***Chapter Nine***
Word Count: 4,332

John buzzed Claire up when she rang to get in. He was putting the finishing touches on his tie. She was a little early, but he'd expected that. He wasn't sure how he felt about her driving herself to her parents' house, but he supposed it was the easiest way to go about it since he was bowing out before they went to church later.

"I'm still not sure why you didn't just give me your parents' address and let me meet you there," he said, opening the door.

"Because your condo is on the way to my parents' house. That way it will look like we were at my place or your place together before going there."

"I suppose," he said. She lived on the other side of Shermer in a pretty nice house. He hadn't seen it, but he knew the area. It was part of Shermer's growth spurt in the past few years and was pretty new. He had no doubt it was a monstrosity of a house, but she wouldn't do anything half-assed so he'd expect no less from her than something a bit pretentious in a house.

"I figured, too, you'd be more comfortable knowing for sure we arrived together even if it's in separate cars. In case you got there first or something so you knew I'd be right behind you."

"I guess," he said. "Let me just take Sammy out one last time and I'll be good to go. I did not too long ago, but not knowing for sure how long I'm going to be…"

"I get it. You're fine. We're going to be a little early anyway."

"I noticed that," he said. "Were you afraid I wouldn't be here?"

"No," she said. "I knew you wouldn't have told me you'd come and then not show up."

"It was tempting."

He wouldn't do that to her only because he knew if he did that he'd never see or hear from her again. That didn't sit well with him. He knew how to get ahold of her, but that didn't mean she'd take his calls if he blew her off today. Ultimately, that was why he'd agreed to go to her parents' today. If he didn't he could imagine what her mother would say about him, through no fault of his own. He'd never be able to recover from that if he was in a position to meet her one day in the future. So while he had absolutely no real desire to do this tonight he felt sort of stuck. It wasn't her fault, not really. There was absolutely no reason her mother should have been caught up by her lie.

They'd had a nice time last night, which led to him knowing he'd made the right choice by agreeing to dinner tonight. They'd come back here after they had dinner. She'd come out for a walk with him when he took Sammy out, which surprised him because it was a little on the cold side. She was dressed nicely, too, in a skirt which wasn't exactly good for a long walk. He'd cut it short a bit, but it was two o'clock before she headed home.

"I'm sure."

"Tell me again how long you've lived in your place."

"Why?"

"I can't remember what you said."

"Oh, um, not quite two years. About a year and a half. May of last year."

"And you lived at home until you bought it?"

"Yes," she said with a sigh. "I know that sounds ridiculous to someone like you. However, I didn't have a problem getting along with my parents overall. I won't deny it wasn't always convenient. I couldn't have people over too late, you know, because it was their house so I had to abide by their rules. I just went other places, though if I knew I wanted to be out or up late. I wasn't going out partying every night and as long as I told them I wasn't going to come home the nights I was out late with friends they were okay."

"Because they knew it was friends and not guys?"

"I think my mom would've been thrilled to find out I was spending the night with a guy, but yes, I suspect the acceptance was because they knew it was girlfriends I was out with. I wanted a house, though, and I didn't want to have to settle for what I could afford right after starting a job. So, I made a choice, a couple of years living with them was worth it to me. It allowed me to save up as much money as I could for a down payment on the house I wanted not just any house."

"Hey, whatever works, and clearly, you got a nice house out of the deal so the arrangement worked out in your favor. You're right, though, I could never have done it."

"I know."

"That means you bought the car before you bought the house."

"My dad bought me the car as a present for pretty much acing my bar exam."

"Really?"

"Yes," she said.

"You didn't tell me that part about yourself. Aren't they kind of tough?"

"I guess."

He chuckled softly as he found Sammy's leash. He'd always known she was smart. He guessed he hadn't realized she was that smart. Acing bar exams seemed like it would be a big deal to most people. He was pretty sure it would be to him, then acing any test had been a huge deal to him. Sammy was a little confused as to why John was taking him out again so soon, but he clearly wasn't upset at the idea of getting to go out again.

