***Chapter Twelve***
Word Count: 3,886

"Hello," she said not even sure what time it was. She'd gotten home from work and collapsed almost immediately. She was very glad John hadn't taken her up on her offer to take care of Sammy while he was gone instead of his neighbor. There was no way she would've been able to walk him tonight. John must have suspected that. Backyards were nice, but she knew Sammy was used to going for walks.

'I woke you,' he said.

"No, I'm fine."

He snorted. 'You don't lie well. You're a lawyer, aren't you supposed to, like, be an expert?'

"I don't lie!"

He chuckled then. 'Now you sound as if you're awake.'

"Thank you," she said.

'Glad I could help. I'm sorry. I really thought calling now would be all right.'

"It's okay. How was your flight?"

'Oh, you know, the usual. No delays or anything at least.'

"Good."

'I was hoping I'd catch you before you went to bed. I guess I failed.'

"I fell asleep on the couch so I'm not in bed."

'Well, I don't feel quite so bad then.'

"I haven't even eaten yet."

'That's not good for you.'

"I know. I will. Mom brought over some soup. She said she knew you were gone so didn't call first."

'I think I mentioned that I was leaving to them on Saturday, yeah. Homemade?'

"Yes," she said. "I'll probably heat it up when we hang up. Crackers and soup sounds great."

'I suppose that's normal for you. Homemade soup from Mom.'

"Yes," she said, wincing slightly at that admission. She supposed that was not normal for him at all. "Sorry."

'Nothing to be sorry for.'

"I just…"

'Claire, you're fine. How are you feeling?'

"Other than tired, I'm fine. Dad told me to go home about three o'clock."

'Oh?'

"Yes, he said I looked like I was about to pass out so wanted me to get ahead of traffic."

'That was nice of him.'

"It was."

'You know I was thinking something as I was unpacking my stuff earlier.'

"What?"

'You know if you were of the mind and it wouldn't cost the price of a new car you could come down here for the weekend.'

"Really?"

'It's going to be really nice out.'

"Can you do that?"

'Do what?' he asked.

"Have people stay with you?"

'Why wouldn't I be able to?'

"I don't know."

'They pay for my room, but there's room for you in it. I mean, they'd probably complain if I had a wild orgy in here but that wasn't what I had in mind anyway. I'd have to buy you a pass to get in for the weekend if you wanted to walk around and stuff. It's going to be in the sixties all weekend they say.'

"Really?"

He chuckled. 'Should I be upset that the weather entices you more than spending a weekend with me?'

"But you're going to be busy!"

'Not at night, Princess,' he said.

"Where are you?"

'Right now?'

"Yeah."

'My room, why?'

"I don't know. Just wondered. I didn't think you'd be there at this time."

'I'm kind of in between things. The convention doesn't open until tomorrow afternoon. I had to set up some stuff, which I did. I'll go back down in a little while and hang out with the people that are here. Not all come the night before. I decided to leave my table for a while and come up just to try to call you before it got too late.'

"Oh, thank you," she said.

'Well, you have the hotel information. If you decide to come down let me know, or I guess just show up here and surprise me.'

"I…"

'Yeah, I know, it was kind of spur of the moment. I've honestly never really had anyone to ask to come with me to things like this before. So it didn't even occur to me.'

"And you'd really want me there?"

'What kind of question is that?'

"I don't know. That's your work. I'm not your work."

'No, you're certainly not my work. What exactly are you asking me?'

"I don't know," she said. She hadn't really thought he'd want her around him when he was working, or whatever he considered himself to be doing.

'Well, like I said, you decide and if the tickets don't cost crazy amounts of money come on down. I promise there's room for you.'

"What would I do?"

'Uh. Well, you could walk around. I don't have a car, but if you wanted to rent one you could do that and do whatever you wanted while I was tied up. There are some vendors. I don't know how much of it you'd be interested in, but you certainly know how to shop so I shouldn't have to teach you how to browse.'

'Very funny."

'I know, right? I crack myself up. You could swim, though probably you shouldn't just getting over being sick.'

"No," she said.

'Bring a book? There are guests you could sit and listen to talk. Including me.'

"Huh," she said.

'That doesn't interest you?'

"No, it does. It'd just be kind of weird."

'Too weird?'

"I don't know."

'Well, I was going to see if you wanted to come next month, so if you want to wait until then if you think it'd be less weird. I should be able to swing a complimentary day pass for you or something.'

"Really?"

'Well, I thought you might like to see what I do. I don't know, maybe not.'

"I would."

'Well, see.'

