Characters: Claire Matthews, Joe Carroll, & Joey Matthews
Summary: Claire thanks Joe for returning her son to her.
Author’s Note: I am honestly overjoyed with how this turned out. It was meant to be nothing more than an exercise extending Claire & Joey’s reunion, but here it is, a full story. Please, please enjoy.
“I really do believe, in my heart, that you will love me again.”
She pressed her head against Joey’s, wrapping her arms tight around his little body, inhaling the smell of his hair, his skin, him. She squeezed her eyes shut, burying her face deeper into his little shoulder, and hoping his small frame would muffle the sounds of her grief-turned-euphoria.
She cried as silently as she could into his shoulder, rubbing her hands over his back, hoping he couldn’t hear, couldn’t feel, the tears as they poured constantly from her eyes like rain from a thundercloud. She couldn’t let him see because she didn’t know how to explain what this moment meant in terms that wouldn’t terrify him, and there was nothing in the world she wanted to do less than scare him again, not even for a moment.
I wanna go home. Why can’t I go home?
Just tell me where you are, honey, and I’ll come and get you.
She bit down hard on both sides of her cheek, digging her teeth into her own flesh to stop the sobs from escaping out of her mouth. “I’m sorry,” she whispered when she could. His screams from the end of that conversation still echoed in her ears at night; she’d been haunted ever since that phone call. “I’m so sorry, baby, I’ve missed you; I love you, honey. I love you, I love you, I love you.” She whispered the words over and over and over again until her mouth was dry and cracking and Joey was wriggling in her embrace for space and breath. Over his shoulder, she wiped her eyes and nose with the back of her hand quickly, hoping to make herself at least a little bit presentable before he could look at her.
To her relief, he hardly seemed to notice what she knew must be makeup-stained cheeks and red-rimmed eyes. His eyes were wide as they took her in, but it was not in fear, but awe. He reached a small hand out to touch her hair, petting it, squeezing the painstakingly crafted curls gently. “You look really pretty, Mom.” He smiled, looking up at her. “I like your hair. It looks nice.”
She shut her eyes, sniffing to hold back the tears as they pricked her eyes again and again. She was certain she looked a mess, but she appreciated his words nonetheless. My baby. God, how she’d missed him. “Thank you,” she whispered, pulling him into another hug. She sucked in a breath, and it gave her air to speak: “Thank you, honey, that’s so sweet of you to say.” Without meaning to, her eyes lifted, inadvertently searching for the reason she looked the way she did. The reason for the dress and the heels and the makeup and the nice hair—but Joe was gone.
Instinctually, her head whipped around, certain she’d find him standing behind her, hovering, but he wasn’t there either. She puzzled over it as she hugged Joey again, running her hands through his hair and feeling his small arms encircle her. While she tried to find solace in his presence alone, confusion nagged at her, and ruined her perfect moment.
Finally, she had to pull back. She held onto both of Joey’s shoulders as she spoke to him. She didn’t want to let go of him ever again, but if she had to, it would not be for so long ever again. “I need to go do something, all right, honey?” Just saying the words was so hard; she didn’t know how she was going to stand up and walk out of this room without him. “I’ll be gone one minute.” She squeezed his shoulders, cupped his cheeks, ducked forward to kiss his forehead. “Just one minute.” She pressed another kiss to his head, and another. “One minute,” she repeated again, her voice scratchy with returning tears. “You stay right here, baby, okay?”
“Okay.” He smiled easily, and as she got to her feet, she took comfort in his calm, pleasant demeanor. Maybe, when he grew up, these days would not haunt him as much as she’d feared they would. Maybe this would all just seem like some bizarre vacation.
She walked to the door quickly, pushed it shut behind her, and had already started to turn away before she caught sight of the lock on the outside. Without sparing a moment for thought, she turned it, listening to the mechanism click. There was no other way into or out of the room—she’d spent the past few nights looking for one, to no avail—and while she didn’t like to keep Joey in enclosed spaces, he was safer in that room alone than anywhere else in the mansion.