"I'll be back, shouldn't take more than ten minutes tops. Have a seat, though."

"All right," she said.

"You suddenly a comics fan?" he asked. She wasn't sitting down when he'd returned. She was looking at some of the framed pictures he had on his wall. Some were his own works, special for various reasons, some were just covers or something he liked.

"What?"

"Nothing, Claire, never mind."

"Oh, sorry. I was just curious. Not all of these are yours," she said.

"No?"

"No, I remember what Rene said about your signature. I see it in this one," she said, pointing at what was his first penciled draft of Simon Forge. He and Rich had brainstormed for days. It had taken them a few weeks before they were in agreement on what Simon should and could look like. He'd framed this one because it was special to him. It meant Rich trusted him, talking to him about the idea.

"Right," he said.

"Not in these, though," she said about four others. "And they're different, too."

"You're right."

"Why do you have them if they're not yours?"

"Believe it or not, the only reason I have the few of my own on display are because they're special to me for a variety of reasons. That one you just mentioned was my first drawing of Simon ever. We tweaked and altered some things, but that was what we started from. The others are just special issues. I'm not vain enough to display only my own stuff."

"Oh, that's not what I meant," she shrugged. "I guess I'd think being competitive you wouldn't display someone else's works."

"If I like it I do, sure," he said.

"Oh."

"I met this guy," he said, pointing at a Spiderman cover. "Really, really nice guy and he has every reason in the world to be a total asshole. He does Spiderman covers for crying out loud. He's in, you know, and I'm just a nobody, a hack really who still has to make my bones. This was the cover that was out when I met him, so I bought the issue because he was just cool, and he signed it for me."

"Would you ever draw Spiderman?"

"Would I? I'd love to draw any of those guys, sure. The big names, the ones who've been selling forever. Who wouldn't? Will I? I don't know. I suppose maybe someday it could happen. Certainly, it's my goal to get noticed by one of the big names."

"Does Rich know that?"

"He does. I think he'd be incredibly shocked if that wasn't my ultimate goal. Ideally it'd be as an independent contractor, you know, so I wouldn't be tied down to just doing that."

"You wouldn't want to?"

He shrugged. "I don't know. I like doing what I do. A little bit of this, a little bit of that. I don't just draw for Rich's comics, though he's certainly who I get the bulk of my work from. We have Simon Forge, but there are others. Some are series and some are just one-offs. Sometimes he's, like a guest writer, for a series so it's not an entire series but not just a one-off either. Not to say that drawing Spiderman, Superman, or whoever else would be boring or tedious. It wouldn't, but with someone like Simon we don't have years, decades, of back issues and history to contend with. That's not so bad sometimes. Even with the backstory we have for him we still have to fact check on things. For me it's maybe how Character A looked the last we saw him or her or the way I drew something in particular that doesn't come up often."

"That makes sense," she said.

"You ready then?"

"Yes, sorry, I didn't mean to snoop."

"You're fine. I'm impressed you remembered what Rene said."

"I would never have noticed it had he not mentioned it."

"I was surprised he noticed."

"You're more subtle about it now," she said.

"What do you mean?"

"It's a lot more obvious in this one than it was on that poster we saw at his house."

"Oh, right, yeah. I've gotten better at penciling it in more discreetly for sure. Plus, working on a poster like that Simon had more hair than he usually does."

"I suppose so."

"He had more everything than he usually does," John said with a soft chuckle.

"That picture you drew for me."

"Yes."

"You said she was…"

"I remember. I also said nothing was set in stone. I said it's what I envision, but she hasn't even been fully plotted out yet. Rich has only talked about her as something forthcoming."

"No, I get that. I remember what you said. You said mate, though."

