can, but as far as I can tell that's it."

"Why?"

"I think she likes him, but there are things about him she's not crazy about. He's worried about what's going to happen at school in the fall."

"He knows there are no boys on her campus, right?"

"I'm not sure I've told him that piece of information."

"But they're getting along?"

"They are. No arguments or anything. He wasn't too thrilled her bunk was right by mine."

Claire laughed softly.

"What did he expect, I wonder?"

"I don't know. Two months with her on a bus and you not around."

"I suppose."

"He's a twenty-two year old virgin and doesn't want to be that anymore."

"And he doesn't like any of the singers?"

"Oh, he likes Farrah plenty, but he is not at all her type."

"She has a type?"

"Uh. Yeah. Doctors."

"That's right. She's a nurse. Doctors can't be too fond of what she's doing."

"You asked what her type was. You didn't ask me if she was currently dating anyone."

"No, I suppose I didn't."

She leaned in and kissed him.

"I was also thinking," he said.

"You've been doing a lot of thinking."

"I know. I have time to think when we're on the road like this."

"Tell me."

"Well, you gave me a key to your house."

"Yeah."

"I was kind of hoping that would mean I could have some things there. And you at my place."

"Things?"

He shrugged. "Yeah, you know. Clothes, a toothbrush, shampoo, whatever. Stuff. Things."

"You want things at my house?"

"I want us to have things at one another's houses. Like, you know, they'd be our houses. I certainly have space to have whatever you need brought into the house to design down there."

"You do," she said softly with a giggle.

"I'd love to have you waiting for me when we're done with this tour."

"At your house?"

"Yes."

"I think I could manage that."

"That may be our opportunity for days undisturbed."

"Except Dominic."

"You can cook. I'll give him a week off."

"I like that."

"Yeah?"

"Yes."

"All right. Let's do it then."

"God, you're still in bed! Didn't I give you enough time?" Melissa said.

"We're dressed," John said. "See," he said, drawing the covers back.

"Yeah, yeah."

"Hopefully you stayed dressed as well."

"I went swimming!"

"Just saying," he said. "Where's Sean?"

"He felt weird coming up here so he's down in the lobby waiting for me to shower and change."

"Ah," John said.

"You're leaving again?" Claire asked.

"Yeah, there's stuff around we can walk to."

"Okay," she said. "Keep your phone on."

"I know, Mom."

"I gather she's heard that a time or two."

"Just a few," Claire said.

John chuckled, kissing her nose and forehead.

"Do we tell her thank you for leaving us alone like that?"

"No!"

John chuckled softly.

"She's leaving us alone again it sounds like."

"I know."

"You have anything to do before I have to get my nap in?"

"No. Why?"

"Good. That means you can stay here with me."

"I can."

"That sounds fun."

"It does."

"I'm going to do a DNA test," he said softly. He'd decided yesterday after talking with Larry. The woman was insistent her son was his. No one he'd talked to who knew her could remember her ever saying anyone but John was the kid's father. They'd decided it was the most expedient way to get this shit cleared up.

"Are you?"

"Yeah. It's the only way to one hundred percent set the record straight."

"True."

"They may wonder why I didn't do one for her," he said, gesturing to the bathroom.

"I know."

"Just preparing you for that."

"I get it. Thanks."

"If you do go out today, take my keys with you and get copies made."

"What?"

He shrugged. "If it gets bad at your house. You know, reporters, your brother, or whatever. Go to my place. They can't get in there."

"I know."

"So, make copies of my keys so you can get in."

"Okay," she said.

"I'll warn Dominic you may come so he's prepared."

"I doubt I'll need to. I could go to Ally's house if I had to."

"I like the idea of you in my house."

"Alone!"

"I know, but I still like the idea of you in my bed next time I talk to you."

"You do have a very nice TV."

"I do."

"I could get used to watching it before going to sleep."

"I know! It's addicting."

"You're addicting," she said, sliding a fingertip along his jaw.

"Back at you, Princess."

Chapter Text

Chapter Thirty-Two
Word Count: 2,026

August 2003

"So, that's it?" Ally said after listening to Claire's story.

"I don't know what else there is to do."

"Well, you said he'd talked about a slander suit."

"She doesn't have anything to go after her for. I think his lawyer agreed with me that he'd look pretty petty. She clearly needs help or something."

"I hope she gets it. God, what would make someone just make up a father for their kid like that? And that poor boy."

"I know. He knows Melissa. I don't think real well."

"Well enough to kiss him."

"Yeah, in sixth grade. How many people were you friends with senior year from sixth grade?"

"I didn't have any friends in sixth grade."

"Okay. Me, then. Normal people. I didn't have many from sixth grade."

"Normal people, huh?"

"Yes. You know, those of who were not weird."

Ally laughed, taking a sip of her wine.

"I saw his interview."

"Me, too."

"Well, I know you did. I thought he sounded very reasonable. He didn't sound upset."

"I know."

"He even sounded like he liked your parents."

Claire laughed at that.

He'd done an interview last week with a radio station while they were here in Chicago. It wasn't the same radio station Darcy had made the accusations with. He'd explained simply and to the point that he'd had a DNA test done, which came out negative. He reiterated that he'd known about Melissa all along, just because reporters and people didn't know about her didn't mean John was in the dark about having a child. He and Melissa's mother weren't together and John wasn't together as a person to shoulder the responsibility of being a father. Melissa's mother had done an outstanding job of taking on the responsibility by herself other than the monetary support he'd provided over the years. He'd extended gratitude to her family for taking on some of the responsibility, too, while Claire finished school and got her business running. He knew Melissa wouldn't be where she was today, how she was today, without them as much as Claire. He assured the show's host that there were no other children. Just the one. He'd also driven home the point that questioning him was fair game, but Claire and Melissa were off-limits. Now that Melissa was done touring with them she had the right to just be a student.

"And Melissa? How did she respond to finding out he'd been paying child support all of these years?"

"She said she already knew that. How, I don't know, but she wasn't surprised or upset. Maybe Mom or Dad told her. Maybe she just presumed. I mean it's sort of expected. Those first few years, I needed the money, but once she was in Kindergarten."

"I know," Ally said. "Andy and I are a little jealous, honestly. Not in a bad way, but God, we'd love to know our kids were set like that."

"It was tempting. To just be frivolous and spend it on crazy stuff, but that wouldn't have done her any good."

"No, you've done so well with her. She has always had nice things, but she's never been snobbish about them."

"Yes, she has," Claire said with a slight grimace.

"Okay. No more than any other girl her age in Shermer with parents' who have money."

"I guess not, no."

"I really wish I knew what would make her do that. It's so random. Eighteen years later to decide he was the kid's dad."

"John says that happens. One scandalous, or potentially scandalous, tidbit comes out and the opportunists come out of the woodwork."

"I hope you remember that for the next time."

"I hope that there's not a next time, but yes, I learned my lesson not to jump to conclusions."

"I can't blame you. I understood why you reacted that way."

"Think twenty years ago there were no reliable DNA tests. From what John's lawyer said, the kid could've been John's dad's and there wouldn't have been a way to tell conclusively between the two."

"Well, it's a good thing it's not twenty years ago."

"I know!"

"And the condo thing?"

"I don't know. I figured when I take Melissa there I can look through some listings, see what's even available in the area. I can't imagine there's anything cheap there with as much as tuition costs."

"Probably not."

"Are you excited or nervous?"

"Honestly, wondering where my head is."

"Why?"

"I'm thinking about living with someone."

"Is that bad?"

"I don't know. I didn't let Melissa even meet a guy I was dating, and now I'm thinking about living with one."

"Her father."

"Yes, but I still can't help but think I'm supposed to be setting an example for her. Marriage. Stability. Morals. Not to sleep around."

"She's seen you haven't done that, and from what you've said she seems okay with you and John being physical."

"In theory. She's never seen us do anything but kiss and sleep together."

"That's enough, isn't it?"

"I don't know. I just can't help think it's not right."

"You have keys to his house. He has keys to your house. He's talking about you keeping stuff at one another's places, Claire. How is that any different?"

"It's my house. It's my mortgage. That's his house and his mortgage. This would be ours, together. If we end up hating each other we'd fight over it."

"Do you think that's going to happen?"

"I don't know! It all happened so fast."

"Eighteen years is not fast."

"You know what I mean."

"I do, but I don't think it was fast. I liked Stu, you know I did, but I never really thought you should have married him."

"I know," Claire said. "It wasn't fair to him."

"No, that wasn't why. Only Andy and I saw what you think everyone else saw. Anyone else saw a decent couple. Maybe your parents," Ally shrugged. "I doubt they paid you two that close of attention, though."

"I know."

"I just meant that he wasn't who I saw you ending up with."

"And John is?"

Ally sighed softly, taking a sip of her wine again. "I tried! I tried to get you to talk to him once you'd graduated."

"I know, I didn't want to, and likely he wouldn't have wanted to then either."

"So, yes, John is. Call me a romantic, you loved him. I wanted you together with someone who you loved back. Stu was great. He treated you like a queen, and probably John wouldn't have had the tolerance for that. I can admit that."

"No, I don't think he would. He sure doesn't mind when I get rooms at nice hotels, though."

Ally laughed. "No, I'm sure he doesn't mind."

"Where are you going to go in September?"

"Nantucket. I actually had to get John to book the hotel because they insisted they were full."

"And he got a room?"

"He did," she said with a scoff. "Does that make me a bad person?"

"That you used that advantage? No. Why would it? I would've done the same thing!"

"Okay."

"Hey, use what you have. And Melissa knows?"

"She does."

"And Melissa knows that her father is remodeling one of the rooms in his house to accommodate your designing?"

"She does."

"I'd say she'll be okay with you going in on a condo together. Especially one she'll be living in for the three years. If she goes on to graduate school, maybe five or more."

"I know. It just surprised me he brought it up. Well, and then," she shrugged, running a fingertip over the rim of her goblet.

"What?"

"Does he just want to live with me?"

"Have you asked him?"

"No! I don't want him to think I expect marriage."

"But you'd like marriage."

"Well, yes. I think that's a logical assumption."

"I think you should maybe talk about that when you have a chance. You've had a disadvantage with the distance and this stuff. I still worry about that boy and what his mother saying that stuff did to him. Can you imagine? Thinking your father was the lead guitar of a famous band for a little while?"

"No."

"Where is Missy anyway?"

"She went to Cindy's house for a couple of nights."

"Nights?"

"Yes. Trish and Stacey have been giving her a hard time."

"Oh God. Why?"

"I don't know. Why are any girls the way they are? She didn't call them enough while she was gone."

"And Cindy's not mad at her?"

"No! I was surprised when they started competing against each other that they remained friends, but they've been able to keep riding separate. She didn't care that Missy didn't call her every day or anything."

"I always liked her."

"Me, too. And then there are the boys."

Ally laughed. "I bet there are lots of them coming around now."

"The phone hasn't stopped ringing since she got home."

"How do they know?"

"I suppose it was announced on the radio or something that she was done."

"That is so bizarre. I mean, not that they're calling her, but that they're calling her now."

"She thinks so, too. So, she just wanted to get away and Cindy's house is pretty private."

"People would be hard-pressed to find her there anyway. Unless they knew she rides."

"Well, no one seems to know yet, and I don't think anyone there would give out details. I mean, there are some pretty well-known people who have kids that ride there."

"You're right. That's good that you feel safe. Did he leave anything when he left here?"

"Not really. He did give me a list of things he prefers. Shampoo and razors, stuff like that. I'll pick some up for the next time he's here, but he probably won't be here again until Christmas."

"You're going to be here for Christmas?"

"I don't know. We haven't talked about it. I think my parents would be upset if we weren't here for Christmas."

"You don't owe your parents anything. Just remember that. If you and Missy want to be here, that's great, but don't do it out of expectation."

"I know. I've just never been away from them on Christmas."

Eventually, Ally left because she had to get home and see to dinner. Andy had taken the kids to the zoo for the day so that Ally and Claire could catch up without kids around.


***

'Hello.'

"The Singleton woman called, wanting to know when she's going to get the rest of her money."

'Did you find out where he stayed when he was in town this past week?'

"At the house."

Likely he knew that already as there had been a picture of the three of them eating lunch out together somewhere in a local newspaper.

'Don't give her another dime.'

"Sir."

'You heard me. I wanted him gone from the picture. He's being seen in public with them. That's not gone from the picture.'

"All right. She won't like that."

'You tell her she was not paid to go off-script. The boy was John's. Nothing was said about him paying her to have an abortion.'

"I know, Sir. I've told her."

'Tell her again. What's she going to do? Sue me?'

"Well, put like that, no, of course not. But she could go public and say that she was paid to make the claim. That wouldn't look good, regardless of who thought was behind the payoff."

'I don't care. She doesn't know who paid her.'

"Of course not," he said.

'Take care of it. I don't want to hear her name again.'

"Yes, Sir," he said.

