***Chapter Ten***
Word Count: 4,684

February 1995

John stared at the card, wondering if there would ever stop being residual side effects from her lie. This one affected him, though, and would apparently require him to ask a favor of her for a change.

He glanced at the envelope again.

Mr. John Bender & Guest

That was printed in some fancy script on the inner envelope.

The outer envelope was simply addressed to him with a California return address. He recognized the name Sauvageau in the return address. He hadn't a clue what they'd be sending him, so he put off opening the envelope for a couple of days. He'd sort of forgotten about it, truthfully, after setting it aside. He opened it finally this afternoon when he was putting some things away and saw it again. The outer envelope had just been addressed to him.

He had no doubt who the & Guest was expected to be. He wondered if she got one, too, or if it was sent to him because he actually had something to do with the movie, however minor he believed his role in it to be.

He glanced at the clock on his desk and figured she should be home by now. He hadn't talked to her all week. She'd been busy, tied up in court for a change, and he'd had a deadline that he'd had to burn the candle at both ends to meet because he had a week-long convention in Dallas coming up. That coming right on the heels of an unexpected four day trip out to Los Angeles. He'd holed himself up in his office and hadn't come out for much other than to eat, use the bathroom, and take Sammy out.

"All right, Sammy, let's go for a drive," he said, grabbing the invitation.

It was probably the fanciest piece of mail he'd ever gotten in his life. He'd assumed at first it was a thank-you note or something, except John hadn't gotten them a gift. Their gift had come from Claire, though he imagined she'd put his name on the card as well. He hadn't thought to ask at the time. (For that matter, he had no idea what she'd even gotten them.) So why Rene would be sending him something baffled John.

He settled Sammy in the backseat before heading over to her house. Why he was going over there versus just calling her on the phone he couldn't say for sure. Other than he hadn't seen her in almost two weeks and that sort of bothered him. Especially since he'd only seen her once before the two weeks for about two hours over dinner. It was Friday night, going to see her seemed the thing to do.

He was going to be tied up next week with the convention in Dallas and then there'd be another one next month. That one was here in town, but he still had to be there at all hours of the day and night. It was the reason he wanted to be sure he got his work done. He didn't want it hanging over his head.

Tuxedo, her cat (who was all black except, appropriately given his name, for a bit of white fur on his chest and paws) wasn't too sure what to make of Sammy, but he tolerated the dog the one or two times John had brought him over. Tolerated meant the cat made himself scarce almost immediately. Sammy loved Claire's house because he was able to run around in her backyard without a leash for as long as he wanted since it was fenced in. She had an in ground pool in her backyard so the fence was high enough John didn't have to worry about Sammy jumping over it.

Her garage door was open and her car was in it when he pulled onto her driveway. He was guessing she'd just gotten home not that long ago then so he'd timed getting here pretty well.

"Sammy," he said when he ran to her front door. Apparently, he was looking forward to running around in Claire's yard quite a bit judging by the way he darted out of his car for her porch.

It was a nice house, as he'd expected. He had no idea what she planned on doing with all the rooms she had in it, but it was impressive. He'd found out his first time here that she had a lot of input into the way things were done when the house was being built. It wasn't exactly a custom-made home, but he would wager there were things in her house that wouldn't be found in others like it in her neighborhood. He knew she had a nicer fireplace in her master suite than the one in the living room. She'd told him about it, he hadn't seen it.

He knocked on the door lightly, ringing the bell when she didn't answer after a few minutes. If she was upstairs or something she maybe didn't hear him.

He wasn't sure what to make of the fact she hadn't answered when more than enough time to get to the door from anywhere in her house had passed. He didn't think she'd intentionally not answer the door if she saw his truck on her driveway. They hadn't seen one another the past couple of weeks, but he thought she understood. She'd been tied up, too. He'd told her he was going to busy. The trip to California was unexpected, but certainly she had to understand that. It wasn't as if he wouldn't have talked to her if she'd called, but when he was working with a deadline looming over his head he typically didn't do things like call people. (Of course he didn't really have anyone to call socially so until this week that hadn't really been a problem.)

