Summary: "Pop," Caden said wearily, "can you lay off the verbal abuse? Dad's not even here to defend himself."
Notes: For madeline871 on her birthday(!!), in hopes she has a wonderful one. A great big thank you to kimberlyfdr for the no-notice beta :)
Caden loved that his Pop stopped complaining about his "unnatural obsession with anything relating to football and Peyton Manning" shortly after Caden turned twelve and it was apparent that he would keep playing football no matter what anyone else wanted. He loved that Pop doesn't push him to do anything he doesn't want to do. And he really loved that Pop throws money at him like it's going out of style whenever he asks for some. He loved his Pop, but sometimes he had to work really hard at reminding himself of that.
Really, really hard.
"What did he do to this?" Pop asked, scowling at the small motor sitting on his desk. It was from Caden's remote control boat, the one he'd built with Dad, but it had stopped working and no amount of Dad's tinkering would get it to work. But just because Dad had too much pride to have Pop fix his things didn't mean that Caden did.
"Seriously," Pop continued, "he thinks he knows everything and he's wrong, wrong, wrong. So he goes around messing with things, thinking that one touch from his stupid fingers will fix whatever it is that's broken."
"Pop," Caden said wearily, "can you lay off the verbal abuse? Dad's not even here to defend himself."
He flopped into the armchair in Pop's office and picked up the guitar propped against it. Why it was in Pop's office, he had no clue, because it was Dad's, and Dad had his own office down in the basement. Office was the loose term, he supposed, because it was really just a place for Dad to slouch into beanbag chairs and gaze up at the model airplanes hanging from the ceiling.
"Precisely," Pop said, and then sighed. "Look, I can fix this, but not tonight, okay? So go find something to do. Or make yourself useful and clean out the pool, because a certain person who I can't verbally abuse anymore isn't here to do it himself like he promised."
Caden frowned, picking out chords on the strings. "Aw, come on, you know I hate that." G, D, G, C, and he hummed the melody over it.
"Well, so does your Dad. Why do you think he conveniently 'forgets' every other time? And Caden, can you please learn another song? Maybe by another artist? I'm a little tired of hearing The Banks of Ohio every time you pick that thing up."
He rolled his eyes, but shifted the guitar a little and started again, singing the words along with the chords this time. "Come let me love you, let me give my life to you-"
"Enough, enough," Pop said, holding a hand up in a familiar motion, the one Caden usually sees with the please, I do not want to hear about your adventures in concussion-land and can you just try and be careful because I have enough to worry about with your father willing to sacrifice himself for the smallest and most useless of– and Caden stopped playing with the strings of the Fendi. Even if it was just a hobby, Pop always got Dad the best equipment.
"You miss him," he said, coming out almost accusatory even though the only thing Caden felt was stunned disbelief. He hadn't ever thought Pop missed his Dad; the only thing he did while he was gone was complain about him.
Pop gave him a weird look, frowned, and said, "Well, of course I do. What in the hell did you think I was feeling? Relief that he was gone and I could finally get something done? Well, there is a tiny bit of that, but only because every time I actually try and work on something he comes and leans all over everything and says 'Rodney, what are you doing?' in the most grating, nasal tone you could possibly imagine."
"Oh, my God," Caden said, "you love him."
Pop had obviously given up trying to conceal his expressions, because he looked at Caden like he'd recently taken a hard tackle. "Well, why in God's name do you think I'm married to him?"
Unwilling to continue on with what he was going to say, Caden said, "But you're not married," because it was all he could think of.
"Don't be ridiculous," Pop said. He hadn't spun back around in his chair, but he had picked up the boat's motor and a small screwdriver. "Of course we're married. Not legally, of course, because the backward country you're a citizen of still doesn't recognize such unions, but we are married, in a not-so-literal sense. In fact, you married us."
"I did?" He should remember this, he thought.