He hung up, sighing. If it was up to him, he'd pay her just to keep her quiet. There was no guarantee paying her off would buy her silence, but in his experience the best way for secrets to be revealed was not to do your end of the bargain. He wouldn't put it past her to announce she was paid to say it. She liked the attention. He thought she liked the attention more than the potential windfall.

Chapter Text

Chapter Thirty-Three
Word Count: 3,349

October 2003

John smiled a little when she answered. He'd learned over the summer that she was usually in a good mood most every day. He'd seen her tired and not want to wake up, but not full-out crabby as he'd seen pretty much everyone else in the band at some point while touring. It was one of the reasons they did the hotel thing on occasion, to get out from on top of each other.

"Hey, Sweetheart."

'Hi Dad!'

"What are you up to?"

'Oh, you know,' she said.

"No, I don't, Miss College Girl."

'Oh, well, studying.'

"It's Friday!"

'I know, but I guess it's still engrained in me to get my homework done on Friday so that I don't have to do it Sunday night.'

"Your mom taught you that?"

'She did.'

"Your mom is pretty smart."

'You're just saying that because she's your girlfriend.'

"I'm not."

'Hmm. I'm not sure I believe you.'

He chuckled softly. "So, no plans?"

'Not really,' she said. She sounded a little sad at that admission.

"Do you want some?"

'With you?'

"Yup."

'I'd love some.'

"Yeah? I can send a car to get you."

'Where am I going?'

"Hartford. Sorry it's nowhere glamorous."

'I'm not sleeping on the bus, am I?'

"Nope. You can bring your swimsuit even."

'Really?' She sounded pretty excited about that. She loved to swim he'd learned this summer. She also much preferred not sleeping on the bus, though she never forced him to get a room.

"Absolutely. I don't know what time you'll get back Sunday night, but you can sleep in the car on the way back."

'Okay. That's fine. Is Mom going to be there?'

"No, I hadn't asked her. I thought I'd surprise you since I didn't get to see you off and everything."

'Oh. It's okay. I understood.'

"And you wanted your mom to take you to college."

'Well, yeah,' she said quietly after a moment's hesitation.

"It's okay. I get it. Claude told me that may be the case. Stupid me didn't even think about it, but I get it. It's been you and your mom for a long time."

'You're not stupid. If you'd been able to and wanted to I wouldn't have been mad or told you not to.'

"You probably had a quieter check-in without me."

'No, don't say that.'

"Well, in any case, if I'm ever hedging in on time with your mom, please let me know."

'You weren't hedging in on time. Honest. I just wasn't devastated you couldn't make it.'

"All right. Everything going okay?"

'Yeah.'

"You like all of your classes?"

'Yes!'

He chuckled at her enthusiasm. "You're definitely your mother's daughter, but that's good. I'm glad you're excited. Everything quiet? You're not being bothered?"

'No. I get asked stuff once in a while, but I think being all girls' helps.'

"I suppose that may be true."

'I did have one of my professors ask me if you were available.'

"For what?"

She laughed then.

"Oh," he said. He hadn't thought of that aspect of having a college-aged daughter. "Really?"

'Yes!'

"Huh. Is she cute?"

'Dad!'

'I'll let you know if I get desperate.'

"I somehow doubt that will happen, but I'll be on standby."

She laughed softly.

"What did you tell her anyway?"

'I sort of evaded the question. What am I supposed to say? You guys haven't said anything yet, no one seems to have found out. I don't want to be the one to out you.'

"You can tell them I'm involved, that's not a dishonest answer."

'Okay. I just wasn't sure.'

He thought on it for a second. They'd fielded lots of questions this summer, but oddly he couldn't recall one question about his personal life. His love life. Melissa as his daughter was his personal life and they were all about questions on that, but romantic, no. Not a one that he could recall coming up about who he was involved with or what she might think about Melissa.

"You can answer questions, Melissa. If you're really not sure. Like if they ask if I've ever been in jail or something, that's something you can be evasive about. My love life, you can answer vaguely without specifics."

'Okay.'

"That okay with you? I mean, we're not hiding. We're just letting having you sink in and, well, sort of enjoying having our time be our time."

'I know.'

"Okay."

'So. The car?'

"Uh, yeah. I already called one, should be there in about forty minutes. That'll get you here in plenty of time. You want to play with us this weekend?"

'That's a ridiculous question.'

He chuckled. He was banking on that answer, which was why he'd already called the car. He was almost positive she wouldn't turn down the opportunity to play with them.

"All right. I'll let the guys know."

'I've missed it.'

"I've missed you."

'Really?'

"Yes. It's been going on nineteen years since I've spent any length of time with someone related to me. We didn't try to kill each other, so I'd say that was a pretty good first time."

'You were afraid that would happen?'

"Afraid? No, not really. Uncertain how we'd be together, a little. I wasn't sure if you'd expect things from me."

'I didn't.'

"I caught on to that pretty quickly."

'I mean, other than a roof over my head and food.'

"I know, demanding thing you are."

She laughed. 'I have to bring my books.'

"If you have to, you have to. You can't have that much a month into things."

'There are quizzes!'

"I suppose. Remember, I'm just an uneducated schmuck."

'You are not. Not going to college doesn't mean you're uneducated.'

"Don't let your grandma and grandpa hear you say that."

'I'm not my grandparents!'

"We're very lucky that's true."

'We are.'

"All right. I'll see you in a couple of hours."

'Thanks!'

"You're welcome."

'What would you have done if I'd said no?'

"I took for granted you'd want to play."

'I do.'

"On that I can say like father like daughter. I never turn down an opportunity to play."

'I can name one.'

"I changed my mind! And that wasn't me playing, that was me listening to you play."

'I know. I'm teasing.'

"Yeah, yeah. See you in a bit."

He disconnected and dialed another number.

'Hello?'

"I'd give anything to hear your voice in person tonight."

'Mm. Maybe those few days in Nantucket were a bad idea.'

"No, just spoiled me. I want more of those days."

'Me, too,' she whispered.

"Why are you whispering?"

'I don't know. Scotty's taking a nap.'

"Wouldn't want to wake the dog."

'Well, no, because he's being quiet and leaving me alone.'

"Ah. There's a remedy for that."

'Which is?'

"Don't have a dog!"

'I didn't want another dog after Princess died. Stu did, and here I am. This was exactly why I didn't. I knew Missy was going to college soon and it'd be just us. He wanted one. He was sick. I gave in.'

"I'm teasing you. I like Scotty even if he messes up my suit jackets."

'It was only once.'

"I know, again with the teasing you."

'How are you?'

"I'm much better now that Melissa's agreed to come see me this weekend and I'm talking to you."

'She is? Why didn't I hear about this?'

"Because I just hung up with her. It was sort of spur of the moment. I don't stop to think about how far points are from one another, but Candy or Jazmin pointed out that she was only about an hour or so from us in Hartford. So, I called a car company and called her."

'I bet she'll love that.'

"I hope so. I made sure I wasn't interrupting anything."

'I think she'd still rather go with you.'

"That's nice to think, but I bet there are things that could trump spending Friday and Saturday night with her old man."

'In a band? Are you serious?'

"Well, you know, parties."

'Not much with the partying.'

"Given anymore thought to being in Tampa for Christmas?"

'No,' she said with a sigh. 'I mean, I have, but I haven't come to a decision. I was going to talk to Missy when it got a little closer, see how she's feeling.'

"After Thanksgiving may be a good time because she'll have seen your folks. You know?"

'Yeah. Maybe so.'

"Uh oh. I know that tone. What happened with the folks?"

'Oh, Dad called again.'

"About letting her hang out with me."

'Yes. She was on the cover of Guitar Player, John!'

"I know, and that's outstanding. Maybe you don't see it that way, but that means she's getting recognized not just for writing the song."

'I know that, and I'm ecstatic for her. Really. Dad, though.'

"I can imagine."

'He asked me if I really thought there was no truth to Darcy's story.'

"I took a fucking DNA test! How much more truth can there be then the test coming up negative?"

'He's suggesting that there had to be a reason she thought it was you.'

"I swear to God, Claire, I don't know her. I was with one person after you prom weekend and it was not Darcy Whatever Her Name Is. After prom and graduation I moved into X's place and was on the couch. Not much space or privacy for having sex with anyone."

'I didn't say I was suggesting it, John. I believe you. I do. He's my father.'

"And he hates me."

'Well…'

"Jesus. If only he knew!"

Claire laughed softly at that.

"I'd never tell him, but Christ, he probably thinks I pressured you or something."

'I know, I'm sorry. He's just Dad.'

"No, I'm sorry. It's more than just being Dad. He's a vindictive ass who can't let the past go and doesn't want to see you or your daughter happy."

'John.'

"I'm sorry. It pisses me off. Fuck. And then you'd rather spend Christmas with him."

'That's not it! I've just never not spent Christmas with them, and I'm not sure how Missy would feel about it.'

"Ask her!"

'I will, John. We've been sort of busy.'

"I know. I'm sorry. How's the designs coming?"

'Good! Sent them off last week actually.'

"You didn't tell me."

'Not intentional, just slipped my mind.'

"So they'll be in those stores by Christmas?"

'Yes, should be by Thanksgiving. The nice thing about the stores and knowing people, we can produce a small lot and see how demand goes. I can always expand from here if they sell well.'

"You have doubts they will?"

'Oh, there are always doubts. I suppose it's the same as writing a song, you're never sure what response is going to be to it.'

"I hear ya. Well, send me pictures."

'I can do that.'

"Okay. And think about Christmas. I'd like you to think about coming down for Christmas and not going back until you have to for the summer."

'I can't stay there for months.'

"Says who?"

'I don't know.'

"You tell me what equipment you need and it'll be there for you. Need a separate phone line to conduct business on? You've got it. I assume you have a dedicated phone line there at the house."

'I do.'

"Well, then, have calls forwarded to my place. No one will know where you are."

'That does sound nice. No winter. No snow.'

"In bed with me every night."

'I wouldn't need you to keep me warm, though.'

He chuckled softly. "If you aren't wearing clothes any of those nights you would. It still gets chilly at night there."

'I don't remember.'

"No?"

'No. You kept me plenty warm.'

"Likewise."

'I'll think about it.'

"You call Dominic with a list of everything you'd need. He'll arrange it. Whatever it is. Don't hold back."

'I'd pay for it.'

"I'd expect no less, but you still need someone down there to make the arrangements."

'Yes.'

"That's what I pay him for."

'I know. You're talking about a place in Boston, too.'

"Yeah, I don't foresee us living there. More a place for Missy to live if she wants to and us to stay when we visit. It just seems better than a hotel every time."

'Yes, because a condo mortgage is cheaper than a few years' worth of hotels.'

"No, of course not, but we'd be giving her a place to live, too. Maybe she'd want to stay on-campus. I don't know. She can't practice her guitar on-campus at one in the morning."

'Probably not in a condo either.'

"If we own the interior of the unit we can soundproof her room to an extent so she can."

'I suppose.'

"I mean if you'd rather buy a house there…"

'That wasn't what I was implying at all.'

"Okay. I just figured a condo would be low maintenance. We wouldn't have to worry about snow and grounds upkeep if she goes touring with us for the summers."

'Right.'

"What are you going to do tonight?"

'Going to a movie with Cindy's mom, actually.'

"Really?"

'Yeah. She called and asked.'

"Good for you. I didn't realize you were friends with her."

'We're not good friends, but we've gotten together for dinner or a glass of wine once in a while.'

"Enjoy. What movie?"

'I'm not sure. We said we'd decide when we got there.'

"Have fun."

'I will. Kiss Missy for me.'

"I will."

'Have a good weekend.'

"We will. I wish you were here."

'I know. You're going to be in Memphis, I may see about that.'

"I look forward to it, but I also know you've got stuff that you need to do so I won't hold you to it."

'Thanks.'

"Call Dominic," he said.

'Okay.'

"Thank you. Night."

'Night.'

He hung up with her and dialed a third number. Neal would probably think he was hallucinating with John using the phone so much today.

"Hey Ashley, it's John Bender, is Mark there?"

'He is. One moment.'

"Thanks."

John glanced at the clock on the nightstand, assuming the call should finish up well before Melissa got here. He'd have to text her his room number because he'd forgotten to give it to her. The car would get her right here, but not to his room.

'John. How's it going?'

"Good. Anything?"

'No,' he said. 'Nothing. I've sent several people to talk to her at the bar she hangs out at regularly, and she hasn't changed any habits. She hasn't mentioned anything to anyone about it, even after saying that stuff on the radio.'

John sighed.

'I can still pursue the slander suit. I'm happy to do it, but I think the DNA test coming out negative goes a long way to showing you didn't pay her to have an abortion.'

"Yeah, from what Claire says she doesn't have anything to go after her for anyway. I'm not out to make her life more miserable. I'd just really like to know what made her say it. Was she looking for her fifteen minutes?"

'I can keep digging. I haven't done the full-court press. I just sent some people I know to talk to her, talk to patrons. I can dig through her phone records, bank accounts, stuff like that.'

"Do it," John said. "Of all the people to make the claim, someone Claire and I went to high school with just seems fishy to me."

