1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21 | 22 | 23 | 24




***Chapter One***
Word Count: 4,907

October 1994

Hi John. This is Claire. Um, Claire Standish I guess in case you know multiple Claire's. I got your number from the reunion directory thing from the class reunion packet. I was wondering if we could meet for a drink sometime this week. If you can't or don't want to would you give me a call back so at least I know. If you don't want to, just call during the day and leave a message. I'm usually gone until around six o'clock. I won't bother you again, I promise. I'd really appreciate it if you could, though. So, I hope to see you sometime this week if you can. Hope you're still doing well. Bye. Oh my number that would help: 708-555-4799. Thanks again!

And that message went down as the most unexpected phone call he'd ever received John thought as he took a sip of his beer. Okay ever was probably a severe overstatement, but he was pretty sure she was the last person he ever expected to hear a message from on his machine. He pressed the button on his machine to play the message back a second time.

Multiple Claire's.

Yeah right. There'd only ever been one Claire, even if he knew anyone else with the same name that'd still be true.

He wrote her number down on the small pad of paper he kept by the phone. The number he'd put in the directory was the number for his personal line. He never answered the damned thing. He kind of wished he had answered her call. He'd been in his office with the door closed, though, so hadn't even heard the phone ring. Anyone who absolutely had to get a hold of him knew to call his office number. She obviously wasn't one of the people who had that number.

Not surprisingly, she was one of only a handful of people who'd even called him after the reunion. He'd gone on a dare more or less. Someone had bet him whether anyone would even know who he was. The person thought no one would even remember him. John had known Claire would remember him and was sure to be there so he'd accepted the bet and gone.

They hadn't talked real long. Then he hadn't stayed real long either. He'd gone. He collected his hundred bucks from his friend and he'd sort of put it out of his mind. He had the directory she mentioned in her message in a box of stuff he'd intended on going through one of these days. It would most likely get tossed in the trash because there was no one he had any desire to look up ten years later.

He glanced at the clock on the wall in his kitchen. She'd called about forty-five minutes ago. He debated about blowing her off. What could she possibly have up her sleeve? Wanting to meet for a drink, my ass. He was curious, though, because she had to want something. She wouldn't just randomly call him. She wasn't that type of woman. She hadn't been ten years ago and he was pretty sure that hadn't changed about her.

No time like the present.

He picked up the phone then, dialing the number he'd written down.

'Hello,' she said.

"Hey. I mean hello, it's John Bender."

'Oh, John, I'm so glad you called me back. Thank you.'

"Sure. What's up?"

'Well, like I said, I was hoping we could meet for a drink sometime this week. You name the place and time I can juggle some things if I have to.'

"Well, how about tonight?"

'Tonight?'

"Yeah. May as well get it over with, right?"

'Well, put like that…'

"No offense, clearly you need to talk to me about something. So why put it off? You haven't called me in ten years so I'm sure you're not wanting to just catch up or whatever. So, I'm free."

'Okay, sure. Um. Chi Chi's? I could go for one of their margaritas.'

"Sure." He wasn't a margarita person, but he didn't mind Mexican so he had no problem with her choice.

'Okay. I'll be there in about forty-five minutes if that's all right.'

"All right. See you then," he said.

He hung up and went to his room to shower and change. A downfall of working out of his condo was that he could work in his pajamas if he wanted to. He tried not to do that, at the very least putting regular clothes on even if he didn't get presentable for the world and the day until later. Sometimes he never got fully presentable if he didn't have to actually leave. He just found he worked better when he looked like a real person, though.

The restaurant was pretty crowded when he got there. He didn't see her after a quick check of the bar to be sure she hadn't gone in there, so he put his name in with the hostess. Her number had the 708 area code so she obviously lived in the suburbs. He wasn't sure if she was still in Shermer or not, but then she hadn't suggested a different Chi Chi's location so he guessed she probably was in town somewhere.

He stood when he saw her walk through the doors. He'd known her for years, even before that day of detention he'd known of her. She'd been cute back then. Today, though, she was better than cute. She was absolutely gorgeous. Her hair was longer than it was then, had been at the reunion, too. He hadn't told her how much he'd liked it long like she was wearing it these days because it really wasn't his place to tell her such things.

"Hi, I'm so sorry it took me a little longer."

"It's all right. They should be about to call my name so we would've just been sitting out here anyway."

"Right. I really appreciate you making time for me tonight."

"I didn't have anything else going on really."

"No?"

"Nah."

"No publisher deadlines."

"Not tonight, no," he said.

"Good. I was kind of surprised you called back today."

He laughed softly at that. "I almost didn't. I mean, I would've eventually. Knowing that, I figured why not get it done with before I forgot or something."

"Well, I appreciate it. Very much. You look nice."

"Yeah?" Those words warmed him in a way they shouldn't have. He liked her noticing how he looked.

"Are you growing a beard?"

"What?"

She gestured to his face and he ran the back of his hand along his jaw. Shit, he'd forgotten to shave.

"No, just lazy today, I guess."

"Oh."

Hmm, interesting. She seemed kind of disappointed by that comment.

"You like the scraggily look, sweets?"

"No, I just wondered."

"That would be us," he said as his name was called. "Good timing then."

"I guess so. I wasn't thinking they'd be so busy."

"It's Wednesday night, people seem to do that middle of the week date, don't want to cook tonight, meet friends, or whatever thing."

"I guess."

They followed the hostess to a booth, which was what he was hoping they'd get. He hated sitting at tables for some reason.

"Thank you," Claire said as their menus were set in front of them and they were told the name of their server.

"Getting to over seventy degrees probably didn't hurt either," John said.

"No! It was too nice outside. I didn't want to do anything at all. If I could have had my desk brought outside I would have done that. My dad would've known I wasn't really sick if I'd called in, though."

"Yeah, it can be distracting."

"Well, but you can go outside if you want to, can't you?"

"I can, but if I have work to do not so much."

"I suppose. Does it get hard?"

"Days like today when I know there won't be many of them again until May, yeah. Or in the middle of July when I have a window open and hear all the kids off from school out by the pool having a good time."

"Do you ever join them?"

He chuckled. "A time or two." He frowned a bit. "Does that make me weird?"

"I assume you have rights to use the pool."

"Yes, I pay my association fee like everyone else does."

"Then, no, it doesn't make you weird."

She ordered a strawberry margarita and he ordered a beer when their waitress got to their table. She set some chips and salsa down. As crowded as they were it would probably take them a while to get their food.

"So, what's up?" he asked. Probably not the most subtle or polite thing to say, but he was curious.

"Oh God, can't we talk for a while first?"

He laughed softly. "Is it that bad?"

"Kind of," she said. It must have been, too, because she was tapping a finger on the table top.

"Decide what you want to eat and then explain first. Then we can talk all you want."

"Fine," she said.

They both took a few minutes to look at the menu and decide what they wanted.

"So," she said, shifting her tableware around on the table. Nerves. It was kind of amusing watching her, and made him even more curious what in the hell she'd called him for. The Claire he knew was never nervous. Well, she may have been nervous kissing him, but she hadn't let that stop her from doing it. "I have this friend who's getting married in Paris the week after Thanksgiving."

"Okay," he said with a slight frown.

What the fuck? What did her friend getting married have to do with anything? And why would she think he'd care?

"I'm a bridesmaid."

"Sure," he said. Because why else would someone travel all the way fuck over to Paris for a wedding unless they were in it?

"She was my roommate freshman year of college. I totally lucked out, you know. We hit it off almost immediately. We pledged together at our sorority. We requested each other our sophomore years and then junior and senior years got an apartment together off-campus with a couple other girls in our sorority. We've stayed in real close touch since graduating. I used to wish I had a sister instead of a brother growing up, you know? She was totally my long-lost sister."

"Okay," he said.

"The invitation includes a guest despite having to travel."

"Right," he said.

That sounded logical. He'd gone to an out of state wedding up in Wisconsin for one of his friends about a year ago. Even though he had to pay to get there, his hotel, and food or whatever he was still allowed to bring a guest. Most weddings seemed to include a guest, not that he was an expert at wedding guest etiquette or anything.

"I had no intention of bringing a guest. I mean, it's in Paris and I'm not dating anyone so who would I possibly bring that wouldn't get the wrong idea about me asking them to spend a week with me there?"

"All right."

"And then one of her other bridesmaids who I also know started talking about how great it would be that I was there by myself because her brother, who happens to be friends with April's fiancé, Rene."

"She's marrying someone named Rene?"

"Yes. He's French," she said. Ah, that explained the Paris wedding apparently. "So, the brother is also in the wedding and isn't bringing anyone."

"Okay."

"He's not someone I want to dance with. Ever. Let alone all night. Or to be given the idea that because I'm single I want to spend all week with him. She seems to think because we're both there alone it's like fate or something."

"What's wrong with him?"

"Other than he drugged one of my friends at a party? He's just not someone I find at all attractive."

"Oh," he said. Yeah, he could understand why she wouldn't want to be close to him if he did things like that. "Years ago, I assume?"

"He's still a creep, and he basically raped her."

"Oh, they…"

"Yes, they did. She still to this day doesn't remember a damned thing that happened that night."

He shook his head a bit. He'd had sex with some drunk or stoned women, but none he'd done anything like that to. And none that were out of their minds to the point they didn't know what they were doing. Well, that he knew of. He supposed anything was possible when you threw drugs into the mix.

"Okay, so, you don't want to dance with the guy. What's the problem? Say no. Surely you haven't forgotten how to be assertive."

"Well, see, this is where it gets complicated. I sort of told Bonnie that I have a boyfriend."

"Uh huh," he said. Their waitress brought their drinks and they both took the time to order since they'd managed to decide.

"Someone I knew in high school, saw him at my class reunion a couple of months ago, and we started dating."

"Wait. Me? You came up with me as your cop out?"

"Well, I didn't know what else to do! I didn't want to be rude, Bonnie doesn't know what he did to my friend."

"Why not?"

"No one told her, I guess," she shrugged. "She's his sister. We didn't know if she'd side with, believe him. I don't know."

"So, you have a boyfriend. Me, which interesting to hear about it, thanks for telling me. What's the problem?"

"She asked me what you did. So I told her."

"She's not a fan, is she?" He'd been doing this long enough that he ran across people once in a while who knew his work. It was flattering to have his name recognized by someone who wasn't a comic reader. Claire didn't strike him as the comic type, and he assumed that went for her friends as well.

"No, she has no idea who you are, but she seems to think because you're a freelance penciler that there's no reason you can't come with me."

"To Paris?"

"Yes."

"Why didn't you just make someone up?"

"Because I didn't want to lie!"

"Sweets. I'm not your boyfriend. I hate to tell you this. You lied."

"Well, right, but at least I know you so I had some truth to give her as far as your job and stuff."

He laughed softly. "She probably thinks you're making me up because no one makes a living drawing comics."

"Maybe," she said. She looked like she was thinking that out, like if she'd chosen a different career for him maybe she wouldn't be here tonight. He still wasn't sure why he was here. "I just sort of figured that would get Allen off my back. You know. A new relationship so no one would blame me for still going to the wedding alone. A few months from now I could say it didn't work out or whatever and life would go on."

"You have a lot of relationships that don't work out after a few months?"

"Well, you know. Who has time to date really?"

"I hear ya," he said. He couldn't agree more not that he had a whole lot of interest in dating.

"So, here's the deal."

"I can't wait. You're not marrying us off, are you?"

"No! But Bonnie and April seem to think since we knew one another in high school and basically for years before that."

"Yeah."

"That it shouldn't be a problem for you to come with me. It's not like I just met you a couple of months ago."

He chuckled. "You screwed yourself."

"I did," she said with a sigh. "I didn't think they'd want to meet you!"

"Do you know women at all? I mean, you weren't abducted by aliens and missing for the past few years, right? You didn't fall and bump your head? Wouldn't you want to meet your boyfriend if you were them?"

"Well, yeah, but I wouldn't expect him to come to Paris!"

"It's the self-employment angle."

"Yes!"

"And the we knew each other before thing."

"Yes! I can't believe I didn't think of that. I'm so stupid, I realize this. I just panicked when I thought of dancing with Allen, you know? Of being alone with him. Of him giving me a glass of champagne!"

He nodded a bit. He could understand that.

"So, I'll pay for your ticket. I'll pay for the hotel room. I'll pay for any clothes you need. A suit, you'll need at least one suit, possibly two. Food, of course, unless you choose to eat somewhere on your own and buy it. If you need a passport I'll pay for that, too."

"You want to pay me to go to Paris with you?"

"Well, I want to pay you to go to Paris with me and be my boyfriend."

"The hotel room? 'The' suggests one."

"Yes. Do you think if we were really dating we'd get separate rooms? I mean, even if we weren't having sex, the expense!"

"Valid point."

"I mean, you can bring your work with you if you have to. I promise there's enough in Paris for me to keep myself busy so I'd leave you alone and everything."

"So, I'm going to Paris for a week with you, but other than the wedding I'm not doing anything with you?"

"Well, you could. I mean, certainly that would be a boyfriend thing to do, but I could always explain away your being absent with a deadline or something. I mean, you have to have those."

"Sure, all of the time."

"So, if you wanted to help me convince them I didn't make you up and then have to basically hire you to come with me, that'd be great."

"When is this?"

"December tenth is the wedding. I was planning on flying over there on Tuesday, December sixth and coming back the following Monday or Tuesday."

"You haven't bought your tickets yet?"

"No, I put it off."

"Why?"

"Well, I've never met Rene, and I wasn't entirely sure they would stay together."

"How come?"

"April can be a little…flighty."

"Oh?"

"Yes, this isn't the first time she's been engaged."

"I see."

"It's the third."

"She's twenty-eight. What does she do to be engaged so many times?"

"Well, she was engaged our freshman year to someone from high school and that didn't work and then one other time."

"She did the breaking up both times?"

"Yes," she said.

"So, we could be hauling our asses to Paris for nothing is what you're saying?"

"No, she's never gotten this far before. I mean, I got my invitation over the weekend. That's what got this whole thing going about meeting you. We all got our invitations."

"You realize you're kind of insane, right?" he asked.

"I am not! I honestly didn't think it would occur to them that I should bring you. I'm sorry!"

"No, I mean, a normal person would come up with another lie as to why I can't make it. Plans with my family or maybe I have something already scheduled that weekend, a convention or something."

"Well, I thought of that, I did, but she'd still want me to dance with Allen."

"Are you walking down the aisle with him?"

"No, thank God."

"So, you're not expected to dance with him at all?"

"No, but Bonnie sure seemed to think we'd have lots of fun dancing all night."

He sighed, leaning back a bit, taking a sip of his beer. Their waitress brought their food, which was surprisingly faster than he thought it was going to be.

"Why me?" he asked once the waitress had asked if they needed anything else and left them alone again.

"What?"

"Of all the guys at the reunion you could have picked. I mean, Brian, look at him. He's nothing to sneeze at. Why me?"

"Because you were the only one I ever kissed. Besides, Brian and Andy are both married."

He nodded a little at that, figuring it had something to do with that day and their time in the closet Vernon had locked him up in. He hadn't known Brian was married.

"Do I get sex out of the deal?"

"What? No! Why would you ask me that? In our room we are not boyfriend and girlfriend. I will get us a room with two beds."

He chuckled a bit, setting his beer down. "Relax, sweets, I'm only joking. I just wanted to see your reaction."

She rolled her eyes. "Unbelievable."

"Hey, you're the one seeking me out for a favor. You know I'm a smart ass."

"I do."

"No one's going to think it's weird we have two beds?"

"I hope not. I mean, I don't plan on having crowds of people in the room anyway."

"Good to know. I can't even take a leak with someone watching me let alone, you know, perform."

She shook her head. "I can't believe you just said that. There will be no performing!"

"Oh but there will. I get to be your boyfriend for a week. I admit, I contemplated what it would take to be your boyfriend after that day."

"Did you?"

"I did."

"You didn't like the answer?"

"I couldn't have afforded you."

"Afforded me?"

"Yeah, you know, prom and stuff. No way could I have come up with the money for that stuff."

"That's why you never asked me out?"

He shrugged a bit. There were other reasons, but basically. "Yeah, pretty much."

"You're such an ass."

"So you like to remind me, sweets. I love it when you whisper those kind of sweet nothings in my ear, too. It really makes me feel great about myself, puts me in the mood, you know?"

She didn't respond to that one, taking a bite of her food instead.

"Do I get spending money, too? Like an allowance?"

"No!"

"Well, in that case," he said, taking a bite of his food.

"John, really, you're going to leave me to dance with an asshole?"

"You didn't let me finish. I'll do it."

"Without the allowance?"

He scoffed. Did she really think he was serious? "Without the allowance."

"Thank you," she said, sounding so relieved and he had to wonder just what was up with this Allen guy that she didn't want to even dance with him. The drugging of her friend thing, he could understand, but it still made him wonder if there wasn't more to it than that. If she was worried about him drugging her, too, all she had to do was not drink something he gave her. Then if she set her drink down anywhere or got up from the table to talk to someone, leaving her drink unattended there was always the possibility he could've done something to it. It only took a second, and if he'd done it before he knew how.

"Sure," he slid his wallet out of his back pocket. "Here's my card. It has my email address on there. If you don't mind sending me the dates. I maybe can swing not having too much on my plate so I don't look like an asshole and make you look like an idiot for being with me for that week."

"You don't have to do that," she said, taking the card.

"Nah, I've never been to Paris. May as well see the town while I'm there."

"Are you sure?"

"Positive."

"Okay."

"And the number on that card is the number you'll want to call me on if you actually want to talk to me."

"Why?"

"I don't ever answer my personal line."

"Oh," she said. "Okay. Thanks. I'll call my travel agent tomorrow to finalize the details for the reservations and email you everything."

"You already called them?"

"Yes, I told them I wasn't sure if there'd be one or two for the plane."

"Fair enough."

"I really appreciate this. If there's ever anything I can do for you."

"I'll keep that in mind, but I doubt I can even come close to topping this favor."

"I know."

"You might want to email some details about yourself."

"What do you mean?"

"Oh, you know, if we've been dating for a couple of months I should know things about you. Like where you live? Do you have a dog? Do you have any scars I should know about? What kind of car do you drive? Where do you work? Where do you go for lunch? What do you do with your spare time? You know, things a boyfriend would know."

"Where I go to lunch?"

"Well, I have free time so I would think, if I was your boyfriend I mean, that I'd meet you for lunch once in a while."

"I see. That'd be very nice of my boyfriend to do that."

"It would, wouldn't it? Be careful, sweets, you might beg me not to break up with you in a couple of months."

"I can do all that if I get the same thing in return."

"Sure. I do have a dog."

"You do?"

"I'm home all day, I need someone to keep me from going insane."

"What will you do with him for a week?"

"I have a neighbor who will take him in."

"Oh nice."

"Yeah, she's done it for me before when I've had to take trips."

"Good. I have a cat."

"And what will you do with him for a week?"

"My brother or parents will take him in. Christopher usually does it for me when I travel."

"I see. You travel a lot?"

"You know. I always like to go places."

"What do you do anyway?"

"I thought you wanted me to email you."

"We're here."

She laughed softly. "We are. You know I'm a lawyer, right?"

"Yes."

"I practice corporate law."

"For your dad's firm, though, right?"

"Yes. Christopher and Dad do the defending. I didn't have the stomach for it so Dad decided to add that to the firm's areas of expertise."

"No?"

"No. I thought, briefly, of working for the state's attorney's office."

"You were going to become a prosecutor? That would've pissed your dad off."

"I know, but I just don't have the stomach for that type of law. I mean, there's always a chance you're prosecuting an innocent person. Then to have to defend someone like Jeffrey Dahmer."

"His lawyer knew he wasn't going to get him off, though. His job was basically just to make sure he didn't get railroaded, right? That he got a fair trial as he's entitled?"

"Well, right, but you still have to defend them. I mean, okay, he's a bad example. But just say you manage to come up with a logical theory that creates reasonable doubt and someone like him goes free."

"I get it. I do."

"And this helps my dad, what I do I mean, bring in more business. Criminal cases can tie him and Christopher up where corporate law is usually pretty quick so I can usually churn cases out. That means more billing, of course, and more money coming in."

"So, is the firm named Standish, Standish, and Standish yet?"

She giggled softly. "No. I doubt it ever will be. Standish Law Firm covers it quite nicely."

"I suppose so. I guess I don't have to ask if you're a partner."

"I am."

"So, a cat, corporate lawyer."

"I have no scars."

"None?"

"No," she said.

"Must be nice."

"I'm sorry. I shouldn't have…"

"Don't worry about it. I asked the question. I was kind of kidding, but you know if I'm asked…"

"I get it. How did you get started doing what you do?"

"I met a guy at a convention. I'd liked and followed his work, liked the books he was working on. I went there specifically to meet him. I asked if I could come back with my portfolio. I didn't want to be pretentious and bring it with me. He laughed at me, but told me I could. I did. He liked my work, and he put me to work penciling for some of his comics. The rest is history."

"And you can maintain a lifestyle doing it?"

"I do well so far. I also do some freelance stuff for newspapers and magazines."

"Like what?"

"Cartoons. You know, like The New Yorker does political cartoons."

"Oh, right, I know what you mean."

"When you email me I can email you back some of my work so you have an idea when you're asked what I've done and stuff."

"Sure," she said. "I'd love to see it."

"All right," he said. "So, Andy's married, I knew that. I still can't believe they got married."

"I know, right?"

"Kids?"

"Yes, Three. He's coaching at the college level."

"And Brian? I guess I didn't know he was married."

"Yes. They just got married like a year ago. No kids, but he mentioned his wife thought she might be pregnant at the reunion so possibly soon."

"Huh."

"You didn't talk to him?"

"No, not really. I didn't have a whole lot to say to him ten years ago. Nothing's changed."

"I know you two didn't really see things the same way."

"Yeah, I tend to take offense when people think manual labor jobs are beneath them or mean nothing." He may not love or like his old man. He hadn't spoken to him since high school either. John could still appreciate the work his father did, the hours he put in, and how hard what he did was.

"I know," she said.

"He doesn't."

"He's not that guy anymore, John."

"Maybe so, I still had no need to find out."

"Well, that's fine, but people do change."

"I know," he said with a sigh.

"You didn't stay long."

"At the reunion? Nah. It's not really my thing."

"I was surprised you showed up. I was really surprised you filled out the stuff to be included in the directory."

"I figured why not? I have nothing to be ashamed of."

"No, you don't. I'd say you have stuff to be proud of."

"I do my best."

"I'll buy," she said when the waitress set their check on the table.

"No, I got it."

"Yes, but I invited you to dinner."

"Boyfriends buy their girlfriends dinner, sweets. I got it. Really. It was amusing watching you explain yourself."

"I'm glad I could make you laugh."

"So, this is it until December, right? You're in the wedding, but I'm not so I don't need a tuxedo or anything."

"No, just a couple of suits."

"I have those."

"You do?"

"Yes. I do."

"Okay. Passport?"

"I have that, too."

"You've been out of the country?"

"Yeah for some conventions."

"Very cool. So, in that case, no I guess not. I'll email you this week with the details. If you have any questions, let me know. Otherwise. I'll arrange for a limo to take us to the airport."

"All right," he said. "Give me that card back."

"Why?"

"Don't worry, I'm not changing my mind," he said. He took the card back and turned it over, writing his address on the back. "There, now you know where to tell the limo to pick me up."

"Oh, thank you."

"Sure. Just call me if you need anything else in the meantime."

"Okay. And thank you, really. I can't tell you how much I appreciate this."

"I'd like to say I'm doing it because it'll be fun, but it'll be interesting anyway."

"I'll try to make sure you have fun."

"As long as I get to see Jim Morrison's grave, we're good."

"Oh, yeah, we can do that for sure."

"Good."

He paid for their meal and walked with her outside.

"What are you doing?" she asked when he stayed beside her.

"Walking you to your car."

"Oh, you don't have to do that."

"I'm here, may as well see what corporate lawyers drive these days."

"Ah, okay," she said, pressing the button on her keys to deactivate the alarm on a very nice Mercedes.

"I guess corporate law pays well."

"For me it does."

"All right, drive safe, and if you change your mind or anything."

"I don't think that's going to happen."

"Well, maybe your friends will lay off."

"Yeah, except I have to book the tickets now!"

"Good point. All right. Well, I look forward to being at your beck and call for a week, sweets."

"Thanks, I think."

"You bet."

"Take care, John."

"I always do, sweets, always do."

Return to Top

***Chapter Two***
Word Count: 4,199

December 1994

'This is Claire Standish. May I help you?'

"I sure hope you can, Claire Standish. This is John Bender."

'John,' she said. If he was a betting man he'd wager that she was smiling now where she wasn't when she answered the phone. He liked the way she said his name entirely too much. 'How are you? Is everything all right?'

"It is. Fine. I do have a question, though."

'Okay.'

"The hotel we're staying at. Does it happen to have a fax? Or better yet, the address."

'Uh, yeah, sure.'

"Could you email me the fax number and the address when you have a chance?"

'Okay. You're sure everything's okay?'

"Yeah. I'm just finishing up on a deal and I want to give them that number to fax me anything I need to sign after we've left O'Hare just in case. I think we'll get this finished up today, but legal departments like to drag their toes sometimes."

'I'm sorry.'

"It's okay. I understand you guys have to dot your I's and cross your T's. I get it. I just don't want to have to tell them I can't sign anything for a week. You know? I'll just tell them to overnight me the stuff there, I'll sign it and send it back if a faxed signature isn't good enough until I get back next week."

'Okay, sure, I'll email it to you in a few minutes.'

"I appreciate it."

'I swear I thought you were calling to tell me you were changing your mind.'

"Oh, I won't deny I've questioned my sanity on doing this more than once over the past six weeks, but I wouldn't do that to you."

'Why not?'

"I wouldn't make you eat the plane ticket."

'Thank you.'

"I think you owe me something for wearing suits, though."

'Like?'

"I don't know. I'm thinking about it."

'You don't like suits?'

"Sweets, I work from home. I draw comics for a living. I'm lucky if I change out of my pajamas before I have my first cup of coffee whenever I've dragged myself out of bed."

'Why do you own them then?'

"I've needed them," he said. "If you want to know why, ask me during our week in Paris."

'Okay. Well, assuming it's something I can get you, consider it yours.'

"Oh, sweets, don't make promises to a guy like me you'll regret."

'I don't think you'd make me regret anything.'

He chuckled softly. He knew the name of the hotel. He could've looked online for the information himself, but he was admittedly curious where her mind was at now that they were hours away from this.

"So, have we done anything exciting in the past six weeks?"