"Well, sure, way more permanent and intense than a girlfriend or something. She's the," he shrugged not sure how to describe it. "Ying to his yang, the day to his night, the good to his bad. You know? He's a hero, but he's kind of a dark hero. Ultimately he's good, but sometimes he strays from the path even though he ultimately gets there. She's," he shrugged. "The light to his darkness? You know, completes him. She won't be happy about it and will probably fight it at first because, well, he'll need to prove he deserves a mate. Her."

"You know all this?"

"Some of it. Rich has told me what he has in store for Simon. Things may change, though. I mean, things don't always go as planned, that's why I said my vision for her may change when it actually comes time for her to be introduced. Based on Simon today and the things plotted and planned that's her. Sometimes, though, the characters take control of things for a while and don't always play nicely with Rich's plots."

She laughed softly at that.

"I imagine anyone who writes encounters that," she said.

"I would think so, yeah."

"All right. I'll meet you at their house then?"

"I'd say I'm looking forward to it, but that'd be kind of a lie. I look forward to seeing you at any rate."

She leaned up and kissed him, grazing his jaw with her lips.

"Thank you, John. Really."

"I had nothing else to do on Christmas Eve anyway."

He followed her out the door then and was pretty much right behind her the drive to her parents' house. He knew the way, knew which neighborhood they lived in. He wasn't sure of the exact house. He'd been by there once before years ago. So he supposed he didn't need to follow her or anything as long as he stopped at the house her car was parked at. She was waiting for him on the driveway when he pulled up. He was nervous, but he wondered how much more nervous she was. She had to be freaking out. She hid it well, though.

He offered her his hand when he got to her and her car on the driveway.

"Thank you," she said. She was always so appreciative when he let her make that last move before they were touching. She wasn't jumpy about it or anything, but he certainly didn't ever want it called into question he hadn't given her a choice in touching him. Not that he thought she'd think that way. It was probably him being overly cautious.

"How confident are you those pistols are antiques that don't actually work?"

"Pretty sure."

"That's better than not sure at all I suppose."

"My dad's not going to shoot you."

"Says you."

"Relax," she said.

"And again, says you. I've only met someone's parents once before and it didn't go real well."

"Really?"

"Yes, really. I've had one actual date with you and here I am. Forgive me for not being relaxed about it."

"It's not an interrogation. It's just dinner. They just want to meet you."

"Sure because we've been dating for six months. They probably think…"

"They don't! I swear. My mom is not planning my wedding tomorrow."

"She better not be."

"Trust me, John, I made it perfectly clear to her that the reason I hadn't mentioned you and she hadn't met you yet was because we were nowhere close to real serious."

"After six months?"

"Yes."

"And she bought that?"

"She knows me!"

"All right," he said. He wasn't convinced, but he had to hope she knew her mother better than he knew mothers in general. His mother, if he'd come home with someone he'd been dating for six months. Well, she would've assumed he'd knocked her up or something and he'd had to let her meet her.

It wasn't so bad. As it turned out he didn't seem to have anything to worry about from her parents. Her grandparents, on the other hand, didn't like him. They seemed fine until they found out he'd gone to Paris with her and then he lost them. Completely. He supposed that wasn't an unexpected response from a pretty traditional and conservative couple who probably hadn't been alone much before they were married. He paid enough attention in history classes to know how things were back when they were dating, courting, whatever the proper term was. Likely Claire's parents had never shared a hotel room before they were married.

The coolest part of the evening?

Her nephew not only knew who Simon Forge was but liked him. John had drawn a quick sketch for him of Simon eating a family dinner with his parents, which the kid had seemed genuinely impressed with. It certainly wasn't John's best work as he drew it in like twenty minutes and didn't have anything better than a standard pencil to draw with. He knew how he would've reacted when he was eight if he'd gotten something like that from someone.

She put her coat on and walked him to his car when it was time for him to leave.

"Your nephew is going to midnight mass, too?"

"Of course."

"Just wondering."

"It's one of a few nights of the year he's allowed to stay up so late. He usually passes out in the car on the way home."

"I bet he does," John said softly.

"That was nice what you did for him, thank you."