'I hear ya, Buddy, glad to do it. I saw the Guitar Player cover. Looking good. You didn't tell me your daughter was beautiful.'

"She looks like her mother."

'Ah. Well, you're a lucky guy.'

"I am that."

'I'll keep you posted.'

"Thanks for taking me call. Sorry to bother you on a Friday night."

'No bother. Ashley and I are in for the night so you didn't interrupt anything other than us going to bed early.'

"Is that what I have to look forward to?"

'You contemplating getting married, John?'

"I'm contemplating living with her for now. I imagine, yes, marriage would come out of the deal."

Mark whistled.

'Never thought I'd hear those words coming out of your mouth. Good luck. Might want to at least get her some hardware to know the living together is a commitment.'

"Hardware?"

'Jewelry, my friend. Commitment tokens.'

"Oh," John said. The only jewelry he'd gotten her to this point was the necklace back for Valentine's Day.

Mark chuckled.

'Have a good weekend. Knock 'em dead.'

"Thanks."

He hung up then, texting Melissa his room number. He already had an extra room key up here for her so she didn't need to bother with that.

Hardware. Jewelry. Tokens of commitment.

Things he'd never in his life thought about.

Would it be tacky or wrong to take Melissa with him to shop for something like that? Would she get the wrong idea if he did? Think he was going to propose right away or something? He had no idea what the rules were for something like that, but if he was going to get her a ring she was going to, presumably, wear on an everyday basis he wanted to know she'd like it. He wanted her to wear it on an everyday basis, and excited about wearing it.

And then another person other than Melissa occurred to him.

He glanced at his clock as he looked online to see if they had a listed number. Sure enough, they did. He wasn't sure why he was surprised by that.

He dialed the number, wondering when the last time he'd ever talked on the phone this much in a day was.

'Clark residence,' a female voice sounding much too young to be Allison said.

"Hi. Is your mom home? Allison?"

'Just a minute,' she said, setting the phone down. 'Mom! Phone's for you!'

John chuckled softly.

'Hello?' she said.

"Hi Allison. This is John Bender. I just need a few minutes of your time. Is this a bad time?"

'No, not really. What can I help you with?'

"Well, I was hoping you could do me a favor. From the sounds of it, you know Claire better than just about anyone. Right?"

'I'd like to think so.'

"If I give you my email address do you think you could email me examples of rings you think she would like."

'What?'

He sighed. "Rings. You know. To wear. I haven't seen her wearing one this whole year or so. I have no idea what she'd like. I also don't want to get her something similar to what she may already have."

'Oh, yes, I suppose I could do that.'

"Don't worry about cost, it only being available locally, or anything, I'd just like a feel for a, um, setting type that she'd like. You know?"

'Sure.'

"Okay," he said, giving her his email address. "And I'd appreciate it if we could keep this between us? I don't know when I'm going to do this, just floating the idea for now."

'Right, sure. I can do that. No problem.'

"Thanks, I appreciate it. My other option was to take Melissa, and I wasn't sure that would be too wise."

'I could see where that might not be.'

"Right? Thanks."

'Sure. You're welcome.'

"All right. Well," he said. Not sure what else to say. They were never friends. He knew of her, sure, but that was the extent.

'Thanks for calling.'

"Makes you feel better I'm thinking of taking it beyond living in sin?"

'Oh, no. I think living in sin would probably be a wise path for her right now.'

"Don't let her parents hear that."

She laughed softly. 'I won't.'

"Thanks again."

'Sure.'

He hung up then, glad he thought of Allison. Taking Melissa would have just been too weird. Farrah maybe would have been a good option. She was a little more down to earth than Candy and Jazmin, but she still wasn't Claire and didn't know her.

Chapter Text

Chapter Thirty-Four
Word Count: 4,181

December 2003

Dominic almost didn't believe him that he was going to have people at the house over Christmas. John wasn't a big holiday celebrator. He made Dominic go out and buy a tree and everything to be sure the house looked festive. Dominic knew then John was serious. He wouldn't shell out all kinds of money for non-existent company.

So, when he got home last night it was the first time he'd ever seen a house he owned decorated with anything. He picked them up today and could honestly say the looks on their faces was worth every penny he spent on the decorations even if he never used them again. They knew he'd decorated for them. Dominic had gone all out, too. Wreaths on doors, lights on trees outside, luminaries along the driveway at night, and even out by the pool there was stuff to make it look like a tropical Christmas.

They'd be here through New Year's Day again, but this time John would be flying out with them when they left so that Shooterz could get back to it.

Claude was having Christmas with his older daughters for the first time in years. Supervised, but he was seeing them and was ecstatic at even that amount of budging on Paula's part. Neal had family still in the Chicago area. Sean had his in Texas. John honestly wasn't sure what the rest of the band would be doing. No one was going to be alone, he knew that much.

Melissa was currently in the studio, working on something while John and Claire were on the balcony outside of her workspace overlooking the pool relaxing with some drinks, enjoying the night.

"What's with the stuff?" she asked.

"Oh, well, I have some things for you."

"Oh?"

"Yes. You never used the copies of my keys you made."

"No," she said.

"Pity. I'd really like you to consider it, though," he said. "Go back after New Year's, get whatever you need, and come back."

"I know."

He held up his hand. "Just hear me out." He reached into the briefcase and pulled out the jeweler's box. "Maybe I'm doing this backwards, but I wanted to give this to you before I get to anything else. I'd love to get down on one knee and propose to you, but I think we need some more time together, really together before I feel comfortable doing that with confidence."

"Yes," she said.

Good to know they were in agreement there.

"However, doesn't mean I don't want the commitment. You. A future. Knowing that exists. The idea of marriage, knowing that's our end-game. I'd like it to start with each of our places being our places. Not mine and yours. So, I know this ring is sort of deceptive, but I didn't see anything else that I liked."

"John," she whispered, when he opened the box and pulled out the ring. It was a pretty fucking nice ring if he didn't say so himself. "It's gorgeous."

"The guy that designed your charm," he said, pointing at the necklace she wore. "He was more than happy to do this for me. So, uh. I want you to live with me. Together. Here, there. We'll make it work, but I want the whole deal, and that's what this is for. To show that. I don't want the milk for free or anything, but our jobs make it hard I think."

"They do."

"All right. So?"

"Yes," she whispered, getting tears in her eyes.

"Yeah?"

"You had to know I'd say yes."

"Well, I wasn't sure since I just got done saying I'm not officially asking you to marry me. I don't want you to think I'm taking living together casually or anything. I'm not. I just want to spend as much time as we can together before we go that route."

"I understand," she said as he slipped the ring over her finger. "It's beautiful."

"Yeah," he agreed.

"What else do you have?"

"Well, that's the not so fun part," he said, reaching into the briefcase to pull out the papers Mark had sent him.

"What?"

He sighed softly. "I think your old man paid Darcy Singleton to say that her kid was mine," he said simply.

"What? John, don't be ridiculous."

"Come on. Give me some credit. I wouldn't say that if I didn't have some reason to say it. I had my lawyer look into it. I found it really strange that of all the people in the world who could lay claim their kid was possibly mine, women I'd legitimately had sex with, someone we went to school with and who had a kid a little younger than Melissa is the one who came forward."

"Well, yeah, it seemed a little strange."

"So, my lawyer sent people to talk to her. Private detectives. He sent one to ask some questions, see what they could find out about her. He sent another to see if she'd talk. He was trying to find out directly and indirectly if she was acting differently, saying anything as to why she'd made the claim. At first he came up with nothing, but he agreed with me, too. I mean, what are the odds? Someone with her reputation."

"You don't remember her."

"I remember her from what you've told me about her. I remember her reputation. I vaguely recognized her picture when you showed it to me. I don't know her, though. If I passed her on the street I wouldn't look twice at her."

"Okay."

"Well, Mark finally went to talk to her in person. I think he scared the shit out of her or something. A lawyer. She said she was paid to say it. A detective hired her, paid her twenty-five thousand dollars of a promised one hundred thousand dollars. She was shorted the rest of the money because of the abortion she threw into the story that wasn't supposed to be part of it, I guess."

"She told your lawyer this."

"I think she was scared she'd get in trouble for lying to a lawyer or something. Mark said she didn't seem overly bright. He also caught her after she'd had a couple of drinks."

"Oh," she said.

He slid the papers over to her.

"Think about it, too. It was the abortion angle that led to you calling me the second time after you heard what she said. If she hadn't said that part, I wager we wouldn't be sitting here right now. Well, I'd hope after I took the DNA test you'd talk to me, but the fact remains that was the part that got your attention the most as to casting doubt on her story."

"I know."

"That's her statement. Read it. She never met your father, only the detective. I, however, can't think of anyone else who would pay someone to say something they knew was a lie. They only confirmed with her that her son's father was unnamed and uninvolved."

"John."

He shrugged. "I gave you the ring first for a reason. I love you. I want a future with you. Your father does not want that to happen. We both know that. I think these are the depths he'll sink to in an attempt to stop it from happening. I want you to wear that ring and tell people we're engaged. I want to marry you. I want to spend the next fifty years with you. I want to watch our grandchildren together and see them do all the things I missed out seeing Melissa do."

She paged through the statement he noticed and he remained silent as she read about how she was found.

"I just can't believe Dad would do that."

"Who else would have anything to gain from her claim? Nobody. My record label doesn't care. Oh, sure their feathers were a little ruffled that the accusation came about so soon after I admitted to having Melissa, but they wouldn't kick us off or cancel our contract. Fuck, Jagger has like eight kids, I think."

"So the ring came first because?"

"I love you. I'm not trying to hurt you. I wanted to get to the bottom of why she did it. What was she hoping to gain? I honestly didn't really think about someone paying her to do it. The ring was to prove that I'm not trying to make you choose between him and me. I'm not. If after reading that you want to continue to have the relationship you've always had. Fine. Cool. I'm out until I have to be included, which I realize marriage would mean I have to be."

"Yes. Melissa doesn't know?"

"No! I'm not an asshole. She loves her grandfather. I wouldn't try to undo that, especially since she has no grandfather from me."

She stood then, walking back into her workspace. Everything she'd said she'd need to work was here. He'd ensured Dominic didn't scrimp or cut corners on anything. He had nothing but space here and little to fill it with. The only downfall of this office for her was that her balcony didn't connect to their bedrooms' balcony. He could probably fix that if they wanted to, though.

He remained where he was as she walked around. She was looking at the stuff, but he wondered if she was really seeing it. She'd been shocked he'd done all of this.

"And I'd tell people what?"

"What do you mean?"

"The ring is an engagement ring, John. Anyone looking at it would see that's what it is."

"Yeah?"

"You're not proposing. So, I'm not supposed to wear it?"

"Yes, you're supposed to wear it. I want to marry you. I just don't want to set a date tomorrow. I'd like to get comfortable first."

"People are going to think I'm engaged!"

"Yes."

She sighed softly.

"You want me to be your fianc ?"

"Yes. I said I want you to tell people we're engaged. Just no instant date to get married."

"And my father?"

He shrugged.

"What about him?"

"You'll let me…"

"I'm not going to stop you from doing anything."

"No, I meant, you'll let me handle this," she said, gesturing to the papers.

"Yes. I'm not going to go after her. I have no proof he did anything. He was pretty careful, but tell me. Give me one name of anyone who would pull her name out of a hat?"

"I can't," she said softly.

"And that's almost what it seems like he did. Picked a random person we went to high school with who had a kid around the same time as you had Melissa to prove to you that I was out banging whoever would have me and knocking them up."

"Ally and I feel bad for the boy."

"I do, too," John said. "Not bad enough to do anything about it. It's not my fault my name got dragged into his life, but I do feel bad that he hasn't had anyone."

"Maybe his real father is like yours."

"Maybe," John shrugged.

"So, I'm telling people I'm engaged."

"Yes."

"To you."

"That is the general idea, yes."

"We haven't even told people we're dating!"

He shrugged. "So? There's nothing against the law with being discreet or living under the radar. Chances are eventually they're going to catch us doing something. You're going to go to a concert where Melissa isn't playing or something."

"I know, I thought of that."

"Me, too. I'm not hiding it. I'm trying to protect you. Both of you. Just what Melissa needs right after starting college, to field questions about how she feels about her mom and dad dating."

"True."

"So you believe me," he said, nodding slightly at the papers.

She sighed, moving to his lap. She slid her arms around him.

"I don't want to," she said, kissing him.

"But?"

"I tend to think you're right. I'll handle it."

"That's fine," he said, shifting her a bit more comfortably on his lap. "Whatever you want to do. I meant it. You want to go on as if you know nothing, fine. I won't deal with him until I absolutely have to, though."

"I don't blame you."

"Thank you."

She leaned in and kissed him.

"Yes," she whispered.

"What?"

"Yes. I'll marry you."

He chuckled softly.

"I'm asking you to live in sin with me first."

"I know. I'll do that, too. I honestly didn't think you were really serious about wanting me down here."

