Note: Written for edna_blackadder as part of the 2011 Yuletide fic exchange
Disclaimer: The canon source is not my IP, no profit or harm intended.
It was a terrible idea. She'd almost changed her mind on the drive over. Not many times, only once for each time she stopped at an intersection. Each time, just before the lights turned green again, she would remember Ivan's face as he explained that nice women just didn't sleep around like that. How, for all his flaws and idiosyncrasies, Denny had never judged a woman based on her previous relationships. She'd never been able to trust him completely, never commit all of herself to him, but she was angry. Denny was, in regards to this issue, for her, safe. He wouldn't ask any questions or demand anything of her, and if he tried to pull anything funny, well, she'd had a lot of practice enforcing those boundaries with him. But if he took it upon himself to pick a fight with Ivan, well.
It was, after all, a terrible idea. But in that moment, going home and lying down on a pillow beside Ivan was a worse idea for everyone involved. She needed time, and Denny had spare bedrooms to, well, spare. The traffic moved on, and she turned right. Two more turns and she was parked in his driveway. The lights were on, and she sighed. She hadn't even thought about what might happen if he was out. Or if he was busy, and she was interrupting.
She didn't want to go home before she'd knocked, after she'd made it all the way there. She didn't want to sit there feeling awkward, either. She stared herself down in the rear-view mirror until she was hard enough to face whatever happened without faltering. Locked the car. Walked briskly to the door. Knocked.
It swung open, and for a moment she thought it had been left open. There was nobody there.
She looked down. There was a boy, maybe six years old, staring up at her in awe. Well, she hoped it was awe. The alternative did not bear considering.
"Um, Hi. Hello. I'm looking for Denny Crane?"
The boy's face lit up with understanding. "Oh! Sorry, not this weekend. He promised Mum, no sleepover friends on weekends."
Shirley frowned. Mum? What was this? "Oh, I see. I'm sorry, I didn't introduce myself, I'm so rude. I'm Shirley, and you are?"
"Donny Crane!" The boy held a hand out, so she shook it.
"It's a pleasure. I think. So you're Denny's..."
Denny strode up behind the boy. He smiled proudly and put a hand on the boy's shoulder. "Shirley! Why, you should have called ahead, we'd have decorated for a party!"
Donny craned his neck to look up at Denny. "She's not your girlfriend, old man?"
Denny laughed. It was very staged, but Donny seemed to buy it. "Oh no. I work with her sometimes, we're just friends, right Shirley? She's with someone else."
Shirley could see that something was up with Denny, but she was also pretty certain that he'd read her face in that second, and guessed that all was not perfect in her world either. She hoped they could keep a silent truce. She wouldn't ask questions if he didn't.
He was smart enough not to ask any questions.
"Sometimes Shirley comes to visit. Oh this is great. Donny and I were about to watch 12 Angry Men, weren't we, son? I recorded it the other night. Isn't betamax wonderful?"
Shirley raised her eyebrows. "Denny? Are you sure that's age-appropriate for him?"
Denny nodded and shook his head. "'Course it is! He's going to grow up like his old man. Triumphant, undefeated. Have to start them young, Shirley."
Donny nodded solemnly. "Donny Crane!"
Shirley laughed, "He certainly takes after you," though it felt very wrong in her heart to be saying so. "Are you two going to invite me in?"
They both reached for her hand. She stepped back, and frowned her very best motherly frown. As a unit, they backed up and shrugged it off. It was hard not to giggle or question the sense of this out loud. She followed them inside, and sat down in the living room with Donny. Denny disappeared to make popcorn.
Shirley had lived with children, but Donny seemed... different. Obviously he didn't live with Denny often, or she'd have seen him before. Denny had never mentioned him, not during a case or over a lunch. Perhaps there was some kind of heartbreaking secret about his conception. Knowing Denny, infidelity was more likely than any kind of stable relationship.
"You are quite notorious amongst Denny's colleagues, you know?" A lie never hurt anyone, and Donny looked a little lost and confused. "We're betting on how long we have, before we have to face two formidable Cranes."
