Sean Potter slid his chair away from the desk and rose to his feet, drawing a hand wearily across his face. What a long day - and it wasn’t even that late. It was about suppertime; but it felt like the entire week had passed over the course of nine hours.
He had plans for the rest of the night. And those plans consisted of getting some takeout, going home, and crashing on his sofa to watch television til he fell asleep.
Unfortunately, someone else had different plans for him.
“You can go home now, Maxine,” he replied automatically without looking at her. “Just leave whatever paperwork is left, you can finish it tomorrow.”
“Well, that’s very sweet of you, but I actually had something to ask you,” Maxine said, approaching him.
Sean shrugged into his coat, glancing up at her. “All right, what is it?”
Maxine paused, a small smile on her face. “Well, I want to ask you if you’d like to come back to my house for supper.”
Sean’s mouth dropped open as he peered at her with a slightly baffled expression. “I…” He frowned, shutting his mouth and furrowing his brow. “I’m not sure why you’re asking me that.” He straightened his tie and buttoned the first few buttons on his coat, mainly because he needed something to fidget with.
“Because you’ve been my boss for several months now and I haven’t been very hospitable,” Maxine replied matter-of-factly. “Besides, how long has it been since you’ve had a proper home-cooked meal? Almost certainly far too long.”
“Now, that’s not true,” Sean said, raising his eyebrows and pointing at her briefly before lowering his arm and turning to straighten some paperwork on his desk. “I make plenty of meals at home.”
“Packaged dinners don’t count, Sean,” Maxine pointed out. “Just tonight, and if you hate it, you don’t have to come by for supper ever again.”
He wondered how she could have possibly guessed that packaged meals had been what he was talking about. “Maxine, it’s…uh, no, no. I don’t know that it’s appropriate…” He picked up a folder and tucked it under his arm.
“Nonsense; don’t be ridiculous, Sean. Look at you, you’re thin as a rail,” Maxine retorted. “You could use some family cooking.”
“Maxine--” Sean started to protest and then stopped, sighing. “You’re not going to stop pestering me about this, are you?”
She gave him an angelic smile. “No. No, not really.”
Sean rolled his eyes. “Fine. I’ll go. But only so you’ll stop harping on me about this.” He made his way toward the door.
She followed him. “Good. You can follow behind me in your car and I’ll show you the way.”
He was fairly sure he could figure out where she lived on his own - both she and her daughter were very well-known - but as they were both going that way, he figured following her would end up happening anyway.
A few minutes later, he had started his car and pulled out of the parking lot behind Maxine’s vehicle, and they were on their way.
Sean had hardly walked into the house before a young girl came barreling down the stairs. “Grandma! You won’t believe what happened at school today.”
She stopped abruptly when she saw Sean standing behind Maxine, and suddenly her attention was focused elsewhere. “Hi! Who are you?”
Sean blinked, still trying to adjust to the new surroundings and boisterous child. Maxine answered for him. “This is Mr. Potter, my boss. He’s going to be staying for supper.” To Sean, she said, “This is Lauren, my granddaughter.”
Lauren stared up at Sean, who looked back down at her for a moment before smiling. “Well, hi, Lauren. Nice to meet you.” He leaned down so that he was at eye-level with her and offered his hand. She tilted her head for a brief moment before shaking it.
Then, as quickly as she had been distracted, it happened again. “Grandma, guess what happened at school?”
Maxine ushered Lauren into the kitchen, letting the girl chatter away about something that had happened at recess - something about a stray dog finding its way onto the playground - and Sean remained by the door, hands clasped behind his back as he looked around, not quite sure where to go or what the house rules were. He always took his shoes off at his house, so he did that here as well, slipping them off and pushing them into a corner near the door.
Then Maxine poked her head around the corner. “Feel free to sit down in the living room, or take a look around. There’s nothing here that will bite you. Socrates is harmless.”
“Socrates,” Sean repeated, mildly confused. The confusion faded when a bassett hound came padding around the corner and sniffed at the floor beside Sean before gazing up at him.
Sean looked around, making sure no one was watching, and then crouched down, scratching behind the dog’s ears. “Hey, there.”
The dog leaned against his touch, all too happy to receive the attention. Sean remained crouching there for a long minute, petting the dog with an absentminded smile. Then he heard footsteps and quickly straightened up.