"I'm serious! I want you here. I mean, if you want to be up there. Whatever. I just want stuff here and there that's ours not mine and yours with stuff around like a guest. I mean, come on, you can't tell me this is great instead of cold and snow?"

"It is pretty nice," she whispered, glancing out over the pool.

"We can split our time. This place and that. Dominic would probably go both places."

"Doesn't he have a family?"

"No, he doesn't. And Chicago isn't exactly slumming it for chefs."

"I know."

"And again, that's what I pay him for. I just didn't need him in New York."

"I suppose. If he was with you in Chicago, though, who'd take care of the house?"

"Well, I'd probably get to a point of closing it up for the summers or however long we'd be in Chicago."

"That'd work?"

"I'd make it work. I need my house for work purposes. I need my studio."

"Melissa's…"

"Is good, for her purposes. It's not what we need to put out an album."

"It could be renovated?"

"You want a band staying at your house for a couple of months out of the year, Princess?"

"Well, if we're sharing houses, here or there they would be."

"True, but, no offense, this place can handle seven additional people a lot easier than yours can."

"I know."

"That's why my place is the way it is, setup for us to do this. No hotel bills. No food bills unless someone wants to eat out. Everyone does kick in for groceries, but I don't make them pay exactly an eighth or anything. They just contribute because Dominic has to stock more than usual."

"That's nice they do that."

"I want Dominic to stock up on the stuff you like all of the time."

"Me, too," she whispered.

He chuckled.

"He'd only need to supply me one thing."

"Yeah?" she asked, kissing him. Likely that meant she knew exactly what he was going to say, too.

"Uh huh," he mumbled into the kiss.

She slid her hand to the front of his jeans as she slid her mouth to his neck. She kissed him there, pressing against him as she sucked and nipped hard. Sucking more. God, he was closing in on forty. He shouldn't get hard from a hickey. Yet he was before she'd slid her hand into his pants. He could only attribute the reaction to Claire being the one giving him the hickey.

Hickeys.

She was on to another spot now, moaning a bit against his neck as she touched his shaft. She felt how hard he was and probably felt a bit of the pre-stuff, too.

"You do remember Missy's downstairs, right?"

She didn't answer, taking hold of one of his hands with her free hand and settling it against her knee after tugging her skirt up enough he was touching her skin.

Touching her skin was probably his most favorite thing to do of all time. He could do it all fucking day and be a happy guy, though neither of them would make money if he did that.

He took the hint she was giving him (not very subtly) and slid his hand along her thigh and higher.

"Holy fuck," he whispered against her ear when he discovered she had nothing on under her skirt. His fingers were touching her lower lips with no barrier.

She gave a soft giggle against his neck.

"How long have you been walking around commando? And why are you showing me you are with our daughter…"

He shut up pretty quickly as she shifted, using both hands now to maneuver his jeans so she could mount him. She wasted no time doing so either as soon as he was free enough that she could, taking him into her in one smooth push onto his dick.

"Shh," she whispered before kissing him.

This was not the reaction he'd expected from her after he told her he thought her dad was behind the whole Darcy scam. He assumed they'd get into a fight, or at the very least she'd be mad at him. He'd envisioned her sleeping in the room she hadn't slept in yet to this point.

He captured her mouth with his as they both moved against one another to bring about their releases. They came fast and hard, which was fine with him. He doubted she was going for a marathon session out here either.

"What was that for?"

She snorted, kissing his cheek. "I needed a reason?"

"Well, no, of course not. Until now, though, if Melissa was awake…"

She shrugged. "I suspect she'll be down there for hours."

"Why?"

"She said she had five or six songs she wanted to work on."

"Five or six?" he asked, surprised.

"Yes."

"Did she do any homework at all?"

"Of course!"

"I'm teasing, relax. I'm glad she's writing that much."

"Me, too. She's dating someone," she said.

"Really?" John asked. He frowned a bit at that, mulling that one over. "How did she meet a guy at an all girl's college?"

"She didn't," Claire said.

"Well, then," he said. John frowned some more until realization dawned on him. "Really?"

"Really."

"And you're okay with that?"

"I don't really have a choice, do I?"

"I suppose not, but I'm surprised you're that matter-of-fact about it."

"She's my daughter. I love her. I don't care who she loves."

"I suppose seeing Jazmin…"

"I don't know. Maybe it won't last long."

"That would maybe explain her lack of interest in guys."

"But she liked Sean."

"Sure, but did she really? I mean. I think she did, but romantically? I wonder a bit. She chose him as a way to talk to me."

"Yes."

"Anyway, it doesn't matter. What's this someone's name?"

"Natasha."

John nodded a bit. "Sounds very … formal."

Claire laughed softly. "She's gorgeous."

"You've met her?"

"I've seen a picture of her."

"So, Melissa just told you that she's dating another woman?"

"I heard her talking one night over Thanksgiving and it was clearly a more private conversation. I asked who she was talking to when she told me it wasn't Sean. She didn't tell me at first, but then she did."

"Good for her. Good for you that she knew she could tell you something like that."

"I know. I'm lucky."

"So, do you get the impression they're serious? Curious? What?"

"I don't know. I haven't pried that much. I heard her tell her she loves her, though. That's what made me ask who she was talking to."

Love. That was pretty serious then. John didn't get the impression she spouted off those type of words to just anyone. "Where's she from?"

"Denver."

"Huh."

"Yeah, kind of far especially if she's going to be touring with you next summer."

"We won't have as heavy of a schedule next summer as we did this summer. It'll be more like last summer. We're hoping May to work on an album again. That's when our tour schedule starts to lighten up."

"So, should I be here?"

"When?"

"In May?"

"Yes! I'm serious. I want you here. You're serious about revamping the studio in your house I'll take a look at it the next time I'm there with an eye for what needs upgrading and we can go from there."

"You're right, though, I don't have the room."

"We'd make it work. Somehow. But that's the future. This May we're here."

"Summers would be better up there."

"Perhaps. You in a bikini by my pool would be good all year round."

"What about no bikini?"

"That, too. I'll give Dominic a couple of hours off every day if you want to start laying out nude."

She laughed softly.

"I'm serious. No tan lines on you would be the sexiest thing ever."

"Why?"

"Because then I'd have to investigate very closely with my hands and mouth to be sure there actually aren't any."

"I love the sound of that."

"Me, too," he said. "Can I ask you something?" he asked after a moment's silence between them.

"Sure," she said.

"What are you going to do about your father?"

Claire shrugged. "Probably nothing for now. I have no proof. He'll deny it, you know he will. I know he will. What's the point? But I'm done having lunch with them. I'm done doing anything with him I don't absolutely have to do because I'm his daughter."

"Really?"

"Really."

"It's not so bad," he whispered.

"What?"

"Being a self-made orphan."

"I have what I want right here," she said.

"Funny, I think that way, too."

"Good."

"I have one other thing for you," he said.

"You do?"

"I do," shifting her off his lap. "I will take advantage of that commando thing later."

"Promise?"

He coughed softly. "Yes!"

He reached into his briefcase and pulled out the other part of his gift.

"So, a long time ago you gave me this," he said, opening his palm to reveal the diamond stud earring she'd given him that March day. She probably had no idea how much her giving that to him had meant. No one had ever given him anything of value before. No one had ever trusted him enough.

"I remember."

"Me, too. So, the guy who did your necklace," he said, pointing at it. "And your ring. He was showing me all kinds of stuff. I think he suspects you may like jewelry, or that I like buying it for you. I don't know. Anyway," he said. "I saw these and thought they could be ours, too." He opened the jewelry box to show her the earrings. They were a little bigger than the ones she'd had then. They were in a very nice setting, too.

"John," she whispered, staring from the box to him. "Don't you think a ring is enough?"

"I think I can't wear a ring. Well, you know, not yet. I can wear these though."

She frowned, and he realized what that'd come out sounding like.

"Not both of these," he said, gesturing to the box. "I figured, I have two holes…"

"I haven't seen you wear earrings."

He shrugged. "I liked the idea of wearing them because of you."

"But the ones from before are more than fine. I mean, a little old and probably need to be cleaned up a bit."

"I had him clean mine, but it represents before. These represent now and the future."

He set the jeweler's box on the table before pulling the back out of the older one. He slid that one into the bottom hole in his ear, fastening the back onto it.

"I'm going to look sort of silly wearing two earrings on my left ear."

"I'd sort of figured you'd only wear the new one."

"Oh," she said. She took the earrings out of the box, putting one into her ear.

"You really think she's going to be down there for hours?"

"Yes."

"Why don't you come sit on my lap and put that one in for me."

"I need to sit on your lap to do that?"

He chuckled softly. "I had an idea of me putting something in at the same time."

"I just bet you did."

"Sue me. The commando thing is a turn on. You made me promise."

"I did," she said, moving onto his lap again.

"Remind me to tell Dominic that these are the best chairs he could have picked out for this balcony ever."

"Why?"

"Because you fit on my lap comfortably, and I like that idea very much. That means you'll do it often."

"You plan on distracting me while I'm working often?"

"When we're alone together, Princess, I plan on being like nymphos."

"Clothes won't get designed,"

"That just means you'll have to go naked."

"Records won't get made."

"I've made enough."

"Now I know you're joking."

He chuckled. "Not joking. I'd allow us both time to work."

"Good to know," she whispered, sliding the back of the other earring off so she could put it into his ear above the other one.

"How does it feel?" she asked.

He moved her against him so she was positioned over his shaft.

"That's much better."

"I meant the earring."

"I like sticking things in you better."

"Ha ha."

"And again, pretty sure I'm not joking."

"That's good because I do, too."

"Excellent to hear."

She leaned in, kissing his ear. "You're talking too much," she whispered then.

"Yes, ma'am," he said.

Chapter Text

Chapter Thirty-Five
Word Count: 4,159

May 2004

"So her friend is really okay with Sean driving down to Florida with her?" John asked as he looked around the room. He was amazed she was actually seemingly ready to go. He'd expected he'd have to do a lot of the work for some reason. Well, in truth he'd expected to get here and find out that she'd changed her mind and was only going to come down for a couple of weeks or something.

The drive to Florida wasn't a crazy-long drive, but there were some pretty desolate areas. And mountains. John offered to ride with Melissa, but then that would have left Claire alone. Sean overhearing them talking about the arrangements to get both of their cars down to Tampa for the summer made the offer.

Claire would be driving what had been Stu's car down and leaving it there so she always had a car down there. He'd told her that wasn't necessary, she could use either of his cars anytime. She'd insisted. He couldn't blame her, he supposed. He made sure she knew the keys to the convertible would be there any time she felt like using it.

That discussion did make him realize he would need to buy something to have up here to get around when the time came for him to actually be spending a significant amount of time here. He could've used her car, or Stu's though he would probably have felt weird doing that, if she wasn't leaving herself with only one vehicle here now.

John had no idea what Sean knew or didn't know about Melissa's current love life. He didn't think it was his place to tell the guy because if she hadn't been his daughter he wouldn't know. So he'd kept his mouth shut on the subject. Sean had asked him a few things, but John got the impression they were still in touch because the questions were pretty specific. Did she finish school this week or that week? When were they going to Florida? Those types of questions. How is she? What did she do for Spring Break? Does she like dorm food? Those were not questions he asked, which made John think they still talked.

So, that was how the two of them ended up at Claire's house for a few days. Melissa was already pretty well packed since she'd gotten home from school last week. She had things here at the house that she wanted with her in Tampa, though, that weren't with her at Wellesley.

"What can she say? She has friends."

"Well, yeah, but Sean thought of himself as more than a friend, and I think Melissa at least sort of thought of him that way, too."

"I don't know what to tell you, but it's better if Melissa finds that out now than later. Isn't it?"

"I suppose so."

"I think she's planning on coming down to Tampa to visit."

"Why?"

"Why? What kind of question is that? To see Melissa, I'd imagine."

"No, I mean, why is she planning on coming there and not Melissa going there."

"I get the impression her parents don't know and would not be okay with their relationship."

"Huh."

He slid his arms around her, tugging her to him.

"Ready for the million dollar question, Princess?"

"I guess."

"You going to let them share a room?"

"And don't give me that line about being no different than a sleepover. They're in a relationship that's very different than a sleepover."

"She hasn't asked."

"Well, you better think about it."

"What would you say?"

John shrugged. "Well, we're sleeping together and we're not married."

"We're not nineteen."

"Valid point, but I imagine they probably spent the last however months at one or the others' rooms."

"Yes, I'd imagine so."

Claire got quiet, seeming to think on his question. He was glad, because he'd thought on it if Natasha came with Melissa on the bus or something. He had no idea what he'd be expected to do in that situation.

"And you have no thoughts?"

He did, but he didn't want to just say them without being asked. He was still sort of not entirely sure how much power he wielded when it came down to it. He was Melissa's father and he and Claire were in a relationship. He, however, hadn't raised her and didn't know her as well as Claire did. Her nineteen years' experience trumped most anything he'd have knowledge of.