'No,' she said.

"You sure? We're not engaged? Living together? Buying a house together?"

'No! Though April asked me about your cooking.'

"My cooking?"

'Yes.'

"Why?"

'I don't know. I guess she assumes we have dinner together.'

"And I cook for you?"

'Presumably.'

"Huh. And?"

'I said that you cook just fine. Rene does not cook I guess, so she told me I'm lucky.'

"Aw, that's very sweet of you, thank you. You know how to stroke your boyfriend's ego."

'You weren't there when we were talking, obviously.'

"Obviously. All right. Well, I'll see you bright and early tomorrow morning then. I appreciate you getting me that information. They may not even need it, but I just don't like being out of pocket for that long."

'It's no problem. I should have thought about that before. Of course my dad has it. You could, if you had to, you could leave anyone my number here as an emergency contact. My secretary could take a message for you and get it to you through me. I mean, if you're worried about people getting voice mail and being mad you don't respond or something.'

"You have a secretary?"

'I do,' she said.

"I don't think that will be necessary, but I guess go ahead and tell her the possibility may exist in case I change my mind last minute. I'll probably change my outgoing message on this line to say in the event of an emergency they can call there. No one should need it, I'm not in the middle of anything that time sensitive, but you never know."

'Well, and especially with the time difference. Okay, I will. It's the number you called, obviously. It's direct to her desk.'

"All right. Thanks."

'Sure.'

"Okay, well, tomorrow then."

'We'll be there.'

"We?"

'Me and the limo driver.'

"Oh, right. Okay. I thought for a minute we were flying with someone and we were going to be starting our little play from the get-go."

'No. Not until we get to Paris.'

"At the airport?"

'No, but not long after landing I'm sure. Rene has friends who'd pick us up, but I chose to rent a car. I don't want to be at someone's beck and call to sightsee.'

"Good to know. Okay. Have a good night."

'You, too, and thanks again, John. You're really, very nice for doing this.'

"Who can turn down the chance to see Paris?"

'Not you anyway evidently.'

He chuckled softly.

"Have a good night, Claire," he said before hanging up.

***

It'd been a long time since he'd been up before the sun came up. Well, that wasn't entirely true. Sometimes in a bout of frenzied creativity he was still awake when the sun came up. As far as waking up before it did, it'd probably been since high school honestly.

He was packed and ready to go, but he woke up early to double check he had everything he needed and hadn't forgotten important things. Like his passport. He'd packed for several trips over the years so he had some things ready to go for the most part, but he was used to packing or traveling for business. So, he wanted to double check he had everything. It also gave him time to think about what he was doing. Even when he went to conventions he spent a lot of his time working in his hotel room. He'd always been kind of a loner and working by himself didn't help alter that much. He was sure people thought he was picking up women left and right at the conventions he went to, but years ago he realized that he had a name to protect and with that name a brand. His brand. He had no one to help him, no one to gloss things over if he screwed up, and no one to blame his behavior on. So he learned very quickly that everything he did reflected on him and his reputation with potential clients. Potentially, and perhaps unfairly, more than someone who had an actual exclusive contract with one of the comic publishers. Sleeping with a random woman at a convention wasn't unheard of or unforgiveable, but doing it repeatedly may lead to doors being closed in his face that wouldn't be otherwise. Overall, though, he just wasn't a people person, which led him to wonder more than once over the past six weeks what the fuck he was doing this for. Being around people he didn't even know for a week wasn't his idea of a vacation.

He did pack some work and his equipment so if he really needed some time to himself he had an excuse. Claire made it sound as if she'd understand if he needed to do that. The equipment wasn't a hardship as he had a second set of everything all set and ready to go. He'd learned the hard way once about eight years ago when he'd left some of his things behind that having to hunt things down at three in the morning when he really needed that particular pencil wasn't fun. So, he had a spare set so that wouldn't happen again. He looked over the supply every time he got back to be sure he hadn't left anything behind. The couple times he had he'd replaced it well before needing it again.

He was about to look out his window to see if the limo she'd hired had pulled up. He liked his condo a lot. It was an end unit so he had no one next to him. The only common wall in his place ran along his kitchen, laundry room, and bathrooms so he never heard his next door neighbor. A couple lived there with a small daughter so he was admittedly glad that was the case. His balcony looked out over a forest preserve. On a day like today in the middle of December that wasn't anything to brag about, but in the fall when the leaves were changing colors it was incredible. He sat out on his balcony for hours sometimes, just staring and getting inspired.

Mother Nature had proven to be a great source of inspiration for him over the years. There was something about a perfect sunset (or sunrise) or the way a fresh layer of snow looked late at night when no one had trampled on it or dirtied it yet.

His buzzer rang before he could walk to the window to look outside. Great. She probably thought he wasn't paying attention. He buzzed her up while he got his bags together.

"Sorry, I swear I was just about to look outside."

"No, it's fine. I'm glad you weren't waiting downstairs or anything."

"You are?" he asked. That surprised the hell out of him. He knew this was basically a business deal to her so he hadn't expected her to come to his door to get him.

"Yes because I wouldn't have been able to tell you that we have company in the limo."

"Oh?"

"Yes, Bonnie and Allen were in town over the weekend and are on our flight."

"How nice. You didn't know that until now?"

"Last night! She called me asking how we were getting to the airport. Stupid me not realizing she was here told her."

"They were staying in Shermer?"

"No, they had the car pick them up at their hotel on the way to get me."

"I see."

"I didn't even know they were in town! They didn't call or tell me."

"Huh. You think they suspect?"

"I don't know. They can't possibly. I mean, good grief, who would think I'd lie about something like that?"

"Well, other than the fact you are lying you mean?"

"They don't know that, and I hope they don't find out."

"Don't worry, I'm not going to tell them your secret, sweets."

"Thank you."

"So, is your friend, Bonnie, is she not bringing a date either?"

"No, her husband is staying home with their kids."

"Ah, I see. Sure. So, she's going to be stuck dancing with her brother?"

"Oh, God, I hope so," Claire said. "I'm sure there will be some single woman there who has no clue what a jerk he is who'll dance with him."

"All right. Well, I'm ready. Best not keep them waiting, I guess. You could've called last night."

"You said you didn't answer your personal line! And I didn't want to bother you if you were working."

Valid point. "True enough, sorry."

"It's all right. Do you need help with anything?"

"No," he said. "What boyfriend would let you carry his stuff?"

"Well, I don't know."

He'd purposely not asked if there were ground rules for him as far as she was concerned. He didn't want to know what she did or didn't have in mind as being acceptable boyfriend behavior. If he was going to spend a week with her pretending to be her boyfriend in front of her friends, he was going to have a good time doing it. That meant toying with her a bit.

"Lead the way," he said, flipping off the light switch. He'd already gone through and double checked he'd turned everything off. He didn't have an iron to leave on. Well, he did, but he hadn't used it in months so his condo would have caught fire long before now if he'd left it plugged in and on.

She sat next to him in the limo at least. He put his arm around her, regarding the brother and sister sitting across from them. It was a fairly small limo, but it was still better than taking a cab or having to leave his car in the long-term parking lot at O'Hare. He'd had to do that a couple of times and he wasn't sure getting back he'd have tires left on his car.

They were regarding him with perhaps more interest. He was kind of curious what kind of guy needed to drug a woman to get her to have sex with him. He couldn't comprehend wanting that, but then he supposed that was a good thing him not comprehending such a thing.

"So, you're John," Bonnie said.

"I am," John said. "You should have let Claire know you were in town this weekend."

"Oh, I tried calling Friday night but she didn't answer."

John glanced at Claire who was finding her fingernail oddly curious at the moment.

"Well, if you'd left a message when she checked hers she would've called you back. I don't even remember what we did Friday night. Do you, sweetheart?" he asked.

"We watched the Bulls game at Christopher's," she said.

"That's right," he said.

"You forgot about watching a Bulls game?" the brother asked.

"I'm not a big basketball fan," John said with a shrug. "Besides, you know, when Claire's around I sort of forget about much of anything else."

She glanced at him then and he shrugged. He could just imagine what she was thinking.

"She has that kind of effect on me. What can I say?" he said, not taking his eyes off of her.

"Thank you," she said, settling her head against his shoulder.

"Why'd you guys come to Chicago anyway?" Claire asked.

"Well, I'd never been here so we decided to make a long weekend out of it since we were going to have to come through Chicago anyway," Allen said.

"I sure wish you guys would've called. We could have had dinner or something! I feel so bad."

If they got to Chicago on Friday and weren't getting back home – he forgot to ask Claire where they were from – until a week from now he wondered what they both did that they could take that much time off. Then, maybe they just happened to have two weeks of vacation and were taking it before the end of the year.

"What do you do?" he asked.

"I'm a nurse," Bonnie said.

"I own a bar," Allen said.

"Really?" John said. That didn't sound like a very good thing for someone who liked to drug women to be involved with.

"Yes, with some friends of mine."

"Cool," John said. "Who doesn't like to drink, right?"

"Exactly!" Allen said.

"I was admittedly surprised the limo had to pick Claire up at her house this morning and then come here to get you," Bonnie said.

"Why?" Claire asked. That was a very good question.

"Well, I just assumed one of you would stay at the other one's place."

"Oh, well," John said quickly so Claire wouldn't think she had to come up with an answer. "That was my fault."

"Your fault?"

"Yeah, I had some things I needed to submit before leaving and I wasn't sure how long they were going to take me. As it was I didn't get to sleep until about three hours ago."

"Really?" Claire asked, lifting her head from his shoulder to look at him.

"Uh, yeah. You know emailing people to let them know I'm not going to get back to them within an hour as I usually do, stuff like that."

"I did tell Sonia she might get calls for you."

"Good, thank you. I left your number on my voicemail and I gave it to my main contact just in case something blows up."

"I hope not."

"Me, too, Princess, me, too."

She leaned up then and kissed him, shocking the hell out of him. It wasn't a great kiss or anything, just a peck really, but it still surprised him.

"Thank you," she said.

He chuckled softly. "For?"

She shrugged. "Being you?"

"Uh, yeah, okay, sure," he said. "Glad I could do that for you."

"So what kind of nursing do you practice?" he asked. Claire settled against him once more.

"I work oncology."

"Really?" That'd be tough he imagined. Then any nurse would probably be tough except maybe nurses that help deliver babies or something, but even things with delivering babies could go wrong he guessed.

"Yes. I work at a doctor's office not a hospital."

"Ah," he said. He wasn't sure what that meant. The doctors who cared for the cancer patients? He imagined so. "Tough stuff, though."

"Most of the time. Even when the treatments are successful, it's still tough to watch people go through what they do."

"I bet. And all three of you went to school together?"

"I was three years ahead of them so graduated after their freshman year," Allen said.

"Ah, okay," John said.

"And you knew Claire in high school?" Bonnie asked.

"Well, school, but yeah I guess the first time we ever really talked was in high school."

"Did you two go out?" Allen asked.

"In high school?"

"Yes," Allen said.

"Uh, no. I don't think anyone went out with Claire in high school," he said with a soft chuckle. "She was kind of one of those unapproachable types. You know?"

"You make me sound so loveable," she said.

"Well, you know I liked you well enough," he said.

He didn't kiss just anyone, and he'd told her that at some point when they had to stop making out to breathe.

"Guys were just too chicken to ask you out. Myself included. That's why when I saw her at the reunion without a date I decided to do what I'd wanted to do ten years ago and ask her out. And here we are."

"The only thing John's not telling you is that he wasn't too chicken to do most anything."

"Well, yeah, except for asking you out. Who wants to get told no by the prom queen?"

"You were your school's prom queen?" Allen asked.

"I told you that," Bonnie said.

"I guess I don't remember. That seems like eons ago you guys were freshman."

"It does," Claire admitted.

"So does that mean your dance card is full then, Claire?" Allen asked.

"Well, I don't know," she said. "I've never had a reason to actually dance with John before and something tells me I won't again for a while, so I may just make him as much as I can get him to."

"Great," John said. "Only for you would I ever dance."

"I bet you say that to all your girlfriends," Claire teased.

"Not a one ever before, no."

"Well, I'll make it worth your while, I promise."

"Why do you think I've agreed to dance with you, sweets?"

She blushed then and he chuckled a bit at that.

They were at the airport in a pretty timely fashion. Claire had made the reservation allowing plenty of time for rush hour traffic and them having to go through customs for their flight.

"Please tell me they're not sitting next to us," John whispered in her ear once they were out of the limo.

"No, they're not."

"Thank God."

"Bonnie's not bad, not really."

"No, it's just I'm not good with small talk, you know?"

"I know. I'm sorry. I swear I didn't know they were going to be here or I wouldn't have made it known what flight we were going to be on and stuff."

"What's his deal anyway?"

"What do you mean?"

"Why's he need to drug women? He's not bad looking. He doesn't seem stupid. He's obviously got some ambition if he owns a business."

"How should I know? Why are any creeps creepy?"

"I don't know. He was watching you."

"Why do you think I put my head on your shoulder?"

"And here I thought you were cuddling with me."

She laughed softly. "You would think that."

"Did he like you or something?"

"I don't know. How should I know? I never gave him the chance to like me."

"Not even before what happened to your friend happened?"

"No! He was my friend's brother."

"That wouldn't stop most people. I mean, I wouldn't date my friend's sister, but that's a guy thing I think. I didn't think girls had a code when it came to their brothers."

"Like I'd want her – or him – to know everything I do."

"Ah, the gossip angle," he nodded. "I can understand that."

Claire had a membership to the airline's premium area where they could wait and have drinks, watch TV, or whatever away from everyone else. Including her friends who apparently didn't have such a thing. He had a beer while they waited while she enjoyed a bloody mary. It wasn't his drink of choice, but they were popular for a reason evidently. He'd been on a couple of international flights and he had to admit sitting in here versus at the gate was the way to go.

"Did you really give Sonia's number out?"

"I did. I left it on my voicemail and I gave it to Rich. He's the guy I do the bulk of my work for, the one I showed my stuff to years ago. He's still my main source of income because we know one another, you know."

"I get it."

"It's just, here's the thing with comics. You know, you get some inkers, the next step after I'm done, who go with what I give them and run with it. You have some people who want to play twenty questions with every scene you've penciled."

"I get it. You don't have to explain yourself. I told you it was fine, and it is. Sonia was curious who you were."

He chuckled a bit. "I bet she was. What did you tell her?"

"I told her you were my date for the wedding."

"Really?"

"What else am I supposed to say?"

He nodded a bit at that. "I suppose."

Eventually, they were on their way, seated nowhere near her friends as Claire had shelled out the expense for first class tickets.

"You know, I would have been just fine back there."

"I wouldn't have," she said, scrunching her nose a bit. "Trust me. You'll never want to fly back there again after hours up here."

They were on a double-decker plane and were on the second floor, so in a way it was almost like they had the entire plane to themselves. It was, John had to admit, very nice.

"I suppose you're probably right."

"Are you going to sleep?"

"I'd planned on it."

"Okay. If my light bothers you let me know."

"Princess. I got less than three hours of sleep. I think you could dance a hula naked and I'd sleep."

"Really? You'd sleep through that?"

"Okay, maybe not then. Any other type of dance naked, though, for sure."

"That's too bad. I do have my hula skirt in my bag."

He chuckled softly.

"I'll bet you do."

"Sleep well, John," she said. "And thank you, again. Really."

"Stop thanking me already, but you're welcome. I promise I'll be bright eyed and bushy tailed when we land, ready for the inquisition."

"There's not going to be an inquisition."

"That's right, that was Spain."

"Good night, John."

"What are you reading anyway?"

"It's a mystery. My friend gave it to me. She thought I'd like it," she said, holding up a copy of a book called ONE FOR THE MONEY.

"I brought along the latest Grisham in case I don't like it."

"All right. Well, hopefully you aren't disappointed in whodunit." He slipped the pillow behind him and draped the blanket over him. He reclined his seat a bit, but not enough to be rude about it.

"I hope not. Do you want me to wake you for food?"

"Yes," he said. "Food sounds amazing."

She chuckled softly. "All right. I'll wake you when there's food."

"We have to change planes out east, don't we?" he said, realization dawning on him that he wouldn't be able to sleep the full trip anyway.

"Yes."

"We have time at the airport before our connection to get food there?"

"We do."

"Then don't wake me. I'll buy you lunch there if you're hungry."

"Are you sure?"

"Sleep takes precedence unless you want me to make an ass of myself in front of your friends and say something stupid."

"No."

"Okay then."

"You didn't shave again," she said.

"I forgot again. Sorry."

"It's okay. It kind of looks nice on you."

"Yeah? Kind of?"

"Yes."

He nodded, opening his eyes a bit to glance at her. He couldn't tell what she was thinking or how serious she was. Evidently she liked him not clean shaven since she'd commented on it twice now.

Return to Top

***Chapter Three***
Word Count: 3,132

"You actually let me sleep the entire flight," John said when she had to wake him up to put his seat back upright and fasten his seat belt again. She'd unfastened it for him once the seatbelt light went off because he'd been sound asleep by that point and she knew from her own experience that it was just so much more comfortable without it buckled around her.

"You thought I wouldn't?" she asked.

"Well, I don't know. That's like," he glanced at his wristwatch, which she noticed was pretty . "Three or so hours of no talking. Most women I know can't go that long."

"You were tired! I had a book."

"That wouldn't stop most women. How was the book anyway?"

"It's okay. Kind of funny, actually. You're doing me a favor," she said with a shake of her head. "I can let you sleep when you need to."

"Even the next flight?"

"I might even sleep some on that flight."

"Aww. Do we get to share a blanket and everything? That could be kind of cozy."

"Shut up," she said, but she laughed. She couldn't help it.

"What's on your mind, Claire?" he asked.

"What?" she asked.

"I can see you thinking. What's up? Have I done something already? I thought I did pretty well in the limo considering I didn't know they were going to be there until two minutes before getting in."

"No, you did fine. Thank you."

"Then what? I won't forget to shave again, I promise."

"That's not it either. I don't really care if you shave."

"No? Hmm," he said, sounding intrigued by that.

There was no way in hell she was telling him how good he looked like this because there was nothing appropriate about saying it. He did look good, though.

"I just really don't want to eat with them."

"Oh," he said. "Hmm. How much time do we have at the airport?"

"Like almost four hours."

"Jesus. Are you kidding me?"

"Yes. I mean, no I'm not kidding you."

"Plenty of time to eat then."

"Yes," she agreed.

"Well, couldn't we go to that club for a while first? Then they'd never know when we decided to eat."

"We could," she said, not having thought of that for some reason.

"What is their financial situation anyway?"

"What?"

"Just wondering how they can both take so much time off. Her I can sort of understand. She probably gets vacation. Kind of unusual for someone to have a full two weeks left going into December. Then what I know about regular jobs is nothing. Business owners don't usually get that luxury, though."

"I don't know how he's swinging it and I don't really care. I'm certainly not going to ask him."

"Well, I guess what I'm asking is if we wanted to go to a nicer restaurant versus whatever affordable sit-down eatery options there are if they'd be put off by that."

"Oh, I don't know. Maybe."

"You'd eat with her, though, right?"

"Sure," she said.

"Are you two still close?"

"Not really," she said. "I haven't talked to her a whole lot other than like Christmas cards and calls on birthdays since graduation really."

"But your friend has."

"April. Yes."

"Does she know about the brother?"

"I don't think so. As far as I know only she, the girl I mean, and I know what happened."

"One day when we're actually alone you'll have to explain to me why no one, like, called the police or anything."

"Because we were eighteen and drunk when we weren't supposed to be. Who was going to believe a girl under those circumstances?"

"I suppose," he said.

"As far as I know the only one who knows was me because she didn't trust her roommate not to tell anyone else."

"Makes sense."

"Can we talk about something else?"

"Sure, whatever you want."

"I want to be in Paris already so I don't have to deal with this."

"We'll be there soon enough and I promise to do my best to keep you busy so you don't have to think on it too much."

"That's not what you agreed to do."

"Well, I did say I want to see Paris."

"Yes."

"Well, I'd rather not do it alone. That wouldn't be a very boyfriendy thing to do."

"I suppose."

"And other than Morrison's grave I'm open to ideas."

"That's the only thing in Paris that's on your list to see?"

"Pretty much."

She laughed softly at that.

"This surprises you?"

"No, I guess not. I just didn't realize you liked The Doors that much."

"I spent many, many hours getting stoned to Morrison's voice and lyrics."

"I had no idea."

He shrugged.

"Have you ever actually listened to some of his lyrics? They're pretty good to get stoned to."

"I'll take your word for it."

They were among the last to deplane, which was fine with Claire. Of course that meant Bonnie and Allen were waiting for them at their gate. John apparently anticipated that being the case because he'd taken her hand once they were off the actual plane and headed toward their gate.

They managed to get out of eating with them by using the lounge again beforehand. John pawned it off as his fault not being able to eat right away after waking up from naps. It sounded plausible, Bonnie and Allen seemed to buy it at any rate.

Their flight to Paris was uneventful. They both slept on and off. Being in First Class they did not have to share the same blanket, though she suspected John would have if they'd had to. He was wide awake well before it was time to land this time. It was very early in the morning, which left them little option but to go their hotel and check-in because nothing would be open yet.

"Thank God they had already arranged for a car to take them from the airport," Claire said once they were in their room.

"Well, it probably helped that they weren't staying at the same hotel as us."

"Probably so," she agreed.

"So, what's on the agenda for the day then?"

"I think we're meeting Rene and April for breakfast around ten o'clock."

John glanced at the clock on the table in between their beds. She'd already claimed one as hers.

"Have you been here before?" he asked.

"Yes, not for a while, though. Why?"

"I don't know. We have time to kill and I'm surprisingly awake now."

She laughed softly.

"I bet you are."

"I'll pay for it later, I'm sure."

"Yes," she said. "There's dinner tonight, but nothing afterward. Just meeting everyone. You know, at Rene's house."

"I see. So, how did they meet if he's from here?"

"You know, I'm not really sure. Like I said, I wasn't really confident I'd be here today because of her past so I didn't pay as close attention to details as I maybe should have at first."

"And then it was too late for you to ask?"

"Right!" She was so glad he got it.

"Well, I can ask, though, right?"

"If you want, sure."

"Want to take a walk with me?"

"What?"

"You heard me. Let's go walk around. See what's what."

"There's not going to be anything open."

"That doesn't mean we can't look. I thought women loved window shopping."

"Well," she said. "Put like that." How could she say no?

"I'll shower and shave and everything when we get back before we go have breakfast with your friends."

"Okay," she said. "You look fine, really."

"I know. Meeting two of them looking scraggily is one thing, especially about to board a plane for twelve hours. Meeting the rest of them an entirely differently thing."

"Well, I honestly don't know how many are going to be here today. The wedding isn't until the weekend and not everyone works for their dad," she said with a shrug.

He chuckled a bit at that. "Are you saying you got more days off than you would ordinarily?"

"If my name wasn't on the door of the law firm? Yes."

"At least you can admit that."

"Of course I can, however, it's not like I've taken weeks of vacation already this year or anything. I knew about the wedding months ago, I just was assuming I'd do something else with this time other than fly to Paris."

"What would you have done?"

"I don't know. A week in Hawaii wouldn't have been so bad in December."

"No, it wouldn't have."

They both checked to be sure they had their keys as they made their way out of their room. Claire wasn't sure what she'd expected from him, but wanting to actually spend time with her when he didn't have to wasn't it. She probably wouldn't if the situation was reversed.

"What's on your watch?" she asked once they were by the front desk in the lobby and she noticed him adjusting it to the current local time.

"What?" he asked.

"Your watch? What's on it?"

"You mean you don't know?"

"No," she said, looking closer at it when he held it out in front of her to see. "Am I supposed to?"

"I'm crushed, Claire."

"What?"

He chuckled softly.

"It's Simon Forge."

"Who is he?"

"Come on, really?"

"Yes, I'm sorry. Am I supposed to know who he is?"

"Yes. He's only like the most famous character I've drawn."

"You draw him?"

"Yes. There's a movie about him opening in March."

"Really?"

"Yes, really."

"I'm sorry. I really didn't know."

"It's all right. I'm pretty much just teasing. I don't have you pegged as a comic fan so I wasn't expecting you to know. He's my design, though. From beginning to end. Rich came up with the idea of him, but he let me come up with what he'd look like."

"And they're doing a movie about him?"

"Yes, based on the comics. The first. If it does well, we're pretty sure there will be more as there's a slew of comics he's involved with to choose from. Not to mention his parents and others like him."

"Huh. So, he's like a super hero?"

"Kind of. He's more like," he paused and she could tell he was thinking it over. "Well, he's more like a mutant. He's the offspring of two pretty powerful superheroes so he has some pretty intense abilities and powers. His name, Forge, is because it took a huge amount of effort for his parents to have him because of their powers. It's kind of hard to explain. They don't have any other kids, though."

"I see. And they make watches featuring him?"

"Rich had it made for me when the movie deal went through because he said my picture of Simon is what sold him and made him so popular."

"That's very generous of him."

"It was, yeah," he said.

Claire hadn't noticed before but she couldn't help but notice now that it was a very nice watch, too. There was nothing cheap or anything about it. She wondered, in fact, if the face of the watch behind Simon was real gold. It was that nice of a watch.

He took her hand when they stepped outside from the hotel lobby. She had no idea what was around here really, but she supposed they'd find out together. She'd stayed at the hotel once before, but it was years ago and she hadn't really just walked around the area.

"Why didn't you tell me about the movie when we were emailing each other information?"

He shrugged. "I don't know. It's not like it's my movie. I mean my name will be in the credits somewhere but I didn't create him or anything."

"That is so cool."

"It's not like I'm making millions off of it or anything. Rich, on the other hand, I think is going to rake it in if the movie does well."

"If he's buying you nice watches I suspect he'll make sure some of that windfall goes your way, too."

"Maybe. We sure have come a long way from him laughing at my audacity for thinking I'd have designs to show him he hadn't seen a thousand times before by other comic penciler wannabes."

"I'm glad you didn't let his laughing at you discourage you."

"Nah, I'd invested too much of my time and money getting into the convention to let it."

"What would you have done if he'd said no? Or didn't like your work?"

"I would've found someone else. When we get back home if you want to come up I can show you the pictures I had at the time that got me the job. I still have them. No one but Rich has ever seen them because I drew them specifically to meet him."

"I'd love to see them."

"He was my first option because I loved his work, his storytelling. I would've found someone else, though. I mean, I couldn't go to college and I didn't have a business of my dad's to fall back on. Well, I did, sure, but that would mean working with my dad all day, every day and I wanted to avoid that."