Lauren came wandering in. “Why haven’t you moved at all? Can you walk?”
“Uh…” Sean paused. “Yes, I can.” He moved away from the door and made his way into the living room, taking in his surroundings. A fireplace, sofa, some toys scattered in the corner…
“Do you know how to play cards?”
He turned around. Lauren had followed him, and now sat perched on the arm of the sofa, watching him. “Yeah, a few different games. Why?”
“Wanna play?” She sat up straight, an expectant expression on her young face.
How could he say no? “Sure. What do you want to play?”
Lauren jumped off the sofa and ran over to a desk, reaching into the drawer and withdrawing a deck of cards. “Do you know Crazy Eights?” She sat down on the floor beside the fireplace.
Sean paused, giving it considerable thought. “Actually,” he said, settling down in a crosslegged position across from Lauren. “I don’t think I do. Can you teach me?”
“Sure!” She started shuffling the cards. “It’s really easy.”
They sat there for quite some time, Lauren explaining the rules of the game to great length before they started playing. Sean found he was enjoying himself immensely.
Then the front door open, and Lauren said quickly, “Be back soon” before leaping to her feet and racing toward the door. “Mom! Mom!”
Sean glanced over and saw Judge Gray enter the house, hugging her daughter with a slightly tired smile. Lauren started chattering about her day at school, all but chasing her mother up the stairs. Sean almost felt glad he had gone unnoticed; he could handle himself, for sure, but truth be told, he preferred Maxine introducing him to her family. It felt less awkward that way.
Speaking of Maxine…
Sean rose to his feet and made his way toward the kitchen, where Maxine was hovering over a pot of soup. “Maxine? Need any help?”
She looked up, seeming mildly startled. “Oh, Sean. That’s very kind of you, but I can handle it.”
Sean pursed his lips briefly before giving a slight smile. “Look, I allowed you to convince me to come here for supper, but that doesn’t mean I feel okay letting you make it all by yourself.”
“I do this almost every night, Sean, I think I can manage,” Maxine replied. “It’s just some soup and vegetables, and a pie I bought from the store.”
A silence fell upon the room. Sean stood on the other side of the counter, watching for a moment. When Maxine turned her back to check on the vegetables, he crept around to the other side of the counter to where the soup was and took over stirring it.
A moment later, there was a scuffling sound and he saw Maxine come up beside him out of the corner of his eye. He kept a straight face and didn’t look over at her, resisting the urge to smile.
Then he saw her smile. She patted his shoulder briefly. “Don’t forget to put the salt and pepper in.” She retreated again and went about tending to the pie.
Sean blinked, glancing sideways, and then reached for the salt shaker.
Sean looked up from the soup. Amy Gray had just entered the kitchen, and seemed mildly surprised to see him. “Hello, Judge Gray,” he replied.
“Amy,” Maxine said fondly. “How was work, dear?”
“Exhausting,” Amy responded simply. She glanced at her mother and then briefly back at Sean.
“Oh, yes.” Maxine left the stove and crossed the room toward them. “Amy, this is my boss, Mr. Potter. He’s going to be staying for supper. Sean, this is my daughter, Amy”
Sean nodded. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.” He held out his hand, which Amy shook.
“And you.” She looked around. “I’d ask if you need help, Ma, but I think you and Mr. Potter have everything handled pretty well."
“Yes, that we do,” Maxine said. “So you go spend some time with your daughter. She’s been a bundle of energy ever since I came home. Also, go find Vincent. He was watching her after school but I haven’t seen hide nor hair of him since I got here.”
“He’s probably reading some boring book of poetry somewhere,” Amy remarked, rolling her eyes in a fond sort of way. She left the kitchen and made her way up the stairs. “Vincent?”
Sean cast a glance at Maxine. “How many people live here?”
“Oh, just me, Amy, and Lauren,” Maxine replied, taking dishes from the cupboard. “But Vincent spends quite a bit of time here, and often stands in as babysitter. He’s my younger son.”
“Ah.” Sean focused on the soup, which was almost done.
“You don’t need to worry about him, or anyone. We’re all a friendly bunch,” Maxine said idly, bustling around the kitchen and setting the table.
“I’m not worried,” Sean said, scoffing. Though he had to admit that the idea of so many people being at supper set him on edge. Social interaction wasn’t something he generally took part in.
“Mmhm.” Maxine did not sound convinced, but her tone was as friendly as ever, so Sean let the matter drop.