"I guess I'd talk to her about how fair that is, Natasha coming to our house knowing we know. Kind of taking advantage."

"Yet, if Melissa went there Natasha's parents may very well treat it no differently than a sleepover and let them sleep together without realizing."

"True enough," he said with a shrug. "Well, you have a while to think about it. Right?"

"I guess."

He chuckled, kissing her lightly before kissing her cheek. "Hadn't thought on that?"

"No," she said with a slight frown.

"Maybe Sean will stay for the summer to really make things complicated."

"I'm not letting the three of them…"

"Wow, listen to you. I hadn't quite made the leap to a threesome. I was just picturing him there, thinking he could make some time with her. Natasha visiting and him not knowing."

"Well, I'm just saying. I don't know what she's thinking, where she's at."

"She's nineteen. She may not either. Yet she still told you, and you still supported her. So, she knows she's got you in her corner no matter what. That's pretty huge."

"I know. You support her, too."

"Not the same, and probably not as important. Again. I travel with someone who goes both ways, so she probably realizes I don't have a problem."

"Jazmin and your daughter are not the same person."

"True. I could very possibly not have had a problem with Jazmin and had one with Melissa. Except I don't really care. I'm not built that way, and I think she knows that."

"I'm glad Claude was able to get here before we left."

Claude had flown with John to Chicago so that they could look at Melissa's studio together. They'd talked about converting some of the space in the basement into a couple of separate rooms. That would give them one extra bedroom on the second floor, the guest bedroom John had spent the weekend in on the first floor, and then two bedrooms in the basement. Plus the couch down there. Considering they were all used to bunking on a bus together and doubling up if they had to in hotel rooms (whether it be due to lack of available rooms or available money) no one would complain about any sort of setup here. Together they would brainstorm on what they'd need to make the basement studio one where they could record. It wasn't going to take much. Claire had really gone top of the line with the equipment, but the stuff was five or six years old now so some needed to be upgraded. They'd need to add things, too.

"Able to get here? You make it sound as if he has a jam packed schedule."

"Well, he said he was going to see his daughters."

"Oh, right, I forgot that was right away. You're right."

Claude was ecstatic that Paula was letting him take the girls unsupervised for two weeks. Claude realized there would probably be nightly telephone calls to the girls, making sure they were okay and in a safe environment, but it was a huge step. He'd been clean for so long now John could barely remember that old Claude who couldn't be trusted with his kids. He'd never used in front of them, ever. That didn't stop him from being under the influence in front of them, though, and that's what had Paula freaking out.

"One thing that has me hesitate about doing your basement," he said.

"What?" She looked a little apprehensive about what he could possibly have hesitations about.

"Well," he said with a shrug. "It won't give Melissa a reason to come see me if she has the stuff available to her right here."

"But you'll be here, right? That's the point? So the next time you want to record during the summer we can be here instead of there."

"True enough," he said with a shrug.

"Hey," she said, touching his cheek. "She doesn't just want to be around you because of your recording equipment."

"I know that on a logical level."

"Then listen to your logical self. She loved the weekends you went to see her."

"It was never really a full weekend."

Three times he'd gotten in early Sunday morning from where they'd played Friday and/or Saturday night and met the band Monday or Tuesday at their next stop.

"It doesn't matter if it was a full weekend or not. You had the time, and you took the time to see her. She said she really enjoyed spending that time with you."

"Those songs she worked on at Christmas were really good."

"She seemed happy with them."

"She should be. I couldn't help but think when I was listening to one or two of them if Natasha was responsible for them."

"Oh?"

He shrugged. "Nothing specific, but like you knowing the song I'd written back then was by me about you. Us. Whatever. You hear songs sometimes and know that it's more than just lyrics to the person who wrote it."

"True."

"Claude and I are going to try to talk her into doing her own release. Not with us. I'd play with her, anyone in the band would, but release it as her not us."

"I'm not sure she's ready for that."

"I know, but she's good. Playing and writing. She's good. She doesn't need our name behind her. That song last year would have done well on its own."

"Sure. You helped. Playing with her and that you are her father."

"Sure. Maybe. I don't know. She has enough songs now that she could release a single or two while she's at school. Keeping her name out there, but not taking away from her studying. She could play with us our next tour just like this past summer."

"You liked it, didn't you?"

He shrugged. "Yeah, it was nice. Fun. Whatever. I've never had anyone along who was there for me before."

"I suppose not."

"It was different. So, yes, I did."

"So, Sean and Melissa know the name of the hotel we're staying at."

"I'm very glad you're comfortable sleeping with me in the same bed with Melissa in the room."

"Why?"

The four of them agreed for one night the four of them could share a room. They were basically going to do little more than sleep and then go on their way to Tampa.

"Because I absolutely would not sleep with Sean."

Claire chuckled softly at that, kissing his jaw. "No both ways for you, huh?"

"I don't know how to say no strenuously enough."

"What if I…"

"With Sean?"

She laughed softly. "No, I'm teasing. I don't."

"I mean, you know, I'd have to think long and hard about something like that."

"You are long and hard enough for me."

"Ha ha."

"If they were still dating I'd probably be more worried," she said.

"I don't think she'd do anything with him in front of us anyway."

"I know."

"And yet you're not sure what you'd say if she wants Natasha…"

"Is that a double standard? I don't know." She shrugged.

"Just interesting how you see it differently."

"I guess."

"It's probably normal. Hell, if one of them wasn't my daughter…"

"I don't want to even known where that thought is going."

"In that case. You have everything you need to work from Florida for the next few months?"

"Yes," she said.

Her designs at Christmas had done so well she was up to six stores in the Chicago area who were carrying them. None were close enough to another one to infringe on her stuff being a special item at each store. The contacts she'd made over the years helped immensely because all she had to do was design. The lots she was producing were small enough they could be done in between other, larger lots. Or something. She'd explained it, but he understood it about as well as if he'd explained to her the ins and outs of producing a record. He got the gist, though. She'd been a popular, successful name and there were people who small lots or not were willing to be associated with her name.

The plan was that she wouldn't come back up here unless she had to for business until the spring. He supposed her mother might guilt her into coming back up for Thanksgiving, but he hoped he could convince her to have Thanksgiving with him instead. She hadn't seen her parents or Christopher since January. She hadn't explained why, but she said her father hadn't pressed her on the issue. So, maybe he knew they at the least suspected he was behind it. No one else had come forward accusing him of fathering their kids. He was pretty relieved about that. He wasn't sure Claire would tolerate a second accusation.

The monkey in the wrench for Thanksgiving was Melissa. Melissa hadn't been told what was going on. Claire and John agreed she didn't need to be, and it wasn't up to them to make her think less of her grandfather. Oh, John would love to see her tell him to get lost, sure, but that was the vengeful dick in him and he didn't want Melissa to get that way. One day, though, they both figured Melissa would ask why John never saw Grandpa.

"I love hearing that."

"I'm not so sure about spending the summer in Florida."

"It's one summer, Princess. It will just mean you have to live in your bathing suit. I like that thought very much."

"You would."

"And, hey," he said, taking hold of her hand and bringing it up so they could both look at it. He ran a fingertip over the ring there. As far as he knew she hadn't taken it off since he'd put it on her finger at his house in December. "Ultimate goal, right? That's what we're doing this for. Adding the wedding band to this."

"Yes. I know. It doesn't mean I love heat and humidity, though."

"It'll be worth it."

"At least you have a ceiling fan over your bed."

"Our bed and you're going to be naked every night, you won't need it."

"If you say so."

"I know so."

"Even after we're married?"

"Unless there's something you aren't telling me about you after we get married."

"No."

"And no more kids, right?"

"No," she said.

"Why not?"

"Because I'm almost forty years old!"

"No, not now. I get why not now, but before."

"I don't know. I didn't want to start over with a baby again. I've spent all of my adult life being a mom. I'm thirty-eight and my child is a sophomore in college. Maybe that was selfish. I don't know. If I'd gotten married younger maybe."

"So, it wasn't the pregnancy?"

"No! I actually didn't mind being pregnant aside from feeling like a freak and pretty embarrassed."

"I'm sorry."

"I didn't say it to make you feel bad."

"I know. I do, though."

"You don't want one do you?"

"No, I mean," he shrugged. "If you did I would, but no."

"Thank God."

He chuckled. "I'd say we did pretty well. I'd be worried if we had another one it'd turn out like me and I wouldn't want that."

"You turned out just fine, John. You were fine then, too."

"I think you were one of the few who'd say that, and the fact you can is pretty amazing."

"I loved you. My heart wasn't wrong."

"I suppose I can't argue with that."

"We shouldn't talk about that tonight," she whispered, kissing his cheek.

He knew that. Talking about that shit led to thinking about her father. Of course, they both knew there was nothing saying they would be together today if they'd made a go of it back then. Who knew? She certainly wouldn't have put up with his boozing and drugging, but then if he'd had her and Melissa. Well, he could play the "what if" game for a million years. Claude had Paula and kids. John saw how that turned out for him. They'd been dating before the oldest kid came along, too. John and Claire wouldn't have even had that going for them.

"Where are they?"

"They went out for pizza with some of her friends."

"Oh," he said. "Introducing him to her friends?"

"I'm not sure she's ready for some of them to know she has a girlfriend."

John chuckled at that. "I suppose not. Does Sean know?"

"I haven't asked, and it's none of my business."

"So, he could be thinking…"

"I have no idea what he's thinking. They agreed to time away from each other."

"They did."

"I don't know what they talk about. He's an adult. She's an adult as much as I may hate thinking of her like that."

"Tell me about it."

"Maybe Natasha is just a phase. Maybe she does want to be involved with both of them. I have no idea. I'm not going to tell her she has to do anything. If she was cheating or something."

"Right. I get it."

"I honestly have no idea how they left it when they left school either. I know she wants to come visit, but I'm not sure that's cast in stone or just a hypothetical."

"I get it, I do. As long as she's not leading him on. Or her I guess. I guess we'll find out."

"I guess so."

"So, you're packed and ready to go then?"

"I am."

"Fabulous."

They'd get down to Florida and have about a week before everyone else got down there. Dominic was already stocking up on stuff John was sure. He knew what everyone liked and made sure they had access to that. Everyone kicked in money and John always made sure Dominic got that money to put toward the stuff while everyone was there. Any overage went to the bills because things like electric bills were a hell of a lot higher with eight people there than when it was just him.

"Why? I do know how to pack, you know?"

"Packing for a trip and to prepare to split residency is a little different."

"I guess."

"Besides, I want to hear about this fantasy."

"I didn't say I had a fantasy."

"That's probably best."

"Why?"

"I think I'd get pretty fucking jealous if anyone else ever touched you."

She snorted softly at that.

"What?" he asked.

"It just sounds ridiculous coming from you considering how many women…"

"None of them were you and I didn't love or want to marry anyone else."

"Good."

"Now, depending on what the fantasy actually entailed, we could probably pretend."

"Pretend?"

"Yeah. I mean. I can't get a second mouth so if you had this vision of two men going down on you or paying attention to your incredible breasts with their mouths. I can't do that. But if it's the part of me you were just very complimentary about there are, you know, things that could be used in lieu of that."

"You'd do that?"

"Uh, I'm not rushing out to, no, but if it was something you wanted to do."

"Why?" she asked, narrowing her eyes a bit.

He shrugged. "I want you happy. We're adults. If adding a toy into the mix once in a while makes you happy. Now if you couldn't come without it I'd maybe sing a different tune."

She laughed softly at that.

"Have you ever done that?"

"Used one on someone?"

"Well, yes, I suppose. But, you know, you and another…"

"With a girl? Sure," he said with a shrug.

She looked like she was thinking on that.

"Was I supposed to lie?"

"No," she said. "I asked."

"Don't ask the question if you don't know the answer?"

"Something like that. I suspected the answer. You're just so nonchalant about it."

"Because it wasn't a big deal. You asking me to do that would be a big deal."

"Lucky for you I'm not then."

"Very lucky for me because I'm not sure I'd say no."

"Why?"

He shrugged. "You'd obviously want to do it if you asked. I want you happy."

"You make me happy."

"All long and hard of me?"

"Yes, exactly."

"Fantastic. Come to bed then and prove to me that's true."

"I can do that. I should turn the light on…"

"I think Melissa knows the way around her own house. She'll get Sean to the guest room just fine."

"I just hope they don't do what we did in that room."

"That was a very enjoyably frustrating night."

"You and me both. It'd been so long I really wanted to."

"I was right there with you."

"Has Sean been with anyone?"

"Not that I know of. I don't keep track of his every move, but as far as I know he's still pure as the lily white snow."

"I'm glad he's not a jerk anyway."

"Oh, I would have said something if he was before I found out he was still a virgin even if it violated some sort of guy code thing."

"It's tough being honorable and a dad."

"It is. I'm not thinking very honorably right now."

"You and me both. I missed you."

"Right back at you. But months. Just think of that. Months."

"I know."

"That does have a nice ring to it."

"It does."

"And the pool is yours to use as you wish to keep cool."