"I know," she said.

"So, quitting and getting told no wasn't an option for me. I was going to find someone who'd put me to work or at least tell me they knew someone who could and would put me to work."

"You were so lucky."

"I was."

"And now look at you, movies made and stuff."

He chuckled. "Yeah, well, like I said, it's not that big of a deal for the guys like me. It's not like it's a real ice-breaker at a party."

"I'd think it would be."

"Well, the next party I go to I guess I'll see if you're right."

"You don't go to parties?"

"Sweets, I go to so many conventions every year that the last thing I want to do when I'm home is be surrounded by people. My dog, my office, and me are all that I need."

"Sounds kind of lonely."

"Not really. I get more work done at any rate."

"Friends?"

"I go out once in a while. You know. I just don't do the partying every night thing some of them still do."

"I understand."

"You?"

"No, I wasn't ever really a partier. I mean, you know, if it was around."

He snorted softly at that.

"What? It's true. I mean, sure in high school I went to parties all of the time, but college was," she shrugged. She wasn't sure how to say it without saying too much. "Different."

"I get it," he said. "What about your sorority."

"Oh, sure, but especially the last couple of years living off-campus I didn't feel as though I had to go to them every weekend. I got active in theater my freshman year, after pledging actually, and sort of developed a pretty solid base of friends. April did, too, that's how we stayed friends throughout college, I guess. I honestly think if I'd found the theater before pledging I never would have."

"Did you act?"

"I did. April did behind the stage stuff."

"No goals to be the next Meryl Streep?"

"Uh no. I don't think anyone could be the next Meryl Streep," she said.

He chuckled softly. "You're probably right," he said, squeezing her hand.

"Why are you holding my hand anyway?"

"I don't know. It seems like a boyfriend thing to do."

"No one's around."

"True, maybe I just wanted to. Should I let it go?"

"No, it's fine, I was just curious."

"No reason, really, but I also figured I'd be less inclined to do something I shouldn't do or forget to do something I should do if I just got into the habit of those things now. You know, even when no one's around."

"You're being entirely too nice about this."

"Nah, I don't blame you for not wanting to be alone and subjected to him knowing what you know about him. Man, he owns a bar, too. That's just wrong."

"Tell me about it," Claire said. She'd thought of that more than once when she'd heard through Bonnie what Allen was up to. God, talk about the ideal place for someone like him to be. A bar with access to the drinks and the women he wanted.

"Why'd you come here the last time?"

"Just to come here," she said with a shrug. "You know the touristy stuff. We went to the Louvre and stuff like that."

"Huh."

"Do you like art?"

"Well, I draw for a living, so that's kind of a silly question."

"Well, I meant, you know, like the Louvre. Would you like to see things here? Like Notre Dame? Chartres? The Opera House?"

"Whatever you want to show me I'll see."

"You don't have to work?"

"I brought work, but I have nothing that's on a tight deadline. If I do something it'd be to get ahead. I figured if you wanted to do something with your friends without me it'd be a viable excuse without making you look like you don't want to spend time with me in romantic Paris."

"Well, the same goes for you. If you want a break. There's nothing set in stone other than the rehearsal and wedding. You could probably forego the actual rehearsal if you wanted to anyway."

"We'll see," he said.

They headed back to their room after a while of walking around. They didn't do much window shopping, but Claire didn't mind. It was, she had to admit, kind of nice to just talk to him. She didn't talk to guys very frequently. Her own fault really. She just never knew what to say.

"So, you want me to leave the room and come back in thirty minutes or what?" John asked when she mentioned taking a shower.

"Are you going to watch me get dressed?"

"I am curious why you didn't get a suite. Didn't I hear Bonnie say this hotel had them?"

"You did and I thought that'd be weird. Why would we need an extra room?"

"You don't want your friends to think you make me sleep on the couch?"

"Kind of," she said.

"Fair enough, and I suppose I can avert my gaze while you get dressed."

"Then you don't have to leave and come back."

"What if I want you to watch me get dressed?" he asked.

"John," she said, but she laughed with a shake of her head at that. "I think, no," she said.

"I'm teasing, Claire. Go take your shower. I'll be fine. I'll check out your book. You said it was funny."

"Don't lose my spot!"

"I wouldn't dare!"

Return to Top

***Chapter Four***
Word Count: 7,610

"Uh wow," John said when they arrived at Rene's house for dinner. Her friends had met them in town for lunch. His family lived a ways out of Paris in a very nice, very old house.

"Right," Claire said, obviously impressed herself.

"What does he do again?"

"I'm not sure," she said.

"Claire," he said with a soft chuckle.

"What? I'm not even sure that part came up!"

"The sister you never had and you don't want to know what her future husband does for a living?"

"I've been busy! Again, her track record indicated I wouldn't be here. He lived in France. It wasn't like I was going to have a reason to meet him!"

"I sort of see your point, but holy shit, Claire, I bet even your parents would be more than just a little impressed over this place."

"I know," she said.

"I'm glad you can acknowledge that."

"The place looks ancient, too," she said.

"It does look like it was around long before electricity and cars came into the picture."

"Can you imagine having to get to Paris from here in a buggy?"

"Uh, no," he said.

He'd never thought about things like that never having reason to, really. He got through history class and everything, but thinking about what life was like for anyone before the things he was used to never really entered his mind.

"I'll get it," he said when she started to open her car door to get out.

"John."

"They have people over there taking pictures. Real or not, I'm not the type of boyfriend that would make a girlfriend get out of a car on her own."

"Ever?"

"Well, I suppose if we went to a bar or something maybe not, but I'd still do it if you waited for me to do it."

"And you're still single?"

"Don't have many guys open doors for you?"

"God, no."

He chuckled softly.

"I told, you, Sweets, you better be careful or you're not going to want to break us up in a couple of months."

"That would be an issue if I actually had to see you over the next couple of months."

"Ouch," he said.

"That's not how I meant it! I'm sorry. I mean, of course I'd see you, but you know, just as John, not as my boyfriend."

He chuckled. "Relax. I knew what you meant."

"Thank you," she said as he got out of the car. Theirs wasn't the only car here. In fact, there were more than a couple here, which made him wonder as he walked to her side of the car just how big this dinner tonight was going to be.

"I thought you said tonight wasn't a big deal," he said once she was standing next to him.

"It's not. Not that I know of. I don't even know who's here beyond the four of us. Well, six including April and Rene."

The front door opened almost immediately once they'd gotten there, allowing them to enter. John was totally out of his league and element as Claire engaged in a brief conversation with the woman greeting them in French. He sort of got the gist of it, though.

The woman seemed to be Rene's mother, Mrs. Sauvageau, which sounded to John like a real fancy way of saying Savage. Kind of ironic, because he knew enough from history books to know the name wasn't a complimentary one.

"Welcome to my home," she said, offering John her hand, which he took. He shook it as gracefully as he could. He wasn't a weak handshake person. His dad hadn't raised him to be that, teaching him that a lot could be told about a man from his handshake. This wasn't another man, though, and she didn't strike John as a common, run of the mill, middle-class woman either.

"Thank you for inviting us," he said, assuming she and Claire had already had a similar conversation.

"I apologize for the cameras outside. They will be there for most of the week, I'm afraid since Rene is staying here through until the wedding."

"It's not a problem," John said. What did he care?

So, the house wasn't his but his mother's. He felt infinitely better about what he'd been doing with his life and the fact he owned a mere condo than he had about two minutes ago. He'd always been pretty proud of what he'd accomplished since he'd done it completely on his own. He didn't have parents to front him money to start a business or send him to college. Seeing this place, though, made him question for a second or two just how well he was really doing in the grand scheme of things.

"You had a good flight in, I trust?" she asked.

"Yes, it was just fine."

"Good," she said. Again, John assumed she'd already asked Claire these questions.

"Lily will show you to the others."

"Thank you, ma'am," he said as he and Claire followed the person, Lily he presumed, who was heading down the hall.

"I didn't know you spoke French that well," he said quietly. Lily was a bit ahead of them and she didn't seem to be paying them any attention. She probably was paid pretty decently not to pay attention. He could honestly say he'd never been to anyone's house who had … What was she? A servant? Staff? Whatever, regardless. He'd never been to one.

"God, yes, I studied it all through high school and college."

"Huh," he said. "So, the Moliere thing…"

"I liked French literature."

"Can you read his stuff in French?"

"I can read most anything in French."

"Really? That fluent?"

"Yes."

"Impressive."

"Well, I've kept up with it since college. I have a couple of friends who speak it and we write letters and stuff so that we keep using it."

"I can see that, I guess. Eight years' worth I suppose you don't want to forget it."

"No foreign languages for you?"

"Uh, no, Spanish in high school to fulfill Shermer's foreign language requirement. And other than cerveza I can't remember a word of it."

She laughed softly at that. "At least you remember the important word."

"Exactly. So, no problems understanding and talking with her?"

"No."

"You didn't like say anything I need to know, did you?"

"No. I told her your name."

"I got that much, yeah, thanks." He heard John clear as day. That was the only thing he understood beyond Claire's name.

"She asked if I was excited to spend a week in Paris with you."

"Oh. And you said?"

"I said I was of course."

"That's it?"

"Pretty much. I've never met her before or anything. She was just being nice and obviously she had no way of knowing I knew French until I started speaking it."

"Right. There's a lot more people here than I had the impression there'd be."

"Me, too. April didn't say anything. Just that it was dinner."

"Maybe this is dinner to them."

"Maybe so," Claire said.

"Does April speak French?"

"Not that I know of, but I imagine she's looking at learning."

He chuckled a bit at that. "I bet she is. He doesn't have as thick of an accent as his mom does."

"No, I think he's spent some time in America. Clearly, they met there."

"Right, but you're not sure if he lives there."

"No! I'm sorry. I guess I'm a terrible friend."

"Well, if she was just any friend I'd say no, but you described her to me as…"

"I know!"

He chuckled, reaching in to kiss her on the cheek. "Relax, Sweets, I'm teasing you."

"Oh," she said.

He slid his arm around her waist then, drawing her to him a bit and kissing her. It wasn't a great kiss, but it was certainly better than the rather disinterested, peck-like, faux kisses she'd given him to this point. She wasn't too entirely thrilled he could tell when he drew away, but she had kissed him back. He knew first-hand she could kiss way better than that, though.

"All right. Let's go make nice with a group of people we'll likely never see again in our lives. At least I won't I guess. You may."

Lily had stepped away a few minutes ago, leaving them in the hallway by themselves. Whether they looked odd to anyone else standing out there, he wasn't sure. It was one of the reasons he'd kissed her, let whoever might have seen them standing there talking think they were having a personal conversation rather than one as mundane as it was.

The dinner wasn't too bad. They'd been seated next to Bonnie and Allen. John had been sure to get the spot right next to them so Claire wouldn't have to worry about sitting next to Allen. She didn't like him. At all. John didn't need to be a Rhodes Scholar to know that. How Bonnie and Allen weren't picking up on it, he wasn't sure, but the two of them talked away throughout dinner as if there was nothing wrong.

Claire, on the other hand, said very little and when she did she spoke only to Bonnie. In fact, now that John thought about it, he couldn't recall hearing Claire say one word to Allen. Even in the limo on the way to the airport. She usually responded to him or to Bonnie even if it was something Allen had said.

The four of them were some of the first to leave as they were seemingly the only four who'd flown in this morning and been up basically all day. John slept decently on the plane, but he never slept real soundly on airplanes. Admittedly, sitting next to Claire for hours was enough to make him a little self-conscious. He'd woken up in New York with his seatbelt unfastened and knew he hadn't done that. That meant she had. Utterly stupid and insane to get at all … excited … at that thought, but the idea of Claire Standish touching him anywhere was, he had to admit, a pretty exciting concept.

He wondered, not for the first time since she'd presented him with this idea of hers why she didn't have anyone. He'd assumed she'd be married with at least a kid or two by now. So when he'd seen in the reunion directory booklet thing that she was still Standish and seemingly not married or divorced he'd been pretty shocked. And more than a little interested. She hadn't said too much to him at the reunion, though, so thoughts of asking her out sort of left his mind. She hadn't been a bitch to him or anything, but she hadn't acted as if she even remembered spending the afternoon making out with him their senior year. Of course, there was no telling how many guys between then and now she'd made out with for that afternoon not to be such a big deal to her.

He'd just assumed for whatever reason she'd be well onto her way to the perfect life, ending with a bunch of grandkids surrounding her while she died peacefully in her sleep. That was just the way he pictured her life when he'd thought about her over the years.

Not that she was a focal point of his thoughts obsessively or anything. She was a hard woman to forget, though. Try as he might over the years to find someone he enjoyed kissing as much as he had her he couldn't do it.

The kissing itself wasn't a huge deal. Not really. He'd never since her, or if he wanted to be honest before her either, been brought to the verge of coming in his jeans from kissing.

She was a little more comfortable holding his hand as they left the house than she had been going inside. She hadn't been that weird about it earlier that morning so he had no idea what happened in the past few hours that made her seem hesitant to want to do that.

He stopped her from getting into the car right away, sliding his arms around her a bit.

"So, where to, Claire?"

"What?"

"Well, it's our first night in Paris. Dinner is over. Your friends didn't invite themselves to join us with whatever we might be doing after dinner. So, it's just us. What do you want to do?"

"Well," she said, seeming to think on the options. "I thought you were tired."

"Oh, I am," he said. "That doesn't mean we couldn't go for a drink somewhere to really ensure we both sleep well tonight."

"Afraid you won't?"

He chuckled a bit, leaning in to kiss her as Allen and Bonnie drove past them. She kissed him back much better this time. It still wasn't anywhere near as nice as he recalled her kissing him once before, but it was definitely better than what he'd gotten earlier. He almost didn't want to stop kissing her except, he thought as she groaned softly against his mouth it could get very dangerous. The fact that she was going to be sleeping a few feet away from him. Yeah, the thought occurred to him he may not sleep too well. An airplane was different. This was a room, with beds, and privacy in a city where she was a bit on edge because of the lie she'd told about them.

"At least we know how to do that convincingly," he murmured as he drew away. He didn't stop holding her, though. He wasn't quite ready for that.

"We do?"

He sighed softly. "Yes, we do," he said. "We always did."

"I guess so."

He frowned a bit at that. She didn't think so? He recalled very distinctly she enjoyed kissing him immensely back then. Did she not remember it that way anymore? Then, he supposed too, maybe what she liked had changed over the years. He knew what he liked hadn't changed. "So, was that a yes to the drink?"

"Sure," she said. "Though we could just stop at the hotel bar before going up to our room. That way we wouldn't have to drive afterward."

"Good thinking," he said, reaching with one of his hands for her cheek. He skimmed it with his thumb lightly. "You okay, Princess?" he asked.

"Yeah, why?" she asked.

"I don't know. You look…" he shrugged. "Sad for lack of a better word."

"I'm fine."

"That's good because if kissing me makes you sad I'd seriously have to take a look at what I was doing wrong."

"Kissing you doesn't make me sad other than knowing it's fake."

"That didn't feel very fake to me, Claire."

She sighed softly and pushed on his chest a bit so he'd step away. He did not want to crowd her if she didn't want him to. He was pretty good at faking a lot of things, but kissing was not one of them. He didn't think many could really. It was either one of those things you enjoyed doing with the person on the other end of it or you didn't.

"Let's go get that drink."

"All right," he said. "What's your poison anyway?"

"What?"

"Drink of choice? Besides margaritas anyway."

"Oh," she shrugged. "Gin and tonic."

"Really?" he asked, surprised. He hadn't pegged her as the gin type.

"Yes."

"I should know that for Saturday, right?"

"I guess you should," she answered, seeming to think on that.

"You?"

"Beer."

"John."

"What? That's what I drink. I suppose a Seven and Seven if I really need to have a mixed drink. I suppose being in Paris it's not acceptable to drink beer. They couldn't get married in Germany, could they?"

He opened her door for her again after she reached for it. She was in a hurry to get out of here now for some reason. She hadn't been a few minutes ago, closing it when she got in and walking to the driver's side. Something told him this was going to be a very long night.

John laid in bed, staring at the ceiling. The drink they'd had before coming up here hadn't helped much.

"What are your parents' names?" he asked.

"What?"

"I should know that, shouldn't I? I mean, I would presume I've at the very least met your dad if I've gone to your office to get you for lunch and stuff."

"Frank and Emily."

"Christopher and Claire."

"Yes."

"Mom doesn't work, right?"

"No."

"Never?"

"Nope," Claire said.

"And Christopher?"

"Of course."

"Not the working part, Sweets. I meant, tell me about him. Stuff I should know."

"Oh. He's four years older than us. He's divorced."

"Really?" That surprised him. Immensely.

"Yes."

"How long?"

"Forever."

"What?"

"They got married right out of college before law school and stuff. I don't think she realized how hard it is. She assumed it'd be easy."

"Because the job was cast in stone."

"Right, but you still have to do the school work and pass the exams. I mean, if everyone became a lawyer – or a doctor – simply because they wanted to be. Well, there'd be doctor and lawyer offices on every street corner. Sure, Dad could have lawyers help Christopher study, but he's the one who had to do the work, graduate, and pass the boards. No one else could do that for him. I mean, especially being a criminal attorney, he had to study hard to know his stuff. We all did, of course, but when you have someone's life potentially hanging in the balance it's sort of urgent you know what you're doing."

"Right. I can see that," he said. "And law school can't be a cakewalk, regardless of a job waiting for you on the other end of things."

"Exactly! And then, well, you have to do the work so that the other lawyers Dad has working for him actually think you deserve to be a part of the Standish Law Firm. Am I complaining? No, I get that I have it so much better than hundreds of other lawyers in Chicago. I had a job before I graduated law school and I was able to basically choose what I wanted to practice. My boss was willing to do that for me, add my specialty to the firm. Not all bosses would do that, you know? Dad didn't need a corporate attorney. His firm was doing just fine without me."

"What would you have done if your dad wouldn't have done it?"

She was quiet for a few minutes, thinking he imagined.

"I don't know. The thought never entered my mind that he wouldn't let me practice the type of law I felt most comfortable practicing. Now, if one of the lawyers got sick and I needed to go to court for a day so that a client had an attorney, could I do it? Sure, I could. I mean, I could defend people until I'm old and grey, it's just not what I wanted to do."

"I'm glad," he said softly.

"Why?" she asked, sounding genuinely curious as to why he'd say that. He wasn't honestly sure why he thought that either. Other than, well, one of the things he'd always liked about Claire was that she was inherently a good person. A just person. An honest person. (The reason for him being here in Paris with her currently aside obviously.)

"I don't know if I can explain it beyond the fact that I can't help but think defending people accused of crimes would have to weigh on a person after a while. Sure, okay, maybe most of the day to day cases aren't horrendous. You mentioned Jeffrey Dahmer, though. I mean, John Wayne Gacy happened right here, miles from us. Someone had to defend him. I couldn't imagine someone like you sitting in court day after day for months like a trial of his took, listening to details of his crimes and it not … changing you in some way."

"And that would be bad?"

"I think so," he said, hoping that wasn't saying too much. A couple of drinks and being crazy tired was liable to leave him with a loose tongue.

"Thank you. I told you I just wasn't cut out for it. I'm not the type of person that could just leave things at the office at the end of the day. I'm just not. I know this about myself. I interned with a criminal attorney for a summer between my sophomore and junior years. It was absolutely fascinating and … God, talk about exhilarating. I had dreams, though. I'd see the exhibit pictures in my mind and I'd wake up not able to go back to sleep."

"That had to be hard."

"It was. I had a long talk with my dad after that. He told me to talk to my advisor about other possibilities. That he'd work with me. He gave me a list of some specialties he would like to have seen added and I sort of went from there."

"That was nice of him. Really. I mean, some dads would have told you to buck up and deal with it. Criminal defense has to be where the money is."

"Yes. I don't make nearly as much on a case by case basis, but I think I said once before I'm also able to churn out cases more frequently so my billable hours can be crazy high some months."

"So? Christopher," he said, wanting to know what happened to her brother. He didn't want to not know if he was asked or if someone said something.

"Oh. Right. Sorry. They weren't even married two years."

"Tough."

"On his son especially."

"They were married for less than two years and had a kid?"

"She didn't know she was pregnant when they filed for divorce. They got divorced in August, he was born in February."

"Wow. So, he's like never known his parents as being a parental unit."

"No."

"Harsh."

"Yeah."

"Yet, they were clearly in a position to make a baby if they had one not real long after they got divorced."

"I never really thought about it like that before. Who knows? Being able to have sex with one another doesn't mean they were happy. She got remarried less than two years later so who knows?"

"What's his name?"

"Michael."

"He's how old?"

"Eight. He'll be nine in February."

"Who has him?"

"Believe it or not, Christopher does."

"Why?"

"Because she gave him up."

"Why?"

"I don't know. She was a vindictive bitch?"

"That's pretty harsh, Claire."

"Well, she thought Christopher was choosing his job and our dad over her. So, she thought she'd punish him by giving him custody."

"What did he do with a baby?"

"Mom helped a lot. He hired someone, I mean, you know, Mom didn't do the actual diaper changing."

John chuckled softly at that.

"Is he okay?"

"Yeah, he seems to do all right. He sees Tammy, his mom, every other weekend and for six weeks during the summer. They share holidays as decently as they can. She lives just north of Madison now. She's remarried and has two more kids. A boy and a girl, I think, but I couldn't tell you their names. I think they're five and two or four and two. The youngest one is around two, I know that."

"Well, that's good at least. I mean, that he sees his mom and half-siblings."

"And your parents?" she whispered.

"What about them?"

"Are they still around?"

He chuckled. "They're still in Shermer, yes. Or were you asking if they were still alive? I really don't know. I presume so. They're names haven't appeared in the obituary columns that I've seen."

"Do you have brothers and sisters?"

"I had a brother."

"Really?"

"Yup."

"Younger?"

"Yes."

"You said had."

"He died when we were kids."

"Oh my God. I'm so sorry, I had no idea."

"Well, obviously."

"Why didn't I know this before?"

"What do you mean? Why would you?" He didn't tell anyone about him actually. He could count on one hand and have three fingers left over now after telling Claire how many people knew about his brother.

"How old were you?"

"I was in Kindergarten, so," he said, thinking in his head to how old he was. "Hmm. I was five I guess. He was three."

"What happened?"

"You know, I really am not sure. I mean, I was at school. I came home from school and the police and stuff were there."

"He died at home?"

"Yes. Dad told me he didn't wake up from a nap. I was too little to understand that was odd for someone his age. By the time I was old enough to know better," he shrugged. Not that Claire could see him do it in the darkness. "Well, what was I supposed to do? Say I thought my mom did something fishy that caused him to stop breathing? He was a little…"

"What?"

"Special. You know? Mom was drinking and stuff by the time she was pregnant with him. I think it had an effect on him."

"Oh," she said, clearly understanding what he was getting at. John's memories of Josh were pretty vague anymore, and he didn't have a whole lot of experience with little kids in general to know if his suspicions about him were correct or just his imagination breathing life into his suspicions.

"So, I don't know. Would I put it past her to do that? Some days I say no way would she, but some days. I realize how easy her life was without Josh around. I mean, easy in comparison."

"Right."

"You're not going to, like call the police on her or anything are you?"

"No, why would I do that?"

"I don't know, I'm not sure what your obligation is here. I'm basically suggesting to you a crime may have been committed."

"You don't know for sure and I wouldn't put you through the ordeal of having his body exhumed or anything for a chance. Obviously the police didn't see anything suspicious that day or your mom wouldn't be free today."

"Right," John said. He'd thought on that, too, over the years as he bounced back and forth on whether he truly thought his mother was capable of doing what he thought she may have done.

"They never tried for another one?"

"Not that I know of. I suspect, believe it or not, my dad learned his lesson and didn't want another one. I mean, Mom apparently couldn't stop drinking for nine months with him he probably realized she was further gone into her bad habits after he died."

"I suppose," she said softly. "I honestly had no idea. I'm so sorry."

"It was a long time ago."

"Do you have a picture of him or anything?"

"I do," he said. "Actually, Simon Forge resembles him. No one else knows that." Of course no one else knew that, because no one else knew about Josh. His parents, as far as he knew, had never seen any of his work so they wouldn't see the resemblance and he wasn't sure they'd see it anyway. John sort of … embellished a bit on what Josh looked like, altered him a bit to give him the appearance worthy of the product of two superheroes. And, well, Josh was three when he died so there was a lot to embellish making him into an older teenaged character.

"That's sweet," she said.

"I couldn't help but picture him when Rich was telling me about Simon. I don't know why exactly. I mean, I have no idea what made me think of Josh, but I did. And that, you know, somehow," John shrugged again.

"Someone would see him as you saw him?"

"Yeah. He wasn't like severely retarded or anything. He was just slow. He was a good kid, just a lot of work. Even for me when I tried to do things with him like play or color. When I was his age I was potty trained and could, you know, kind of take care of myself. Color on my own, turn the TV on, and pour myself some cereal if Mom left the box and bowl on the table for me to reach. I wasn't, like, cooking myself meals or anything, but you know I wasn't entirely reliant on my mom for every little thing."

"Right."

"Josh was. He couldn't do any of that. I mean, Mom had to be hands-on with him from the time he woke up until he went to sleep. He wasn't potty trained when he died. I thought when I got a little older, like junior high school older I mean, that it was because Mom was too lazy to do it."

"Really?"

"It made sense to me at the time. In a weird way. Keep him a baby? I don't know. I wasn't thinking that, obviously, him not being in diapers anymore would be so much easier on her."

"Right."

"So, as I got older, you know, probably within the last six or seven years I realized that he probably was just behind. You know. I remember, vaguely, Mom working with him on going and stuff."

He sighed.

"I'm sorry I brought it up."

He snorted. "You didn't, Sweets. Me and my big mouth did asking you about your family."

"Well, obviously I'm not going to bring up your brother this week."

"Thanks," he said.

"And you don't talk to them?"

"No. They know how to get a hold of me, but I don't seek them out."

"Right," she said.

"Ironically, I'd probably talk to my old man before her."

"I guess I kind of don't blame you."

"Really? Because I think that and in my head I sound like a masochist for thinking that way."

"Not at all. And, well, who knows what losing a son did to him?"

"I think that way sometimes, too, but I haven't, like, initiated conversations with him. Unlike you and Bonnie, I do not send them Christmas cards or call them on their birthdays."

"Do you remember when their birthdays are?"

"Uh," he said, thinking on that. "I think so. It's been so long since it was a necessary bit of information I'm not sure anymore. Dad's is in August I think and Mom's was in April."