"Yes, you did," Pop said. "You were three years old, said to repeat after you, and we promised to always share the blue crayon and to save each other cookies. Your Dad said he loved me more than the sky and I said I loved him more than anything else in the world. You were still a little confused on what I actually did, I think," Pop said, giving Caden a crooked smile. "Then you gave us paintbrushes and we painted yellow rings on each other, and you laughed when he kissed me."
"Oh," Caden said, voice sounding distant to his own ears. "I – I didn't know. I don't remember it."
"You were young," Pop said, and he shrugged, looking strangely vulnerable, Caden thought. He'd never seen that before, and if he had, he'd forgotten about it. "You didn't think I loved him?"
Caden hesitated. He didn't want to hurt Pop, and it was certainly looking like he would, no matter what he said. "It didn't seem like it, to me," he said. "You guys don't act like any other parents I know, and I can't remember the last time I saw you kiss him, I just figured-"
After a few seconds of silence, Pop raised an eyebrow. "You just figured what?" he prompted gently.
Caden sighed. "You remember when I was younger, and you guys fought all the time, right before Dad moved out? I was outside the office door for that fight, I can't remember why, but you said something, you needed him here because I should have two parents. I guess I just figured that you guys had gone back to being friends, and, I don't know, started dating again when Dad came back, but it just didn't feel like it had before. You just seemed more like friends after awhile. And I haven't seen you guys kiss in forever, so I just figured," he trailed off, feeling color stain his cheeks, and risked a look at Pop, who had his eyes closed.
"You thought your Dad moved back in because you needed two parents," Pop stated, opening his eyes and looking at Caden.
"In a way," Caden said.
"And you didn't think I loved him because you haven't seen me kiss him," Pop continued.
"I guess," Caden said. "Look, Pop, I just never really thought about it, you know? I mean, you really don't act like any other married couple I know- and, you know, I knew you loved him, I knew you cared about him, I just didn't get the in love part of that."
Pop smiled at him again, but Caden could see it was strained at the edges and didn't reflect in his eyes. "Caden, of all your friends' parents, are any of them still married?"
"Cody's," he said, "and some of the guys on the team, but most of them are divorced."
Pop nodded. "When your Dad moved back in, it was different, I'll give you that one. We worked it out quickly enough, but maybe we made too many changes in such a short time for you to really see the difference. Because you'd just started flag football, and you were still playing on your baseball team, and you always wanted you friends over. Not everyone accepted us, Caden. We wanted to give you the best we could, and if that meant acting like we were just friends so your friends' parents would let them come over, then yes, we would do it."
"I'm fifteen," Caden said. "I'm not young any more, and I don't think most of my new friends' parents would really care."
"That's right," Pop said. "You're fifteen, and teenagers don't want to see their parents making out in the kitchen any more than they want their friends to see their parents making out in the kitchen."
Caden flushed, because Pop was right. He'd be mortified. "But when we were all alone?" he challenged. "You guys don't even act like that if I'm grounded and you know that no one will be over."
"Your Dad and I," Pop started, and then stopped. "You're going to hate this, but you're going to understand more when you're older, when I can really show you why. But your Dad, he was in the military, Caden, and we lived under Don't Ask, Don't Tell, for a very long time. Eventually it just seemed like that again, and we just never really got out of the habit, whether you were here with your friends or not. We have our time together, and really, it's remarkably like the time we spend with you, only we can have sex if we want." He laughed, and Caden knew it was because he'd wrinkled his nose up.
"Really, though," he said, "I love your Dad, Caden. Maybe you can see it and maybe you can't, and that's okay. We were never very comfortable with being obvious, anyway." He looked down and did something else to the boat motor he was still holding, and tossed it back to Caden. "Go put that back in, it should be good now. And clean out the pool, for the love of God."
When his Dad came home three very long days later, Pop kissed him at the door, even though Caden and his friends were right on the stairs. Caden blushed and groaned, but grinned anyway at his Dad when he looked his way.