"We'll never have privacy to use it just us, though."

"They won't be there forever. They should be gone by July. Melissa will be gone late-August. Besides, for now we have my tub."

"There is that."

"And you ever get the desire to skinny dip with me, tell me, I'll send everyone out for the night."

"You would not!"

"I would, too!"

"I may hold you to that."

"I look forward to it."

"I'm kind of excited."

"Only kind of?"

"Not about skinny dipping."

"Good. What then?"

"It's just so strange. Different. I don't know what to expect. I never in a million years imagined I'd live with someone."

He hadn't really either. Not for the same reasons she hadn't, though. He just hadn't ever expected to find someone he wanted to live with.

"Well, I hope you'll be honest with me. If it's too much. If September rolls around and you need some space or something. Tell me. Please don't stay there and be miserable."

"You want me to take a break?"

"I didn't say that! But I want you happy. I really do. I know this happened very quickly. Maybe you'll think twice on just leaving like you are. Maybe you'll reconsider your relationship with your father."

"Not going to happen."

"Your mother…"

"Mother knows all. She may not have known about it at the time Daddy did what he did, twenty years ago or with Darcy more recently. She learned about it, though. He tells her everything. Well, anything to do with the family. He doesn't tell her business things. Loose lips sink ships and all that."

John shook his head.

"I know, it sounds bizarre to you."

"No, it doesn't really. It's bizarre to me that you kept them in your life as long as you have."

"I had no other choice! I wasn't in a position to cut them out entirely."

"Well…"

"John. Melissa already had enough to feel different and stand out. I wasn't going to make her have nobody but me."

"I know. I'm sorry. I'll say it again, at least they seem as though they were decent to Melissa."

"They have been."

"There is that. Your dad's going to wonder what's going on."

"Let him wonder."

"And Stu's nephews?"

"They know how to get a hold of me. There may be some functions I have to come back for, but I'll know about them enough in advance so we can make them."

"We?"

"Yes. We."

"I didn't realize I was included."

"Why wouldn't you be?"

"That's his business."

"I'm not going to go by myself."

He scowled a bit.

"I go by myself the single men are going to think I'm…"

"Yeah. I'll go when I can."

She laughed softly, kissing his jaw. "You're cute when you get jealous about faceless men."

"Faceless single men. You're quite a catch if you haven't figured that out, so yeah, I'm jealous and want to keep you all to myself now that I have you."

Chapter Text

Chapter Thirty-Six
Word Count: 5,273

October 2004

John glanced up as Dominic came into the studio. He looked concerned for lack of a better word. John wouldn't say they were good friends or anything, but there were plenty of times like this week over the years when it was just the two of them. They talked. John knew, for instance, he'd lost his wife in a car accident years ago and never pursued marriage again. He was a first generation American to Italian immigrant parents. He was named after a saint.

"You have a phone call," he said politely. When he'd first started working for John he'd call him Sir. John quickly put an end to that. He didn't have him here to make some sort of statement about his financial status. He just didn't know how to cook and had too many rooms to take care of. He was still just a pretty regular guy. Or so he thought anyway.

With Claire living here John had thought about hiring someone else, but to this point hadn't gotten beyond the thought stage. Claire would be just fine if Dominic wasn't here. Well, she'd likely tell him to hire someone to come in and clean the house, but cooking she'd be good with on her own. He'd thought about it, but honestly he liked the man. He'd never had that before and so John realized he'd keep him around until or unless they started spending the bulk of their time in Chicago where having him just wasn't necessary.

"I'm busy," John said. Claire was gone on some business thing for the week so John was taking the time to write a couple of songs that had been niggling the back of his mind lately.

"It's your daughter," he said.

John wasn't sure when Dominic had figured out who Melissa was. He hadn't told him straight up, but he'd known. Then he imagined little got past the man. He also knew Dominic wouldn't gossip or sell their information to anyone. He was too proud to do something like that. Proud of his reputation. His families.

"Oh, all right," he said. He went into the part of the studio where the technical aspects of recording happened when they were working on their records. There was an extension in here. No phones in the recording studio.

Did Melissa not know Claire wasn't here this week? Maybe not. He figured the phone call wouldn't last very long once Melissa found that out. If she was upset about something he was pretty sure she'd want her mom.

"Hey," he said.

'Dad?' she said. John could hear instantly what Dominic meant. The simple word Dad came out sounding as if she'd been crying. Crying pretty hard, too.

"What's wrong?"

'Can I come home for the weekend?'

"You can come here anytime you want. You know that. Your mom's not here, though."

'I know,' she said. She choked back a sob.

She did? And she still wanted to come here?

"All right," he said. He wasn't going to argue with her about coming here or not. Hell, he wanted her here. "You need me to get you a ticket?"

'No, I have the credit card Mom gave me in case of an emergency.'

"Okay. Use it. I'll clear it with your mom later. Give me a call when you know what time you'll get in and I'll be there to get you." He knew she wouldn't charge a few hundred dollar airplane ride ticket without good reason. She'd grown up without a care in the world for the most part, financially at any rate. She wasn't completely irresponsible, though.

'Thanks.'

"Hey," he said softly, mindful Dominic hadn't hung up the kitchen extension yet. He hadn't heard him walk into the room yet, either. He was probably taking his time to give them a chance to talk since she was upset. He was, John could admit, a pretty nice guy. "Everything all right? I mean, clearly it's not. Are YOU okay?"

'I will be. I just want you.'

"Yeah, sure. Anytime."

'Thank you. I love you.'

"Love you, too, Missy. See you soon."

He disconnected then and went upstairs.

"Everything okay?" Dominic asked.

"I don't know. She wants to come home for the weekend."

"And you agreed?"

"I couldn't say no to her. You heard she sounded upset same as I did. If she calls back and I'm out, get her flight information so I know what time to get her."

He wasn't really surprised he'd agreed, he was probably just making sure she was coming.

"Of course. I should go out and get some things she likes then."

John smiled a bit at that. Dominic liked Claire, but he really seemed fond of Melissa. Not in a creepy funny uncle way, just as a grandfather-type way. There weren't Pop Tarts or Eggo's in the house when she wasn't here. She liked other things, sure, but those were two things – among others – that were here strictly for her. She also liked oatmeal cookies with chocolate chips in them instead of raisins, and Dominic made those quite a few times over the summer.

She must have really needed something because here he was at the airport close to midnight that same night waiting for her to deplane. There were times being famous had its perks. Lots of times, actually. Tonight was one of them. They let him go through security and wait for her at her gate. He was pretty good at figuring out which in the TSA line would let him through.

He spotted her as soon as she walked out of the jet bridge into the terminal. He'd spot her anywhere and he sort of wondered now how he hadn't realized immediately that July night who she was. His own fault. He just hadn't put any thought into her to think about any appearance similarities to her mother. He saw a bit of his mother in her, too. Her chin, just different enough from Claire's for him to notice. For the most part, she was one hundred percent her mother.

Her beauty wasn't the first thing he noticed tonight, though. It was her face. He'd expected after hearing her crying as she had been on the phone for her eyes to maybe be red or puffy. He hadn't expected for her face to look as though she'd been on the wrong side of a Wladimir Klitschko boxing glove.

She had sunglasses on, but they didn't hide the bruising on her cheek and jaw. He wasn't sure he wanted to see what was under the glasses. He took a deep breath. She'd called him for a reason.

He pushed off from leaning against the wall to meet her once she'd gotten close to where he stood.

"Hi," she whispered.

"Hey," he said.

"Can we not talk about it here?"

"Yeah, sure," he said. "I do have one question for you, though," he said, lifting the sunglasses out of the way so he could see the full extent of what was going on. He guessed if she was wearing them at midnight it was bad. It was and he sighed softly. She winced a bit when he reached for them and his heart sunk a bit at that.

"I'm sorry," she whispered, tears welling in her eyes. Well, the one good eye anyway. The other one was too swollen shut to shed tears.

"No apologies necessary." Whatever happened to her, he didn't care. "Have you seen a doctor?"

"No," she said.

"Your mother would tell you to see a doctor," he said.

"Did you?"

"No," he said. "And there's a prime example of why we should stop at the hospital on the way home to be sure there's nothing they need to do for you."

"Okay," she said.

She pulled away when he moved to slide his arm around her and draw her to him. He tried not to take it personally, but he had to admit it hurt that she'd draw away from him like that. They hadn't gotten to the point of hugging all of the time or anything, but they'd gotten pretty comfortable together spending every day of her summer break together.

"Okay," he said, holding his hands up in a familiar surrender pose. "Do you have a checked bag?"

"No," she said, gesturing to her backpack. "I have all I need in here."

"Okay," he said, taking it from off her shoulder.

"I can…"

"I know you can. Let me carry the fucking bag for you, all right?"

She scoffed slightly. "All right."

She slid the glasses back into place.

"You can keep them off."

"No," she said with a shake of her head. "I don't want people to see you with me like this."

He understood that, he supposed.

"Of course, with the sunglasses on at this time of night people are going to see you with me and assume you're stoned out of your mind. I'm not sure that's a better thing for them to think."

She sighed, sliding the sunglasses off then.

"Probably a wise choice."

They stopped at the emergency room on the way home. No stitches were necessary, which John had more or less suspected. She got a prescription for some pain pills, which would help. She was an adult so he hadn't sat in while she told the doctor what happened to her, so he still had no idea beyond the fact she'd been beat up when they got back in his car after picking up her prescriptions. There was a second, stronger, pain medication to help her sleep if she needed it.

She was quiet on the drive back to his house. He let her be quiet. He couldn't make her talk, and wasn't sure he wanted to make her talk. Her head was against the passenger side window and he heard the shuddering breaths before he noticed her shoulders shaking.

He rested his head against the headrest, moving it a bit trying to figure out what to do. Was he supposed to prod her for details? Leave her alone? His instinct was to reach out for her, but she'd made it abundantly clear she didn't want him to do that at the airport.

"I'm such an idiot," she murmured when they were about home.

"You're a lot of things, Missy, an idiot is not among them."

She sniffled loudly, wiping her nose and eyes on the sleeve of the yellow Wellesley sweatshirt she was wearing. The school color was blue he knew, but her class had a color, too. Yellow. He didn't understand it, but that's the way it was.

He didn't ever think he was missing out by not being a suit and tie type of guy. Tonight, though, he wished he was so he'd have a handkerchief or something to offer her. Of course he probably wouldn't have driven to the airport at midnight in a suit. So who knew if he'd have one on him right now.

That was all she said.

"Uh, Dominic prepped your room and everything. I'd take some of that stronger, help you sleep pain killer."

"I know," she whispered. "You never went to hospitals or got pain killers, did you?"

"No," he said.

"I can't even imagine."

"You get used to it," he said with a shrug. He set her backpack on the table before locking the garage door. "You want something to drink or eat before we go upstairs? I know Dominic went out and bought some things he knows you like. Smells like he baked some cookies, too."

"I'm only here for a couple of days."

"We like spoiling you."

She stepped up to him then, hugging him tightly.

"Hey," he said, arms going around her. She started shaking against him, crying into his chest. He didn't know what the fuck to do with that. "It's okay," he whispered, kissing the top of her head.

"It started so innocently," she mumbled.

"What did?"

"Getting to this point," she whispered.

"Okay. I'm confused."

She sighed.

"She was so jealous of Sean. Of you. Of what I was doing. That my parents could accept I was with her."

"Wait. A girl did that to you?"

She laughed softly.

"Sorry. I don't know what I was assuming, but that wasn't it."

"She found some messages from Sean on my computer. I'd gone to the bathroom to shower and we'd been chatting. You know, instant messages."

"Okay."

"I hadn't told him I was with anyone because I really wasn't sure when we got back to school after not seeing her all summer if we still would be."

"Right," he said. He could see that. Caution. He wasn't sure he'd jump in and admit to the girl he liked he was seeing another guy either without being pretty fucking sure that was the path he wanted to go down.

Their planned visit hadn't happened. John had no idea why. He just knew he'd never met the other girl.

"Anyway, she saw the IM's he sent. They weren't bad, but he was being Sean. You know? Flirting. Letting me know he's still interested. Talking about kissing me."

"And did this?" he drew away a bit then, sliding his hands up to her head so he could draw her away to look at him. He saw it then. The look in her eye. He should have recognized it at the airport, but he hadn't been looking for it. "This wasn't the first time."

"No," she whispered. "It was never like this. We'd argue. At first she would yell. A couple time she threw things. One time she hit the wall. Then she slapped me," she said with a shrug. "I was so startled that she hit me. Slap or not. I thought for sure I'd done something to deserve it. I mean, why else would she hurt me? That was only a couple of times before today. And before you tell me. I know. I don't deserve that."

"Good," he whispered. "And you know you didn't do anything, right? I did a lot of fucked up shit as a teenager, none of which deserved any of the punishments I received. There is no way that you could possibly do something any worse than I did."

She smiled a little at that. Though it didn't quite meet her good eye so he knew it wasn't a real smile. Not one of her best smiles anyway. And she gave him great ones a number of times now for him to know the difference.