Sammy was by her back door now, barking excitedly. It was probably going to be a toss-up between who'd be more bummed about not seeing her. Sammy wanting to run around in her yard or John. He was pretty sure he was more bummed than the dog. Come this summer, though, when Sammy would probably be interested in the pool he wagered they'd be about even. The pool was heated, but Sammy didn't know that so he hadn't braved going in there to this point. John was pretty sure he'd love it if he did. Hell, John wanted to test it out, but to this point he hadn't had a reason to suggest it.

"Come on, Sammy," he said, whistling to get his attention. His eyes fell on the open garage door and he got a bit puzzled. Claire was a lot of things, but he didn't see her careless enough to leave the house with her garage door open. She didn't have a lot of things in her garage, but she had the typical expensive things like a snow blower and some furniture that she probably put out in her backyard during the summer. He was surprised there was no lawn mower or pool equipment, but he guessed it was probably in the shed she had behind her garage so as not to take up space in here. Why she was worried when the garage was bigger than a standard two-car garage he'd never know.

He checked the hood on her car, which was still warm. Not hot as if she'd just gotten home but warm enough that he didn't think she'd been home for hours or anything. If she was going out again she'd probably get mad at him for doing it, but he shut the garage door behind him. He called for Sammy who was not by the door anymore. He was inside now, judging by his barking. Odd, too, since Sammy wasn't really a barker. He supposed it was possible that Tuxedo hissed at him or something.

He was surprised she hadn't said something to acknowledge his presence, telling him to leave the garage door open or thanking him for closing it. Something.

Until he saw her laying on the floor not a few feet from the door.

"Shit," he said, freezing for a moment as he processed the fact she wasn't reacting to Sammy or him. It was hot in the house, too, he noticed that almost as soon as he came to grips with the fact she was laying there not moving. He stepped around her, grabbing the phone she had on the wall nearby to dial 911.

Other than telling them she was, in fact, breathing he couldn't offer them much information. She was incredibly crazy hot to the touch to go with the house being practically sweltering, making him wonder if she'd been sick or something.

He had no idea how long she'd been there beyond her usual time of getting home around six o'clock or a little before each night. It was currently six forty-five, so that was an hour to forty-five minutes give or take she'd possibly been laying here. She hadn't called him before leaving work or anything. They had no plans, which was why he sort of got the idea to drive over here and see her instead of calling. He offered to call her brother or dad to ask, but they didn't want him to do that.

No, she didn't do drugs. (He supposed he could be wrong on that one, but he was pretty sure his answer was the correct one.)

No, there was no sign of a disturbance. (He'd actually set the phone down for a few minutes after that question to look around and see if that was, in fact, the case. The front door was locked, everything seemed intact and where it was supposed to be. He didn't venture upstairs as he'd never been up there so would have no clue if anything was out of place or not.)

They didn't want him to move her in anyway, but he saw no obvious signs of trauma. No blood underneath her or anything like that.

They wanted him to stay on the line with them while the ambulance was on the way. Easy enough, he had no plans on going anywhere until they got there anyway.

He was pretty sure he hadn't felt this helpless since he was a real little kid and he saw his dad throw his mom around. He hadn't been big enough to do anything to help her then. He had no idea what the fuck was going on with Claire to help her now. It was a very different feeling, though. He wasn't in the frame of mind to put much thought into it, but he knew he'd feel pretty fucking worthless if she died or something while he was sitting here on the phone talking to the emergency dispatcher.

She started to come around about the time the dispatcher was telling him they were turning onto her block. He breathed a sigh of relief at the small sounds coming from her. She wasn't talking or anything, but they were sounds just the same.

Sammy was barking like crazy when the paramedics came to the backdoor. John didn't have keys to open the lock on her front door so he'd told the dispatcher to have them come to this one. He hung up with the dispatcher and worked at settling Sammy down while they did what they needed to do.

"How long has she been sick?" one of them asked him?

"I don't know. I haven't seen her all week. We didn't even have plans today. I came over on my own."

She still hadn't done more than make some murmur-type sounds.

"Well, her temperature is pushing one hundred four."

"Oh," he said, knowing that wasn't a good thing at all. He wasn't a doctor or anything, but he knew anything that high was not good.