"You're not just asking me because of what happened the last couple nights, are you?"

"John?" she asked when he didn't answer her.

'I'm hanging up now because if I don't I'll probably say something I'll regret and I really don't want to do that tonight. I am going to try to pretend you didn't ask me that. Okay? I'll leave it at this. You decide to come and it's affordable, great. You don't whatever your reasons for choosing not to, no sweat, I'll just see you when I get back whenever you can.'

"John. I didn't mean…"

'You get some rest, okay, Claire.'

"John."

She sighed softly, hanging up the phone. He hadn't even let her say good bye. She shouldn't have asked him that, she guessed. She just, God, she didn't want him doing things out of some obligation. She glanced at the roses he'd sent her yesterday. He'd sent them because of her lie, because her lie bled into their real lives and that led to him having to meet her parents. He'd sent them because what boyfriend of eight months wouldn't send his girlfriend roses for Valentine's Day. They were gorgeous and she would be sad when the last one died and she'd have to throw them away. She felt incredibly guilty, though. She'd gotten him a card, but to this point other than a trip to California next month her lie hadn't really affected her drastically. Well, aside from her mother having visions of more grandchildren in the next couple of years.

She had his number where he was staying, but she doubted he'd pick up right now anyway. She had no idea what he had going on for the night, but she was surprised he'd called so early. She was kind of surprised he'd called at all since she'd seen him this morning before she left for work. He'd woken up with her and left when she did. She wouldn't have had a problem with him staying until he woke up, but he didn't seem comfortable doing that. She wasn't sure why exactly. It was, she noticed glancing at the clock on the wall, not even six o'clock yet. He'd gone out of his way to call her to avoid waking her up later.

She sighed again, deciding to heat up her mom's soup and go up to bed for real when she was done. She scratched her hand. She had a bruise bigger than a quarter there from the needle her IV was connected to and since it was starting to heal it itched like crazy. She couldn't complain, she supposed, she felt better for the most part. She was just tired. The doctor had told her it would probably take a while for her to feel one hundred percent again.

She had no idea where she'd be if John hadn't found her. Her mom wouldn't have had any reason to come over here during the weekend. She didn't so much anymore because she seemed to think Claire was either at John's or John was here. She and her mom weren't real close, but they got along much better when Claire moved back home after graduating from law school. Better enough that her mom had, until the past month or so, always seemed to find some excuse to stop by Claire's house Saturday or Sunday. She found something on sale at Dominick's that she thought Claire would want some of. She bought too many donuts from the bakery and wanted Claire to have some.

So, if John hadn't come here last Friday there was no telling how long she'd have been laying there. He said she started to come to a bit right before the paramedics got there so maybe she would've on her own. She wouldn't have kicked the fever she was running on her own, though. She knew that much. She wouldn't have gone to the doctor either. She'd felt like crap all week but had been stupid to push herself. She really hadn't thought it was that serious, just a bad cold that most anyone who lived in Chicago got at some point during the winter. She'd just assumed she was worn down because of it. She went to court so seldom that she'd worked late every night beforehand to be sure she had all the ammunition she needed to back her up.

She picked up the phone in her kitchen and called a number she hadn't called in a long time. She'd talked to Rachel more than a few times after she'd gone up there nine years ago, but after a while it got harder and harder to talk to her. Rachel was married with two kids and judging by this year's Christmas card a third one was on the way. Claire wasn't mad at her friend, but God, it hurt that the one person who knew what she did had kids.

"Hi, Kent, this is Claire. Claire Standish."

'How are you, Claire?'

"I'm doing well. You?"

'About the same. Looking forward to spring, but I think that's everyone up here these day.'

"I suppose so."

'You're probably looking for Rachel?'

"I am. Is she busy?"

'She's not actually. Let me grab her before that changes.'

"Thank you."

He covered the phone with his hand, calling for Rachel to tell her Claire was on the phone for her.

'She's going to pick up the other extension, okay?'

"Yeah, sure, Kent, thanks. It was nice talking to you."

'You, too.'

She'd always liked Kent. She didn't know him real well. She'd met him at their wedding and one or two other times when Rachel and her family had come to Chicago for various reasons. They talked on the phone, though, whenever he answered Claire's calls. He was always nice to her and most of all, Rachel always seemed happy.

'Hey, Claire.'

"Hi. How are you?"

'Oh, well, I'm okay.'

She wasn't expecting that response. Rachel was one of the most positive people Claire knew. She was always better than a simple okay and to hear her say that bothered Claire a bit.

"Is everything okay?"