His favorite smile of hers was her first night on stage with them. He wasn't sure if until that moment she'd thought it was a lie, a joke, or just a dream. He was pretty sure he could have died after that moment and thought his life had finally had meaning. It hadn't been about sex or money. It hadn't cost him a damned thing to let her come with them, other than possibly his pride if she'd sucked. He remembered how nervous she was that night, but he, Sean, Claude, and Billy were all there to help her through it. She hadn't needed any help, just the little boost of moral support they'd given her. She was good to go.

He much preferred that smile to the one he was getting tonight. He got it. He understood. His father hadn't always hit him. His mother hadn't always berated and criticized him. It started small. Like his dad kicking his toy Tonka truck into the TV. The truck had fared better than the TV. Like his mom telling him he needed to behave better to not upset his dad the next time.

"I just didn't know what else to do. I was so scared."

"You did the right thing."

"I can't avoid her forever."

"Yes. Yes, you can, Melissa. I haven't talked to my parents in twenty years."

"I mean, I'll see her…"

"That doesn't mean you have to let her into your place."

They hadn't bought a place because Claire had made him realize that buying a place with the knowledge they'd be unloading it again within three to five years wasn't worth the risk. There was no guarantee she'd go to graduate school and if she did in the Boston area. So, they'd looked and found a condo to rent close enough to campus that was big enough for all of them. That way whenever they wanted to visit they had a place to stay and Melissa was locked into one address for the next however many years. She'd talked with her mom about whether she thought she could have Natasha live with her this year. Claire hadn't thought it was a good idea. She and John would be paying the rent and it would be too easy to take advantage of something like that. Melissa had understood her mom's thoughts on it. There was no telling how many nights Natasha stayed there or whether she had a key.

"I know."

"Did you happen to call the police?"

"No!"

John sighed softly. "You probably should have."

"I …"

"Yeah, I get it."

"I just wanted to get out of there."

"Does she know you left?"

"No, no one does. She stormed out, I called you." She'd called him pretty early. Not six in the morning, but it'd been before nine. It was none of his business if Natasha had spent the night or why she was there that early.

"Does she have a key?" John asked. Her leaving town meant if Natasha had a key she was free to come and go as she pleased. If she was capable of doing this there was no telling what she'd do coming by to find out Melissa had left town for the weekend.

"No. I left the door unlocked for her if I knew she was coming over. I know you guys didn't want her to have a key."

"True." They hadn't furnished the place with top of the line things, but there was definitely more costly stuff there than the average dorm room. Not to mention Melissa's guitar and equipment.

"Are you going to tell Mom?"

"I kind of have to."

"I guess."

He slid his thumb along the cheek that wasn't as battered as the other.

"She's not going to judge you or be upset at you."

"She could be disappointed."

"No! Don't think that. I don't think there's a way you could disappoint her, Melissa."

"I didn't think so."

"This isn't your fault. Even if you were flirting with Sean. That doesn't give anyone, Natasha or whoever, the right to hit you. That's abuse. You could file charges against her looking like you do."

"I know. I don't want to. It's embarrassing that I let it get to this point."

He understood that. It was one of the reasons he acted the way he had in high school. He was a big guy. It was embarrassing that he didn't have the guts to stand up to his old man. Years of being beaten down – mentally more than physically – left him helpless to do anything but take it.

"Let's get you up to bed. Yeah? I'm sure Dominic will go to town with breakfast in the morning."

"He said when I called back you were writing," she said, grabbing a couple of the cookies he noticed.

"I was working on some things, yes. I figured with your mom gone I'd take advantage of the time on my hands."

"Anything good?"

"Well, I think so."

"Anything I can hear?"

"Maybe."

He said, kissing the tip of her nose before finding her forehead.

"I love you, Kiddo. I'm sorry that anyone ever laid a hand on you." He was sorrier than he could ever express to her that she knew what it was like. He would have been more than happy to go through life knowing no one had ever laid a hand on her.

"Thank you. I can't believe I thought she was so nice."

"My dad had people fooled, too."

"I guess. I've never met anyone with a temper before."

"Really?"

"No," she whispered. "Not like that. I was actually kind of scared of her sometimes she'd get so mad."

"Before this?"

"Yeah."

"Melissa."

"I thought I could," she shrugged. "I thought maybe not touring with you this summer so she saw that I was normal would be different."

"You are normal. You just happen to be on the talented side of things and have an old man who can let you dip your toes into the pool."

"I know. She doesn't get that, though."

"Not your problem. Does Sean know?"

"Sort of. He knew she'd done angry things before."

"He should have…"

"I made him promise not to tell you. I thought it was my fault. I thought if I loved her enough she'd be happy."

John chuckled softly at that. He knew that feeling very well. "If I had a dime for every time I thought that."

"I know. I know it's not now."

"Good."

"You need me to fly back with you? Go to campus or anything to make sure she can't bother you?"

"No. I hope she'll leave me alone."

"She doesn't, you call the police, Missy. I'm not kidding. Someone who does this over some Internet messages is prone to do anything."

He grabbed her backpack then, sliding it over his shoulder as he led her upstairs.

She smiled a little at the flowers next to the bed.

"Dominic," John said.

"I figured."

"You accusing your old man of being a thoughtless jerk?"

"No, just you're not the flowers type."

"Is that bad?"

Melissa shrugged, kicking off her shoes. "Girls like flowers," she whispered.

"I guess they do." He handed her the backpack, which she promptly unzipped to grab the bags from the drug store. "You need anything my door's not locked."

"Thank you."

"Anytime."

"Are you going to call Mom?"

"At this time of night? No. She'll think someone died. It can wait."

"Thank you."

"Sure. Get some rest."

"Dad?"

"Yeah?"

"I love you."

He smiled at that. "I love you, too. I'm glad you called."

"Me, too. And, please don't yell at Sean. He did what I asked him to."

He laughed a bit. "Yeah, I know. I won't yell, but I will be talking to him."

"I know."

He nodded then, closing her door. He got ready for bed, debating about calling Claire regardless of the time. She was out in LA, so it wouldn't be crazy late. She was trying to negotiate a deal, though, for a company to work with her on something. She'd mentioned dinner. He didn't want to upset or distract her from getting what she needed to do done.

He heard a knock at his door a little while later. He hadn't fallen deeply asleep, but he'd definitely zoned out to the point sleep wasn't far behind.

"Yeah," he called out. He knew who it was. Dominic had no reason to knock on his door at this time of night.

"Can't sleep?" he said.

"No," she said with a shrug.

"Well, I told you my door was open. We could…" He didn't really have anything to offer her in his bedroom.

"How did you face them?" she asked.

"Who?"

"Your parents? Your friends? Mom?"

"Well, I had a hard time with your mom, thinking she'd really like me if she knew the whole truth. That's a big reason I didn't know she was pregnant until months later. It was easier for me to just not talk to her then take the chance I was too damaged. The rest," he shrugged. "I just tried to develop a thick skin and not let them see it bothered me."

"I have to go to classes on Monday looking like this," she said.

"Yeah, you do. I hope you'll remember that feeling, those looks, that embarrassment when she calls or comes to see you with apologies."

"I don't think she will."

"Just saying. Whether it's a female or not, you deserve someone who will be good to you in every which way. People argue. Your mom and I argue. You don't know the whole of my upbringing, but you get the gist. I've never once thought about hitting someone I was mad at. Women anyway. I've hit guys, sure."

"Like Sean."

"Yeah, well, he said something totally uncalled for."

"He told me and I agree with you. I told him that, too. He was talking of quitting the band for a while after that."

"I'm glad he came around. He's a valuable member."

He reached for the remote, pushing the covers back.

"Come on. Let's see if we can find something to watch."

"You were sleeping."

He shrugged. "You're more important. You sleeping is especially important."

She slid into the bed as he pushed the button to turn the TV on.

"Twister?" he asked.

"No," she said with a shake of her head.

He chuckled.

"Ferris?"

"Yes!"

He nodded simply, setting the remote down. It looked like it was pretty close to the beginning, too.

"I still can't believe Charlie Sheen was in this as basically an extra," she said.

He grunted softly. As if he cared.

"What? He's cute."

"I like his brother better," John said.

"You think his brother's cute? Does Mom know that?"

"No, I didn't say that, just that I liked him better. I did like Platoon," he said with a slight nod of his head, thinking over Sheen's body of work.

"Let me know when you want me to leave."

"As long as you want to stay here, you're welcome."

"It's not weird?"

He shrugged. "As long as we don't think it's weird, no."

"Sometimes in high school, before she married Stu, when there was bad weather and the possibility of school getting cancelled. I'd crawl into bed with Mom. We'd listen to WBBM on her radio by the bed to see if I had to get up."

"And if you didn't have to get up?"

"We'd both fall back asleep."

"I think I would have liked to have seen that."

"I wouldn't have gotten into bed with her if you were there."

He kissed the top of her head, shifting them so she could rest against his chest.

"I wouldn't have cared, sweetheart."

"Sure, just what every Mom and Dad wants."

"Hey," he said. "Those are some pretty nice memories. I can't recall ever snuggling with my mom. So, hold onto those and don't ever think I would have stopped you. Unless I was, you know, naked. Then I probably would have stopped you."

"Ew," she said with a laugh.

"Is that an ew to the male body nude as a whole?"

"No," she said, with a shake of her head.

"Just your old man, huh?"

"Well, you're my dad."

"Scarring for life, huh?"

"Probably."

"Not everyone looks like me, I hope you know that."

"I do," she whispered.

"Good."

"And that's not what I meant at all. I thought you were pretty cute myself growing up, seeing you on records."

He chuckled at that. "I'll bet that was kind of weird."

"Well, I didn't like imagine growing up and marrying you or anything weird like that, but it was a little strange."

"I bet."

"Mom's pretty lucky to have you."

"I'm the lucky one, and don't ever think otherwise."

"No. I mean, I see some of the other dads my friends have."

"Oh, you mean, your mom has a hot guy with an amazing body scarred with all life's lessons who's in a rock n' roll band."

"Well, yes, that's not how I would have phrased it exactly."

"So," he said, focusing on the TV for a bit.

"Cameron or Ferris?"

She laughed softly.

"Maybe my answer is Sloane or Jeanie."

"Okay. Well, then?"

"Ferris," she said softly.

"Sloane," he said, causing her to giggle.

"What's so funny?" No lie, it was fantastic to hear her laughing. Even if it was maybe something they shouldn't be talking about. Characters they thought were hot or whatever. Was there a rule? He didn't know. He wasn't saying he'd choose Sloane to fuck or anything. (Boy would he have when this movie came out, but he knew enough not to say that to his daughter.)

"She'd be my answer, too."

"Well, yeah," he said. Obviously. Jeanie was a bitch. Okay, toward the end she came through for Ferris, but holy crap she was a bitch for ninety-nine percent of the movie. There wasn't anything attractive about that.

"Is it weird that while I was seeing her I was still attracted to Sean? I mean, not like leading him on or anything, but I couldn't tell him for sure never."

"Weird? How?"

"Well, he's not a woman."

"Maybe you're attracted to both. Jazmin is, though I think if she were to settle down into a relationship she'd do it with a woman. Don't ask me why I think that beyond observations that the people she's gotten closest to an actual relationship with have been women. Maybe Natasha was just a phase, a curiosity. You're nineteen, you're allowed to do that. Who knows? Is it weird? No, because it's how you feel."

She sighed softly, shifting a bit against his chest. "Thank you," she whispered.

"You don't have to thank me, but you're welcome." He reached for the remote, clicking the button on it to show what was coming up next. "And hey, look at that Back To School is on next. Must be Eighties comedies night or something."

"I've never seen it."

"No? Well, if you can't sleep that will change tonight."

"Mom would have," she shrugged against him.

"Freaked out? Called the police?"

"Probably."

"We should, just in case, take some pictures tomorrow. I hope we don't need them, but it would sure be nice to have."

"We have the hospital visit."

"Sure, that's a handwritten chart. Pictures would show clearly how bad what that chart reflects is."

"I…"

"I'm not going to make you, but if there's a chance she's going to cause a problem or come after you again."

"Okay."

"Do you have classes with her?"

"No, fortunately."

"That helps. I mean it, though, Missy. You need to call the police, do it. Just because she's a woman doesn't mean she's not going to do worse than this next time."

"I know. I didn't think she'd do this!"

"Well, I hope you didn't and stay with her."

"No."

"You going to fall asleep?"

"I think so," she whispered.

"Good," he said.

"Don't want to talk to me anymore?"

"No, I want you to rest."

"I took the sleep stuff."

"Must not be very strong sleep stuff if you're still sitting here talking to me."

She shrugged. "I'm not sitting and I'm getting sleepy. You can turn the TV off."

He chuckled. "It's fine for now, Missy," he said, running his hand against her hair before leaning down to kiss the top of her head.

"Night," she said, nestling against him much the way Claire did and he chuckled a bit at that.