She hurried across the hall, hardly caring about the racket her heels were making as she tried to run in shoes that were hardly made to walk in and a dress that wasn’t designed for anything except standing still and sitting. She got to the top of the stairs just as he was reaching the first landing.
“Joe!” She called out to him—practically shouted—but she was too overwhelmed by all that had happened in the past five minutes to care if others heard.
He turned around at once, and, overjoyed as she was from seeing Joey, she couldn’t hold back the smile that turned up the edges of her lips when she saw the shock on his face. Evidently, he hadn’t expected her to follow after him. She wondered if she was the only person able to catch him off-guard these days. The thought made her made her swell, briefly, with a strange sort of pride.
“Yes?” he asked, turning on the landing to look up at her.
“I wanted to say thank you,” she replied, her breathing still quick, and her throat slightly hoarse from crying. “For brining me Joey, I wanted to say…say thank you. You didn’t have to, I know, but—”
“I wanted to,” he finished for her, using words she hadn’t even contemplated. Her eyes narrowed to stare down at him as he continued, “I wanted to be the one to bring him to you. To reunite you.”
“Why?” Claire couldn’t help but ask, her breath as anxious as her heartbeat. Was this part of some master plan?
“Because I knew it would make you happy.” His dark eyes stared deeply into hers, and for once she didn’t feel the need to look away. His eyes held hers, but it was not by force. “I’ve missed seeing you happy, you know.”
She searched for something to say, her mouth opening and closing, but soon realized that she had nothing else to say, and so finally, she only asked again dumbly: “W…Why?”
He smiled at her, almost dotingly. “I told you,” he reminded her softly, “I love you. And I truly believe that you’ll love me again, too. One day,” he added graciously.
Claire frowned at the mention, seeing his gesture with Joey in a different light now: “So, you think bringing me Joey will make me love you, is that it? That’s why you allowed me to see him?”
“I did it because I wanted to,” he answered calmly. “As for…” She watched his brow crease with consternation. “As for your conviction that I used our son to buy your affection…” He shook his head, troubled. “That was not the point of this, Claire. I want you to be happy here, and I knew seeing Joey would make you happy. If it made you feel something else, well…” He trailed off, and though he looked away, she could see the faint stirrings of hope in his features, and she knew what had really been his objective.
She couldn’t let that hope survive; he would never let her go otherwise.
“And if it didn’t?” she prompted, eager to get this all out in the open now. “If it didn’t make me feel anything except relief that my son is okay, then what?”
He peered at her. “You’re… certain already?” he asked. He seemed hesitant to hear her reply and looked truly hurt at even just the notion.
She didn’t dare nod, but the answer was there in her silence.
“Well,” he murmured dejectedly, half turning away, “there are always other avenues. Other things I can get you.”
“Like what?” Claire had to ask, though he’d more muttered the last few words to himself than spoken to her.
Nonetheless, he didn’t ignore her question. “I’ll have to think on it,” he answered simply, his eyes meeting hers in nothing more than curiosity. “Why?” he wondered the next moment. “Is there something in particular you’d like, dear?”
Claire bit her lip, trying at once to sort out if this was a test or not. If she asked for something more, would he use it against her? If she asked for nothing, would he be satisfied in believing that she had all she’d ever want here? Which would trap her in this place forever, and which would help her inch closer to freedom?
And was either of them truly worth the risk?
“I’ll… I’ll have to think about it,” she answered slowly, not at all certain of an answer.
She was worried he’d demand one, but he simply nodded, as if he understood her dilemma. “Very well.” Maybe he did.
“Anyway,” she whispered, “thank you for bringing me Joey. I’ve been going crazy without him. I thought he’d been—” She had been meaning to continue, to vent her fears for her child’s safety, but she abruptly broke off, realizing how such an admission might be viewed by her ex-husband. She hoped she’d stopped soon enough to save herself, but the second their eyes met again, she knew he wouldn’t so easily let her off the hook.
His lips pursed unhappily as his eyebrows drew together while he stared her down. “You thought I’d hurt him?” he questioned coldly. He stepped closer, ascending the stairs towards her. “Our son?” he spoke the question like a threat and she couldn’t help but inch away from him as he neared.