She laughed softly. 'It is. I'm just kind of tired today. It's been cold so the girls were stuck inside all day. So they're a little wound up. They didn't want to eat their dinner so it was like pulling teeth to get them to. I'm so tired of being pregnant, but I still have four weeks to go.'

"If it's a bad time."

'Not at all. There's never really a good time around here.'

It was one of the reasons their phone calls got fewer and fewer. Her life was so busy. Her kids were still pretty young. Claire didn't think the oldest was in school yet until this coming fall, but they were both girls and Rachel already had them in dance classes and gymnastics. Claire knew Rachel was always open to talking to her, she just felt as if she was taking up what free time her friend had so didn't call often. She wrote her letters, though, once in a while.

"Okay. If you're sure."

'Positive. What's up?'

"Well, I just needed to talk and I have no one else I can talk to about this."

'Oh?'

"It's kind of a funny story. Remember the guy I told you about from that day of detention?"

'John Bender?'

"You remember his name?"

Rachel laughed then. 'I remember more than his name, Claire. I remember him. I didn't blame you eleven years ago for kissing him.'

"Rachel!"

'I'm married, Claire, I'm not blind. And, well, last I checked he's in Chicago and I'm here, happily going about my life.'

"Right," Claire said.

'So, what about John Bender? Because I know you're not calling all these years later to tell me he kissed as well as I always imagined he did.'

"He did," Claire said softly.

'He wasn't,' Rachel asked and stopped. 'I mean, that time you came up here our freshman year. He wasn't?'

"No," Claire said quickly. God, she was pretty positive even if she and John had sex that day and she'd gotten pregnant she wouldn't have made the same decision. She wasn't sure how John would've felt about that, but well. It didn't matter.

'You had me scared for a minute.'

"Sorry. I just," she sighed.

'Just spill it, Claire. Do you have a bottle of wine?'

"I do."

'Pour yourself a glass and talk to me.'

"That sounds great, but I really shouldn't. I'm taking some antibiotics."

'You okay?'

"Yeah. Just getting over being sick."

'All right. So, skip the wine then. Talk to me.'

"Well, I just don't know what to do. I said something stupid, I guess. I didn't mean to, but I have no one else to talk to because everyone thinks he's my boyfriend."

'John?'

"Yes."

'Why do they think that?'

She sighed, deciding to start at the beginning.

'Hmm, should I ask if he was as good at everything else as I imagined he was?'

"Rachel! You imagined that?"

'I went through my bad boy phase. I moved away and got over it.'

Claire laughed softly. She remembered Rachel's bad boy phase. Claire had never understood the appeal. Until John.

"I remember. Um. James Howell."

Rachel laughed then. "He was the one you knew about."

"Rachel!"

"So, you changed the subject from my question about everything else. So I take that as a no comment. Okay then.'

"Well, yes, I'm not calling you to complain about it or anything. I obviously insulted him, though."

'Obviously. Do you really think he was inviting you to go down there because of that?'

"I don't know. I really don't. This has all sort of gotten out of control and I'm not sure what he's thinking."

'Being out of control isn't always bad, Claire.'

"I don't have time for that!"

'Well, it sounds like he wants you to make time.'

"I know."

'I can't believe you're going to a movie premier and the after party and everything. I'm jealous. I can't wait to tell Kent. We're taking the girls to the movie. Shioban loves Simon. Kent reads the comics and she sort of latched onto Simon for whatever reason. She tries to draw him and everything.'

"Oh God."

'Claire, I don't know if you really wanted advice or just to spill this all out to someone.'

"Kind of," she admitted.

'I kind of thought so. You want me to tell you I don't think you're crazy?'

"For what?"

'Getting involved with him? Flying to Dallas? Falling in love with him? Take your pick.'

"I don't know if I'm flying to Dallas."

'You're not denying the other two things.'

"No," she said.

'Did you love him before the sex and the roses?'

"Yes," she said. "I think I loved him the moment he crawled into bed with me the first time in Paris."

'I can't say as I blame you. It sounds as if he handled that information well, too. Some guys wouldn't, you know? Drugged or not they'd still manage to find some way to think it was your fault. I wish you would've told me what had happened back then. I had no idea. I mean, I thought it was kind of strange you of all people got yourself into that predicament, but it wasn't my place to judge. It makes a lot more sense, though, knowing now what the situation was.'

"I know. I didn't want you to know. I was so embarrassed. I knew better! Because he was my friend's brother, though," she shrugged.

'You should've gotten some counseling or something, Claire.'

"It's kind of too late for that now."

'Not necessarily.'

"That's not why I called you."