"You don't have to thank me. That's what I do, Claire. It's called good PR. I mean, you know, he's your nephew so maybe I put more effort into drawing something cooler than just Simon standing by a Christmas tree, but he'll go to school and tell his friends." He shrugged.

"I know, but still, thank you. You weren't expecting to have to do that."

"You're right. I always like hearing what people think about Simon, though."

"Good."

"So, I guess it wasn't your father I should've been worrying about owning weapons. Your grandpa isn't too impressed with me."

"He's just Grandpa."

"If looks could kill when your mom asked us about Paris I wouldn't be standing here right now. You realize that, right?"

She laughed softly.

"You laugh!"

"No, but I'm the one who has to sit through mass with him later tonight knowing he thinks that we," she shrugged. "That I. Well anyway."

John chuckled then. "Yeah, all right, I guess you won't escape from his scrutiny either. He's not going to make you go to Confession or anything, is he?"

"No!"

"Good."

"Thank you for coming again."

"It wasn't so bad. I mean, I don't want to do it again next week."

"I know."

"I'd like to see you again next week. Just the two of us. Dinner. A movie. A bar."

"You want to take me to a bar?"

"One with live music maybe? What? You don't go to bars? We did in Paris, more than once."

"I do. I'm just surprised you'd want to take me to one."

He frowned a bit at that, reaching for her cheek with a hand and drawing her to him a bit. "I'm not sure why that surprises you."

"That's very public."

"Yeah. So is dinner and the movies."

"It's not the same thing."

"Claire, I want to take you out on another date. That's what I'm asking you here. You realize that, right?"

"I do. I'm just surprised. I assumed after tonight I wouldn't hear from you for a while again."

"I'm not sure why you'd think that."

"It's a lot after one date."

"I'm going to kiss you now."

"Okay," she said.

"Yeah?" he asked.

"I've never said no, have I?"

"Well, no, but your parents weren't in the house right by us either."

"Oh well," she said with a shrug as he drew her closer against him so he could do just that. She sighed softly and he loved when she did that because it not only meant she liked kissing him but that she was okay doing it.

"Merry Christmas, Claire," he said when he finally drew away. He didn't kiss her as long as he wanted to, mindful they could have people watching them who wouldn't appreciate him kissing her the way he'd really like to. He did settle his arms around her, though, not quite ready for her to go back inside.

"You, too, John. Are you doing anything tomorrow?"

"Nope. Hanging out with Sammy."

"Oh," she said.

"You?"

"I'll be here until after lunch. We usually eat pretty early so Grandma and Grandpa can go back home before it gets dark."

"How early is pretty early?"

"Like one o'clock. Mom usually wakes up before the sun comes up to start the turkey and everything so it's done on time."

"Do you help her?"

"I do, but I don't wake up before the sun comes up."

John chuckled softly.

"You want to go down to China Town tomorrow night for dinner?"

"Really?" she asked.

"Sure."

"I haven't been there forever."

"Well, see, you can change that tomorrow."

"But we may not get done eating until like three o'clock. You know how cooking turkeys can be."

"I don't, but I'll take your word for it. We could go a little later. Come over instead of going home and we can go whenever you get hungry."

"You're sure?"

"What kind of question is that? I'm asking, aren't I?"

"Yes."

"Well then obviously I'm sure."

"Sure. I'll call you before I leave in case you're not home."

"I'm not going anywhere. The only place I'd be is out walking Sammy. My dinner will consist of the leftovers from last night."

Neither of them had finished their meals the night before. Claire had insisted he could take hers home, too, because she'd never eat it with everything she was doing over the next couple of days. So he had what amounted to almost a full portion of food to reheat and eat tomorrow.

"You could come here."

"Nope," he said.

"Now if you call me tomorrow and tell me your mom's insisting or something I'll reconsider, but I think I'll leave here tonight knowing I did okay and hope I don't see them again for a while. Them not you."

"I thought of telling Mom the truth."

"Why didn't you?"