Before long, Amy returned with both Lauren and a man - who was soon introduced to Sean as Vincent - in tow. Supper started shortly after; it proved to be a warm, easygoing, cosy affair, and one that Sean felt extremely out-of-place taking part in. He did not belong here.
He sat very quietly in his chair, across from Lauren and beside Vincent, listening to the conversations with genuine interest - from Vincent talking about his latest story, to Amy discussing one of her less serious cases, to Lauren recounting her tale from school for what had to be the fourth time at least: apparently, a dog of some sort had intruded on the playground during recess, and all the other kids had been scared except for her.
Sean was looking down at his soup, his mind on dogs, when someone said, “Do you have any animals, Mr. Potter?”
He glanced up, a little surprised to have been addressed. It had been Lauren who spoke. “Uh, no, I don’t,” he replied with a brief smile. “I don’t really have the time to take care of a pet. I like dogs though.”
“We have a dog!” Lauren exclaimed. “Socrates!”
“Lauren, don’t yell in the house,” Amy said admonishingly. “He can hear you without your shouting his name so the whole neighbourhood can hear.”
The basset hound came into the room a moment later, claws clicking on the floor. He sat down not too far from Sean, eyes soulful and tail wagging. Sean glanced around the table - no one was paying him any attention. So he surreptitiously sneaked a few pieces of carrot into his hand and lowered it. Socrates came padding over and very carefully nibbled the vegetables out of Sean’s hand, whiskers tickling.
Lauren leaned over the table so that she was closer to Sean. He looked at her, blinking. Then she whispered, “I don’t like carrots either.”
Oh. He had been caught in the act, at least by her.
“Yes, well.” Sean wiped his hand on his napkin. “They’re good for your eyes.”
“Mr. Potter’s right. Eat your food,” Amy said. She reached out and tousled Lauren’s hair. “All of it.”
Lauren looked at her mother. “But he fed Socrates some of his carrots.”
Sean felt warmth rush to his face and he lowered his head, clearing his throat awkwardly. “What can I say. I couldn’t handle the way he was looking at me. I wasn’t planning on giving him anymore.”
It sounded like an excuse, despite the fact it was true. For a moment, there was silence, and he wondered whether he had to ask Maxine if he could be excused or whether he could just get up and make a hasty exit.
Then Maxine spoke up. “Let’s be honest, it’s not exactly easy to resist Socrates’ puppy-eyes look. That said, Lauren, you need to eat your food.”
“What if I want to give Socrates some of it?” Lauren took a drink of her water.
“You can’t. Mr. Potter already said he wasn’t going to give Socrates anymore, and neither should you,” Maxine responded. “Now eat.”
Sean felt a little less embarrassed but was acutely aware that his face was still warm and probably slightly pink. Right. This was why he didn’t usually engage in social interaction.
Though despite all of that, the rest of supper went uneventfully, and it was… nice. All of it had been. He couldn’t remember the last time he had a home-cooked meal - a proper one, not the TV dinners he had used as an excuse earlier that evening - or the last time he had had a meal with anyone but himself.
After the table had been cleaned off and the dishes washed - everyone participated in helping, including Sean - everyone retreated to the living room. Maxine sat in a rocking chair with what appeared to be a knitting project, while Lauren and Amy sat on the floor with the deck of cards. Vincent and Sean ended up on opposite ends of the sofa from each other. Maxine had made tea; Sean had gladly accepted a cup, as had Vincent.
Sean, warm and with a full belly, found himself drifting off. Just as he nearly fell asleep, something jostled him and he heard a familiar voice pipe up. “Mr. Potter?”
He blinked his eyes open, a bit drowsy. “Just Sean is fine… yeah?”
Lauren was sitting beside him, eyes bright. “Do you have a family?”
“Lauren!” Amy sounded scandalized. “You don’t just ask--”
Sean lifted one hand. “It’s alright, Judge Grey.” He looked back down at Lauren. “If you mean kids or a wife, no. I do have parents though, and a brother, and a sister.”
Lauren rested her chin in her hands. “What about animals?”
She had already asked that and clearly forgotten, but Sean responded anyway. “No, no animals. We had a few when I was younger, but that was a long time ago.”
“Do you want one?” Lauren asked.
“Maybe someday, when I have the time to take care of one,” Sean replied.