“I, I was scared,” she whispered, trying not to feel that way right now. She reached out for something to hold on to, found nothing, and finally clasped her hands together in front of her, squeezing her fingers against one another. “He just disappeared. He vanished, I—” Her voice broke and she clapped a hand over her mouth to contain the sob. “I didn’t know what to do, what to think. He was gone and—”
“You should’ve known I wouldn’t hurt him, Claire. I would never, ever hurt him. ” There was a reprimand in his voice, a firmness that ran through his tone and chastised her like a sharp slap on the wrist. “I’m…” A few seconds passed, the site of the blow cooled, and when she finally lifted her eyes to his, his voice sounded as betrayed as his face looked: “I’m saddened that you’d think that of me, think so low of me. I would never injure our child, not even if it meant having you again.”
“I—I didn’t know what to think, Joe,” she answered honestly. “You took my son, what was I supposed to think, that you were bringing him here, to this place? Why would I have thought anything less than he was being hurt, when he was kidnapped out of his own bed in the middle of the night?”
“If I could’ve walked in and brought him here myself, I would have,” Joe explained heatedly, “but that was not a possibility. Besides,” he muttered, “I needed your attention; I needed to speak with you.”
“I only came to see you because they said you knew where Joey was being kept!” Claire exclaimed. “They thought you’d tell me, but of course you didn’t, you spent the entire time acting like he wasn’t in danger and—”
“He wasn’t in danger,” Joe cut in. “He was with Emma—”
“Emma!” Claire practically screamed the name, but she didn’t care who heard. Let Emma come running, then she’d get what was coming to her. “That woman stole my son, she—”
“‘My son,’” Joe muttered darkly, his disgruntled voice somehow cutting through her shouts. “You know, you really need to stop doing that.” He climbed the last couple steps that separated them, and Claire watched with wide eyes, struggling to swallow her sudden fear, as he came to a stop just a few feet away from her. His dark eyes stared into hers, and, as much as she wanted to, she could not find a way to look away. “So long as you are here with me, you must refrain from calling him that. He is not only your son, remember.”
“He’s—” Claire tried to argue, but he silenced her with a shake of his head and a half-step forward.
“Despite the fact that you’d like to pretend otherwise, or forget all that’s happened between us, you cannot erase the facts of the matter, Claire.” His eyes glittered with fierce determination, and as Claire stared into them, she wondered if it was his goal, or merely a side effect, to frighten her. “He is our son. Our baby, our child. We made him—he is our singular creation, Claire, yours and mine alone.” He paused, and her heart pounded through the silence, counting split-seconds and nanoseconds, beating away until suddenly—he changed. He spoke now in a voice as soft as she’d ever heard it, and looked at her with eyes that held nothing but warm affection in their deeper recesses: “We will always have him, you know. Tying us together. We’ll always have our baby. If I die, or you die, or he, god forbid—none of it would matter. Ever since the moment he was conceived, he’s connected us, and that connection is unbreakable, even for death.” His voice softened even further as he shuffled closer. “Hard as you might try to prove it—and I’m sorry, I really am sorry to prove you wrong because I know how it upsets you—but he is not your son. He is our son, and no one—not even you—can take that from us, Claire. You and I cannot be separated when it comes to him. We are the same person in him.
“I know you want to argue that things have changed,” he continued before she could speak, putting his hands in his pockets and shifting his weight, “I know you want to say that we are no longer married, that we are no longer in love, and so he cannot possibly be my son, too, after all that change…” He took another step forward and the wood creaked beneath him as he did so. Claire could not move. “But remember that those things are reactions. You only are a divorcée because we were married. You only have a son because we made him. You only think you don’t love me now because you were certain at one time that you did. All those things we did together, you and I—we did them together. We were married, we were in love, and we had a child together. Those are facts.” His voice grew firm. “And you cannot erase the facts merely because you’ve changed your mind on a couple of the counts, Claire. That is not how life works.”