Claire sighed softly. "She was so … excited I couldn't do it. I know she's incredibly disappointed."

He knew that thought process incredibly well, except his parents' disappointment was an entirely different thing than what she was driving at. Actually, he suspected his mom wasn't disappointed in him anymore in the least. His dad, on the other hand, probably was not at work bragging about his son the comic drawer.

"It's all right, Claire. I can see it from your point of view, especially her knowing we spent a week together. I could see why you wouldn't want to admit we weren't dating."

"Thank you."

He leaned in and kissed her again.

"You'd better go in now or they're going to wonder what we're doing out here."

"Mom or Michael are probably watching us anyway."

He'd assumed they weren't completely alone out here, he was glad to know she thought the same way.

Sammy was glad to see him when he got home. John took him out for a good long walk since he'd been cooped up for hours. He wasn't used to that. There was absolutely nothing on TV. A lot of crap. The best of the bunch was the millionth airing of It's A Wonderful Life. It wasn't a movie John was overly fond of, but he wasn't tired and it was better than the news so he settled on his couch with a beer and Sammy next to him.

He took Sammy out one last time about half past eleven. He had every intention of going to his room and crashing for the night. He hadn't put his suit back in his closet after changing out of it and he eyed it as he brushed his teeth. He got the stupid idea of putting it back on and getting back in his car and heading in the direction of their church. He knew which church they went to because Claire had mentioned it last night at dinner when he was trying to bone up on facts and trivia about her family so he didn't look like a moron at dinner tonight.

It was packed. Jam packed. He found them, though. They were easy to find. Well, she was easy to find. Her mother was clearly surprised and Claire was staring at him so he'd surprised her, too.

"John. Claire didn't tell us you were joining us."

"I wasn't sure I'd be able to."

That was a lame excuse and her mom knew it as well as he did.

Her grandfather was scrutinizing him closely. John fought the urge to fidget. He had not done anything wrong to warrant this guy's evil eye. If the man wanted to assume more happened than what occurred between them that was on him not John.

"We didn't save you a seat."

"Yeah, I realize that's a problem. I was going to see if Claire would come sit with me. I'm sure we can find somewhere to sit." It was a huge church. Of course John hadn't been in any before tonight to compare it, but he knew its reputation and it had one of the largest congregations in the suburbs. So it seemed a given the seating area would be large to compensate for that.

"Absolutely," she said, standing from her seat and making her way out of the pew towards him once she'd grabbed her purse.

"Hi," he said.

"Hi," she said.

"I guess we kind of shocked them, didn't we?"

"I guess so."

"All right then," he said as she settled her hand over his forearm. "Let's find some seats then."

"What are you doing here?" she whispered.

He shrugged. "Couldn't sleep?"

"Oh," she said.

"You realize this is new to me, right?"

"Yes."

"So kick me or something if I'm supposed to do this or that."

"I think you'll follow along easy enough."

"I'll do my best."

"I won't have to kick you."

"That's good because something tells me with those shoes it'd hurt."

She laughed softly.

"Why are you really here?" she asked, leaning in to whisper in his ear once they'd found a couple of seats. They were way in the back and probably wouldn't be able to see much of anything real well.

"I don't know. I really don't. I was brushing my teeth, all set to change to get ready for bed, Sammy was waiting for me and everything. Yet, here I am."

"He sleeps with you?"

"Yes."

"That's kind of cute."

"If you say so. Cute enough you'd like to come see it?"

"Maybe," she said, surprising him. It was a totally inappropriate question to ask her minutes before Christmas Eve mass began, even he knew that. He couldn't resist, though. Her 'maybe' was better than he'd expected.

"Doesn't your cat do that?"

"Well, yes, sometimes, not all of the time, no."

"Ah yes, one of those differences between dogs and cats."

"I guess so."

"Are you mad?"

"Mad? No."

"All right, good."

She leaned in, kissing him on the cheek. "Thank you."

"Don't mention it."

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