“If you could have any animal in the world, what would it be?”
“Any animal at all?” Sean asked, quirking an eyebrow at her. When she nodded, he made a humming noise, thinking. “A penguin.”
She stared at him. “Really?”
“Uh-huh.” Sean nodded. “I like penguins. Don’t think you can keep them as pets though, so I’d have to say a cat or a dog.”
“What kind?” Lauren let her feet hang off the sofa and swung them back and forth.
“I don’t know,” Sean said. “I’d be happy with any. I have to say I really like black cats though.”
“Aren’t they bad luck?” Lauren asked, wide-eyed.
Sean scoffed. “No. That’s just a bunch of nonsense. Every black cat I’ve ever met gave me good luck. For instance, I visited a friend who owned a black cat. Just a few hours afterward, I got the news that I had been accepted at the job I’m at now. Best luck I’ve ever had.”
“The job you and Grandma are at?” Lauren asked.
“Yep.” Sean shifted into a more comfortable position on the sofa.
A beat of silence fell, and then Amy got to her feet. “Okay, Lauren. Time to get ready for bed.”
“Aw, but can’t I keep talking to Sean?” Lauren gave her mother a pleading look.
“No. It’s late already, and you have school tomorrow,” Amy said.
Lauren heaved a sigh and looked up at Sean. He blinked, managing to keep his eyes - which felt very heavy - open. “Your mother’s right. You need to get plenty of rest so you can do well in school.”
“Can you come back tomorrow?” Lauren asked, jumping down off the sofa.
A glance at Amy told Sean that she seemed about to say something to the effect of don’t bother him, he’s a busy man, and spoke before she could. “I don’t know if I can. But maybe some other time. Now, you should probably listen to your mother and go get ready for bed.” He raised his eyebrows.
Lauren nodded, still looking reluctant, and ran up the stairs. Sean twisted his head to watch her go, then settled back into a more relaxed position. The crackling of the fire and the faint clicking of Maxine’s knitting needles were oddly soothing, and before long, he had fallen asleep.
“Mmh?” Sean opened his eyes, yawning. Looking up, he saw Maxine leaning over him, one hand on his shoulder. “Maxine…? Where--” He stopped, remembering where he was right as he started to ask that very question.
“You fell asleep.” Maxine had that tone to her voice; the kindness tinged with faint motherly amusement that would probably irritate Sean if it came from anyone but her. “I’m sorry, it must have been the tea.”
“What time is it…?” Sean sat up, smoothing his hands over his hair and searching for a clock, blinking sleep out of his eyes.
“It’s not very late. It’s only ten o’clock,” Maxine said. “You’ve only been asleep for about an hour.”
“That’s a long time,” Sean mumbled. “I’m sorry, I should have gone home ages ago.”
“Nonsense. If I needed you gone, I would have woke you up,” Maxine said sternly. “As I am now. I usually go to bed around this time, but figured you’d rather go home to your own bed rather than sleep on this ratty old sofa of mine. So I woke you up.”
“Uh…” Sean rose to his feet and stretched, still trying to get his bearings. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome.” She regarded him for a moment. “Do you think you’re alert enough to drive, or shall I drive you?”
Sean shook his head. “No, I’m fine. Thank you.” He made his way toward the door, fumbling with his shoes.
“Are you sure?” Maxine trailed after him.
“Yes, I am.” He finally managed to put his shoes on and opened the door. He paused on the threshold, thinking over the evening - the warmth, the kindness, the relaxing atmosphere, and simply the feeling of being around a family - and turned back. “And Maxine - thank you for supper.”
She gave him a genuine smile. “Anytime, Sean. And I mean it - anytime. You’re always welcome here.”
He nodded, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. After a moment, he met her eyes again. “I’ll see you tomorrow morning.” He kept his voice professional, but couldn’t keep a small smile from flickering in the corner of his lips.
She returned the nod. “Of course. Go home and get some sleep, Sean.”
“I will. Goodnight.” Raising a hand in farewell, he turned and made his way to his car. He heard the door shut behind him, and couldn’t help glancing back at the house for a moment.
And as he slid into the front seat of his car and began driving through the night, he couldn’t help but think that he would like to come back to the Grays’ house - no, it wasn't that; it was a home, a proper one - sometime.
The next time Maxine invited him, he decided he wouldn’t protest.
Not too much, anyway.