"Well, that's better than not knowing at all."

"I guess."

"Can I ask you something?" he asked after a few minutes of silence on both of their parts. Who knew what she was thinking, but he didn't want to go to sleep thinking about Josh or his parents.

"Sure," she said, though she didn't sound certain.

"Why'd you have to ask me to come here?"

"What do you mean?"

"Why did you basically have to pay for me to come here and pretend to be your boyfriend? I mean, forget the plane ticket and the hotel. The hotel and car you would've had the expense of anyway. You offered to buy me suits and a passport."

"I did," she said, sounding as if she maybe wished he didn't remember that part of her offer. "John, I explained this to you that night at Chi Chi's."

"Oh, I know what you told me, but that doesn't answer my question. Why aren't you actually involved with someone? You know, someone you could actually bring here. Maybe even someone you would actually want here."

"No one to be involved with?"

"You don't sound so sure of that answer."

"I've just been busy, you know. I work and, well, it just hasn't been a priority for me."

"Don't you want kids?" If anyone from Shermer High should've been living the dream life of a house with two cars, a dog, and two and a half kids it was Claire. He was still surprised she wasn't on her way to achieving that dream.

"Well, sure, one day. You know. I'm only twenty-eight."

"I know. I was just curious I guess. You're attractive, smart, have a good job, and are socially more than acceptable to bring somewhere in public."

She sighed softly, turning onto her side to face him. He was guessing that's what she was doing anyway. With the curtains closed it was pretty dark in here. He just sensed she'd turned toward him rather than away from him.

She didn't say anything else for a very long time. So long, in fact, he assumed she'd fallen asleep and he was teetering on doing the same thing himself. He was glad that they'd forced themselves to stay up all day. They'd talked about a nap after lunch, but both decided against it to better their chances of sleeping well tonight.

"It was me," she whispered.

"What?" he mumbled.

"The friend of mine I told you about. You know. With Allen."

His eyes shot open at that. He wasn't as close to being asleep as he had been ten seconds ago. In fact, he was very much awake with those last two words.

"I was so embarrassed," she said and he kept his mouth shut for the time being. "You asked me why no one went to the police. That's why I didn't go to the police. I was embarrassed. I was drunk, but I hadn't let myself get that drunk. I knew better than that! He was, you know, older plus kind of cute, and paying attention to me. He was my friend's older brother so I thought he'd be a good person to like. He flirted with me. I honestly didn't know. You know? I woke up in the basement of the house we were at for the party. Whether he did it deliberately or not he probably saved my life because he left me on my side so when I threw up whatever he'd given me it was on the floor instead of me, like, drowning in it because I was still unconscious when my body was trying to get rid of it."

She was quiet again, but he had no idea what the fuck to say to that. He was sorry? That he wanted to find a gun and go kill the guy?

"I guess I'm grateful he brought me there, the basement I mean, instead of a bedroom where anyone else could have found me passed out and half naked. Who knows what would've happened to me then. I got back to my dorm room and sat in the shower for probably forty-five minutes to an hour. I scrubbed every inch of myself to the point I was raw in some places. I just, God, I couldn't get the smell of him off of me."

"Claire," he whispered.

"And then to make matters worse I got pregnant out of it. I had nobody to tell. They were all friends with Bonnie, too. You know, part of the sorority. I couldn't say anything. Who was going to believe me? My being a virgin was unheard of. I swear I didn't know anyone else who was and especially going into the last couple months of our freshman year."

He would've believed her because he would've known she wasn't the type of girl to just randomly have sex with someone at a party. He was pretty sure to this day she would've had sex with him that day at school if he'd pushed more than he had for them to go that far. He hadn't, though. He still wasn't sure why he hadn't beyond the fact she deserved better than that for her first time. He knew he wasn't going to get another chance at being the one to do that, but for the first time in his life he'd felt right and good about something he'd done. He wasn't sure he'd ever felt that right or good about anything else since then. He wasn't sure what that said about him.

"What did you do?" he asked. She obviously didn't have a kid, but there were still a couple of options that left.

She sighed softly. "I had a friend who moved to Minneapolis when we were kids."

"Okay."

"I didn't know who else to call. We'd kept in touch, you know. She was actually kind of an ideal friend. A pen pal. We could tell each other anything. I even told her about you."

"Right," he said, cautiously not liking where this was going. He was really wishing he hadn't asked her anything tonight. If he could go back and start this part of the night over he'd keep his mouth shut instead of asking her about her family or anything.

"She was going to U of M so I went to stay with her for a couple of days and she went with me. I missed a couple days of classes, but I told my professors I had a family emergency and made sure I caught up on the homework. I got back to school and no one suspected a thing."

"He doesn't know?" he asked. A logical question, he thought. He'd want to know, but then he had never drugged and forced a girl to have sex with him either.

"Are you kidding me? No. I haven't really spoken to him since. I mean, if I have to I will."

"And no one knows?"

"No, just Rachel, and she doesn't know the details just that I needed to do that and didn't want anyone else to know about it. As far as I know she's never told a soul."

What the fuck was he supposed to say to that? He had absolutely no fucking idea. There was a reason he didn't have good friends because he just wasn't an open up and share kind of guy. He slid out of his bed then. He knew she was watching him even though he couldn't see her doing it as he walked to the other side of her bed. She was on the edge closest to his bed.

"What are you…"

"Relax," he said, drawing the covers back enough to slide in.

"John, I just told you that and you think that what? That's an invitation to have sex with me?"

"I'm going to ignore that question, Princess," he said. "I know you don't think I'm the kind of guy that'd think that or I wouldn't be here with you this week."

"John," she said again as he slid an arm around her and drew her closer to him.

"Shh," he whispered. "Just relax and go to sleep."

"What?" she said. He could feel her heart increase. Was he really scaring her?

"Claire. Come on. You trusted me enough to share a room with me."

"A room! Not a bed!"

"You think sleeping in a separate bed would stop me from doing something bad if I had it in my head to do that?"

"I…" she said.

"Would you just relax and let me try and make an attempt at comforting you. I realize I may not be very good at it, but that's what I'm trying to do here."

"Oh," she said softly.

It took her a while to relax. He could hear her breathing taper off to a more even rate than the almost hyperventilating level it'd been at a few minutes ago. He knew it wasn't him specifically that had her freaking out.

"John," she whispered.

"Princess. I can behave myself. I'm not so sure about you, but you know I'm willing to take the chance."

She laughed softly at that and he took that as a good sign.

He kissed the top of her head, drawing her a little closer against him now that she'd settled down. She fit kind of nicely against his chest he had to admit, even if it was an inappropriate thing to think right now.

"I'm sorry," he whispered.

"John…"

"No, I'm sorry. I'm sorry that happened to you. I'm sorry that someone you thought you could trust violated that trust so completely. I'm sorry that you were left alone to make a huge decision like that and then had to do it basically alone. I'm sorry you've had to live with that for the past nine years."

"Thank you," she murmured.

"You realize I want to beat the ever living shit out of him now, don't you?"

She sighed softly.

"I won't. I'll refrain, but damn it, Claire."

"I know."

"Is that why you kiss me so strange?"

"What?" she asked.

"I don't know. Sometimes you kiss me very nicely, like I remember you kissing. Sometimes you," he shrugged. "I don't know. Seem like you'd rather be doing laundry."

"I don't," she shrugged. "I haven't. No."

"Since then? Nine years?"

"No. I can't. I mean, I've gone on dates, but I see ridiculous things wrong with them. Sometimes it's not so ridiculous, but sometimes I'm just paranoid and screw up by doing or saying something flighty that make them never call me back."

"And your friends don't think it's strange you don't date?"

"Not really. And now that you're here…"

"They're going to think you liked me all along?"

"Something like that."

"Aww, Princess, that'd be flattering if you hadn't just told me what you did."

"I know."

"I can just kiss you, you know?"

She sighed softly against his chest.

"I don't expect anything else from you. I'm trying to give you, your friends too I guess, what's right. We've known one another for years so clearly I didn't see anything wrong with kissing you in public."

"I know," she whispered. "I just I'm not even sure I know how anymore."

"Oh," he said. "Well, trust me, outside Rene's house you knew exactly what you were doing."

"You're just saying that."

"No, no I'm not."

"Thank you," she whispered.

"You're welcome."

"You don't have to sleep in my bed. I'm fine now."

"Princess, you just told me something pretty important."

"So did you…"

"No. No way in hell was what I told you about Josh anywhere near what you told me. I was a kid who lost his kid brother. It doesn't affect who I am today or anything. I mean, maybe, but that wasn't something done to me."

She giggled softly.

"What?" he asked.

"I just realized John and Josh."

"Yeah," he said, chuckling softly himself. "I guess my parents weren't very original."

"Just Josh?"

"Huh?" he asked.

"Well, you're just John not Jonathan. Was he Joshua?"

"Oh, nope, just Josh."

"Just wondering."

"Does your brother go by Chris?"

"Sometimes with friends. I don't usually call him that, though."

"Why'd you tell me?"

She shrugged.

"Because I hate him. I swear I don't use that word lightly and just toss it around about anyone who makes me mad. I truly hate him and what he did to me and the things I go through to this day because of it. I mean, do you know how guilty I feel?"

"Claire."

"I know realistically I have absolutely nothing to feel guilty about, but I do. I look at Michael and he's about the same age…"

"Oh," he said, not having thought of that at all.

"When I found out Christopher was going to have a baby. Well, you know, Tammy. I got sick all over again. I don't think I've cried as much as I did the night he called to tell me."

"I'm sorry."

"I know. I wonder, you know, working where he works…"

"I've thought on that, too, and that was before I knew it was you."

"It makes my skin crawl. I swear to God I want to take another hour long shower just by being near him again. I hate that! I hate that he can still make me feel that way."

"Settle down. Please don't start freaking out again on me, Princess. I don't know where the nearest hospital is and I'm not sure I want to have to explain to someone why my getting into bed caused you to panic so badly I had to bring you in to one."

"Very funny."

"I'm just a funny guy. What can I say? I wish I could say I understand. I can't. I know that and I'm sorry that you feel that way. However, I also understand why you wanted me here and you do an amazing job at not letting him know you feel that way."

"Thank you," she whispered.

"If April hadn't asked you to be in the wedding would you be here?"

"If I knew Allen was going to be here?"

"Yes."

"No," she said.

"Good," he said. "Are you going to sleep all right?"

"I," she said, pausing. "I'm not sure. Are you?"

"I don't know either. I currently have this deep desire to find their hotel and …"

"You can't tell anyone!"

"I know that. It doesn't mean I don't want to beat the shit out of him."

"You're a good man, John."

"Yeah?"

He snorted softly at that. "Don't let that get around."

"I'll try not to spread it."

"Thanks. Now go to sleep."

"Are you going to move back to your bed?"

"I'll see how we work this out. Unless you want me to right now."

"No, you can stay."

"You want me to leave…"

"I'll tell you."

"Okay then."

"At least I can see them tomorrow and think my relationship with you isn't a complete lie."

He chuckled softly at that. "You kiss me like you did at Rene's house we can convince them it's not a lie very capably."

"I'll try."

Return to Top

***Chapter Five***
Word Count: 8,518

They had two days basically to do whatever they wanted to do until they were on her friend's time, more or less. John still hadn't seen her dress because she hadn't taken it out of the garment bag to this point so he had no idea what she was going to look like. A few of them in from out of town were going somewhere in a little bit to do some wine tasting. John had no real desire to do that, but he thought he'd look kind of like an asshole for bailing on her on one of the few things a group of them were doing.

He was in the restaurant, drinking some coffee while she was getting dressed. After their first night and everything she'd told him he hadn't felt right sitting in the room while she showered and got dressed. He didn't care how all right she was with it. He brought his sketch pad and some pencils down with him to the restaurant and passed his time just fine while waiting for her.

She didn't feel rushed and he got his time to draw for a bit. She seemed to understand he had a need to do that. It wasn't just a job to him. He'd been drawing since as long as he could remember. It was the only thing his parents really did right by him with, keeping him supplied in paper and pencils. The first time he'd ever gotten hit was because he'd drawn on the wall in his bedroom when he was about three or four. He couldn't tell anyone what he'd been drawing, but he remembered how furious his father had been because he had just painted the walls not that long ago. He had fared better than his mom that evening because she'd been accused of not watching him properly. His mom never let him run out of paper and crayons after that. He supposed they weren't the world's worst parents, but he was very glad to be out of their house.

"There you are," Allen said.

"Uh yeah," John said.

Bonnie was with him, of course. He thought it was a little odd that the two of them traveled together and were even sharing a room, but whatever worked for them. It made him wonder, though, why Allen wasn't staying with her kids so Bonnie's husband could come. Then John remembered Allen and the groom were friends, too. So, he supposed Allen would be here regardless.

"Am I supposed to be somewhere else?" he asked. He didn't think so. Claire hadn't mentioned anything in advance of the wine tasting trip.

"So, where's Claire?"

"Still getting dressed, I imagine." Wasn't it obvious? Maybe not. She clearly wasn't here yet, though, as there was only one cup of coffee on his table and no evidence of a second person sitting there.

"Why are you down here?" Allen asked.

Good question. He imagined it probably seemed a little odd for him to be down here. This wasn't the first time John wasn't glad they weren't in the same hotel.

"Well, she takes forever to get ready. So, we shower, I get dressed then come down here to get my coffee and draw for a bit while waiting for her. She doesn't feel rushed because she knows if I start drawing something she could take three hours and I'd never notice the time passing."

"You can do that? Just sit and draw all day?" Allen asked. He was clearly not impressed and wasn't trying to sugar coat that opinion of John's occupation. It was nothing new, John encountered it all of the time. It was one of the reasons he hadn't stayed at the reunion for very long. For some reason, though, this guy giving him that look bothered him.

"That is kind of what people pay me to do, yeah," he said.

"And you can make an actual living that way? Drawing comics?" he asked.

"Allen," Bonnie said cautiously.

"Well, I'm not living in a cardboard box on a street corner outside of Claire's house, so I guess I must do okay, yeah," he said.

"I'm sorry, John, really. My brother doesn't mean to be rude," Bonnie said.

He did, too, mean to be rude, and Allen and John both knew it. John couldn't figure out why exactly he was purposely being rude to John. John had, as far as he knew anyway, been an ideal date to this point. He'd been polite, affectionate without going overboard, participated in conversations when he needed to, and was about to drive an hour or so with this guy that he'd much prefer beat over the head so that they can taste wine together.

"It's not a problem. If I had a nickel for every time someone asked me if I can actually make a living doing what I do I'd be pretty rich. Certainly I'd be able to afford a better cardboard box than the one I currently reside in. You should stop by sometime I just got new carpet put in and everything. Claire says it really keeps it warm in there when there's snow on the ground."

"Hey," Allen said.

"Are you drawing something for a comic now?" Bonnie asked quickly.

"Nah," John said. "I'd never stop if I started working on something for work. I just come down here and draw whatever."

He set the drawing of the waitress he'd been working on down on the table so they could see it. She knew he was drawing it and had stopped more than a couple of times when he was down here to see how he was progressing.

"That's really very good," she said.

"Thanks," he said, chuckling softly at the sound of surprise in her voice. He was used to that reaction, too.

"I'm sorry. I just, you hear comics and I just assumed…"

"I couldn't draw real things?"

"Sort of."

"I just like comics," he said. Comics had saved his life growing up. The idea that there were people like Captain America, Wonder Woman, and Batman out there gave him hope in a household where there was little of that. Oddly, he never got disappointed that they never showed up at his house to save the day or anything. He had no doubt they had more important things to worry about than kids like him. It was the idea that they were out there, fighting the forces of evil that kept him interested. John's dad wasn't evil. He was a jackass, but he wasn't evil. Even as a kid John knew the difference.

"I didn't realize you guys were meeting us for breakfast today," he said, watching Allen take in John's picture. The guy tried not to show he was impressed, but even John had to admit it was pretty good work. Of course, he'd had the same waitress each morning he'd come down here so he had plenty of time to work on this particular drawing. He was going to give it to her when he was done with it. He'd sign it, too. He didn't always, but she'd been nice about him sitting at her table for hours every day now.

"Oh, well, we caught a cab here so you wouldn't have to wait on us…"

So they presumed they could eat with them, too. He'd rather stick forks in his eye, but that wasn't the right answer to give.

"You did get a ride back to town, right? I know Claire mentioned taking a drive into the country after the tour and tasting and I think she'd be pretty disappointed not to be able to do that."

They'd done a lot with their two days. Claire was a good tour guide. Morrison's grave was the first thing they'd done because she'd wanted to make sure they hadn't run out of time for it since it was the one thing he specified wanting to see and visit. Wednesday they'd done a lot of driving and walking around, looking at things like cathedrals and stuff. Yesterday they'd spent a crazy amount of time at the Louvre.

"Oh," Bonnie said. "Yes, we have that taken care of. We don't want to be the reason you cancel your plans."

It was a horrible idea, them riding with them. How Claire could stand to be within twenty feet of the guy John couldn't understand. He didn't want to be this close to him and the guy hadn't done anything to him. He had done something to someone he genuinely liked, though. He could count on one hand how many people he felt that way about. Claire and Rich were at the top of the list because they'd both liked him, seen something in him at a time no one else had.

He'd drawn her once after that day at school. He hadn't been gutsy enough to give it to her himself, but he picked the lock on her locker and left it for her there. He imagined she knew it'd been from him because who else did she know who'd be able to pick her lock? She'd never said anything, though, then they hadn't talked really after that day. She had her prom thing to do and he'd had getting out of his house to do.

He supposed the polite thing to do would be to invite them to sit down, but he really didn't want to. He hoped they'd leave and find their own way there before Claire got down here. He'd already been down here for a while when they'd gotten here so he wasn't too surprised to see her walk in. Their backs were to her so only he saw the look on her face when she saw them there.

Evidently she hadn't thought they'd be here this soon either. He had no idea why they hadn't rented their own car. This wasn't the first time he'd wondered why she was still friends with Bonnie in the first place, but he supposed it wasn't so easy to get rid of a friend when no one knew about the situation.

"There you are," he said, standing when she got close to his table.

"I'm sorry I took so long."

"You look great so it was worth waiting for," he said, kissing her before she took the spot next to his at the table. She didn't usually, but he guessed she presumed they'd sit down and eat with them, too.

"Thank you."

She said something in French to the waitress who knew Claire by now simply because she came down and sat with John every morning after he'd been down here for thirty minutes to an hour by himself. She spoke English just fine, otherwise John wouldn't have been able to do much more than order coffee, but he'd managed to talk to her a little bit. She knew they were from Chicago at any rate.

"I didn't realize you were going to get here this early," Claire said.

"Well, I couldn't remember what time you said you wanted to leave," Bonnie said.

"Oh," Claire said. "Well, I haven't eaten yet or anything obviously."

John noticed she wasn't doing the polite thing immediately and offering to let them sit down with them. He wasn't exactly in a hurry to do that either.

He offered her his hand, which she took. He did that most of the time now after what she'd told him. He still kissed her first, but touching. Well, she seemed to appreciate him giving her the choice in the matter about holding his hand rather than him just taking hers. Usually, the kissing came after they were already touching so she seemed to expect it then. Or at least that's what he told himself. He wasn't sure.

"It's kind of late for breakfast, isn't it?" Allen said.

"Claire was on the phone until after three o'clock this morning talking to one of her clients," John said, not that it was any of the guy's business. They'd gotten back from being out to multiple messages at the front desk for her from Sonia about the same thing. All seemingly more urgent than the next one. They'd gotten back to their room around one, which was still a reasonable time in Chicago so Claire had called immediately and worked on the situation.

When it was clear it was going to be a lengthy phone conversation, John had left the room and gone down to the bar. He wasn't sure what the deal was, but he knew she was a lawyer and he probably shouldn't be around overhearing anything said on a phone call with her client.

She'd found him a couple of hours later, looking very exhausted. They'd had a drink before heading back up to their room for bed. She'd seemed to need the drink where John had been having the couple he did just to pass the time. He knew she'd come down and get him when she was done.

"Oh," Allen said.

"Oh my God. I completely forgot. That means you didn't get to call Rich back," she said, seeming to just now remember mixed in with her more than half-dozen messages was one for him as well.

"It's all right. I didn't forget. I'll call him later on probably after the rehearsal."

"I'm so sorry," she said. "I should have let you call him first! I didn't know it was going to take so long though."

"Princess, you had a slew of messages. I had one. If it was urgent Rich would have said so in that one message. He didn't so I assume it's not. Yours obviously was. He can wait. I told him I wouldn't be immediately available."

"I know. I just feel terrible."

"Don't, please," he said.

He honestly had no idea what Rich would want. He assumed maybe it was something to do with the movie coming up. There were all sorts of things going on with that. Rich had insisted his usual Simon Forge crew handle the full-sized movie posters so that the artwork stayed true to the comics. That meant John had had to pencil a much bigger Simon Forge than he was accustomed to.

He had to admit the final product was pretty fucking amazing. He thought he remembered the posters were slated to start to be distributed here pretty soon so it was probably something to do with that, telling John so he'd know. It was different seeing his work at comic book stores. This was a poster that anyone who was anyone going to a movie theater would see.

He wondered what Allen would think about that, but didn't really care enough to ask.

Rich and the other higher ups were coming up with ways to monetize Simon yet still get positive publicity for the upcoming movie. Maybe he wanted John to do something that way. He'd already done what seemed like a million copies of various pictures of Simon to be given away and stuff. The ones of just his drawings of Simon wouldn't sell for as much as ones that had gone onto the illustrator, but for whatever reason they'd wanted both options available. Fine with John. He sort of liked having pictures out there of Simon without anyone but him touching the finished product.

"Well, we'll let you eat," Bonnie said. "Allen and I can get a cup of coffee ourselves."

"We'll be done in a little bit," Claire said. John was kind of proud of her for not inviting them to sit at their table. He knew it had to be tempting and she'd probably feel guilty about it later if she wasn't already.

"Thank you," he said, leaning toward her a bit to whisper that in her ear.

"I figured sitting in a car with them was enough for the day for both of us."

"I couldn't agree more."

"Are you sure Rich can wait until we get back?"

"Sweets, I'm positive. He would've left a message saying it was important if it was." He filled her in on the things going on now that the movie opening was approaching. "So, it's probably something like that. You know? I'm not worried about it."

"I just feel awful," she said. She'd taken a moment to order her breakfast and his in her fluent French. She knew by now what he liked to eat so hadn't even asked him. Silly maybe that he got the same thing every morning, but it tasted good so he didn't see the point in trying anything else.

"I could've called him when we got back to the room if I really wanted to. He's out in California so it was still early enough I could've."

"I suppose."

He grazed her cheek with a kiss. "Relax. It's fine. I'm not stressing over it. I know him. He would've told me if there was a problem or something."

"Okay," she said.

"The message even said 'when you get a chance', right?"

"It did."

"See. Trust me. If it was an emergency he wouldn't have said that. Almost ten years I've been working with and for him."

"You're right."

"Thank you."

"And thank you for coming with today."

"Man, you're lucky I actually like you or there's no way in hell I'd go wine tasting with you."

She laughed softly at that.

"I wouldn't have cared if I wasn't giving them a ride."

"Oh, believe me, I know. Why do you think I went without thinking about it? If you were asking me you wanted me to go. You know me well enough to know I don't do wine tasting."

"Well, at least we'll get a tour."

"That does sound kind of interesting," he admitted.

It was the first thing they'd had to do with her friends really since the day they'd arrived. He was kind of surprised. The offers of meals were made, but if they had something else to do they weren't expected to make it. Everyone seemed to kind of leave them alone for the most part until today. John couldn't say he minded. He also realized if he wasn't along she wouldn't have had him as an excuse to not do those things with her friends. So she would've been around Allen a lot more than she had been with him along.

"You know," he said.

"What?"

"This isn't at all how I pictured this trip going."

"What do you mean?"

He chuckled. "I don't know exactly. I had this thought in my head that I'd finally have you alone with the appropriate equipment necessary to be able to do what we wanted to do in that closet."

"Proper equipment?"

"Yeah, you know, a bed or at least a chair for one of us to be sitting in."

"You thought…"

"Claire. I'm a guy. I'm attracted to you. Did you really think I wouldn't at least think about that happening?"

"You're attracted to me?"

"Fuck, Princess, what gives you the impression I'm not? I mean, I don't have to kiss you as much as I do. I don't have to hold your hand when we're out places no one but us is."

"I know."

"What's to be surprised about that then? I don't think I've ever told you I wasn't attracted to you."

He supposed he hadn't ever flat out told her he was attracted to her either, but he kind of figured that was a given. He wouldn't be here if he didn't at least like her.

"No, I just assumed after I told you that…"

"That I wouldn't like you anymore? Are you shitting me?"

"No," she said.

"Well, it certainly put a different slant on what I imagined might happen while here."

"I should be insulted you thought I'd have sex with you."

"Spending a week together, sleeping in the same room? I think it's kind of a logical thought things could progress to that given who we are anyway."

"Me?"

"Yes, you. And me. Come on, you can't say you never thought about what it'd be like."

"John…"

"Not even before that?"

"Maybe," she said.

"That's better than a no, I guess."

"You haven't even offered to sleep with me since that first night."

He'd debated about it the next night, but decided on going the safer route of sticking with his own bed.

"You haven't told me anything else that made me think I should."

"That's the only reason?"

"You asking me if I wanted to? I'll tell you honestly. Yes, of course I did. Who in their right mind would admit to preferring to sleep alone versus with you? I'm not a complete moron or an asshole, though. I'm not going to do that after what you told me."

"Is that why you agreed to come here with me?"

"What?"

"Because you thought that we would."

"No, not really. I mean, maybe a little, but no."

"Why did you then? I've told you why I asked you."

He shrugged. "I don't know. I need a reason? I won't deny the thought of asking you out at the reunion entered my mind."

"You didn't, though."

"Because you didn't seem too interested in talking to me let alone going on a date with me."

"I was honestly trying to figure out why you even came."

"I made a bet with Louis Talbot. Remember him?"

"No. Should I?"

He chuckled softly. "He was one of like two black kids that went to Shermer."

"Oh!" He chuckled softly at her response. He knew Louis would stand out to her for that reason. He hadn't even lived in Shermer or gone to school with them until like eighth grade so he really stood out because he wasn't someone they'd grown up with.

"He bet me one hundred dollars that no one would remember me or know who I was."

"Why?"

"Come on. Really? You're surprised he thought no one would?"

"I don't know. I remembered you."

"And that's why I went. I knew you were sure to be there so the hundred bucks would be easy to collect. You barely seemed as though you wanted to talk to me, though."