He spotted her purse on the floor once they moved her and got her on the gurney. He couldn't understand what they were talking about at the moment anyway. He grabbed her purse, hoping her keys were easily accessible as they worked at putting some sort of IV line into her. He had absolutely no desire to watch that. He'd injected himself a few times over the years, but that seemed like another life now. Totally different, too, then what they were doing to her and why.

He found her keys, hoping she'd forgive him later for digging through her purse. He thought she'd forgive him for doing that versus leaving her house unlocked. Because if she thought he'd not follow her to the hospital she was pretty crazy. He'd just have to stop and drop Sammy off first. Shermer Memorial was kind of in the middle so he'd pass it to get to his condo and have to double back to get back there.

He locked the door and closed the gate there while they settled her into the ambulance.

Sammy wasn't any happier about this turn of events than John was. John honestly couldn't recall ever hearing him bark this much in all of the time he'd had him.

"All right, Sammy, let's get you home," he said.

He got to the hospital within the hour, checking in at the front reception area to find out where she was. He supposed he should call her parents, but not knowing what was wrong or even how long she'd be there he wasn't going to until he knew something. He'd feel pretty stupid to call them if she was going to be ready to go home before the end of the night.

She had a private room. Of course she did. Her insurance probably covered things like that automatically. He checked in at the nurse's station so they knew who he was and to try and find out some information. Like what the fuck was wrong with her. He was told her nurse or doctor would be in shortly to talk with him.

Great.

He took a seat in a chair next to her bed. He turned the TV on after a few minutes of complete silence because that was just driving him crazy. He glanced at the phone more than once, certain he should probably call her parents. He would once he knew what was going on.

"John?"

He must have really been zoning out on the latest episode of The X-Files for him not to even realize she was awake and moving around.

"Hey," he said, reaching for the controller thing to turn the volume down.

"What am I…"

"I'm really not sure. I stopped by to see you, your garage door was wide open, the gate was open, your backdoor was open, and there you were on the floor. Scared the shit out of me."

"I'm sorry."

He snorted at that. "You don't have to apologize. I'm just telling you. It scared the shit out of me seeing you like that. I had no idea what the fuck to even do. I mean, I remember vaguely in health class we did CPR training, but fuck if I thought of even trying that when I found you."

"What did you do?"

"Called 911."

"I'd say you did alright then."

"Thanks," he said wryly. He stood then. "Let me get your nurse. Once they found out I wasn't your husband or anything they pretty much clammed up. All I got out of them was you have a fever and were severely dehydrated."

"I've been sick."

"I gathered that, yeah," he said.

"I had to go to court, though. I couldn't put it off."

"Well, something tells me you could've if you'd told your dad how sick you were. I mean, fuck Claire, who knows how long you would've been laying there. Never mind my going over there, Sammy's the one who spotted your door was open. I wouldn't have looked that closely."

"I know," she said, worrying her lower lip with her teeth.

"I'll be right back," he said, squeezing her hand (the one without the IV line going into it) gently.

"What were you watching?" she asked.

He chuckled softly. "The X-Files. You ever see it?"

"No, I guess I haven't."

"It's not bad actually," he said with a shrug. "I'll be back. Don't go anywhere."

"That'd be almost funny if I wasn't like attached to things."

"I know, right? At least I don't have to worry about coming back to finding you unconscious again. I could do without that for a while."

He stayed out of the room while the nurse and her doctor went into check on and talk to her. He found a vending machine and got himself a can of pop and a bottle of juice for her. It was apple juice, but it had to be better than nothing. Then what he knew about sick people, dehydration, and fevers was pretty much nothing.

"Thank you," she said when he came back and gave her the apple juice.

"Sure."

"You don't have to stay, you know," she said.

"What?" he asked.

"Well, it's Friday night…"

"Yeah?"

"I'm sure you have better places to be."

"Well, I can't think of many worse places to be on a Friday night than a hospital, but no I don't have anywhere else to be."

"I just assumed…"

"What?" he asked with a frown.

"I don't know. I haven't seen you much. I haven't seen you this week at all actually."

