***Chapter Twenty-Four***
Word Count: 2,909

June 2009

"If you need anything you know how to get a hold of us, right?" Claire asked Bryce.

"Yes, Mom," he said rolling his eyes. "We'll be fine. Besides, Kyle and Anne Marie are going to be here, too. You always seem to trust them even if you think I'm too young."

"That's only because Kyle is five years older than you."

"Yeah, whatever," Bryce said. "It's not like I don't know how to call the police if something happens."

"I am the police," John said. "You do remember that, right? I mean I know you've been gone most of the year."

"Yeah, but I'm not going to call you if something happens at our house. I mean when it was your brother…"

"Randy and I still helped catch him. I worked extra hard because I wanted to make sure you all were safe."

"I know that."

Now he knew that. John had no doubt that five years ago Bryce thought John only cared because it was his brother making him look bad to Claire. They'd come a long way since then and Eddie sure was never going to bother them again because he wasn't going to be escaping again anytime soon. And, yes, John took a little bit of pleasure knowing that while he wasn't the officer that had put the cuffs on Eddie, Randy had gotten a nice bite out of him during the pursuit of him.

Bryce was home for the summer after finishing up his first year at Georgetown. Claire missed the hell out of him, but his father enjoyed having so much access to him for the first time in years really. She just hated that he was so far away and not knowing how much Bryce, Sr. was drinking these days.

"It could be worse. Your uncle Tom could be here, too." Bryce actually liked Tom well enough. John and Tom weren't ever going to be best friends, but Tom had come out a few times since that first trip he'd made. He brought his two sons with him, too, who got along with Bryce and Kyle real well due to their gaming interests.

"I don't understand why you're having a class reunion now. Everyone else's parents' I know had twentieth reunions not twenty-fifth."

"Well, the perks of your mother being the prom queen. She said she thought it would be great to do one at twenty-five years instead and the planning committee went along with it," John said. "Just like they did back then."

"It wasn't like that," Claire said.

She had not wanted to go to the reunion just having had a baby. Yes, sure, months would have gone by, but she still didn't want it. She wasn't vain exactly, but most everyone she knew was done having their babies. She and John had gotten a huge scare about three months after Taylor was born. She had switched to a diaphragm for a while afterward since they knew John was going to get a vasectomy at some point soon. They'd thought for a while she'd gotten pregnant again. She hadn't been, but John wasted no time after that scare getting that done so they wouldn't have a scare like that again. So, when the reunion planning committee had gotten together she'd brought up the subject of doing a twenty-fifth reunion instead. They'd gone for the idea, and here they were tonight.

"You just didn't want to go having had my baby out of wedlock."

"That is not true at all!"

Yes, sure, the thought had crossed her mind that people would talk if they showed up together with a baby and not married, but that wasn't really the reason she'd thought of the idea.

"Relax I know that's not the reason why. Whatever you want to say or think to convince yourself that if anyone but you had made the suggestion we'd be going tonight. I assure you if Brian had made the suggestion we would have had our reunion back in two thousand four as we were supposed to."

"Maybe you're right," she said.

"I love you, you know, but you know damned well I'm right."

"You like nice," Kyle said.

"Thank you," she said.

"You know, maybe he meant me."

"Well, I'm sure he did because you do, but I can say thank you for both of us. Can't I?"

"Good save, Princess. Let's go then before I change my mind about doing this."

He had no desire to go to the reunion, but he didn't have a whole lot of choice since they were married now. Bryce, Betsy, and Taylor had had a blast bouncing back and forth between Grandma and Grandpa's house and Uncle Christopher and Aunt Ellen's house the two weeks after they'd gotten married and went on their honeymoon. John had never been on a cruise before so that's what they'd done and it had been fantastic.

"Let me get my purse and I'll be ready."

"Sure," John said. He pulled his wallet out of his suit coat pocket and handed some money to Bryce.

"What's this for?"

"You're going to have Caitlyn over when we leave, aren't you?"

"I…"

"Yeah. I know your mom says no girls in the house when we're gone, but I'm pretty sure you bribe Betsy with Hello Kitty stickers to not tell on you. Kyle's here and I know Anne Marie will be coming over. I'm not a moron. So, buy yourselves some pizzas, just order something that will agree with Betsy and Taylor, too. Even if it's just half only cheese on one."

"Yeah, okay," Bryce said.