He stared at her for a long minute then, letting the words sink in, before ducking his head and turning away from her. He’d already begun walking down the hallway, and had almost reached the stairs again, before she found it in herself to speak.
“You’re right,” she whispered, feeling a weak tremor rock through her body at the realization of the truth of his words. How many years had she spent trying to prove her side—trying to prove that Joey was hers and not his? She’d changed his name, she’d brought him up alone, she’d taught him what to say when people asked who, or where, his father was. She had thought she’d been making a difference in his life, but it had all been useless, in the end, hadn’t it? All those changes had all just been little things to make her feel better, to make her feel like she hadn’t had a child with a monster, and perpetuated his monstrosity. Joe was right, Joey would never not be his; he was a part of both of them; that was reality and reality was unchangeable. He was her son, she liked to say, liked to tell everyone. But even saying that went with the unspoken clause that he was Joe Carroll’s son, too. She had ben trying to reclaim him, by calling him her son alone, but she couldn’t do that because there was nothing to reclaim. He’d always been hers. And he’d always been Joe’s, too.
He always would be.
“You’re right,” she repeated, staring at his back that faced her, “You’re right, he’s your son too.”
Joe didn’t turn his back as she spoke, and finally, just as she was about to give up and walk away herself, he spoke. ”Thank you," he murmured, his quiet voice carrying across the silent hall. There was a beat of silence and then: "Is there anything else?”
Claire swallowed, her stomach suddenly churning with anxiety. She knew what he was asking for. It was something she knew he, at some point, would demand to hear, and she would be forced to say.
But for now he’s only asking, she reminded herself, for now you can say no. For once.
And she did so, taking advantage of the moment with the knowledge that it would not come around too many more times more, if any at all. “No,” she shook her head, though he couldn’t see it. She raised her voice in case he couldn’t hear. “There’s nothing else.”
She watched his head bob as he nodded, like he’d expected that answer, but still, she could see his shoulders slump slightly as if in disappointment. Claire couldn’t help but wonder what that meant, wonder how much of this was an act and how much of it was his true feelings—if he even had those.
For a brief moment, he turned his head to the side, and his eye met hers over his shoulder. She held her breath, nervous of what he might say or do, but when he finally spoke, it was one of the more innocent things he’d ever said: “Kiss our son goodnight for me, will you?”
He turned around again and disappeared down the stairs before she could reply, and for that she was grateful. Like so many others, she hadn’t been ready to answer that question when he’d posed it to her.
She watched him go, staring at his back as he made his way slowly down the steps, and wondered what would happen the next time they saw one another. Tonight had not been normal—she had been out of sorts due to Joey’s return, and then all Joe had said—what would she think tomorrow? Like she did a hangover after a night out, would she regret all this come morning?
When they’d started talking, she had wanted to tell him that he was wrong, wanted to tell him things had changed over these past ten years—that she had changed—and that nothing was the same as it once was, but even she wasn’t so sure of that anymore. All of her hatred, all of her fight, had fallen by the wayside the moment she’d seen Joey again, held him, been certain that he was all right, and now she wondered, Would it really be so bad? To stay here and pretend with Joe, for however long he wanted, would it be so terrible, compared to the alternative, compared to all the people he would maim and torture and kill just to get her back, get her to love him?
So long as she had her son, did anything else in the world really matter at all?
Author’s Note: I was not prepared for how completely this story would take me over. For those of you who have been reading my stuff, you know I haven’t written Joe in… forever. And as much as I love Ryan & Claire, I just adore Joe & Claire’s very, very strange relationship. Originally, this was just supposed to be a short vignette-style exercise, but then it just kept getting longer and longer... I had trouble tearing myself away from these two. In fact, I think there may be more of them to come in the future... (And if you are interested in that, I would love to hear what you’d like to see. Right now I only have a few scenes planned, and if you have a suggestion, I’d gladly hear it.)
I had an indescribably fun time writing this piece. Thank you so much for reading.
PS— I haven’t written Joe in so, so long. I’d love to hear your thoughts as to if he fit his character in this or not. I know it all was a bit AU-ish, so neither of them are 100%, but... Thoughts?