"I'm sorry. I honestly didn't think you'd want to talk to me," she said.

"Why?"

"I don't know. Why would you? We kissed for a few hours ten years ago. Unlike me I'm sure that hasn't been your last experience with that."

"It was my last experience doing it with you," he said.

"John," she said cautiously.

"That was a compliment, Princess, not a line."

"Right."

"So, back to your question. I was curious who your friends were that you had to make up a boyfriend for. And me, for Christ's sakes. I mean, surely there were other lawyers or something at your dad's firm you could have hit up to tag along with you. You know, someone with an impressive job instead of someone who draws cartoons for a living. I don't, that's what I know people like Allen think I do, though. I don't have a girlfriend or anything stopping me from doing it and I was, admittedly, curious just how grateful you'd be to me for not making you into a liar."

"You're not now?"

"Nope," he said.

She frowned a little as their waitress brought them their breakfast and he was left to wonder what he'd said that was wrong.

One good thing about basically not having seen one another for ten years they had plenty to talk about. John wasn't a big talker, but it gave the appearance to people observing them that they were constantly talking, that they were just that into one another that they didn't need anyone else around them. They had ten years' worth of facts to fill in for one another so they didn't lack for topics of conversation.

***

He hated the wine tasting. He didn't say a word, but she knew that he hated every minute of it. He was decently impressed by the tour and the property itself, but the tasting he didn't like.

He was more impressed with their drive. She'd done this once before with her parents, but never as a driver so it was new to her. He couldn't read French so she had to rely on her own map-reading skills. She thought he might like to see some villages away from the busy, populated, and much commercialized Paris.

They got back with just enough time to change and get to the church where the wedding was going to be near Rene's house. He'd once again left the room while she got ready. She didn't ask him to, but she couldn't deny she didn't appreciate it even if it bothered her a little at the same time.

She had absolutely no idea what came over her to tell him the things she had their first night here. She'd never, God, in nine years, she'd never told anyone. She wanted to blame it on being tired and the second drink they had in the bar before coming up here. She could even blame it on him telling her something very personal himself.

She knew, though, that she'd told him for a reason. Him of all people. She hadn't seen him for more than a few hours since that day of detention, and that included their graduation ceremony. She knew, though, that she could trust him. He hadn't walked around school the next week telling everyone he'd made out with her or done her. She listened very carefully for days for any inkling he'd done that.

Funny, too, since Andy had done it. Not to be mean, but he'd been questioned more than once what he was doing with Allison after that day and he wasn't afraid to let it be known he was getting something out of the deal of being involved with someone his friends thought he was insane for being seen with.

Ironic because she was pretty sure her mother would have told her she could trust someone like Andy and not someone like John. Yet John had been the one who'd kept her secret, hadn't said one word to tarnish or taint her reputation. Allison hadn't stopped seeing Andy because of it or anything, but Claire knew she hadn't been real happy about it at the time.

The rehearsal was pretty much the usual. Everyone went through the steps of how they'd get to where they'd stand and so on. It went on forever, though, because the wedding party was rather large. Claire suspected she'd be here for this wedding regardless, thinking of John's question about her coming here if April hadn't asked her. With eight bridesmaids and groomsmen Claire would've been kind of insulted to not be included in the wedding party.

The dinner was at Rene's parents' house again. This dinner party was much larger than the one Tuesday night had been. There were probably close to one hundred people here tonight between the wedding party and their guests.

"So April and Allen tell me you draw comics for a living," Rene said to John at dinner. It was the first time the two of them really talked. In fact, Claire hadn't spoken much to him either since they'd been here. He and April were constantly busy, she totally understood that so she didn't take it personally or anything. She knew once the wedding was over she'd have time to actually get to know her friend's husband.

"I do, yeah," John said after a moment's hesitation. She could almost guess what he was thinking was going to come next.

"Anything I know?"

"Uh, I don't know. Are you a reader?"

Allen snorted at that and Claire wondered what the joke was. John evidently did, too, because he glanced at her as if wondering if he was missing something. She settled her hand against his thigh and shrugged a little. She had no idea.

"I dabble."

"My biggest name is Simon Forge," he said.

Rene set his wineglass down and stared at John for a minute.

"Sorry?"

"I don't blame you for not hearing about him. He's kind of smaller scale, but there's a movie coming out about him in a couple of months. I've heard it's supposed to be pretty good."

"I should hope so since I'm the one who directed and produced it."

"I'm sorry?" John said.

Rene chuckled a bit.

"You're Wren Savage?" John asked.

"Guilty," Rene replied.

"Wait," Allen said. "You know him?" he asked.

"Of course. You didn't tell me his last name was Bender. I would have known who he was right away. I'm a big fan of his work, have been for years. He's one of the better pencilers out there. I asked Rich about him almost immediately when we signed onto do the movie because he's clearly put a lot of emotion into Simon over the years. It was his drawings that made me want to give Simon Forge a life on the big screen."

"How could you not know who he was?" Allen asked John.

"I've never met him before this week," he said. Claire squeezed his thigh, sensing he could potentially say something bad here. Allen had just in a roundabout way insulted him. She didn't need John saying anything equally bad in response. He settled his hand over hers as if reassuring her he was all right. "Why would I think some guy named Rene marrying Claire's friend was the same guy as Wren who's responsible for a movie about a character I draw."

"You've never seen pictures?"

"I don't pay attention to movies to care about anyone's picture. I do know the actor portraying Simon, I made it my business to find out who was playing him."

"I hope you were happy with the casting choice. I understand, though, until you see it you'll question whether he was the right choice for your character."

"Well, I don't write the stories or anything. I just draw the pictures."

"And you draw them very well. I was very surprised when I was told your name and you were no one mainstream. I'd followed your work on and off, but I guess I sort of lost track. As my stack of comics to read gets larger and larger it's very easy to fall behind on who's who."

"Uh, thanks, I think."

"No offense meant," he said. "I assure you. It is a small world that you are here for my wedding."

"It is."

Was that what Rich had called him for? Had he somehow found out that the wedding they were here for was the guy responsible for their movie? How could he have, though? Claire didn't think John had spoken to him since hours before leaving for the airport.

"You haven't seen any footage of the finished product yet?" Rene asked.

"Uh, no, I'm not really a big movie goer. I figured I'd see it. I mean, he's mine. I've ate, slept, and dreamt about him for nine years, but I guess I'm kind of afraid to, too. You know?"

"Certainly," Rene said. "You're afraid Steven won't do him justice."

"Kind of," John said.

"I don't blame you, but I assure you I think he does."

"That's good to hear."

Rene stood then, glancing at John.

"Follow me," he said.

John glanced at Claire who shrugged.

"Bring Claire, too, that's fine. Maybe she'd enjoy seeing what I'm about to show you."

They both stood and followed him after he excused himself from the party. April did not join them, Claire noticed.

"Holy shit," John said when Rene led them to a room full of things like props, costumes, set dressings, and stuff from his movies.

"You drew that," Claire whispered into his ear, noticing the poster of Simon Forge that was prominently on display.

"Uh, yeah," he said.

"That's amazing," she said.

"Thank you, Princess."

"Forgive Allen. I'm unsure of the reason for his behavior tonight other than I think he was under the impression Claire would be unaccompanied on this trip."

"I'm not sure why he'd think that. You think I'd let her spend a week in Paris by herself?"

"I don't, but evidently he did. He said something about her never having a boyfriend until now so wasn't sure he believed you truly existed. Especially given your occupation."

"I can imagine what he thought," John said. Rene glanced at both of them and Claire felt his scrutiny very closely, making her a little uncomfortable.

"He's told me stories about you," he said.

"Me?" Claire said, absolutely horrified at the idea.

"Yes. I assure you I've believed none of them and meeting you I can tell you that I believe them even less now. I think he likes April and Bonnie to believe he knows things about you they don't."

"I, uh, thank you, I think."

"So, Mr. Bender."

"Uh, John, really," he said.

"John. I'll trade you."

"Trade me?"

"Yes. You can have something from the Simon Forge set in exchange for your signature on my poster."

"It's already on there," he said.

"Oh, I know. I know how you sign your work." He walked up to the poster and brought it down from where it was hanging. It wasn't framed, but had been put onto a hard backing. He gestured to the JB that would look like wisps of hair to anyone else. Pointed out as they were Claire could see they were clearly a J and a B, but she would never have seen them as that unless told it was there.

"I'm impressed," John said, and he clearly was.

"I told you…"

"You dabble, I know," John said.

"I want your actual signature."

"Oh, I don't think… I mean, he's not mine. Not really. Rich…"

"Oh, Rich will sign it, too. You're here, at my wedding, it seems appropriate you're the first to sign it. I'll have all of your team's signatures on it by the time I'm done."

He released Claire's hand then and stepped toward Rene.

"A gift from Rich?" Rene asked.

"What?" John asked.

"Your watch. I hadn't noticed it before now."

"Oh, yeah, whenever you guys closed the deal he had it made for me."

"And you wonder why I think you're as responsible for Simon Forge as Rich is."

"Well, like I said, I just draw him. Rich tells the stories. Without the stories Simon would just be a picture on paper."

"And many would argue the same is true in reverse."

"I don't see it that way, but I'm sure you're right."

"What do you want in return?"

"Uh, nothing," John said.

"Come on," Rene said.

"I haven't drawn him for this long to get things out of the deal. I'm just glad other people will see him."

"I hope I've done what you have in mind for him justice."

"Thanks," he said.

"I suppose we should return to dinner before my mother comes in here and accuses me of being terribly rude."

"Why is this stuff here?" John asked.

"I'll be here until shortly before the movie opens I wanted it near me."

"Ah," he said.

"Besides. I feel safer with things here. My parents have security."

"The cameras that have been here all week?"

Rene shrugged. "A pitfall of being famous I guess, but they know better than to try to break into my mother's home."

"I suppose," John said.

"I'm really very sorry I didn't take the time to speak to you more in depth when you were here Tuesday evening."

"It's all right. I sort of avoid talking about what I do for a living around groups of people anyway."

"Most don't get it, do they?"

"No."

"Most react like Allen, wondering how you can make a living drawing cartoons."

"Yes!"

"Yet, your girlfriend obviously gets it."

"Uh, yeah, she's great about it. She let me bring work here and everything not that I've had the chance to do much of it, but you know if I needed to she would understand."

"And, Claire, you're a lawyer, right?"

"Yes."

"I hope once the wedding is over and things with the movie have settled down you both will come join us at our house. April talks about you all of the time."

"Sure," Claire said. "That'd be fun. I always love seeing April."

"Great. I'll let you two settle the details then once we're back to normal. And if you change your mind about something from the set…"

"Thanks. I'm pretty sure I won't. I'm just not that kind of guy. It's not like my signature cost me anything."

"Well, the offer is a standing one."

"Thanks," he said.

Allen didn't look too happy when they got back into the dining room. Dining room was an understatement since everyone here was seated comfortably. The house was old enough this had probably been used as a ballroom or something once upon a time. Then, maybe Rene's parents still held balls here for all Claire knew.

"Princess," John said into her ear once they were back in their seats.

"Yeah?"

"I think you need to pay a little more attention to what your friends say about their future spouses next time."

"I didn't know! I swear I don't remember him making movies ever came up in our conversations."

"Well, okay."

"I mean, I think I would've remembered that being mentioned even if I wasn't sure we'd be sitting here tonight."

"Right."

"You think that's why Rich was calling you?"

"I don't know now. I really don't. How could he possibly know this wedding is the one I'm here for?"

"I don't know."

"I mean what are the odds that your friend is marrying him?"

"I don't know! Obviously pretty good."

"Well, right."

They got back to their room pretty late. John took the time to call Rich while Claire was in the bathroom getting ready for bed.

'Hey, John, how's Paris?'

"Oh you know. About what I expected."

'Say, you didn't mention you were there with someone.'

"I didn't? You think I came here alone?"

'Well, no, but I just wasn't expecting to see pictures of you and a woman…'

"Of us?" He thought on that. "The night we got here. We had dinner at his house. There were photographers outside. I assumed they were theirs. Taking pictures of people who were there."

'Uh no.'

"Well, they can't be that bad. I didn't do anything with her." He thought back to Tuesday night. He'd handed her out of the car, touched her some, and kissed her, but it certainly wasn't anything to have a fit about. He hadn't like put his hands under her skirt or anything.

'No, but I'm being asked who she is.'

"Why? Since when is my personal life any business of anyone's?"

'When she's the friend of the woman marrying Wren Savage it sort of becomes our business.'

"I didn't know!"

'Oh, I believe you. Just be careful please.'

"What do you think I'm going to do exactly? I'm not going to embarrass you or anything. I met him tonight. I mean, I'd met him before, but he found out who I am. He seems all right."

'Just don't get too drunk and dance with a lampshade over your head or anything.'

"I think you're safe from my doing anything like that."

'I think so, too, but it's not just my future pocketbook I'm thinking of. Yours could potentially get fatter from more movies, too.'

"I'm aware," he said. John was fully aware of what a successful Simon Forge movie could mean for him. In addition to the money it would also mean a lot more traveling because a successful movie would mean more attention. He wasn't sure that was worth the payout, but he couldn't say he'd complain.

'Who is she anyway?' Rich asked.

"What do you mean?"

'All these years I've known you…'

Claire chose then to come out of the bathroom. He watched as she set her things down, putting various things away for the night and whatever. She looked nice. Then she always did even waking up in the morning he was discovering. She was nice to watch do things, too. Even things as mundane as straightening her suitcase she made look graceful.

"What?" she asked. She'd caught him watching her evidently. "Is everything okay?"

"Yeah," he said.

'What kind of answer is 'yeah'?' Rich asked.

"I have to go."

'John. You didn't answer my question.'

"I promise I won't do anything to embarrass you or taint Simon Forge's good name."

'I was sort of hoping for an answer to my question. Who is she? Because I know you didn't meet someone who travels in Wren Savage's circle at a convention somewhere.'

"Some other time."

He hung up then.

"So he knows?"

"He knows and is apparently afraid I'm going to do something embarrassing."

"I doubt he thinks you really are, but you are in a roundabout way representing Rich and everything by being here."

"I know," he said. "Now I'm really glad I didn't put Allen in a hospital this week."

"What do you suppose he's said about me?"

"I haven't a clue, Princess, and I wouldn't worry about it if I was you. Douchebags like him don't deserve your time. I do think he kind of likes you," he said.

"That's …"

"Sick? Perverted? Yeah, I've thought the same thing mulling over Rene's words in my head, but it's the only explanation I can give for his reaction to you being involved with me. And the look on his face when Rene had heard of me."

"It's still sick."

"Guys like him you wonder if they even realize they've done something wrong. He may not see it that way and if you've never told him you remember he may not know you do."

"I remember."

"I know you do, sweetheart. You're fine. I'm not defending him. Trust me, we get back from here and I ever run across him I will not be accountable for my reaction."

"I prefer he not know. I don't want him to know that I know, you know."

"I get it," he said. He stood then to go to the bathroom. He'd let her go first since he had to call Rich and she took longer to get ready for bed than he did anyway. "You can turn out the light whenever you're ready to I'll find my way just fine."

"Okay," she said.

There'd been no messages for either of them tonight when they'd gotten back so he imagined that meant whatever issue had arisen with her client had been settled. He hoped so anyway. The last thing she needed going into tomorrow was a problem at work distracting her from doing whatever she needed to do as Maid of Honor. He'd paid basic attention at the rehearsal to know some of the things she needed to do, but he was sure there were things he missed because he tuned out after a while.

That was the benefit, or drawback, to having a creative mind. There were always things for him to think about when he was trapped in a situation like that he had no desire to be in. He went because it was the thing to do, but if he could've bypassed it without looking like an ass he would have.

The lights were out by the time he came out of the bathroom. He was a little surprised because she wasn't usually that quick getting into bed. He knew he hadn't taken that long either. He'd checked earlier in the day to make sure he had shaving cream and stuff. He didn't think she'd be too pleased if he forgot to do that tomorrow when there'd probably be a picture or two of him taken with her.

He was more than surprised to find her in his bed.

"Did you get lost, Princess?"

"No," she whispered.

"Okay," he said. "There something wrong with your bed?"

"No," she said again.

"Uh huh," he said cautiously.

"You said you wanted to…"

"I didn't mean it like that! Like right now, tonight."

"Why not?"

"I don't know. Why?"

She shrugged. "You want me to go to my bed?"

"I'm not a moron. No, of course I don't. I just don't expect…"

"I'm not here for that."

"All right then," he said.

"It was nice," she said and he knew that was probably pretty tough for her to admit.

"It was," he agreed. He couldn't remember a time he'd ever just slept with a woman. His life just didn't offer him that many opportunities to do that. His own fault for living rather reclusively as he did.

She didn't say anything else.

"As long as you know what you're doing, Princess."

"I think I do."

"All right. You do have clothes on, right?"

"Yes!"

"Good, because I'm not sure I could handle that."

"Handle that?"

"You not clothed? Yeah, not tonight," he said, finally getting into the bed.

She turned to face him then and he wondered what she was thinking. If she was even thinking anything.

"Rich doesn't really think you're going to do anything embarrassing, does he?"

"I don't think so. I mean, I think he knows me better than that. I guess a picture showed up of us."

"Us?" she asked.

"Yeah. From that first night here at their house. I assumed it was their photographers, but I guess it wasn't."

"Oh," she said. "How did anyone know you were a person to publish a photograph of?"

"I don't think they did. I'm going to assume since I haven't seen it it was probably a group of pictures of people getting out of their cars. We just happened to be one of the lucky couples included."

"I'm sorry," she said.

"I'm not. I didn't do anything wrong."

"I know, but you wouldn't be here if it wasn't for me and my stupid lie."

"Come on. I got to meet Wren Savage out of the deal."

She laughed softly at that.

"I'm not sure Rich will ever get to have dinner at his house, you know?"

"I suppose not."

"So what's to complain about that?"

"I guess, put like that nothing."

"Get some sleep, Claire. You're going to need it to walk around adjusting her train all day."

She laughed softly. "You think all of this is utterly ridiculous, don't you?"

He shrugged. He did in a way. "For the right woman it'd be worth going through."

"I hope you find her."

"I'm not, like, actively looking or anything."

"That shocks me."

"That I don't want to get married tomorrow?"

"Well, no, I guess that part doesn't, but that you're not seeing anyone."

"I tried for a while, but I got tired of being laughed at. The type of women that seemed cool with my job weren't the type I wanted to date let alone think about marrying."

"Oh," she said.

"Yeah, it's not one of those impress the parents jobs, you know?"

"I guess I can see that. What kind of women seem cool with your job?"

"Oh, you know, the kind that go to conventions and stuff, who actually know my work. That's all well and good, but I don't really want to go out with someone who thinks her brother's Simon Forge costume looks better than anything I've ever drawn."

"Oh," she said.

"Then there are the ones whose lives are those conventions. That's all they do, which is fine. I go to them, though, because Rich thinks it makes me look good. Gets my name out there. Our name and I guess our brand. I don't go because it's what my life is all about. I mean, I get paid for my time and everything, but I don't go because I love living the convention circuit. Some people, though, you go to their apartment and they have a closet dedicated to costumes. It's, well, kind of creepy. Cool for them if that's their thing, it just isn't mine."

"I see."

"Or the ones who think I'll draw something just for them that they can turn around and sell."

"I guess that rules out asking you for a picture, huh?"

"Man, fly to Paris with you, pretend to be your boyfriend, which includes kissing, hand-holding, and now sleeping with you, and you want a picture out of the deal, too. You're a little pushy, aren't you?"

"I was really kidding. I wouldn't ask you to do that."

"Relax. I'm the one kidding." He chuckled softly. "I'd draw something for you. You I know aren't going to try to sell it for a hefty profit, especially with this movie coming out."

"Really?"

"Sure. What do you want?"

"Hmm. I don't know."

"Well, think on it."

"Would you color it in?"

"If you wanted me to. I mean, I've done illustrations. Clearly, Rich feels I'm better at penciling."

"Or he trusts you to pencil and get it right."

"Maybe that, too. I don't have anything like that on me, though, so it'd have to wait until we got back if you wanted that type of thing."

"Thank you for coming along today."

"Sure," he said. "It's not like I had anything else to do."

"I know, but you could've. You said you brought work along so you could've stayed here and gotten something done."

"Sure, I could've, but I wasn't going to do that not for a group thing like that. Now when it's just us Sunday and Monday and you want to go back to the Louvre I may sit that out." He was pretty sure most everyone was heading back to wherever they came from Sunday. Claire had extended her trip on purpose since it was a vacation for her.

She laughed softly. "That'd be fine."

"See, I knew you hadn't gotten enough of that place."

"You hated it that much?"

"No, I just have no need to go back again. I mean I guess it's the Louvre versus the Art Institute back home, but art is art."

"You could drop me off and take the car so you could do something else you'd rather do."

"Nah, there isn't anything really. I've seen the stuff you've shown me."

"Well, if you think of anything."

"I'll let you know."

"John?" she asked after a few minutes.

"Yeah?"

"This is okay?"

"What?" he asked confused.

"Me here like this."

"I haven't kicked you out so you're fine."

"Why haven't you?"

He scoffed softly. "We'll pretend you didn't ask that. Get some sleep, Claire. You're fine right where you are."

She lifted her head then and leaned in to kiss him. It was just on the cheek, but it was the first kiss she'd initiated since they'd been in the limo on their way to O'Hare.

"Sleep well, Princess," he said.

"You, too," she said, returning to her side of the bed then. It was a big enough bed space wasn't an issue anyway.

Return to Top

***Part Six***
Word Count: 4,111

They'd danced more than a few times. They hadn't said much. He wasn't sure what to say. He always thought he cleaned up pretty decent, but man, compared to some of the other men here he felt downright scruffy. And that was with ensuring he'd shaved good and close that morning. There were famous people here. Like people that John knew people would pay money for locks of their hair and other insane stuff like that.

And yet despite that, famous people who were worthy of being watched, Allen watched them more than once. John wasn't entirely sure what to make of it. He wasn't jealous exactly, but if he didn't know better he'd swear Claire wasn't being entirely truthful about what happened. He knew better, though, because it just wasn't like her to lie about something like that. So what was the deal? Was the guy hoping she wouldn't remember he was who she'd been with and want to get together with him? John couldn't fathom being that ballsy, but he supposed anything was possible. Was it any more bizarre than flying off to Paris with her because he was her fake boyfriend?

She could have said all sorts of crazy shit about him after that day of detention. He was over eighteen and he had no doubt she would've been believed over him. Not that they'd done anything worthy of her regretting and calling the police over later. It could've happened, though. Andy certainly knew she disappeared somewhere for a while. What was to stop him from saying shit about Claire to take the attention away from him having a girlfriend people were questioning his sanity for being seen with let alone dating? He hadn't, though, at least not that John had heard. He'd heard the stuff Andy had said about Allison, though. More than once. Oddly, she garnered a bit of attention after that day because so many people didn't even know who she was.

"Dancing with you isn't so bad," he said against her ear.

"Not so bad?" she asked.

"Well, I've only danced with one other person truthfully and she was like half a foot shorter than me. That was in heels."

"Ah," Claire said.

"You with those heels on are taller than me. It's kind of nice."

"Well, I'm glad it's not so bad," she said.

He chuckled softly. "That probably sounded bad. I didn't mean it that way. It's just, it was pretty awkward."

"I know. Freshman and sophomore years it wasn't always easy getting a date to Homecoming or Turnabout with someone as tall as me let alone taller."

"I guess so," he said. He hadn't paid attention to how tall she was before that day really. He knew she wasn't short, but whether she'd always been that way he couldn't say really.

"Where were you that you were dancing anyway?"

"Oh, some convention. Baltimore. Philadelphia maybe. Somewhere out east. They auctioned off dinner and dances with the guests as a fundraiser for literacy or something. A couple guests were married so it was, you know, just innocent. Just a way to raise money."

"Oh," she said. She shivered a bit against him as he grazed her ear with his mouth. He couldn't help it. Maybe it went above and beyond what he should've done, but it was right there. He brought her against him a little closer. She came willingly. It was probably pretty obvious they weren't the most comfortable dancing together, but he'd made it pretty clear in the limo on the way to the airport that dancing wasn't something he was good at.

"She probably regretted bidding on me."

"You dance just fine," she said.

"Yeah?" he asked.

She leaned in and kissed him then. A nice kiss actually. She hadn't initiated nice ones before. Ones that lasted more than a few seconds that were clearly just for show in front of people. Or when she decided on a whim to sleep in his bed with him.

"I guess so. Thank you," he said.

"Sure."

"Hmm. Does that mean I could do that?"

"Do what?"

"You know, kiss you."

"You have before."

"Not like I've wanted to," he said.

"No?"

"You know I haven't."

He didn't give her the chance to answer. He was almost afraid her answer would be no. He'd been itching to kiss her since the night he first saw her back at Chi Chi's. Hell, he'd wanted to at the reunion, too. If she'd seemed remotely interested in him he would've done more than want to. She seemed rather interested now, though, and he took advantage of that fact. Also the fact that while she'd had a couple of glasses of champagne or wine he knew she wasn't drunk in the least. (She'd been very possessive of her drinks as was he. If she had to go to the bathroom or something he held it for her. He couldn't blame her for that.)

He wasn't sure how many chances he'd get to do this again. Kiss her as he wanted to, like he really meant it and wasn't just kissing her because it was the thing to do in a particular circumstance. After tomorrow morning when they were having breakfast with some people they'd be on their own until going back home and he didn't see a legitimate excuse for kissing her presenting itself after that.

And if she didn't kiss him back?

Well, he didn't have to worry about that because while it took her a second, maybe two, she did. Whether she wanted to or realized she'd look foolish not kissing him back in a roomful of people this far into their act he couldn't be sure.

Until she slid her hands further around his neck, drawing herself closer against him. Then he was fairly sure it was because she wanted to.

Would he have stopped if she hadn't done that?

He wasn't sure. He'd like to think he would've, but fuck had he wanted to kiss her for months now. So he couldn't say for sure he would've. Probably he would've.

It was very difficult for him to keep himself in check and not make like kissing her like this was as big of a deal as it was. Her lips parted shortly after his, surprising him. He'd assumed, figured, she'd draw away when he did that.

"That was better," he said when he finally broke the kiss. He did, too, sensing maybe Frenching him for any length of time today exceeded her comfort level.

"Was it?" she asked.

"Uh yeah," he said. "Still not altogether what I wanted, though," he said. He didn't miss the look on a couple of her friends' faces.

"I think we've managed to shock your friends, Princess," he whispered, kissing her ear again.