The phone call with Claire would not go well. He knew that much. She'd freak out, appropriately so. He knew he had to call her, though. If he didn't it'd come back and bite him in the ass someday. He was not proficient at how relationships worked, though he felt he'd done pretty well so far. He just knew, though how things like this worked. He had to tell her.

Chapter Text

Chapter Thirty-Seven
Word Count: 2,820

May 2005

They had a break in their schedule this week so that John could head home to Chicago and collect Melissa for the summer. A week from now they'd be heading for Europe and wouldn't be back to the States until August. Claire was contemplating joining them in a city or two, but overall she'd be away from Melissa for three months for the first time ever.

As far as John knew Melissa had never had to call the police on Natasha, but whether she'd admit that to him he wasn't sure. Sean hadn't said, but John knew the two of them had sort of developed a friendship over the past couple of years that ran pretty deep. Sean was still very interested in her romantically, John knew that. They'd established something deeper, though, and perhaps more valuable to both of them. Everyone needed someone. John had Claude and had since before he was the age Melissa met Sean. Sadly, Melissa didn't have many friends she could confide in. Her best friend Cindy, but that was about it.

Melissa was out, which meant John was alone with Claire for the bulk of the night. The friends had all gathered here first because John had brought the plaque Melissa received from their recording label for her single going platinum about two weeks before the anniversary of its release. She hadn't known because she'd been so caught up with finals and everything, so the plaque (and what it meant) had been a huge surprise to her. Claire had invited everyone over for spaghetti dinner, only then did Melissa find out about it. She'd been ecstatic (rightfully so) and perhaps a little embarrassed. John wasn't sure. It was hard to say. She'd earned the recognition, though. It was her song.

So, the friends coming over was expected. Her going out was also expected since she was only home for a week and hadn't seen most of her friends very frequently last summer either.

He wasn't complaining about a few hours alone with Claire. He hadn't seen her in six weeks. He wasn't sure when that had become a long time, but after spending pretty much every day with her between last May and March when Shooterz started touring again he was used to it. What was more he liked it and missed her. It wasn't just the sex he missed either, which was what he'd always assumed he'd miss most.

They talked. She listened to his music. He let her talk through designs. Neither were in a position to offer a hard and fast critique, but they weren't stupid either to where if they offered an opinion it was dismissed as being irrelevant. Certainly she could offer an interested party's opinion on whether what he was writing worked. He was pretty clueless on fashion so he couldn't give her much opinion.

He really missed having her in bed with him, waking up next to her in the mornings. Feeling her pressed against him as close as she could get to him at night as if her body instinctively sought his out. His obviously did, too, because he didn't stray away from her during the night.

"So, I was thinking," John said once the cleanup from dinner was done.

"Yeah?"

"You're thinking of coming to see us in France, right?"

"Yes," she said. "That's the plan anyway. Why you don't want me to?"

"You know I do. I was thinking maybe we could get married while we're there."

"I'm sorry. What?"

He shrugged, wiping the counter down while she turned the dishwasher on.

"It was just a thought. That was the endgame, I thought anyway."

"That ring said it for me," he said, pointing at the ring she still wore on her finger.

"You want to get married in France in between tour dates?"

"I want to get married away from people. I don't want to have to deal with your parents and brother the day I get married."

She sighed softly, glancing out the window.

"Hey, if you don't want…"

"That's not what I said. I just wasn't expecting it. I figured you'd sort of lost interest."

"Lost interest? How could you possibly think that?"

"Well, I agreed to live with you without being your wife."

"Yes, you did, so that we could spend enough time together to actually be with one another more than a day or two here and there. We've done that. I want you with me."

"I just figured that's where we were."

"You don't want to be my wife?"

"I didn't say that, John. I do."

"Well, see, and I'm asking you to say those very words in front of some sort of official to make it legal."

"In France."

"Sure. Invite Ally and Andy if you want. They and the band can be our witnesses. I don't need more than that."

"You're serious?"

"As a heart attack. Sorry," he mumbled. Her father had a heart attack earlier in the year. She'd felt guilty because she hadn't been here when it happened. She'd gotten home quickly enough, but there was still that smidgen of the dutiful daughter in here that knew she was disappointing him by living with John.

"England would work, too. We have some time in France, though."

"And then what?"

"Then what? What?"

"You go back on tour?"

"No France is the last stop. I mean, we come back here, Melissa goes back to school, and we go back on the road again. So, I guess. Yeah."

He frowned. Was that not right?

"How much time are you talking?"

"In France?"

"Yes."

"Well, I guess that's up to you. I mean, we'd be entitled to a honeymoon. So, we could stay there or fly somewhere else. Melissa would have to get herself to school, though. Or Claude could do it, I suppose. Or we could get married, come back, see Melissa off to school and then go wherever we want for a couple of weeks. We left ourselves enough time, knowing Melissa would have to get back to school and stuff at that time."

"Why not just get married in Florida then?"

He shrugged. "I figured if I brought that up you'd want your family there. I'm trying to avoid that."

"When are you done?"

"I'd have to look, but I think it starts to slow down in November."

"What about over Christmas?"

"Sure, that'd work."

"Is there something wrong?"

"No." He frowned. "Something wrong? I don't get it. I'm asking you to marry me. Why is that indicative something's wrong?"

"Because I thought we were okay."

"I'm okay. I know deep down you don't want to just be living with me."

"I don't want you marrying me because…"

"Did I say that? No. I want to marry you. I'd marry you tomorrow, but marrying you and taking off for three months in Europe seems a little wrong. So, I was looking at our schedule. France is kind of romantic," he shrugged. "I thought what the hell, maybe you'd go for it."

He set the towel over the faucet. He shook his head a bit and leaned against the counter for a second. Did she really not get it? Did she think he'd just live with her forever? He wasn't stupid. Guys like that hockey player at that New Year's Eve party would be all over her if he just kept living with her. That wasn't the reason he was asking her. Not entirely. He, and hell hadn't frozen over, wanted to get married. To her. An idea occurred to him then.

"Where are you going?" she asked and he chuckled softly as he walked to her.

He knelt down then, taking her left hand into his. "Is this better? Make it more official? I love you. I want you with me every day you can be. I'm not overly thrilled about you taking the name Bender, but you know that's my own personal demons rearing their head there. Will you do me the honor of being my wife?"

He was sure that Rhett guy from Gone With the Wind she was fond of didn't fumble over his words like John had just done. He didn't know as every time she'd watched the movie with him he'd fallen asleep. He just couldn't get into it. He wasn't a classy, suave guy though. And he'd never proposed before. Well, to her giving her the ring.

"You're serious," she said, tears in her eyes. Tears of happiness, he hoped.

"Yes!"

"Then, yes."

"Thank God. You thought I was joking?"

"Well, no, I just don't want you to feel obligated."

"I'm not. I'm not eighteen, Claire."

She tugged on his hand a bit so he'd stand and slid her arms around his neck, drawing her to him to kiss him. A pretty fucking nice kiss, too, considering they were in her kitchen. "You said my name, you must be serious."

"Damn straight."

"You'd really marry me tomorrow?"

"Yes!"

"Then let's do that."

"Shut up," he said, certain he was hearing things. People like Claire didn't just get married tomorrow.

"All we need is Melissa and Allison and/or Andy, right?"

"Yeah, I guess. I mean I don't know how it works. I just sort of assumed you'd want some sort of wedding."

"Why? I had that."

He winced a bit at that. He knew it, obviously, but hated thinking about it. He wondered how he'd proposed. He probably hadn't been a bumbling idiot.

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean it like that. It's just. We can still plan a trip in December."

"I don't know. You sure you want to get married and then I leave in a week for months?"

"Have I given any indication that I don't trust you?"

"No," he said. The guys in the band still thought he'd hit the mother lode with her. Maybe she wasn't prone to jealousy. He wasn't sure and had no intention of giving her a reason to find out.

"Well then."

"Yeah, sure. I mean, I'm in. If that's what you want."

"You'd rather wait," she whispered.

"Well, no. that's not it. I just can't help but think you deserve better."

"You're going to be touring whether I'm your fiancé or wife."

"I guess so."

"You'd be the only married one in the band."

"I can live with that."

"And better isn't really in play here. I want you."

"Yeah? Funny, me too. If you're done tidying I can prove that to you."

She ran a fingertip along his knuckles. "Would you wear a ring?"

He glanced at the finger in question the ring would go on.

"Why not?"

"You haven't wanted people to know."

"That's not what I've said. I wanted to fly under the radar. We were getting enough attention with Melissa. If I'm married to you, yes, I'll fucking wear a ring showing I'm committed to you. I actually already have one."

"What?"

"Yeah. It matches yours."

"Really?"

"Yes. I bought it at the same time. You want to see it?"

"It's here?"

"It is. I planned on this. Asking."

"You're just trying to get me upstairs."

"Well, there is that, too. It's a pretty nice ring, though. I don't want you to think I'm lying."

She smirked, running her fingertips along his jaw and cheek.

"We wouldn't want that."

"Not about this."

"I love you."

"Back at you, Princess."

"I better go call Ally before we go upstairs."

"I guess."

"I think Andy's done with school, too, so that would work."

"All right. Just tell me the time and I guess which suit you want me to wear."

"Do you have the suit you wore that day you went to see my father here?"

"I do."

"That one."

"You like that one, huh?"

"I like the memories it brings."

"Me, too."


***

"Oh my God. You're getting married tomorrow," Melissa said when she got in later that night. She'd gotten in much earlier than expected.

"Yeah," John said.

"But we're leaving," she said with a frown.

"Your mom said she was all right with that. I asked her to meet us in France and the conversation sort of took the turn to tomorrow."

She glanced from one parent to the other. "You're not pregnant, are you?"

"No!" Claire said and John chuckled.

"Thank God," Melissa said. "I can admit I really like being only child. Changing that twenty years later would so not be cool."

John laughed at that.

"I mean, you know. I wouldn't like get mad or something. That came out wrong. I'm just glad."

"You and us together. I won't deny if your mother had wanted another one I would do it. I'm curious to know what all I missed out on, but not curious enough. I'll catch it when you give us grandchildren."

She blushed at that, a very deep shade of red. One of the friends that had come for dinner and she'd gone out with was the guy she'd gone to her senior prom with. At that time they'd just been friends, but John knew things could change and he'd seen the way the guy had looked at Melissa today. Interest was definitely there and Melissa didn't seem opposed to the idea. Claire had assured John the guy wasn't the type to look at Melissa differently because she had two releases on her hands that had both charted pretty nicely. The second song was still working its way up since it had just been released a couple of weeks ago. This one was released in just her name.

As far as John knew she hadn't dated anyone, male or female, since breaking up with Natasha. She'd admitted to him when Sean pressed for more from her that she was scared. John told her he totally understood fear. You get hurt by someone who's supposed to care and love you, no matter who hurts you, it's hard to trust after that.

"In like seven or eight years would be ideal," he added.

Claire scoffed at that.

"What? Just saying. I'm not in any hurry to become a grandfather."

"That works because I'm in no hurry to make you one."

"Fantastic. I like when you Standish women agree with me."

"We're going to pick out something to wear."

John rolled his eyes.

"So in other words, I won't see you again until morning?"

"Ha ha," Claire said.

"That's not too far from the truth."

"I suppose not, but we won't take that long."

He snorted at that. Not taking long for those to find two dresses to wear was a joke. They could be there all night for all he knew.


***

"I thought I'm not supposed to see you beforehand," he said, catching her watching him put the finishing touches on his tie.

"I think those rules don't apply when you're already living together."

"Maybe so."

She stepped toward him then and he turned to face her instead of their reflection in the mirror. She fixed his tie much faster and easier than he could do it.

"Keep looking at me like that and we're going to be late."

"They're not going to start without us."

"I suppose not," she said.

He chuckled, kissing her. "I look at you like this all of the time."

"Not all of the time."

"Name me a time I don't."

"When you're performing."

"I can't see you so doesn't count."

She nibbled her lower lip as if she was really thinking on it.

"You get the next week to see me."

"I plan on making the most of it, believe me. I'm glad Melissa's booked because she'd probably get mad at us for never coming out of our room."

"We will, too!"

"Not very often if I have anything to say about it."

"Do you think Dominic likes his room downstairs?"

"He does. He said so."

"It's smaller than he's used to."

"That's because he's housed in a section of the house designed for more than just him. He knows that."

"All right," she said softly.

"You looking forward to not having to cook?"

"I am, but actually I hope I can help him and maybe learn some things I've never had the chance to learn before."

"All right. That's good. It will keep you busy and practicing up for when we don't need him anymore."

She scoffed, kissing his jaw. She clearly knew he was joking. Sort of. He couldn't cook his way out of a paper bag so if they ever were going to get rid of Dominic it'd be up to Claire to feed them.

"Let's go then," she whispered.

He grabbed the two jeweler's boxes from the dresser, pocketing them.

"Have everything you need?" he asked, flipping off the light.

"Yes."

"Funny, me, too," he said, leaning in to kiss her again.

~The End~