"Thank you," he said. "And if I haven't said it since you've been back, I'm glad you're back."

"Thanks," he said.

"You're welcome, but it's true. I'm not saying it to be nice. I missed you."

"I know," Bryce said.

"I'm glad you're able to spend so much time with your dad, though."

"He said you were cool with it."

"Of course I am. Have I ever given any indication I was out to stop you and Betsy from seeing him?"

"No, but I just figured when Taylor came along…"

"Yeah, no. I don't have a good or close relationship with my father, so I'm glad you have the chance to spend time with yours even if it means we don't see you."

"I know."

Bryce had stayed out in DC for a couple of weeks before coming home. His girlfriend lived here, so it surprised John that he hadn't come home as soon as classes were over, but maybe Bryce wasn't as serious about Caitlyn as Kyle had been about Anne Marie at this age.

"Ready," Claire said.

"I'm waiting for you," he said, eyeing her. God she was beautiful. Taylor had Claire's hair and a better texture to go with it (so said her mother, John knew nothing about hair textures to know). Betsy wasn't as fond of Taylor right now as when she was first born. Competition he imagined. They got along all right and everything, but every once in a while Betsy was bratty as hell.

He breathed deeply as they pulled into the garage of the hotel the reunion was being held at.

"If it's a terrible time we can bail and go to a bar or something, right?" John asked. He knew there was no getting out of this. Claire wanted to show off that she actually had a husband that she loved and who loved her in the right way this go around. He supposed he couldn't blame her for that.

And, yeah, okay, he couldn't deny he didn't relish the idea of walking into the ballroom and seeing the look on a number of people's faces from their graduating class. Not just because he'd ended up with Claire either, but because he wasn't dead in a ditch before twenty or in prison.

"I don't believe it," a voice John hadn't heard in twenty-five years said. "They let you into these things?"

Claire gripped his hand tightly. It didn't matter how old he was or how many years he'd been working as a cop, the guy still got under his skin. Claire knew it, too, which was why John had never attended one of Bryce's parent-teacher conferences during high school with her. He went to band concerts and stuff, sure, but the one-on-one shit, no.

"Principal Vernon," John said simply. How this guy had gotten to be a principal John didn't know, but somehow he'd gotten the job and been able to drop the assistant part of his title that had been there for years.

"And you?" Vernon said, glancing at Claire. "You went from a senator to this piece of trash."

"Hey," Claire said.

"You leave her out of whatever your issue is with me. I'm not here to pay you any disrespect and if it's failed your notice I've been protecting and serving the city of Shermer for over twenty years now. That includes you," he stepped forward a bit, releasing Claire's hand. "You might want to think twice before pissing off a cop there, Dick. The tables have turned a little bit and I could be the one making your life a living hell if I wanted to."

"You can't harass me. I'd eat you and your badge for lunch if you did that. I'd see you in court, too."

"You're right, that would be illegal. Contrary to your skewed perception of me, I haven't broken the law in a very long time. So, you're right, I sure can't, but that doesn't mean I can't pull you over for every incomplete stop or improper lane change from now until the end of time."

"You're so full of shit, Bender. You couldn't pull me over without just cause. You're not a traffic cop, even I know how that works. You're just a glorified dog walker with a gun."

"Who helped find one of your grandkids if I'm not mistaken. I bet you thought my services were pretty important then. Maybe instead of holding a thirty-year-old hard-on for hating on me you should worry about your own home and what goes on there. Maybe if you paid as close attention to that little kid as you seem to my life after all this time he wouldn't have come close to freezing to death where the glorified dog walker was needed to find him."

John didn't bother arguing with him that traffic cop or not, if a cop saw something illegal traffic-wise or not they could stop you. John had never had to do it, but there'd been a couple of times he'd seen someone obviously speeding, knew there was a cop up ahead a bit and called it in on his radio.

"I don't know what you could possibly see in this jerk. I expected way more from someone like you," he said. He glanced behind them then, and must have seen someone else more important or more deserving of his wrath because he stepped away without another word. Either that or John had struck a chord with Vernon about his grandkid. It'd only been later John had realized who the kid was he and Randy had helped find, because it was Vernon's daughter's kid. It baffled John that someone could stomach sex with Vernon, but whatever floated their boat. He got that many would say the same about Claire as far as ending up with him, so he tried not to judge the woman too severely.