"I would guess so," she said.

"Was it worth it?"

"You know the answer to that."

"I'm asking the question, aren't I?"

"What would I need a chair for?"

"What?" What the hell was she talking about?

"You said we'd need a bed or a …"

He chuckled. "Well, ideally I guess it'd be for me, but if I needed to get creative with you sitting in a chair I'm sure I could come up with a few things to do to you while you were sitting in a chair. All would be pretty fun actually."

"Oh," she said and he chuckled softly at her blushing.

"And probably make you blush worse than you are now."

"You shouldn't say that!"

"You asked the question!"

"I know. I just couldn't…"

"I wish I could deny that I really like that you had no idea what I meant."

"You do?"

"Fuck, yes, Princess."

"I'd think it'd," she shrugged.

"What?"

"I don't know. Bother you."

"Bother me? Because your imagination hasn't taken you to that point? No. Now if in the next couple of days your imagination takes you to a chair without me along with you that may bother me."

"Only in the next couple of days?"

"Well, you know, in Paris."

"I see," she said.

He slid a finger under her chin and tilted her face up a bit so she had to look at him. She didn't like that answer.

"See, I told you if you weren't careful you weren't going to want to break us up in a couple of months."

She started to pull away then.

"Relax, I'm teasing you."

"You shouldn't say that!"

"Tease you? Shit, Princess. It's a funny situation."

"It's not!"

He shrugged. "I can see how maybe from your point of view it's not."

"You don't have to laugh at me."

"I'm not! It was a joke. Teasing. Why are you so serious all of the sudden?"

"I don't know," she said, but he suspected she wasn't being honest with him.

"Princess…"

"I don't know. I just need some air, I guess," she said.

"Do you want me to go with you?"

"No, I'll just be a minute."

"Hey, if my teasing bothered you…"

"Your teasing didn't bother me. I'm perfectly aware we're only here for a couple more days and what that means."

"Yeah," he said. He wasn't sure what it meant. He knew what he didn't want it to mean. He wasn't sure how she could spend a week with him like they had and then fly back home and. What? Never see him again? See him at their twentieth reunion?

"I'll be right back."

"Okay," he said. He watched her go, heading in the direction of a bathroom. He debated for about a minute too long whether he should go after her or not. He hadn't meant to hurt her feelings. He really hadn't. He'd assumed she would get the joke. Evidently not. Or she had just not appreciating it.

Too long because Allen chose that moment to approach him.

"Problems in paradise?" he asked.

"No," John said quickly. "Women go to the bathroom."

"She didn't look too happy."

"You know maybe you should pay less attention to my girlfriend and what she looks like. It's really none of your business whether she looks happy or not, is it?"

"I don't trust you."

That was rich.

"Me?" John asked incredulously.

"Yes, you."

"Well, that makes two of us. If I was a different kind of guy I'd probably wonder why you care so much about my girlfriend. Why can't you get your own? Why are you here with your sister as your date? Or were you assuming she'd be by herself?"

He'd struck a chord with that comment. He'd almost said something more scathing (and more telling), but caught himself at the last minute.

"No one believed you existed."

"Well, obviously I do. Comic drawer and everything. I don't suppose you caught the part where they made a movie out of my comics, did you? I bet you realize I can afford a much better and bigger cardboard box now."

"Where was your first date?"

"I'm sorry," he asked.

"Your first date."

"We went out for coffee after the reunion."

"That's not a date."

"It got me here with her tonight, didn't it? I'd say that counts as a date."

He had no idea if he'd given the right answer or contradicted an answer of hers, but he doubted it. He doubted she'd think of their reunion as a date.

"What's her favorite color?"

"Jesus, really? You tell me since you seem to think you know her better than I do."

"A boyfriend would know that."

"I could tell you something I assure you no one else knows about her to prove I am what I am, however, she'd get mad at me for saying something like that."

"Like I'd tell her you told me."

"I'd know I told you. She trusts me I'd prefer to keep it that way. Or is that a foreign concept to you? Now, why don't you go have yourself another drink? You obviously haven't had enough to stop you from being an asshole."

"I'm an asshole?"

"Yeah. I don't know what your deal was with her, but whatever it is get over it. She's not here with you. She's here with me. The guy she's been sleeping with every night while you get to bunk with your little sister. You do realize that, right? You're going to go home tomorrow to wherever the fuck you come from and, guess what? I'm going back to Chicago, with her."

"Just wait until she gets tired of supporting you."

"Whatever," he said. "I'm not going to waste anymore of my time here with you. Now if you'll excuse me she's going to start to wonder what happened to me because I was supposed to meet her about five minutes ago. Unless you want to explain to her why I'm standing here talking to you instead of in there with her?"

He brushed past him then, hoping he knew which bathroom she went to. The place the reception was at was like a fucking museum it was so huge. She, the other bridesmaids, and the bride had access to their own bathroom, though. He assumed she headed there.

"I'll be just a minute," she said, stopping from refreshing her lipstick to look behind her in the mirror.

"Hey," he said, watching her. She blushed again and shook her head that he could do that to her. Do that to her simply from watching her put her lipstick on. It wasn't the lipstick that he was focusing on, though.

"Hi," she said.

"We alone in here?" he asked.

"Yes," she said cautiously.

"Relax," he said. "Just making sure anything I say isn't going to get overheard."

"Oh, no," she said.

"I just came about two seconds away from throwing my first punch in like nine years."

"Why?" she asked, looking at him for real then not just from the mirror. "Are you okay?"

"That concern seemed almost genuine, Princess, thank you. I'm fine. He's just an asshole."

"We know that already."

"What's your favorite color?"

"What?" she asked with a frown.

"Don't look at me like I just sprouted a second head. What's your favorite color?"

"Um, well, blue I guess. I don't know. It depends. Clothes I like green," she said.

He stepped up to her then and her breath caught as he backed her against the counter she was standing by.

"I told him our first date was coffee after the reunion."

"Okay," she said. Was that supposed to mean something to her?

"Turn around," he whispered.

She did, thoroughly confused now. She thought for a second he was going to kiss her again.

He ran a fingertip along her shoulder blade, over to the nape of her neck and down a bit.

"I was very tempted to tell him about that birthmark you have," he whispered, kissing her shoulder as he traced over the spot he obviously remembered her birthmark being from that day.

"Why didn't you?" she asked, sounding incredibly short of breath just then. Absolutely ridiculous he could have that effect on her from a simple kiss. Then there was nothing simple about John. There never had been.

"Well, I wouldn't do that to you, for one. I didn't think you'd want him to know something like that."

"No," she agreed.

"And, well, I guess I wasn't entirely clear if he would've had that information."

"What?"

"You know, uh, what happened. Would he have seen it?"

"I don't think so. I mean I woke up with my clothes on. My blouse was untucked and unbuttoned but it was on."

"I didn't feel like giving him the satisfaction of telling him something he already knew about you."

"Thank you," she said.

"Welcome," he whispered, kissing her shoulder again. He slid his mouth up a bit, grazing the side of her neck. "You're done getting pictures taken for the night?"

"Yes," she said softly.

"Good," he said, sliding his mouth higher along her neck.

"John," she said.

"I basically implied that I was meeting you here for a specific, you know, reason," he said.

"A reason?"

"Cut a guy some slack, all right. Let me go back in there and be able to let him think we both just had fun."

He nipped at the skin there and she groaned softly at the feel of his mouth and teeth against her. Her eyes fell closed and she settled against him a bit. She didn't stop him, though. She didn't make any effort to. She even tilted her head a bit so he could do what he was doing easier.

He didn't try to do anything else. That surprised her immensely. She assumed he'd see it as an invitation to do more than what he was doing. His hands were at her hips, caressing her there and along her abdomen but he wasn't reaching to feel her up or anything.

And why did that kind of bother her?

It had kind of bothered her last night that he hadn't tried … something after she'd kissed him. A part of her was very grateful, but a part of her. Well, a part of her wasn't as grateful. She wasn't sure which part was the right part and if it was the one that wanted him to try something. Why didn't that scare her as badly as it should have?

She pressed herself against the front of his pants. Instinctive because she'd certainly never done anything like that before this moment in her life. She'd never even thought about it.

He stopped what he was doing then, only for a second, though, as if waiting for her to decide she'd had too much. She liked what he was doing too much, though.

"I told him he was an asshole," he whispered, sliding his tongue along the spot on her neck he'd been focusing on until a second ago.

"He is," she whispered.

"Yeah, but I didn't think I was supposed to say that."

She laughed softly.

"I'm glad someone told him the truth."

"You going to sleep in my bed again tonight?" he asked, kissing her ear.

"I," she said softly. "I'm not sure."

"Not sure you can trust yourself to keep your hands off me?"

"Something like that," she said.

"The company would be welcome."

"It's not the company that I'm afraid of."

"You're afraid of me?"

"No," she said quickly. "I'm not. I am afraid of me!"

"Why?"

"You joke about my not wanting to break us up in two months. Do you have any idea how nice this has been? You here. I've never had that in my life. I'm afraid I'm not going to want to break us up."

"So, don't break us up," he said.

"John," she said.

"I was going to ask you out."

"So that means I should continue leading people to believe you're my boyfriend?"

"Well, no, but what if we did that. Had a date? You know, when we got back? Or how about tomorrow? Pick something and we'll do it. A date thing. A movie. Whatever. I'll even go to a play with you if we can swing tickets. Something tells me Wren Savage has no problem getting theater tickets."

She laughed softly at that.

"I don't know, John. I just wasn't expecting to have a good time with you. I figured you'd be kind of a jerk about it when we were alone. You know?"

"I could've been, but it's spending time with you which – again – I wanted to do."

"Yes, in Paris."

"Well, it's an odd first date perhaps, but certainly others could come up with more unusual stories to tell their friends and stuff."

"What's your favorite color?" she asked.

"Black."

"Come on."

"I'm serious. I never grew out of it, I guess. Give me a black T-shirt and I'm happy."

"But you draw…"

"I deal in black and white primarily."

"I suppose," she said.

God it was tempting to say yes.

"I'll make a deal with you," she said.

"All right," he said, sounding cautious. She turned around then and he groaned softly.

"Sorry," she whispered.

"It's all right. Worth it. What's your deal? I can't wait. Your last one got me here."

"Once we're home and we've both had time to think about whether we really want to go on a date we can do that."

"What kind of deal is that?"

"I don't know. You may get home and decide it's too much. I mean, I appeal to you now. Today, but you may change your mind once you've realized I may never be," she shrugged. "Normal."

"Normal?"

"Yeah, you know, with a man. I just don't know."

"Define normal?"

"I don't know!"

"You just let me give you a hickey, Princess."

"Because it felt good!"

"I assure you I would make the rest of it feel just as good if not better."

"You say that…"

She ran a hand along his cheek and sighed softly. She reached up and kissed him. He kissed her back. He didn't wait to part his lips this time, finding her tongue with his almost immediately. God, she loved the taste of him, the feel of his tongue against hers.

"I just want to be sure neither of us is making a decision like that because we've been basically living together for a week."

"You know what bothers me, Princess?"

"What?"

"That you, of all people, you, Claire Standish, let an asshole change you, deny yourself doing normal things like date."

"I've dated!"

"Really?"

"I just. I trusted him!"

"I know. I get that. You trust me. I haven't done anything to violate that trust. I won't deny I thought about it a time or two last night."

"Did you?"

"Yes! I woke up more than once and it would've been so easy."

"I thought about it, too."

"Trying to figure out the chair thing?"

She laughed, settling her head against his chest. "Shut up."

"You're cute."

"Shut up!"

He slid his hands along her back. It was nice. Nothing suggestive or anything, but it sure felt different than, say, her dad or brother hugging her.

"I accept your deal, Claire. I'm not going anywhere, though. I mean, if you don't want to go on a date with me then fine, but I'm not going to change my mind about wanting one."

He stepped away a bit, sliding his hands to her cheeks and kissed her lightly. "Nothing that happened to you is your fault. You know that, right?"

"I know."

"Do you? Do you really? You're not to blame for any of it."

"Yes, but…"

"But nothing. Being drunk does not give a guy free reign to do as he pleases. Not to mention he drugged you. You could have died from what you described. That's not your fault."

"I know that, logically…"

"All right. Well, I'm not going to lecture you, but I want you to understand I don't blame you and I'm the one standing here asking you out on a date. So as far as I'm concerned my opinion is the only one that really matters here."

"Yes, but my first time…"

"Jesus. You consider that your first time?"

"Wasn't it?"

"Fuck no. I'd still tell people I was a virgin if I was you."

"Just what every guy wants to hear."

"Name me one guy that would be turned off by hearing that."

"I don't know."

He leaned in and kissed her again. It wasn't quite as good as the kiss a few minutes ago, but she knew the message behind it was different than that one.

"So, have we been in here long enough?"

He chuckled softly. "Well, at least we had access to a counter in here."

"Oh God," she said.

"Relax. He's the only one who's going to think that if he even believes me. He doesn't seem to believe I'm with you. Thus the favorite color question."

"Oh," she said. "Thank you."

"Thank you for implying I just came in here and had sex with you up against a wall or something? Anytime, Princess."

"Can we go home now?"

"I'm good, sweetheart, but I don't have a magic carpet in my suitcase."

"Back to our room?"

"Oh," he said.

"Not for that!"

"You really know how to let a guy down easy."

"I'm just so tired of being nice and …"

"We can leave whenever you want. If you want to stay for a while longer and let your friends see us kissing we can do that, too."

"I think you like kissing me."

"See, proof I haven't changed that much at all."

Return to Top

***Chapter Seven***
Word Count: 4,738

It'd been over ten years since he'd been with someone every day, pretty much all day for any length of time. Conventions didn't count because he had the ability of hiding in his room when he wanted to a lot of the time. Few of those lasted a full week anyway. So, the last time had been when he'd lived at home with his parents. He certainly didn't see them every day, all day. So, he supposed it was a hell of a lot longer than ten years now that he really took the time to think about it. Twenty years maybe? When he was a little kid and had no choice but to spend all day with his parents during spring or Christmas breaks?

Walking and playing with Sammy just wasn't the same either he found.

Rich's phone calls, which John was still avoiding to this point, weren't helping either. He had no idea what to tell the guy. Did he continue with the lie that she was his girlfriend? If he did that, word would get around. Not a bad thing all in all, but he wasn't sure he wanted it out there he had a girlfriend. He wanted a girlfriend. Her. He just didn't want word to get around he had one and then a month or two months from now word get around he lost the first girlfriend anyone knew of him having in such a short period of time.

If he didn't do that, though, claim she was his girlfriend. Well, word was bound to get back to Rene and others that he wasn't. Even if she claimed they broke up he found it pretty farfetched anyone would break up right after a week in Paris together.

Then he had little experience with dating and breaking up to know what people did normally.

It had sounded so easy, going along with her idea. How difficult could it be to go to Paris for a week and pretend to be the boyfriend of someone he legitimately liked? Of course as with most things in John's life that were supposed to be easy they blew up in his face. Now he was stuck because that lie was now bleeding into his life and career. He just wasn't sure what to do with it. He didn't want to piss her off by saying the wrong thing. She seemed very concerned with her image, understandable to a point. If he told Rich and others she was his girlfriend they'd assume, rightfully so logically, that they were having probably lots and lots of sex to warrant him flying to Paris with her for a week.

He'd been off since he got back. He'd drawn, but nothing he was happy with. He wasn't blaming her exactly, but he knew when he was distracted. Currently he was. His own fault. He'd agreed to her deal. It was the most ridiculous thing he'd heard of, him not wanting to date her because of something that happened to her years ago.

They'd had a nice time, he thought so anyway. Their two days without anyone else around were probably his favorites. They'd gone to Morrison's grave a second time, spending more time there. She'd taken a picture of him and one day he might actually draw a picture off of it. Maybe. They'd walked around a bit, spotted other famous gravesites. Some John hadn't ever heard of; French composers and stuff, but it was still kind of fascinating. Some of them went back to the time of Napoleon. Even John could appreciate that.

They'd found Moliere's grave the second trip, more of a joke than either of them having a real desire to find it.

The limo had dropped him off at his place first. He'd called Jessica, his neighbor who was dog sitting for him, from O'Hare once they'd gotten their bags so she'd know he was on his way back. She and Sammy had been waiting outside the building for him so that had sort of cut short any sort of goodbye he may have had in mind for her. Like inviting her in and offering to drive her home later.

He'd thought of picking up the phone a few times, but he'd never actually done it. Why? Too chicken? Partly. He had no idea what to say to her. There was nothing he could say to convince her he really liked her, damaged or not. He certainly didn't see her that way, but he knew she did.

She'd told him the night of the wedding when they were lying in bed talking about all sorts of stuff that what she'd done afterward affected her more than the rest of it because she didn't remember what happened with Allen specifically. She seemed to think she'd never have a chance to have a kid again. He found that incredibly hard to believe. His being involved in the process or not he knew plenty of someone's would be interested. He had eyes at the wedding to see that Allen wasn't the only one who paid her some attention.

Fact was, though, she was twenty-eight, closing in on twenty-nine, and April was one of only a few of her friends without kids. With marriage now out of the way for April, the kids would probably come sooner rather than later. So, she was apparently feeling some sort of pressure there John couldn't relate to. He supposed men wouldn't be able to relate to it anyway because there was no time clock limiting their ability to make kids.

Sammy whimpered a bit when John left the condo without him along. Usually, leaving meant a walk was in store. He didn't have that on his mind this morning, though. Sammy should've known better, too, knowing how John dressed to actually leave and just take him for a walk.

Then perhaps that was exceeding the dog's knowledge, John wasn't sure.

He made his way downtown and found the building her offices were housed in. Well, her dad's offices. Her name was on the door, too, though. He'd feel pretty stupid if he drove all the way down here to have her tell him to get the fuck out. He just didn't think picking up the phone and asking her to join him for lunch would be met with a 'yes'.

A receptionist. Of course they'd have one of those. He supposed that went without saying. He'd only been in one law office before in his life and that had been with Rich years ago to sign contracts. He couldn't remember dealing with receptionists, but John had been nineteen and pretty awestruck at the time.

"Hi Sonia. There's a Mr. Bender here to see Miss Standish," the woman said into the phone. He frowned slightly at her use of the word Mister. He hated when people called him Mr. Bender. She was probably around their age. Maybe a little younger. Pretty. Dressed nicely. She was eyeing John with curiosity, though.

"Yes, he's here," she said after a moment of silence on her part.

"All right," she said, hanging up the phone.

"Sonia will be right up."

"All right," he said, stepping away from the desk then. He had no idea how much time 'right up' was to a law office. He wasn't sure if he was supposed to take a seat on one of the chairs or just stand there. He chose to stand for the moment.

"Mr. Bender?"

"Yeah?" he said, turning in the direction of the voice.

"Hi, I'm Sonia," she said, offering him her hand. He took it, shaking it politely. "It's very nice to meet you."

"Sure, you, too. Thanks for taking the one or two messages that came in for me. I appreciated having that ability."

"It was no trouble, really," she said. "Come on back. Claire was on the phone, but it sounded as if she was about to finish up so I figured I'd come up and get you."

"All right, thanks," he said, not at all sure what Claire's reaction was going to be to seeing him.

"Did you have a nice time?"

"Oh, yeah, it was great. I could do without another huge wedding out of the country for a while."

She stopped at a desk, hers he presumed as she glanced at the phone on it. "She's off the phone," she said, moving to the door near the desk.

"Claire," she said.

"John, um, hi," Claire said. She didn't look mad he was there, but she didn't look ecstatic either.

"Hi," he said.

"What are you doing here?"

"Well, I thought I'd see if you wanted to have lunch with me."

"It's too early for lunch," she said.

"Claire," Sonia said with a soft laugh. "It's eleven thirty."

"No it's not," she said, glancing at what John presumed was a clock on her desk. "Oh my God, it is. I'm sorry, I've been on the phone all morning I didn't even pay attention to the time."

Sonia left then, leaving John to wonder what her secretary knew about him. Them. Their situation. Whatever.

"So is that a yes or no to lunch?"

"I could…"

"Well, grab your coat and come on then."

She was dressed way different than she did while they were in Paris. A suit with her hair fastened back where she'd worn it down while they were away together. He liked it down. He liked it a lot down. She'd had to wear it up for the wedding, too, and he'd been very glad when he'd been able to take her hair down for her. Glad because he enjoyed touching her and because, in his opinion as someone who was usually on the observing end of couples, doing something like taking a woman's hair down implied intimacy. He wasn't sure why, but he certainly wouldn't think a man taking a woman's hair down was merely her friend.

She was wearing heels, but they weren't nearly as nice of a pair of shoes as the ones she wore for the wedding had been. Not that he was an expert on shoes beyond knowing what he liked to look at. Then, the dress at the wedding had been long so he hadn't been able to see her legs as he could today so he supposed there was a benefit to both.

"How much time do you have?"

"I can take an hour."

"You're sure? If you're in the middle of something we can make it quick."

"No, it's fine."

"All right," he said, leading her to his truck then. He opened her door for her, offering his hand to help her in since it was a little slick outside and he wasn't sure how used to getting in and out of trucks she was.

"You surprised me," she said once they were sitting down and had ordered their lunch.

"Well, I figured there was less chance of you saying no if I showed up than if I just called and asked."

"I'm not sure I would've said no," she said.

"No, but you would've been tempted to say no."

"Probably," she said with a sigh. "How are you?"

He shrugged. "I'm fine. You know. I'm always fine, though, right?"

"Work?"

"It's fine. You?"

"Fine."

So they were both fine. That was excellent.

"Busy, though?"

"Yeah. Missing a week when there's no other lawyer in my dad's office who feels comfortable handling my work set me back a little."

"Oh," he said not having thought of that. "But you said if you had to go to court for, like, your brother or something you could do that."

"Well, sure I could. First of all, I know all of the cases we're involved with whether I'm part of their defense team or not. So, I'm familiar with the files. I certainly wouldn't go as their lawyer, but merely to get through the day or to get a continuation. I hope I never have to do that, but I could."

"I see. No one can do what you do, though?"

"Could they? Probably. Would they? No. They're not comfortable doing it. Companies could lose a lot of money if I do something wrong. We don't typically go to trial. I do lots and lots of paperwork, combing through contracts and documents, changes in laws. It's lots and lots of paperwork. Lots and lots of research."

"Well, sure, that makes sense. You're the lawyer for companies and stuff, right?" he asked. He thought that was how it worked. She would be the one called if someone who worked for a company got injured and sued their boss or something. That's how he interpreted it. What he knew or understood could be wrong or incomplete.

"That's right. I mean it's fine. I knew that leaving. I took a week off in June and the same thing happened."

"Where'd you go in June?"

"I went to Las Vegas with some friends."

"Was April one of them?"

"No, she wasn't with on that trip."

"I see," he said. "Bonnie?"

"She wasn't either. Different friends."

"Ah," he said. "High school friends?"

"Some of them were, yes. They were all Chicago friends."

"Gotcha."

"What about you?"

"What about me?"

"You go on trips."

"Yes. Not for fun, though. I mean, you know, they're all work related."

"Any coming up?"

"Dallas in February. Here in Chicago in March."

"Oh," she said. "Dallas should be nice in February."

"Yeah."

"You don't like it much?"

"I do. It just gets old after a while. I've been doing them for so long now. I'm apparently a good guest, though, because they keep having me come back. Rich prefers sending me if he can."

"Why?"

"Because I'm single I guess. I don't mind talking about Simon or other characters I draw and I guess I come across as a reachable, down to earth kind of guy. I think it's the single aspect of things that sways him, though. Other than Sammy I have nothing to be accountable for so no one to get mad at me for being gone."

"Or for getting drunk all weekend."

"I haven't done that in a very long time, but yes. I mean, he has others go, too, but I seem to bear the brunt of it."

"What would he do if you were married?"

"I don't know. I guess split it up more reasonably. I don't argue with him or anything. I get paid to go to them and everything. I get to sell drawings and stuff, too. So it's not like I make nothing on the deal."

"I get it."

"Why? Are we getting married?"

"What?" she said, looking absolutely panicked.

"Relax. I'm teasing you. You know, your friends might think the next step after our being at such a fancy wedding would be to get married ourselves. You did catch the bouquet. Isn't that what that means? You're the next to get married."

"Oh, well, maybe they would. Yes, that's what that means. I haven't ever said I want to get married, though."

"Really?" That surprised him. He just assumed women like her had their wedding all planned out and plotted down to the most intimate details, just insert the name of the groom when the time came.

"No," she said.

"So, why was it such a big deal we were dating then?"

"Because I've never done that either? I mean, not to tell anyone about someone."

"I see."

"It was a pretty nice wedding."

"Pretty nice? I'd like to see what you'd consider real nice if that was only pretty nice. I can honestly say I've never been anywhere where there were so many familiar faces."

"There were a lot of famous people there, weren't there?"

"Uh yeah," he said.

"I wasn't really paying much attention."

"How could you not? One of them was in the wedding party."

"I didn't walk down the aisle with him," she said.

"No, I guess you didn't," he said.

He noticed, but he had to admit even though there were famous women there he'd seen in various movies and stuff over the years Claire was the only woman who interested him. Oh sure, they were beautiful and dressed crazily impressive. It hadn't mattered, though. He had a type it seemed. She was it.

Not to mention he was pretty sure even if one of them had been his type he wouldn't have stood a chance anyway. Not that he'd been interested. He had absolutely no desire to be in April's shoes by being on the arm of someone who garnered public attention in any way, shape, or form.

"Why did you really come down here?" she asked when they were both about finished eating. The conversation hadn't been bad. A bit stilted with bits of silence, but nothing out of control.

"What?" he asked.

"You didn't just come down here to take me to lunch."

"I didn't?"

"John…"

"Honest, that's all I wanted. I haven't heard from you since we got back. I figured if I called I risked you telling Sonia to take a message."

"I wouldn't have…"

"Yeah, you would've if you didn't want to talk to me."

"I suppose maybe."

"I had nothing else to do for lunch today. I don't know. I meant what I said that night. I'm not just going to walk away from you."

"I know what you said…"

"Well, I figured lunch was a good place to start."

She smiled a little at that.

"I like when you smile."

"Why?"

"I don't know. You look so serious all of the time. When you smile," he shrugged. "You're pretty all of the time, but when you smile I honestly can't remember seeing anyone prettier."

"Thank you," she said.

"You're welcome. It's the truth."

"I suppose Sammy was glad to have you back."

Compliments were bad? Or just made her uncomfortable. He wasn't sure which. He didn't think he'd said anything wrong.