"You said you were going to be busy! I told you I had some deadlines myself knowing I was going to be gone next week."

"I know. I just," she shrugged.

"You what? Just assumed I'd blow you off? Go on a date with someone else instead of you?"

"I wouldn't blame you."

"Uh huh," he said. "You wouldn't blame me for going on a date with someone else? That means you're doing that?"

"No!"

He was more relieved to hear that than he thought he would be.

"Why were you at my house?"

He sighed, kind of glad she was changing the subject. He wasn't sure sitting in a hospital room was the place to talk about things. He reached into his coat pocket but the invitation wasn't there.

"Shit, it must be at your house," he said.

"What?"

"I got a very nice invitation. Actually I think you'd probably be pretty impressed by it, too, though maybe their wedding invitations were just as nice."

"Who?"

"April and Rene. I got an invitation to the movie premiere."

"Oh," she said.

"You didn't?" he asked.

"Why would I?"

"I don't know. I don't know what they're thinking sending me one. I guess he as it's from Rene. Man, do you know how much money I could make having his personal information."

She laughed softly.

"I wouldn't do that."

"I know," she said softly. She tried to open the apple juice bottle but was having a hard time with it so he did it for her. It was one of those tops that the middle popped up on when the seal was broken. He imagined she was probably pretty weak to where opening something like that would be hard.

"Thank you."

"You don't have to thank me. That's what people do for one another."

"I know. I just," she shrugged.

"Okay. You do remember the conversation we had about the past couple of weeks, right? You were going to be tied up preparing for and then going to court. I had the trip and a couple of deadlines to meet. I told you it wasn't that I didn't want to see you and if my not seeing you was going to cause a problem you needed to tell me. Right? So I could take you to lunch or something. You remember that?"

"Yes."

"I'm just making sure that fever isn't making you forgetful."

"No," she said.

"I called you from LA once, maybe it wasn't as often as you would've liked but with the time difference I didn't want to call too late, you know?"

"I know," she said.

"So you remember that we were both kind of out of pocket this week."

"Yes."

"That's why I figured dropping by tonight wouldn't be bad. I could talk to you about the trip and we could get dinner or something."

"Obviously not."

"Well, you know, I hear hospital food is the way to go."

"I doubt that."

"Me, too," he said. "Will you even get anything tonight?"

"I don't know. The nurse said she'd try and get me something."

"Let me ask if I can bring something in for you."

"Like what?"

"I don't know. A sandwich? Soup?"

"Oh. That sounds great."

"I'll see what I can find out. I'll be right back."

"Wait."

"What?"

"What did you want to talk to me about?"

"Afraid I won't come back?"

"No, but if I'm sleeping you won't wake me up."

"No, I wouldn't."

"And you'll have to get home to Sammy."

"You have Sammy to thank for finding you, by the way."

"What do you mean?"

He explained to her what happened.

"I'm glad he did then."

"Me, too," he said. "I was going to go home, chalk it up to you went with someone somewhere or whatever."

"I wouldn't have left my garage door open."

"I didn't think so, but I can't claim to know your habits well."

"You were right. So tell me."

"Well, it should be fairly obvious."

"What is?"

"I got this invitation with Mr. John Bender & Guest in a fancy type of script I probably can't even pronounce written on it. The guest part I assume is you. I mean, I'm getting invited because of you. Your April's friend. I'm your boyfriend. So, it stands to reason the expectation is I'm bringing you."

"You want me to come?"

"Well, yeah. Why wouldn't I?"

"I don't know."

"Claire. What is your deal?"

"There is no deal. I just wasn't sure if with how busy we both were you had a change of heart about all of this."

"All of this being seeing you?"

"Yes. I mean, a busy week probably wouldn't stop a normal woman from seeing you."

"Why not?"

"She'd spend the night with you or something."

"Possibly. It's only been a few weeks, though, I'm not quite to the point where I'd expect you to spend the night with me. Now if you wanted to come spend the night with me…"

She laughed softly at that, but he could tell even that bit of exertion took its toll on her.

"The paramedics said my house was warm."

"It was. It was like a sauna in there. Really."