"God, I hate him," John said. "Twenty-five years and I'd still like to bash his head in."

"It's okay," Claire said, kissing him.

"Yeah, easy for you to say, Princess."

"Hey," she said, settling a hand against his cheek. "He's a jackass. Don't let him win. You deserve to be here just like anyone else. You also deserve to be married to me. You have earned and worked hard for everything you have. Very few people who we're going to see tonight can say the same thing. Vernon's just jealous because you actually got out and did something with your life."

"Yeah," he whispered.

"I remember when we first saw one another again you mentioned that you'd been offered advancement, but liked what you do."

"Yes."

"I remember, too, right before Taylor was born and there was an opening for a detective you were thinking about applying for."

"I know."

"What did I say?"

"Knowing that I like what I do was more important to you than any bump in paycheck that being a detective would bring."

"I meant that. Your job has the same risks as any other police officer. I know this. The days you spend at the schools I don't worry as much when you leave as the others, but I still worry. School kids can be scary these days."

He chuckled at that.

"There's a reason you and Randy are requested by other police departments, ones that have their own K-9 units but need additional manpower. Not only are you good at your job, both of you, but you're a good team. That's because you're loyal to one another. As much as I hate to think it, I know you'd take a bullet for him just as soon as he'd take one for you. That's more than most people can say about their partners."

"I know all of this, Princess."

"I'm just reminding you of what you have. Everything you've accomplished on your own, through your own hard work. You have one-up on Vernon and have for years. You like what you do. He's a miserable old man now who's hated his job probably for as long as he's been doing it. That's his problem, not yours. You're just one of the people he elected to take his misery out on because you were an easy and vulnerable target. He knew your parents weren't going to do shit to him."

"Like I told my parents…"

"And you just made my point for me."

"Yeah, I guess I did."

"I love you."

"Thank you."

She reached in, kissing him.

"Do I have to remind you how much fun it is being married to me?"

"Uh, no, the evidence of that is at home waiting for us to get back."

"We weren't married when she happened."

He chuckled softly, kissing her again.

"Come on. Brian will be here, likely others who know you will be, too. Not only are you not that guy anymore, John, they're not those same kids we went to school with."

"Some are."

"You're right. Some are. I haven't talked to them in years either because of it."

"All right. I just, fuck. If he's talking to me that way after this long…"

"I know. I mean, I don't, not really because I only saw it that one day. I know he wasn't fair or nice to you. I know he rode you harder than most anyone else. No one else is going to do that."

"I want to believe you know what you're talking about."

"Let's go get something to drink."

"Best words out of your mouth yet."

"And in case I forget to mention it later, thank you for coming with me."

"I wouldn't let you come without me."

"You gave Bryce money for pizza, didn't you?"

"Yup," he said.

"Enough for all of them?"

"Yes," he said with a shake of his head.

"Including Caitlyn?"

John chuckled softly.

"Don't you dare tell him I told you! He trusts me and thinks he can confide in me about things."

"I'm not going to tell him anything, but I know she's going to be there."

"And you're all right with that?"

"He hasn't seen Kyle since he got back from school so I know his first instinct isn't going to go off with her when he just saw her like three weeks ago. Besides Kyle's not going to let him go up to a bedroom with her."

"Valid point. You do remember he could get into just as much trouble with her elsewhere in your house, right? Remember when we first started dating?"

"I do," she said, and she didn't even blush at the admission.

"I don't think they're having sex yet anyway."

"I hope not! They haven't been dating that long."

"Relax. I didn't say that to get you all worried, I was just saying from what he's said I don't think they're there yet. He hasn't said so, I'm not sure he would say that to me. He'd probably talk to Kyle. I sure hope if he does that Kyle passes on to him what I told him. Regardless. They will or they won't. You can't stop them."

"I know that."

"Look, there's Andy. Let's stop talking about the kids – all of them - for a while and enjoy being amongst adults even if it is these adults."

"Very funny."

"I know, right?"

He dropped his hand into hers as they walked further into the room.

"And, Princess?"

"Yeah."

"Thanks for dragging me along. Only for you and because I love you to the depths of the ocean and back that I'm here."

"Anytime. And I know."

"I guess there's one thing I can be grateful for about tonight, besides everyone knowing I'm the luckiest guy in our class that is."

"Oh wow. This must be good. What?"

"There will be no thirtieth reunion."

~The End~