"Yes, he hasn't let me out of his sight for very long. I'm not usually gone for a week at a time so he was a little lost."

"I'm sorry."

"It's not your fault. How's your cat?"

"He's okay. He was mad at me until a couple of days ago, but that's typical."

He chuckled. "Isn't it funny how different they are?"

"I guess it is. Cats aren't owned by us, though, they own us."

"I've heard that's how it works, yeah. I like Sammy. You know, someone loves me even if it's a dog and only because I'm the one who feeds and walks him."

"He looked beautiful. How old is he?"

"Two," he said. "Listen. I'm sorry if them being outside waiting for me like that was a problem."

"No, why would it be?"

"I don't know. I don't want you to think Jessica is anything she's not. She's my neighbor nothing more."

"She's pretty."

"She is, I suppose," he'd truthfully never paid her any attention like that. Even if he had found her attractive when he first bought the place and moved in. He knew getting involved beyond friends with someone who lived in the same building as him could be bad. "She's a little old for me, though."

"Old for you?"

"Uh, yeah, she's like thirty-five."

"That's too old?"

"Well, you know, just isn't my thing, I guess."

"Hmm," she said.

"Did I just say something wrong?"

"No," she said. "Just funny how that works. I bet if you met someone who was twenty-one you wouldn't expect her to say you were too old."

"Well, no, I don't know, older women just aren't my thing. I didn't say younger ones were either, though. Don't put words in my mouth."

"I'm not."

"I'm just making sure. You were the one who brought up a twenty-one year old. I'm just fine with someone my own age."

She shook her head a little at that.

"Let's get you back to work before I say something you do get mad at me for."

"I'm not mad at you."

"I know, but I feel as if you're testing me or something. She's nice and all, but she's never shown any interest in me or anything. She seems more interested in Sammy truthfully. She runs during the summer and took him with her a couple of times last summer."

"Oh," she said. "I bet he loved that."

"He did actually. I'm not much of a runner. I walk with him, you know, obviously. He's a dog, you have to walk them."

"Right."

"Before I forget," he said once they were back in his truck. "This is for you," he said, reaching for his briefcase to pull out the picture he'd drawn for her.

"John," she said.

"You said you wanted a picture."

"I was kidding!"

"I wasn't."

"Who is she?"

"I don't know," he said. "Who do I see her as? I see her as Simon's … Mate for lack of a better word. He wouldn't have a girlfriend. The world he lives in doesn't talk like that."

"He doesn't have one yet?"

"Nope. He's just a kid still really."

"I suppose."

"When he gets to that point I have no idea if she'll look like that, so don't hang onto it hoping to sell it five years from now as the first picture of her or anything."

"I wouldn't do that anyway. She's beautiful."

"Thank you," he said.

"And you colored it, too."

"A little. I kind of went for a less is more thing. You know?"

"It's beautiful. Thank you," she said, leaning in to kiss him.

"Not so fast," he said when she started to draw away. "We got pretty good at doing that in Paris. Let's see how we do at it in Chicago."

He slid a hand to her cheek, touching her there before sliding it lower to her neck.

"Hey," he whispered, drawing away at the feel of her pulse racing under his fingertips. "What's wrong, Princess?"

"Nothing," she whispered.

"Why are you nervous then?"

"You make me nervous."

"I do? Here in my truck? Kissing you?"

"Yes," she said softly.

"Why? I haven't felt your heart going this fast since that first night in Paris."

"I know," she said.

"If I'm doing something to remind you of him or what he did to you…"

"No!"

"Okay, good. I mean, I'm sorry I make you nervous."

"It's my fault."

He kissed her again. "Come out with me this weekend," he said.

"Where?"

"You pick. Dinner. A movie. Whatever you want to do. Name it. Preferably just us and not a crowd of hundreds of people who are watching us."

"I don't think they were all watching us."

"No, but your friends were doing enough watching for the rest of them."

"I've never had a boyfriend before."

"You could've. I mean at least once you could've for sure since I was him."

"I know," she said. "I've thought of that, too."

"What?"

"If I'd been brave enough to talk to you, tell you how I felt I wouldn't have been interested in him at that party."

"It doesn't mean he wouldn't have done that anyway. Clearly he likes you. Or is infatuated with you. Something. I don't know what it is, but I look forward to seeing him again sometime."

"When would you possibly?"

"Your next friend's wedding."

She laughed softly at that. "No one's getting married anytime soon."

"That's too bad because I really would like to see the look on his face when I show up with you again."

"Me, too."

"Yeah?"

"Yes," she whispered. John thought she meant it, too. He hoped so anyway. Not that he wanted any of her friends to get married anytime soon. He wouldn't mind being her boyfriend for the next one for real, though.

"All right, Princess, I'll get you back to work now."

"Thank you for lunch."

"Sure. Thanks for coming."

"You really have no preference for the weekend?"

"Nope. Whatever you want," he said as he parked his truck and shut it off to help her out. He wasn't sure she'd want him to walk with her to the building or not.

"Okay," she said, taking his offered hand.

He liked that about her, that she didn't actually mind him doing these things for her. He'd gone out with a few women who seemed to think he was weird to want to open a door for them. As if they could do it themselves so why should they let him? He called it being polite. His mom hadn't set many good examples for him, but she'd told him things when he was little he remembered. Even if she put up with things that contradicted what she told him. He still remembered them. He watched enough, too, to know how different types of guys were treated or responded to. He wanted Claire to respond to him as he'd seen the polite ones get responded to over the years.

"You're going to come get me?" she asked.

"Uh, yeah," he said. "You think I'd make you drive yourself to a date?"

"Well, no…"

"I'll pick you up."

"Okay. Friday? I can't do Saturday, it's Christmas Eve. Mass and dinner with the parents."

"Sure," he said, having completely forgot it was Christmas coming up over the weekend. "At least I can finally call Rich back now."

"Why?" she asked.

"Well, he asked me when we talked that once in Paris who you were. I wasn't sure what to tell him, you know. I wasn't expecting my life to be affected by the wedding you asked me to go with you to."

"Right."

"I have avoided calling him since being back. I have nothing with him due and I've just felt kind of caught. If I said you were my girlfriend that'd get around. If I said you weren't that'd get around. I really don't care if people think I have a girlfriend. However, I really don't want to lie to people I work with about whether I actually have one."

"And now you can talk to him?"

"Well, at least I can legitimately answer that I'm dating you."

"It's one date!"

"That's dating, Princess. Last I checked."

"I suppose," she said. "I'm sorry. I really am. I had no way of knowing. Even if I had known he was a director or whatever I wouldn't have known about your movie."

"I know. I just didn't want to tell the truth and have it get back to people who know you either. You know? So I've just sort of avoided him. Email is a wonderful thing when you don't want to talk to someone."

"I can't even imagine what he thinks."

"I honestly can't either. I didn't do anything wrong or bad. It's not like a picture of you with a hickey on your neck came out. Since that's the worst I did…"

"It was still there when I went to work on Wednesday morning," she said.

"Was it?" He hadn't meant to make it that bad when he'd given it to her. "You covered it up I imagine."

"Yes!"

He chuckled softly at that. "I'm sorry."

"I'm not complaining exactly I just wasn't expecting it to be there for days."

"I wasn't either honestly, guess I got carried away thinking about your birthmark."

"Very funny."

"What can I say? Maybe birthmarks excite me, Princess."

"They do not."

"Yours do. Knowing I know about it and no one else does anyway."

"Oh," she said.

"I'll let you get back to work now, Princess."

"Thank you for lunch."

"Yeah, sure, anytime," he said. "I told you it was a boyfriend-like thing to do since I have free time."

She started walking away then, turning a few steps away and totally catching him watching her. She didn't seem mad, though. In fact, she walked up to him again and kissed him.

"Thank you for the picture, too. It's really gorgeous."

"It's nothing."

"It's not. You made it for me. That's special. Thank you."

"You're welcome. See you Friday. Call me or email me I suppose with a time otherwise I'll assume around seven."

"Seven sounds fine."

"All right then."

He watched her walk the rest of the way to her building then. She glanced at him before opening the doors to go inside so she knew he'd watched her.

Return to Top

***Chapter Eight***
Word Count: 3,787

'This is John.'

"Hi. It's Claire, um, Claire Standish."

'Why do you do that?'

"Do what?"

'Say your last name. You did that the night you called me back in the fall, too. It's not as if you don't sort of stand out to me.'

"Habit? It's how I was raised? It's not as if we talk every day."

'Fair enough. You're not calling to cancel on me, are you?'

"Well, no. I mean, no I'm not, but you may rethink it after this conversation."

'Okay,' he said, sounding cautious.

She couldn't blame him. She'd debated a couple of times calling to cancel. Going out on a real actual date with him could be all sorts of bad. It could be very good, too, which could also be all sorts of bad in its own way. She was, honestly surprised he'd shown up for lunch the other day after their trip to Paris. They'd had a nice time. A very nice time, but he'd even admitted the trip hadn't gone as he'd expected. He'd, and she couldn't blame him, assumed he'd get sex out of the trip.

"I know none of this has gone as planned. I had no idea any of this would happen. I'm sorry that this has somehow bled into your life. That wasn't my intention at all. I mean, how could I possibly have known Rene would know who you were?"

'You couldn't have. I've already said so.'

"I know, but it just. God, it seemed so simple. You know? Come with me so I wouldn't have to spend any time with Allen. Because if I'd gone alone I would have to do all sorts of things with him. Maybe they would have been with groups of people, but I still would have been the single woman and he would have been the single guy. Could you imagine me going wine tasting without you with him along?"

'No,' he said and she knew he understood. Or at least tried to understand.

"I should have been able to come home and a few months later tell people it didn't work out. I mean, we wouldn't be the first couple to give it a try after running into one another at a reunion and have it not work out. It's got to happen all of the time."

'Uh,' he said. 'We haven't tried anything yet to know if it worked out. Not really. Before you go breaking us up, Claire, remember that.'

"I do! I really wasn't expecting you to, like, want to go out with me. I've already said I didn't expect to have such a nice time with you. I really didn't. I figured you'd be nice in public when you had to be and kind of be an asshole to me when we were alone since I know it wasn't convenient for you to take a week off."

'Yeah, well, sue me. A woman I'm attracted to gives me an in, I'm going to take it regardless of the bizarre circumstances behind that in.'

"I know," she said. She liked hearing those words too much. She'd liked hearing them in Paris, too. She liked how willing he'd been to do just about anything while they were there. The only thing he'd bowed out of was visiting the Louvre a second time. That had been fine with her. He'd had hours to spend doing what he wanted to do and she had as well. It worked just fine. "But then the whole thing with Rene knowing you and, God, I thought for sure you were going to kind of freak out."

'It's a small world. It was unexpected, but not the end of that small world. He was a decent guy. Now if I'd met him on the street maybe he wouldn't have been, but you're one of April's best friends – probably her best friend if you were her maid of honor out of all those other women. I admit I'm not sure how all of that works. So, obviously, given that I'm his future wife's best friend's boyfriend he's not going to be a dick to me.'

"Right," she said. April had moved out to California about two years ago, which was when they'd stopped seeing one another regularly. She'd lived in Chicago until then. Claire still wasn't sure why she'd moved suddenly, but obviously she'd met Rene out of the deal so it had worked out. She missed her friend, though. They hadn't had much time alone while in Paris, the few minutes they'd had April told Claire she was going to call her once they were back from their honeymoon and settled so they could talk 'about everything'. Claire was dreading that conversation.

'So, it's fine. It's certainly something I can use as an ice breaker at conventions and stuff.'

"Oh, right," she said.

'I mean, you know, if I run out of stuff to say or encounter a really dull group.'

"That happens?"

'Sometimes. Sometimes they think I'm going to give them a step-by-step guide on how to do what I do. I could, but I can't give them the tools or the ability to do it. I lucked out in that Rich was pretty approachable, even if he laughed at me at first. Not everyone is.'

"Oh, right."

'So what does all of this have to do with our date tomorrow exactly? I'm not seeing where this conversation is leading to my not wanting to go anymore.'

"Well, Allen called my mother."

'I'm sorry. About my knowing Rene?'

She could hear the confusion in his voice and imagined she hadn't really said that right.

"No. Well, yes." She sighed and took a deep breath, collecting her thoughts.

'What's going on, Princess?'

"He thought, for some reason, my mother would want to know that you spent the week with me in Paris."

'Uh, why? You are an adult the last time I checked.'

"I don't know! I have no idea. I hadn't seen him in years before the wedding. I certainly haven't spoken to him since he graduated. Well, maybe he was at our graduation, I don't remember. I hardly even talk to Bonnie because I don't want him to know more about my life than he'd hear second hand from Bonnie and April talking. I think April knows I don't like him much so she keeps the information about me to a minimum. I have no idea what his problem is."

John had said at lunch the other day that he thought Allen was infatuated with her. Claire wasn't sure that made sense. How could someone do what he'd done to her and be infatuated with her? She couldn't come up with another explanation. She didn't like it one bit, though. She certainly didn't like him calling her parents.

'Seems we've talked about that before. So what? I'm supposed to stay away from you? Marry you or get slapped with some crazy lawsuit? What?'

"She wants to meet you."

'Okay,' he said, that cautious tone again.

"Saturday night," she said.

'Okay,' he said.

"At Christmas dinner."

'Oh,' he said, realization dawning on him. 'Because what daughter wouldn't invite the boyfriend she spent a week in Paris with sharing a hotel room wouldn't invite him to Christmas dinner with the 'rents.'

"Exactly."

He sighed.

"I don't blame you for wanting to never speak to me again. I'm really, really very sorry. If I could go back to October and undo all of this I would. I'd make up an excuse why you couldn't make it. I honestly couldn't imagine all of this shit would come out of my having a boyfriend."

'I don't want you going back and undoing it, though. I mean, it's a little baffling to me. The calling your mom part. The Rene thing isn't your fault. Like you said even if you had known he worked in the industry you wouldn't have known about the movie because I hadn't told you about it. I mean, I haven't thought it was that big of a deal because it's not like I drew anything for the movie. My name will be in the credits, sure, along with hundreds of other nobodies no one seeing the movie will have heard of.'

"Right. You're not a nobody."

'Thanks," he said with a soft chuckle. "What did your mother say exactly?'

"She wanted to know why I was hiding you from her."

'That's all?'

"She accused me of being ashamed or embarrassed of her. She said she couldn't believe I'd let her think that I was never going to get involved with someone when here I had been for months."

'Uh huh,' he said.

"She wants my nephew to have cousins since Christopher doesn't seem to be giving him any brothers or sisters. Obviously that falls to me since I'm his only sister."

'Does she want you to have a husband first? Or just the cousins on a whim?'

"She'd, I'm sure, prefer the husband came first though she hasn't specifically said that."

'Right. That would be the expectation.'

"And then she said she expected you to be at dinner Saturday night."

'And you see a way out of this how exactly?'

"Well…"

'Wait. You are breaking our date tomorrow, aren't you?'

"No, I'm not!"

He was quiet, so was she. She wasn't sure how to say what she was thinking exactly and clearly he was probably thinking he was absolutely insane for going along with this stupid idea to begin with.

'I see. So…You think I'm going to? Over meeting your mother? Wow you must really think I'm an asshole. Thanks. Now I do think I'm kind of mad.'

"Don't be mad at me. It's Christmas dinner. And it's not just my mother. It's my father, brother, nephew, grandparents, aunt and uncle, and cousins."

'The whole lot of the Standish clan, huh?'

"Yes."

He sighed again and she couldn't even imagine what he was thinking. In a way she was kind of hoping he'd cancel their date tomorrow and she wouldn't have to deal with it anymore. Deal with what exactly she wasn't sure. She liked him, but it scared the shit out of her that she did. She hadn't wanted their week in Paris to end. It wasn't even the sleeping with him the couple nights they did that together that was nice, though that was exceptionally nice. It was the time.

"Please don't be mad at me. I didn't mean it that way. I don't think you're an asshole. Like you said you could have tried all sorts of things that first night I slept in your bed. You didn't. John, truly, I know you're not an asshole."

'That's not exactly a ringing endorsement. I didn't accost someone who just days before told me they'd been drugged and raped for their only sexual experience.'

"That's not what I meant either. Please don't twist what I'm trying to say into something it's not. I know you're not an asshole. I don't think you're an asshole. I, however, would not blame you for thinking the payout of a date with me may not be worth all this."

'The payout? What payout do you think I'm looking for here, Claire?'

"I don't know."

'You must think I'm looking for something. I can hear it in your voice. Your 'I don't know' isn't that exactly.'

"Well, I don't know. I would assume…"

'You think I expect sex from you? When? Tomorrow night?'

"No!"

'I swear to God, Claire, you better not because I don't know what the fuck I've done in the past three months to give you that impression. And please don't throw what I was like in high school in my face. I'm not that guy anymore.'

"I know," she said.

She did know. It was the reason she was so confused right now. She really wanted to like him, but it was hard for her to balance the John she'd known then with the John she wanted to know more of today. She'd known he was a decent guy back then he just hadn't wanted anyone to know it. Actually, she wasn't sure if he still didn't want people to know it today.

He'd been so genuinely pleased she'd taken him back to the Pere Lachaise Cemetery the day before they'd left. It seemed sort of odd to both of them to wander through a cemetery, but they'd seen many, many recognizable names and they clearly weren't the only ones who did such a thing while in town.

She liked having someone to spend time with, to do things with. She'd never had that before because she'd never let herself spend enough time with someone to get that.

'What do you think I expect from you then?'

"I don't know. Dating should for most people potentially lead to more."

'Yeah.'

"Like a relationship."

'Yeah.'

"One with me wouldn't be easy. I know you don't expect sex from me tomorrow night, but I assume you would at some point."

'Well, yeah, but when you were, you know, ready for that step.'

"How many women at our age do you have to wait to be ready for that step?"

'That's irrelevant because they aren't you.'

"What if I'm never ready?"

'Then I guess we'd deal with that if that was the case. Kissing you is no hardship.'

"Thank you," she said, pleased beyond belief to hear him say that.

'Do we know what Allen told her?' he asked after a minute or two of silence between them. She wasn't sure what to say now. She didn't think he was really mad at her.

"Not specifically. She thinks you're my boyfriend and that we've been dating since the reunion. She knows what you do for a living and that there's a movie coming out based on some of your work."

'Allen told her that?' he asked, sounding suspect.

"No, I did. He told her what you did for a living, but made it sound as if you…"

'Drew cartoons and lived paycheck to paycheck so latched onto you, the lawyer, for someone to support me and my hobby.'

"Yes," she said. She felt terrible that his reputation was being called into question through no fault of his own. All from doing her a favor. "She knows you came with me to the wedding, that we were there for a whole week, and that we shared a room."

'Fantastic,' he said. That last part seemed to get more of a reaction out of him than the occupation part had.

"As you say, I'm an adult."

'Yes, but you're still her little girl who she apparently knows doesn't date so sleeping with a guy would be surprising, too.'

"Kind of," she said. More than kind of. He knew that, too, judging by the scoff she heard him give over the phone.

'So, the comic penciler is invited to Christmas dinner?'

"Yes."

'Your parents don't have any weapons at their house I need to know about, do they?'

"Weapons?" she asked with a frown.

'A shotgun. A noose. A guillotine, which would be fitting I suppose since I apparently ravished you for a week in Paris.'

"No. I mean, my dad I think might have a couple of pistols, like from the Civil War or something. They're not functional that I know of. They are, you know, collectors' items. Antiques. Valuable."

'That you know of, that's encouraging.'

"John, I'm sorry."

'And is there going to be some guy at the dinner table that's not a relative that your parents will hope you compare and contrast to me and change your mind about being involved with a bum?'

"No, I don't think they'd do that."

'Again, not so encouraging with that answer.'

"I'm not my mother! I don't know what she'd do. I don't think she'd do that, though."

'Do I have to go to mass with you?'

"Well…"

'Fuck, are you kidding me?'

"Wait? You're actually considering coming to dinner?"

'Well, what else am I supposed to do? If I don't and our date Friday turns into more like I want it to your mom is going to wonder why I didn't come. Even if our date doesn't turn into more right away she's going to wonder who you were spending your week with. I'd rather she know for a fact I'm not an asshole, a serial rapist, or something.'

"I could get you out of mass. We go to midnight mass anyway so you could just leave before then."

'Like I'd have an excuse to leave.'

"I suppose not," she said, growing quiet at that. Then a thought occurred to her. "Sammy."

'What about him?'

"He could be your excuse to leave."

He chuckled softly.

'You're pretty good. Yeah, that would be a good excuse.'

"Well, he can't be alone for hours and hours."

'No, you're right. So, what time do I need to be there? And what do I need to wear? And I think your debt to me has just gone up exponentially in the last twenty minutes.'

"I know. I'm sorry."

'And we are still going out tomorrow night, right?'

"If you still want to."

'You are not getting out of our date that easily, Princess.'

"I'm not sure this was easy."

He chuckled at that.

'You're probably right. I'm going to pick you up earlier than seven o'clock. What time can you actually be ready to go out?'

"Why?" she asked.

'Because if I have to sit through a family dinner I don't want to be ambushed with questions about things that as a guy you've been dating for six months I should know. So you're going to fill me in on Grandma and Grandpa on down.'

"Oh," she said.

'The Cliff Notes version would be ideal, just so I don't look like a clueless asshole who is, in fact, looking for someone to support me.'

"I can do that."

'Thank you.'

"I guess I don't have to worry about this with you, do I?"

'Worry about what?'

"Meeting your parents over Christmas dinner?"

'Not likely in this lifetime, no.'

"Do you go there at Christmas?"

'I usually go to a tree lot at a church near their house after Thanksgiving. The Knights of Columbus sponsors it I think. I buy them a tree and a wreath and have it sent to their house.'

"Oh," she said.

'I assume Ma knows they're from me, but no I don't go over there. We never did anything special when I lived there. I couldn't even tell you how old I was the last time I had a tree.'

"I understand."

'Are your parents going to ask me questions like that?'

"They might."

'Can I be honest?'

"Yes," she said.

'Thank you.'

"You don't have to thank me."

'Well, I don't know what you want me to say or do.'

"Just be yourself."

'Other than lying about the fact I've been dating you for six months you mean.'

"Yeah, other than that," she said softly.

'Fair enough. Where was our first date anyway?'

"I don't know. Where are you taking me tomorrow?"

'Um, you like Italian I assume?'

"Yes," she said.

'All right. How about that place in downtown Shermer? It's newer, but like a year ago it opened I think. I've heard it's actually pretty good.'

"Antonio's?"

'Yeah, that was it.'

"You've never been?"

'Nah, not much reason to go there.'

"Well then I guess that's a good place to say was our first date."

'Easy to remember that way I guess. All right.'

"I'm really sorry."

'It's all right. I'm really reconsidering not hitting Allen now, though.'

She laughed softly at that. "I bet you are."

'When I see him again…'

"I hope you won't."

'I may not be so nice.'

"I don't blame you."

'No?'

"No."

'I'll be not so nice for the both of us.'

"I wouldn't complain about that."

'You can bank on it then, Princess.'

She laughed softly at that.

'What?'

"You just sounded like Assistant Principal Vernon."

'I did?'

"Yes! He said something like that to Allison."

'Really?'

"Yes, that day."

'I guess I need to fix that, I don't need to be sounding like him.'

"No, you don't."

'Just think where we'd be today if you hadn't gone shopping that week, Princess.'

She had thought on that. More than once. That day had changed her. Not as much as the rest of them from that day had hoped the last couple months of school, but it had overall. She was less quick to judge people.

"I certainly wouldn't be sitting here talking to you right now."

He chuckled softly. 'I wish I could get mad at that comment, but I know you're right and can appreciate that you can admit that to me as well as yourself.'

"I can," she said.

'All right. I'll see you tomorrow then?'

"Yes. You're not mad at me are you?"

'About dinner on Saturday? As long as I'm not expected to buy them all presents I'm good. I'll play the dutiful boyfriend even better than I did in Paris. I thought all of your friends, except Allen it seems, liked me well enough.'

"They did. I didn't mean about dinner, though. You were mad at me earlier."

'You say things sometimes that irritate me, yes. I think that's maybe because you don't see yourself as I do. I try to get that.'

"I'm sorry."

'Don't apologize to me. I realize your past comes into play probably more than I know.'

"It does."

'And I'm very sorry about that.'

"I know."

'And I'm not sorry because I want to have sex with you.'

"John," she said.

'I mean I won't deny while we were together that week I'd wished more than once your past wasn't a factor or that I at least didn't know about it.'

"You still could've…"

'Tried? I'm not a complete asshole. If he wasn't there maybe I might have.'

"Maybe?"

'Probably I would have,' he said with a soft laugh.

"As long as you're not mad at me."

'Nah.'

"Thank you."

'So can you be ready before seven o'clock?'

"Not much before, no. I could probably do six o'clock if I can get out of the office a little early. I'll call you when I'm leaving, okay?"

'Okay. I noticed you called my office line tonight.'

"I did. I remember what you said about not answering your personal line."

'Call this one again tomorrow.'

"I will."

'Until tomorrow then, Princess, sweet dreams.'

"Thanks. You, too."

'So long as there are no guillotines in them I'm good.'

She laughed softly at that, hanging up shortly after.

Return to Top

***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."

Return to Top

***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.

Return to Top

***Chapter Eleven***
Word Count: 4,532

He'd found Tuxedo and ended up taking him to his condo with him. Sammy had not been very happy about that turn of events, but the house had been even hotter when he got there the second time. Obviously her furnace was on the fritz. His water dish was dry as a bone. John wasn't sure when he'd be able to get back there, assuming Claire didn't get out of the hospital when she thought she would. So, he'd called Claire to ask her what all he'd need to bring with him. Litter boxes were not something he had to worry about with Sammy so he was glad he'd asked.

She hadn't been released until Sunday, something about wanting to be sure whatever infection had caused the fever was truly under control. Apparently the antibiotics through the IV line were a much more effective way of distributing them. It made sense he supposed, the IV went right into the blood stream. They wanted her there for as close to twenty-four hours without the antibiotics fever-free before releasing her.

So, he'd brought some of his stuff with him to the hospital and hung out there as much as he could Saturday. She slept a lot. He took the opportunity when she did that to go home to let out Sammy. Her parents had come by Saturday despite her telling them it was absolutely unnecessary. They hadn't been surprised to see John there when they got there. He'd left the room, though, for a while.

She came home with him on Sunday. He offered to call someone out on Saturday to fix the furnace, but since they didn't release her anyway she just figured she could wait until Monday to do it. She had barely even set foot into the house after being released and she knew there was no way she was going to be able to sleep there. He'd offered to take her to his place or her parents'. She'd chosen his.