'I know. I don't know what to tell you. You could call him later tonight and apologize.'

"I honestly don't know if he'd answer his phone. He hung up on me!"

'Can you blame him?'

"No," Claire said with a pout. She really couldn't. She imagined he'd been pretty insulted, understandably.

'On the other hand, should he have gotten mad at you for asking that question? I don't know. It sounds as though he's maybe more upset that you doubt him.'

"Can you blame me? He was thrown into this."

'He was not. He chose. He made a decision. While your lie has led to more than you both imagined it would, he still agreed to go with you. You didn't force him. You didn't make him go to your parents' house for Christmas dinner.'

"If he didn't, though." Claire said.

'Yeah,' Rachel said.

Claire shrugged, not that her friend could see it. "He was worried if he didn't go and we got to a point where he had to meet them they'd hold it against him."

'You still didn't make him, Claire. I also don't think someone like him is going to meet your parents and then fuck you over.'

"I know."

'You had Monday off from work?'

"And Tuesday."

'How bad is your work load?'

"It's not real bad actually, because I was in court all last week so Sonia put some people off not knowing how long court was going to last."

'Stuff you could take with you if you had to?'

"I could, sure. I brought some home with me today, thinking I'd have time when I got here to work on it."

'Fell asleep instead?'

"Yes. Almost as soon as I sat on the couch."

'Sounds like you needed it.'

"That's what John said."

'He's not wrong,' Rachel said.

"I suppose."

'So, here's a hypothetical question for you.'

"Okay," Claire said.

'He's busy, right?'

"Yes. I mean, I don't know his schedule or anything, but I know he talks and stuff. You know, conferences, signs stuff and things like that. The thing doesn't really start until tomorrow."

'So, say you went down there and brought your work with you. You'd have time to do it while he was doing other things?'

"Yes," she said.

'You'd be relaxing, though, resting, which it sounds like you need.'

"I can't take more time off from work."

'As long as the work gets done why does it matter where you do it? Sonia can get a hold of you if she has to.'

"I can't have her calling me…"

'You did in Paris.'

"I wasn't sleeping with him when I went to Paris."

'I bet Sonia thought you were,' Rachel said.

She was probably right. If Sonia thought that was the case that meant ninety nine percent of the admins thought it was, too. Gossip was terrible in an office. Claire tried not to engage in it, to be above it, but she had ears. She certainly never imagined she'd be the focus of any gossip around there.

"I don't know."

'Claire, honey, I can't tell you what to do. I really can't. I'm sure he's mad at the moment. He hung up on you, though he did say he was going to so don't hold it against him. Obviously he was mad, though, if he felt the need to do that. He was probably a little hurt you'd think that, which I'd guess is why he's mad. You have to make the decision.'

"I know."

'And I'm sorry, but I do have to go. I think World War Three is about to start in Camille's bedroom.'

"Oh, I'm sorry."

'It's not your fault. Kent did his best, but I can hear they're out of control. They're probably fighting over this blanket my mother-in-law sent only one of and they both love it. I make them share it, but sometimes they forget whose night it is to have it.'

Claire smiled a little at that. He and her brother rarely ever fought about things growing up. They had their share of arguments and fights, but they were never over things. Claire and Christopher each had very distinct and different interests growing up. Their parents would never have had this problem in her house while they lived there.

"Well, thank you for talking to me this long," Claire glanced at the clock on her stove and realized they'd been talking for well over an hour now.

'If you need to talk more tomorrow, I'll be around.'

"Thank you. Say good night to Kent and the girls."

'I will if they're not grounded until they're eighteen.'

Claire laughed softly. "We knew our parents were never serious with that threat."

'Yeah, I know, Camille and Shioban know it, too.'

"Good night."

'Feel better.'

"Thank you," she said.

Claire hung up the phone, putting the bowl of soup she'd come into the kitchen to heat up before making the call to Rachel into the microwave. Her mom's soup was very good. If Claire was smart she'd get the recipe, but she'd still been living at home the last time she was sick enough to want or need her mom's soup.

"What's the matter, Tux?" she asked when her cat brushed up against her legs. He'd been out of sorts since coming back from John's place. Understandable, she supposed. He'd never been thrust into a totally new environment like that before. Before Christopher took him for the first time Claire had brought him over there for a while more than once to let him get used to it before he ever stayed there. He hadn't had that opportunity over the weekend.

"He didn't have to take you home with him, did he?" she asked, picking him up and running her fingers under his chin as he liked her to do. She smiled a little at his purrs, stopping after a few minutes and setting him down.

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