"I wonder if my furnace isn't working right. Maybe that's why I passed out? Running a fever and going into a room so hot? I sort of remember it."

"You're lucky, you know that."

"What do you mean?"

"You're lucky you didn't hit your head on anything. Your table. That counter right off your door."

"Oh, I know. I don't think I even got beyond the door."

"You didn't," he said, remembering very vividly how she was laying on the floor. He doubted he'd ever forget it. "You're not going to do that again, are you? You're that sick you're going to find some way to fix it or get a continuance."

"John…"

"You scared the shit out of me, Claire. Do you know that? I still don't know what I would've done if you were, if something really bad happened to you."

"I'm fine."

"Yeah, today. I mean, I don't know what's in store for us. You know? I like you, I think you like me, but even if we stop seeing each other and go our separate ways I will always feel better knowing you're at least around."

"Why?"

"Because the world's just a better place with you in it? I don't know what else to say. The same reason I'm kind of glad the criminal law thing didn't appeal to you. I like you the way you are."

She scoffed softly at that.

"Hey, it's true, Claire."

"Thank you."

"I was going to call you tonight anyway. There's busy and there's stupid. I'm not stupid enough to not see you over the weekend before I'm going to be gone for over a week especially with Valentine's Day falling during the time I'm going to be gone."

"Oh," she said.

"Getting the invitation just made me decide to go over there instead of just calling. I'm glad I did."

"Me, too."

"You are coming with me, right?"

"John…"

"Come on. I went to Paris with you and we weren't even really dating!"

"I know."

He frowned a bit, regarding her.

"That's why? Because you're actually dating me this time? We'll get you your own room if that makes you feel better."

"That's ridiculous."

"I kind of think so, but hey, I don't know what exactly you're thinking right now. You won't tell me."

"I just, I don't know anything about movies."

"Like I do? Come on, you know more about that type of thing than I do. I'm sure if you call April she can give you tips on what to wear. I guess I have it easy in that regard."

"When is it?"

"Um, next month. You'll have to look at the invitation when you get home, I guess since I apparently left it there. It's probably on the counter by your phone."

"I'm sorry."

"It's not your fault. Just say you'll come with me."

"Okay."

"You're going to remember this tomorrow once the fever is down, right?"

"Probably."

"I'll remind you."

"I'm sure you will."

"Now, let me go see about that food."

"No, don't."

"Claire," he said.

"No, don't, just stay here until you have to go."

"You're sure," he said.

She slid her hand to his and he met her hand halfway. He was more than surprised when she laced her fingers through his. She didn't usually do things like that, their handholding never really got beyond the normal, run of the mill stuff.

"You know I didn't call your parents."

"They don't need to know. I'll be home tomorrow probably once the doctor knows my fever is down and the fluids they're giving me are helping."

"That soon?"

"Yes. I probably won't be able to go to work Monday."

"Did you finish up in court?"

"Yes, the judge has to make his decision, but someone from the firm can go to court for that if they have to."

"Your brother or dad will?"

"Probably."

"Does Tuxedo need anything for the night?"

"Oh God, I'm so lucky he didn't get out!"

John pondered that for a minute. He hadn't actually seen the cat. He reached into his coat pocket and took her keys out.

"I will stop by there on my way home to make sure he's inside and has food and water."

"That's so far out of your way!"

"You'd do it for me if the situation was reversed."

"Yes, but Sammy is a dog!"

"Well, sure, it's cold out. I didn't see him so I will be sure he's inside."

"The only way you'll know for sure is to open a can of tuna."

"Tuna?"

"Yes. It's in the pantry. I have like a dozen cans of it. The can opener is on the counter. He hears it and no matter where he is in the house he comes running. Otherwise if he's hiding you'll never find him."

"All right," he said. "Thanks for that. I would've stayed all night looking everywhere if I had to."

"I know."

"So, you turned the TV off."

"Yeah," she said.

"That means you want to talk to me I take it."

"It does."

"About what?"

"Tell me what you've been working on this week," she said.

"Really?"

"Yes, I want to hear about it."

"It'd be easier if I could show you."

"Well, try."

"All right," he said, leaning toward her a bit to start doing just that.

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