He smiled broadly. "Really?"
"Really. But seeing how bright you are, I think that's twenty dollars I'll never see again."
Wide eyes. He looked unsteady, yes, but happy. Content. Safe. When Denny came back through with a tray of snacks, she could see it. The way that they looked to each other, the joy they were taking in each others presence, this was Denny's family. Then he looked at Shirley, and she saw something else. Pride. Comfort. He couldn't show Donny off to anyone, whatever the secret was. Her surprise visit had given him an opportunity he couldn't risk reaching out for.
"Well, I've seen it before, so why don't I take the armchair, and you boys can take the couch together?"
"Yeah! And the Kermit cup's mine, okay?"
Donny was so full of enthusiasm and questions, that when he fell asleep it came as a surprise. Shirley turned around to see him curled into Denny's side, clutching at his shirt.
"So..." Shirley kept her voice low, didn't want to disturb Donny.
"Yeah, so." Denny whispered back. He was terrible at being quiet, even his whispers had a bit of a braggarty boom to them. It didn't seem to wake Donny up, though.
"I take it this isn't something I was supposed to know about."
Denny shrugged. "It wasn't so much a promise to his mother as it was a general idea. We didn't want him," Denny waved his free arm around a bit, "caught up in anything, if I screwed anything up. I only see him a few times a year."
"I see. Should I go?"
"No, no no no no! Stay. He'll spend the night in my bed, so I sadly can't extend any invitations..."
"Not that you'd expect me to accept any."
Denny winced. "Yeah, yeah. Anyway, you can stay across the hall. We're going to the planetarium tomorrow. Kid likes scifi."
"Don't we all," Shirley said wryly.
"Want to join us? You don't look the type to visit museums, Shirley, but you should. They're fun! All kinds of interesting facts, make you sound clever when you work them into a closing."
She snorted. "So that's your big secret. Well, in that case I couldn't possibly go. I would be a third wheel to the passing on of the great Crane legacy."
Denny smiled down at Donny. He gathered the boy awkwardly into his arms. "There we go, soldier."
Shirley followed Denny down the hall, watched him smooth Donny's hair down and pull the quilt up to cover his chest.
"Is he really?"
Denny looked sad. Sadder than she'd ever seen him. "Does it matter?"
Shirley didn't know what else to do, so she made hot chocolate. They stood beside the kitchen bench to drink it.
"I think that we both know, how many custody cases we've seen, blood is hardly the determinant of a good parent. You love him, Denny. That's what he needs."
Denny looked destroyed, utterly destroyed. He wasn't a man suited to marriage or families, but he'd always had his heart set on... something. This, maybe.
"One day that won't be enough. When he's grown enough to do his own research."
"Phsaw." Shirley wrapped her arms around Denny, and for once in her life it wasn't charged with anything other than their friendship. He didn't try to touch her, didn't make any comments. "Nothing ever is enough, but we get by somehow anyway. He'll be a better man because of you, no matter what he ends up feeling towards you."
"I hope so. And one of these days, Ivan will pull that stick out of his arse and his feet out of his mouth."
Shirley pulled back and laughed, though there were a few tears that fell from her eyes. "Maybe."
Denny raised his mug. "Here's to things never being enough, but better because of it, then."
She raised hers to his, took a sip, and made a choice. "Actually, I think I will go home. I think there's a conversation I have to have, right now. Say goodbye to Donny for me?"
Denny nodded. When he saw her to the door, Shirley knew that it was a rare moment between them. On Monday Denny would be his usual self, too infuriating for words, but she'd be glad to have a light and happy Denny back. One evening of someone so grown up wearing his face was enough for her. On Monday, she'd be able to tell him that she was leaving – by then, would have left – Ivan. For the moment, her self respect was going to have to be enough. She'd tell Ivan, just to see the look on his face. Denny was a better man than he could ever be, but she didn't really need or want either of them for a husband or lover. Her heart felt so light on the drive home, she laughed out loud.