Theodore thanked Gina with a wave and headed up to the house, Vera’s hand held tightly in his. Eventually, he planned to start driving again, even if the pain wasn’t great for his hip. Though he more than appreciated Gina’s help, having her pick him up in the mornings, take Vera to school, pick her up from his parents’ place after school, and drop them both off at home felt like asking for far too much. He did his best to take comfort in the fact that Gina had been the one who had offered to drive him around, but it didn’t make the guilt go away.
“Here, baby,” Theodore said softly, handing the house keys over to Vera. She grabbed the keys and happily unlocked the front door. It was one of the tasks she had picked up after Theodore’s stay in the hospital. His parents had helped her figure out several new tasks she could do to help Theodore throughout the day. Since she loved being his little helper, he did his best to let her help as often as she wanted.
“Any good ideas for supper?” Theodore asked.
“Fish sticks, it is.” Theodore closed the door, leaning back against it as he kicked off his shoes. He barely made it into the kitchen before his phone dinged with a text. He pulled it from his pocket and unlocked the screen.
Russell: I hate to do this last minute, but I don’t think I can come over tonight. I think being around people is too much for today.
Theodore: Are you sure? I thought being alone would be the worse of the two.
Russell: I’m inclined to try and force myself to appear happy when I’m around others. I don’t have the energy to do that today
Theodore frowned. He wouldn’t pretend he knew better than Russell what was good or bad, but when it had come to his own despair, being alone had been much worse than being around people. Being alone had allowed him to be lost with his own dark and dangerous thoughts, and it had been far from good for him.
Theodore: If you think that’s what’s best for you, I won’t pester you about it. But I know for me? Being alone was just about the worst thing I could’ve possibly done. I don’t want you to be alone if it could be bad for you that way, too.
Russell: Not great, no. But I don’t need you or Vera seeing me fucked up.
Theodore: Fucked up?
Russell: I’m drunk
“Ah,” Theodore whispered.
Theodore: You’re a well-constructed drunk
Russell: Ha. I guess drunk is a strong word. I’m buzzed.
Theodore: Is buzzed you still good at playing Mario on the Wii?
Russell: Buzzed me is an incredible gamer
Theodore: How about we come over there for tonight? For a few hours, if nothing else. I’ll bring food to throw in the oven, and you can teach us to play Mario.
Russell: I’d like that
Russell: The idea of being here with me doesn’t make you feel unsafe?
Theodore: It puts me on edge, but it doesn’t make me feel like I’m in danger.
Theodore: Gina’s seen you at the bar. You’re not a violent drinker. You’re a drinker who wants to karaoke and play pool.
Russell: That is ALSO something buzzed me is incredible at. On both counts
Theodore snorted. “Hey, Vera? How do you feel about taking the bus with me to go to Russell’s?”
“We’re going to Russell’s?”
“Only if you want to.”
“Well, he always comes over here. We can return the favor every now and then.”
“Okay. We’ll eat there?”
Theodore nodded. “I’ll bring the fishsticks and warm them up at his place. And, bonus, he’ll teach us how to play Mario.”
Vera smiled. “Awesome. Do… we need to bring anything?”
“Just in case we… stay the night, I’ll help you pack a bag, okay?”
Theodore touched a hand to her shoulder. “How about you go find what PJs you’d like to wear tonight?”
She nodded. “Okay, Daddy.”
Theodore let out a breath, eyes falling back to his phone.
Theodore: We’ll be there soon. Okay?
Russell: Okay. I’ll be here.
An hour and a half later, Theodore walked up to Russell’s house, Vera’s hand in his. “Go ahead and knock, baby.” Vera knocked on the door before taking a step back to stand beside her father again.
It wasn’t long before Russell opened the door. He looked exhausted, and his hair was disheveled, but he still looked like Russell. His eyes and smile were dimmer than usual, but he still looked like Russell. “Hey.” He cleared his throat. “Hope I didn’t keep you waiting too long. Passed out on the couch.”
“Not at all. You’re fine,” Theodore assured.
“Awesome,” Russell whispered. He stepped back, pulling the door open the rest of the way. Theodore walked inside, Vera right beside him. Russell closed the door, clearing his throat again. “If you guys wanna kick off your shoes, I’ll take you to the living room so Vera can watch TV for a bit, and then I’ll take you to the kitchen so you can make… food?”
“Food,” Theodore confirmed. After kicking off his shoes and helping Vera with hers, he lifted his eyes to Russell’s face. “Lead the way, Russ.”
Once Vera was set up with her YouTube ghost hunters in the living room, Theodore followed Russell into the kitchen. He took the fishsticks out of the small cooler hanging from his shoulder and stuck the box in the freezer. After setting the cooler on the floor, he pressed his hands to Russell’s chest. Gently, he pushed him back against the counter. “How’re you feeling?” he asked.
Russell smiled, but it was much sadder than usual. “He knew he was gonna kill Lauren as soon as he stole that gun. He took the ignition cable from her car that morning so she’d have to walk to get groceries that night. It wasn’t a coincidence. It wasn’t because she was the only person walking down that street or because she was the only one wearing a badge. He planned it for months.” He shook his head. “I’m not doin’ so hot, Theo.”
Theodore leaned his cane against the cabinet and wrapped him in a hug, closing his eyes as Russell returned it. “I’m so sorry, Russell.”
“Thank you.” Russell rested his chin on Theodore’s head. “Have you told anyone about Vince or Lauren?”
“Only that you’re working Vince’s case.”
Russell nodded. “Well, just in case you or anyone you know starts digging around, I wanna make sure you hear it from me first.” Gently, he pushed Theodore back a step. “When Lauren was killed, I was a suspect in the murder. I was out of work for about a month and a half, first for the investigation, and then for paid vacation and therapy.”
“Wh-why were you a suspect?”
“Before Lauren started dating the person she eventually married, she and I screwed around quite a bit. We weren’t dating, but, uh…” Russell cleared his throat, closing his eyes. “She had gotten a promotion two days before she was shot. Not a big one or anything, but a pay raise. They thought I was jealous of her marriage and of the promotion, that the two ‘wrongs’ accumulated to…”
Theodore’s brow furrowed. “You’re still willing to work for the bastards that thought you gunned down your partner?”
“They were doing their job. They were just barking up the wrong tree,” Russell said quietly. He met Theodore’s gaze again. “I just needed to make sure you heard it from me, just in case. ‘Cause my name, when you look it up… it’s mostly articles about that. Mostly.”
Theodore hugged him again, shaking his head. “I’m sorry, Russell. I’m sorry you had to go through that.”
“It doesn’t…? That doesn’t worry you?”
Theodore pulled back. “Hell no.” One hand wrapped around Russell’s arm, he laid his other hand on the detective’s cheek. “I know you didn’t do anything to your partner. I have a functioning brain, Russ.”
One corner of Russell’s mouth lifted. “I know you do. You’ve got a brilliant mind stowed away in that head of yours.” Theodore leaned up and kissed Russell’s cheek. “You didn’t tell me to stay still.”
“I trust you,” Theodore said slowly. “A-and… I guess it’s easier to stick to that trust when we’re here.”
“Shane’s never been here,” Theodore whispered.
“Aha.” Russell nodded. “Yeah, I should’ve known. Little too buzzed to think that one for myself, though.”
“That’s okay. It’s been a rough couple days for you, Russ.”
“And you’re not exactly getting to grieve like a normal person.”
“Yeah,” Russell repeated. He cleared his throat, hands moving to Theodore’s cheeks. “Thank you for being here. Not just tonight. Just… in general. Thank you.”
A little smile crossed Russell’s face. He pressed a kiss to Theodore’s forehead. “I have never in my life used the oven here. I’ve used the stove, but that’s the, umm… the extent of my knowledge.”
“That’s okay. I’m sure I can figure it out,” Theodore said.
“Awesome.” Russell dropped his hands back to his sides. “Vera have any bad memories about seeing a beer bottle?”
“No. She never saw Shane drink.”
“What about you?”
Theodore shook his head, grabbing his cane. “Shane drank out of beer cans. Anything other than that was, umm, ‘pointless and stupid’.”
Russell rubbed a hand down Theodore’s arm before stepping past him. He pulled open the refrigerator and grabbed a beer. “You want me to stay in here? Or are you confident that Vera’s safe if I’m in there with her?”
Theodore looked back at the living room, clearing his throat. “I-I can see the couch from here. The back of it, anyway. Can you… sit in the chair until I come in there?”
Russell nodded. “Sure can, Theo. I’ll see you in a few.”
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