He wasn't complaining about her choice. He didn't really want to drop her off at their house. That would seem sort of odd since they thought they'd been dating for eight months or so now. He was pretty sure they thought they spent the night at one another's places more often than not. Claire's mom always called her house before stopping by Claire had told him when she didn't used to do that.

She'd slept most of the day on Sunday. He'd felt a little weird getting into bed with her that night, but she'd insisted she was fine with it. She didn't have a fever anymore or anything, but she was still sick. He'd stayed awake as long as he could, though, which wasn't too tough because he still had a shit ton of work to do preparing to be gone for a week.

Monday she'd called a repairman about her furnace but they weren't going to be able to get to it until Tuesday. He had no problem with her staying there another night so it was fine. He didn't have to leave until Wednesday and even if he was leaving tomorrow she could've stayed here.

"What are you doing?" she'd asked him Monday night when he was getting his duffle bag and equipment together to pack.

"Packing."

"You don't bring your regular pencils and stuff with you?"

"Nope," he said. "I have duplicates of everything. I've left more than one behind so I learned years ago to just have a set ready to go. I check it when I get back from trips to be sure I'm not missing something and replace it before I go on the next trip."

"Oh," she said.

She'd showered, but that was the extent of her physical exertion to this point. He hadn't wanted her to do that much because he'd been afraid she'd pass out again only this time naked. He certainly didn't want the first time he saw her naked to be under those circumstances.

Tuxedo was on the bed with her. He should maybe be a little disturbed at how easily the cat adjusted to a new place to sleep and dislodged Sammy from his normal spot, but it was kind of sweet he wanted to be near his sick owner. Sammy still made it onto the bed when John got into bed the night before, but the cat and the dog had maintained as much distance as they could. John hadn't been certain there'd be room for both him and Claire plus Sammy, but it had worked somehow.

"You really do have it down to a science."

"Don't you?" he asked. "You travel a lot."

"Yes, but not really for work. So, packing for me is an issue of which clothes I need based on where I'm going. Sometimes I have work to bring with me, but I can't really bring duplicates with me."

"I suppose not," he said.

"Are you going to be up late?" she asked.

"I don't know."

"I got the feeling last night you did it on purpose."

"Did what?"

"Stayed up late."

"Well, I have stuff to do, Claire."

"I know. You didn't come to bed until almost four o'clock."

"Yeah. I do that sometimes. I don't have to sleep like normal people do."

"I got the feeling it was because of me."

"Yeah, well, you were running a fever and everything into Saturday morning."

"I didn't have one Sunday."

"I know that."

"Then what?"

He shrugged. "It's nothing, Claire. I was working, that's all."

"You were afraid I'd wake up and not remember where I was or why you were in bed with me?"

"Kind of," he admitted. "I debated about sleeping on my couch, but I've done that once before and not only is it not comfortable Sammy took it as an unwritten invitation to wake me up as soon as the sun came up instead of his usual crazy early hour."

She laughed softly.

"Yeah, I know, my fault for getting a dog, but he sleeps around my hours usually. You and Tuxedo being here sort of have both of us out of our routines."

"I'm sorry."

"Don't be. I'm not."

"You're okay bringing me home tomorrow?"

"Yes, of course. Why wouldn't I be?"

"I know you're busy."

"Well, I can work taking you home around my schedule. My plane doesn't leave until noon on Wednesday so I can work until about four again if I had to tomorrow night and still get a decent night's sleep. I'm actually pretty caught up now."

"Well, still…"

"I'm glad you called in for tomorrow, too. I was worried you were going to push yourself."

"My dad would've gotten mad at me."

"Yeah. You won't do your clients any good dead or in the hospital for days relapsing."

"I know."

"Good. I can stay and handle the repair guy if you're not up to it. Just let me know."

"I think I can handle it."

"I'm sure you can, but if you're not feeling up to being up and around like that let me know and I'll stay."

"Do you want me to call our travel agent and make arrangements for the trip we're taking next month?"

"If you want to. I hadn't had time to think about it honestly beyond you agreed to come with me."

"I can."

"Wait, no, you're not doing that. I'm paying for this trip."

"John… It's my fault."

"It is not your fault! Stop saying that. None of this is your fault. It's not a bad thing I got invited. It's pretty cool. Rich is envious as all get out."

"I bet he is."

"I mean, he got invited to the premiere itself, but my invitation is kind of a blanket thing for a whole bunch of shit."

"I know, I saw that."

"So, I'm not complaining, but I'm still paying. You paid for France, this is my deal I'm paying for this."

"Yes, but…"

"No, buts. I'll take care of it tomorrow. Thank you for reminding me, though."

She yawned and he chuckled softly.

"Get some more sleep."

"I've done nothing but sleep since Friday night!"

"Well, you obviously need it. I'll be done in a minute here and turn off the light so will be out of your hair in a few."

"You're not in my hair."

"If you say so."

"John, it's your house. I should be the one worrying."

"I like you here. It's not exactly how I envisioned getting you to spend the night with me, but it'll do until I can get you here the right way."

"What's the right way?"

He chuckled, zipping up his bag. "You not sick would sure be a start."

"Why are you packing tonight?"

"I don't know. Habit. I like to make sure I have everything. I know the night before I leave I'm always busy and distracted working."

"Oh," she said.

He set his bag on the floor by his dresser. He flipped the light switch to turn the light off.

"Get some more sleep, Claire. I'll be in in a while, I promise."

"Okay," she said.

"It's a very good thing I'm not allergic to cats, isn't it?" he asked as he watched Tuxedo knead the bedding beside Claire. The hall light was on so he could see him clear enough.

"I think so, yeah."

Eventually the cat got the bedding in the condition he wanted it to be John guessed and he curled up next to Claire to sleep. He was strictly an indoor cat so while he'd gotten up a couple of times the past couple of nights and wandered around the condo he hadn't begged to go out or anything. He wasn't used to that, movement late at night because Sammy didn't wander around so John had checked the first time to be sure his food and water bowls weren't empty. He'd had to put the cat's stuff on a counter because Sammy ate the first bowl of food John had put out.

"It's not four o'clock already is it," she murmured when he joined her in bed about an hour later.

"Not even close. Try eleven o'clock."

"Oh," she said. "You're here early."

"I am."

"Why?" she asked.

"I realized I'm kind of an idiot. I have you sleeping in my bed and I'm avoiding sleeping with you. What kind of moron does that?"

"I'm glad."

"That I'm an idiot and a moron?"

"That you realized you were being one. You're not him, John."

"I know… I just don't ever want…"

She cut him off by sliding closer to him and kissing him. A real kiss, too, not just a quick thing like they'd been doing pretty much since getting back from Paris. Oh a few times here and there they'd kissed nice like this, but not too often. He turned a bit, sliding a hand to her hip to draw her to him. He could definitely get used to this.

"Claire," he whispered when he discovered pressed against him like she was currently she wasn't wearing anything but a shirt.

"Shh. Don't, please," she whispered, moving on top of him.

She found his mouth again as she settled her hands against his waist, pushing his shirt up with one hand. She touched him with the other one, breaking the kiss only long enough for him to lift himself up to slide the shirt off. Her hands were hesitant as she touched him, which he completely understood because he had no idea what to do with his at the moment. He decided on settling them at her hips.

She shifted a bit, lowered her mouth to his chest and he couldn't help but groan when her tongue grazed over his nipple. He moved his pillow, bunching it a bit so he could watch her easily. Watching her do anything to him was a definite bonus as far as he was concerned.

She didn't seem to be in any particular hurry and didn't seem interested in focusing on any one part of him over another. She even took hold of one of his hands, bringing it to her mouth and kissing each fingertip before settling it against her hip once more. It was really, really a huge test of his self-control because he knew what he wanted to do but he absolutely wasn't the one in charge at the moment. Even this much was way more than he expected tonight so he couldn't complain. Question his sanity maybe. He had a friend or two who would certainly tell him no one was worth having to be so careful of everything he did with.

He thought she was worth it, though.

Eventually her hands settled at his hips, tugging on the shorts he was wearing. He cried out when she slid a fingertip along the tip of him. He couldn't help it. He'd dreamt of this for months after that day at school. Who was he kidding? Months didn't begin to cover it. She'd been the focus of some pretty intense dreams more than once over the years. She'd touched him through his jeans that day, but that was it and not at all the same as what she was doing now. He'd sure hoped she'd get around to doing more than just through his jeans but it hadn't happened.

He hissed softly, tilting his head back a bit on the pillow to stop looking at her when she took him into her mouth. He was pretty sure he'd come right there and then if he watched her do this. He didn't want to do that. At least not just yet anyway. Her sliding her mouth off of him was not at all what he'd wanted her to do.

"Is that wrong?" she whispered.

"Wrong?" What the fuck was she talking about? Wrong? Her stopping was incredibly wrong, but he couldn't say that. Not in this lifetime. He wasn't stupid, he knew that much.

"Yeah, you…"

"Oh, no, that was a good sound. Trust me."

"Thank God," he whispered when she returned to what she'd been doing.

He'd always prided himself on having pretty good control and stamina. Coming from a blow job wasn't as easy for him anymore because he'd gotten real good at ensuring getting one lasted as long as he could make it last. Getting good ones was a rare occurrence so he liked to enjoy them when it happened. Right now though he was pretty sure that control and stamina had flown out the window. He couldn't help it. Never mind it was her doing this to him after years, over a decade, of him imagining her being the one to do this.

No, that wasn't the only reason.

She was doing this. To him. Of all the people she could have … trusted she'd picked him. Maybe it wasn't a choice for her any more than his knowing when he saw her at the reunion that he'd more than just a little fallen in love with her that day at school. The relief he felt when she not only wasn't married but wasn't there with anyone hadn't been anything he'd ever experienced before.

"Fuck, Claire, I don't know what your goal is here. Just this, that's fine. But if you're looking for more I swear to God you have less than two minutes until I'm going to need a little while to be able to do anything again. And, uh, if swallowing isn't something that interests you you might want to stop anyway."

She didn't stop immediately, but she did after a few seconds. He wasn't sure what to make of her decision. She just didn't want to swallow? Was he supposed to, uh, do the rest or was she planning on doing more? Again, he wasn't the one in control and while frustrating as all hell not to finish when he was so dreadfully close to doing that from her efforts he had to let her do whatever she wanted to do here.

She reached for him as she moved herself up along him, sliding him between her legs and along her slit there. It occurred to him as she worked herself over his length that he hadn't done a damned thing to her. Nothing. Evidently that was what she wanted right now, but fuck it all if he didn't feel pretty bad that was the case.

"Can I?" he asked, shrugging a bit. He had no idea what the fuck the rules were here. "Your shirt. Can I take it off?" he asked.

She didn't answer him and he didn't make a move to do that without her permission. Evidently that exceeded her area of comfort right now. He wasn't sure he should or could complain since he was on his way to being planted pretty firmly inside of her.

She reached for her shirt once he was all the way inside of her, sliding it up and over her head.

"Thank you," he whispered.

"Stop staring at me," she said shyly.

"Forgive me, Claire. It's a natural reaction to seeing someone beautiful naked for the first time."

"Shut up," she whispered.

"I won't. You're in control, I get that, but I'm not going to stop thinking what I think."

"I know. I'm sorry."

He chuckled softly, sliding a hand from her hip along her abdomen. "Nothing to be sorry for. Trust me," he said as he slid his thumb along the edge of her belly button before moving up. She exhaled sharply as he found a breast, touching her there. This he'd done before. He remembered vividly how she felt in his hand, the soft gasp she gave when he stroked her nipple. She gave it again now, too, and he liked very much she gave the same response today.

She started moving over him slowly. He still wasn't sure he was going to last too long so he shifted them both a bit so he could lean up and use his mouth on her breasts while settling his fingers between her legs.

"You okay?" he asked when she gasped softly when he touched her between her there for the first time.

"Uh huh," she said. She didn't sound too sure about her answer, though.

"You need me to stop?"

"No!"

He chuckled softly at that, but returned his mouth's focus on her breasts. A focus that he was thoroughly enjoying.

He came after she pulled herself almost all of the way off of him and took the length of him in one quick thrust. It felt too good. She felt too good around him. She wasn't as easy to get off as it had been for him, but he was more than patient and willing to do the work to bring her over, too. He wasn't sure if she was really that difficult or if she was hesitant to let herself go. He hoped he'd have a reason to find out which was the case another time.

She settled against his chest and he slid his arms around her, drawing the sheet around them. He was still inside of her, not very useful or functional at the moment but he liked being there and she didn't seem to be in any hurry to dislodge him. He was good with that.

He cleared his throat, not sure how exactly to put into words what he was thinking without it sounding insulting.

"Why?" he asked simply.

"You pointed out, I could have died."

"I didn't…"

"You didn't have to say the word, I know what you meant."

"Okay," he said cautiously. "That wasn't a line to get you out of your panties, Claire."

"I know it wasn't, but it got me thinking. I don't want to die knowing he had that control over me. That he controlled even my feelings. That I was so scared to do what's completely normal."

"Claire…" He couldn't begin to understand. He never would. He doubted he'd ever be in a position to. Not to say that men couldn't be forced to do things, but even if that part did happen to him the rest of what she went through couldn't.

"At least I can say I won't die a virgin now."

He chuckled softly.

"Well, hopefully, high fevers aside, you'll live a long and fruitful life."

"I hope so, too."

"I plan to do everything in my power to be sure you do more than hope."

"You do, huh?"

"Yep."

"Thank you," she said.

"For what I just said?"

"Yes," she whispered.

"Good. I mean, I don't want you thanking me for sex, because believe me I enjoyed myself very much."

"Did you?"

"Uh yeah."

"I'm glad."

"Me, too. I mean, that you did. You did, right? I didn't do a damned thing, but you didn't seem to want me to."

"You did."

"After you were already inside of me. The things you were doing with your mouth, they would feel equally good being done to you as they do to me."

"Oh," she said.

"And unlike me you can come more than once without putting a crimp in immediate plans using your parts for things other than my mouth."

"I can, huh?"

"Yes."

"Once wasn't easy."

"It will get easier, Claire. I swear to you."

"I believe you."

"Good. So, is that why you were concerned with when I was going to come to bed?"

"Kind of. I wasn't sure I'd wake up enough at four o'clock in the morning."

He chuckled.

"I would have come to bed last night much earlier had I known."

"I know. Should I move?"

"Move?"

"Yeah, off of you."

"Nope, you can stay right there for as long as you like."

"I'm not too heavy?"

He scoffed. "You? Hardly. You're fine where you are. I like you there."

"You just like being inside of me."

"I will not disagree with that point, no, but I like feeling you against me. Though I don't know, you start moving before he falls out of you and he may be up for more."

"He may, huh?"

"Uh huh. Only if you are, though."

"I know," she said, settling her head against his chest. He felt her sigh against him there and he couldn't help but give a sigh of his own. He kissed the top of her head. "What?" she asked.

"I guess it's really a good thing I got you something for Valentine's Day now, huh?"

She laughed softly. "I guess so."

"Glad I did the right thing there for a change, I wasn't sure it was going to freak you out."

"No, it was sweet, thank you."

He'd just gotten her a card and some chocolates. He had already put in an order for some roses to be delivered to her office …

"Fuck," he said.

"What?"

He laughed softly. "You're not going to work tomorrow."

"No," she said cautiously. "Am I supposed to?"

"Well, I ordered you flowers to be delivered to you there."

"You did?"

"I did."

"Wow," she said.

"I know, right? I never knew I had such a mushy aspect to my personality. It seemed the thing a boyfriend of eight months would do, though."

"Oh, well, I suppose you could drive me down there to get them and I could bring them home with me."

"I suppose I could do that."

"I'll have Sonia call me when they get there."

"Fair enough. Sorry to ruin the surprise."

"I'm still surprised."

"Good."

"And I don't know what kind of flowers you ordered."

"Is there more than one kind to get on Valentine's Day? Especially since I had them sent to the office where your dad works?"

"Oh," she said. "I'm sure they'll be gorgeous."

"I hope so. I wasn't expecting to see you tomorrow so I had them sent there."

"You weren't going to come have lunch with me?"

"I don't know."

"I think I would've called you and asked you to come have lunch with me after getting them."

"Yeah?"

"Then it seems I did right. It's not often women ask me to lunch."

"It would seem so."

"Good."

"Where'd Sammy go?"

"Unlike your obviously perverted cat he bailed from the bed about the time you took my shirt off."

"Well, he wouldn't have any idea he should leave the bed."

He chuckled softly. "Sammy didn't go far. He'll be back."

"Has he…"

"Don't, please, don't even think like that. But I'll answer your question. No, he's never had to leave my bed for that reason before. I don't make a habit of bringing women back here. I work here, you know? My livelihood is here. I hate the fact Allen might have an inkling what my address is. You're the only woman he's left my bed for."

"You're not just saying that?"

"Why would I lie to you?"

"To make me feel better?"

"And you find out I lied to you you'd be pissed at me. Nope. I'm not going to lie to you. I'm not going to say I haven't had sex in the last two years, just not here."

"It's okay."

"Thank you. Your cat, on the other hand, obviously is a voyeur. Then I can't blame him, you're something worth looking at."

She laughed softly against his chest. "Maybe he just likes looking at you like I do."

"He's a guy cat."

"Yeah, so."

"Still perverted," he said after a moment's thought on that.

"You seem to be ready to try to see if he'll leave the bed this time."

"Sweetheart, I was mentally ready immediately. I'm sorry parts of me couldn't oblige, but yes physically and mentally are meshing at the moment."

"I can tell."

"You want to drive again, Princess? Or you want to lay back and let me do the work this time?"

"You'd probably enjoy it better if you did."

"Fuck, Claire, there is no better. I'm inside of you. That's pretty damned better. You on top, me on top makes me no difference. Whatever you feel most comfortable with."

She sat up a bit, adjusting him inside of her a little better before she drew away from him.

"Hey, where are you going?" he asked, opening his eyes. "Oh," he said when she moved next to him. "Too much exertion? Did that bit of work exhaust you?"

"I was just in the hospital, you know?"

"You trying to make me feel guilty?" he asked, sliding on top of her.

"No."

"Good, because it's not working at all," he said as he slid inside of her.

"I can tell."

"Can I throw a shoe at him or something?" he asked.

"No! You don't have any shoes on the bed anyway."

"I have clothes."

"You don't like being watched?"

"I don't know. It's kind of creepy. What if he gets mad and bites me or something?"

She laughed softly until he evidently hit a particularly good spot and then she was making a much more arousing sound than laughter.

"To hear you make that sound is worth getting bit."

"Do that again then," she whispered.

"Gladly," he said.

Return to Top

***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 premiere 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.

Return to Top

***Chapter Thirteen***
Word Count: 7,113

"The hotel entrance is on the other side of the building, honey."

"I know," Claire said with a roll of her eyes. She hated when other women called her honey as if they were long lost friends or something. She was tired and she'd never gotten airsick before. She loved flying. She thought on one occasion today she was going to have to use the throw-up bag they provided at each seat because she'd gotten so nauseous. The stewardess found her some crackers and gave her those plus a can of 7Up. (She knew they weren't called stewardesses anymore, but it was an old habit that was hard to break.)

"You need to go there to check-in. I don't work for the hotel and have nothing to do with your reservation or finding your room."

She sighed. She had no idea it'd be this large. She wasn't sure what she envisioned, but an entire conference area of a hotel wasn't it. And the hotel was huge, too, and nice. She was surprised John was being put up here, but she supposed they got special rates for reserving so many rooms for their guests.

"I'm looking for John Bender."

She snorted at that. "Get in line, honey."

"I'm not your honey," Claire said. She felt like shit and had absolutely no time for this. Flying on a plane when she was still sick was probably not the wisest choice she could have made. She'd had a slight fever in the morning, too. Not real high, nothing she was going to call her doctor about, but she had made sure to check it again before getting into the limo to go to the airport.

It had been incredibly easy to lie to Sonia and her father. It had been even easier to ask her neighbor to check on Tux on Saturday to be sure he had food and water. He would be fine until then. She'd left him for a weekend before, but that was leaving on a Friday and coming back Sunday. She didn't like the idea of him running out of food or water. He'd been a little out of sorts after being somewhere different for a few days. She'd told her neighbor if she wanted to go over there any other time to spend time with him that would be great, but not necessary. She told Sonia she'd check messages, but would probably be sleeping. She told her father she'd be at her place or at John's. So, no one would be surprised if she wasn't at home if they came looking for her. Amazing how sympathetic they were when she mentioned running a bit of a fever that morning.

When did she get so good at lying? Why had she felt the need to lie? Because she'd never taken a day and a half off from work to go out of town on a whim before.

"Maybe you're not, but you'll still need to get in line."

"I know him."

"I'm sure you do."

"He asked me to come here this weekend."

"Seems to me if he did as you say and actually wanted you here he'd have left your name at the front desk so you didn't have to come looking for him. You wouldn't be the first one."

"I'm his girlfriend."

"Honey, if I had a nickel for every time I've heard that I'd be rich as Steven Spielberg."

"Really?" she asked. That surprised her. People would just claim to be someone's girlfriend. Of course, they hadn't exactly completely established she was his girlfriend, but she sort of felt as if she was.

"Especially last year and this one with the movie coming out. So, no offense, but I've heard it all."

"Huh," Claire said. "Would you mind finding him and telling him Claire is here? I really just want to get a key from him."

"I'm not a messenger. He's busy doing what we pay him to do at the moment so he can't be at your beck and call right now. Like I said, seems if he wanted you to have a key he would've arranged for you to have one instead of you having to come here and find him."

"Fine. Tell me where he is."

"You can't go in unless you pay the admission."

"Are you serious? I just need a key. How much is it?" Claire asked.

"Twenty dollars."

"Are you kidding me?" Claire asked. "It's eight o'clock at night. I'm not going to be here all day."

"Honey, that is a reduced price. The con goes until the last person leaves each night."

"Oh," Claire said. "Fine," she said, pulling out her wallet and handing her twenty dollars. Utterly and completely ridiculous. "Any idea where he is?"

"Oak Room, just follow the signs."

Claire tried not to stare as she made her way through the halls, finding her way to the Oak Room. People were in all kinds of costumes. He'd told her. She'd believed him. It wasn't the Star Trek and Star Wars costumes that astonished her. There were some that. Well, Claire wondered how the women wearing them weren't arrested for indecent exposure. She was, compared to those women, extremely overdressed, and she felt incredibly self-conscious at the moment.

She heard his voice from the hallway before she even saw him. He must have been talking into a microphone because she could hear him very clearly all the way out here.

She stood and listened for a minute. She wondered what some of their classmates, actually ninety percent of them, would pay to see John Bender doing a Q&A session at something like this. Who would have thought?

She listened as he talked. She couldn't hear the questions, but judging by how many times he mentioned Simon or the movie she guessed there were a lot of questions being asked about it.

'I think I'd choose his ability to heal things if I could choose one.'

'I'm not sure there's enough healing powers in the universe to help you out with that, but I bet it could be fun to try.'

"You found it," the woman from the front area said as laughter overlapped John's next comment.

"Oh yes," Claire said. "Thank you."

"You scared or something, honey? He won't bite you unless you ask him to, I suppose."

"I'm not scared, I was just listening to him."

"Oh, yeah, we had to move him to this room from the smaller Walnut Room. He's pretty popular."

"Is he?" Claire asked.

"Isn't that why you're here, honey? I don't blame you with the potential for more movies and everything. Everyone loves Simon Forge right now. May as well get on the bandwagon while it's hot. Right? I haven't seen him leave with anyone today or anything so you never know, maybe you have a chance."

God, that idea absolutely horrified her. Apparently, there was no shortage of women willing to do that and no one would think it was unusual for her to be here for that reason. Was that really what she wanted this woman to think about her?

"Is there a bathroom?" Claire asked. God, she was going to throw up. She shouldn't have come here. He invited her.

For the weekend. You came a day early. He doesn't even know the possibility exists you'll be here tonight.

"Uh sure," she said with a frown. She was dressed as something, Claire had no idea what though. She didn't want to seem stupid so she didn't bother asking. Her costume was fairly conservative. "Right over there."

"Thank you," Claire said.

"You okay, honey? You're looking a little green."

"Travel sickness. I hate flying," Claire said, another lie, making her way to the bathroom. She hadn't eaten at the airport before getting on the plane, and she was very glad of that because she was pretty sure it would have come right back up now.

God, what if he was doing that? Finding someone to leave with him? He'd assume she'd be home tonight because she wouldn't want to miss another day of work this week. She certainly shouldn't be missing another day of work this week. For some reason, though, after talking with Rachel she'd called and made a reservation. Southwest always had some great fares. She had to fly out of Midway as opposed to O'Hare, but honestly that wasn't so bad aside from the drive down there. That was easily fixed by hiring a limo.

She stepped out of the bathroom, avoiding looking in the direction of the room he was in. She was such a fucking idiot. She'd hired a limo to bring her here and she doubted she could get a room here with the convention going on, but she could go to the front desk and have them call her a cab. This was absolutely the most ridiculous idea she'd had in her life.

"Claire?" he said.

Shit.

Shit. Shit. Shit.

She turned around. He was standing at the doorway, talking to the woman who'd collected her money. Or listening to her, it seemed.

"John, you can't walk out in the middle of your conference."

"Give me a minute, Tiff, okay," he said, walking toward her.

"Where are you going?" he asked.

"To find a cab to take me somewhere."

"Okay," he said, clearly confused.

"You're such an asshole."

"I am? Why? What the fuck did I do?"

"You, here."

"Me here what?"

"You with your women."

"There's men here, too."

"I'm guessing you don't leave with them."

"Well, no."

"You sent me roses."

"Yeah," he said.

"You took Tux in."

"Yeah," he said.

"Why did you do that?"

"Claire you are absolutely not making sense. Why do you think I did that?"

"I don't know. Clearly if I knew I wouldn't be asking."

"Listen, I have to finish as much as I might like to stand here and try to figure out what you're talking about. I'm working here. They pay me money to do this. They ask me to come back because I'm good at what I do. I can't have personal shit interfering. You get that, right?"

"I do. I'll get a cab…"

"You're not getting a cab anywhere." He grabbed her suitcase from her. "Come on, follow me for a minute."

"I'm not following you anywhere."

"Jesus. I don't have any women. I mean, none that are with me."

"I heard you!"

"You heard me flirt. It's what I do. Cute girl buys a personally signed copy of Simon versus just the standard issue copy of Simon because I smiled at her and made her laugh."

"John…"

"Let me finish and we can talk about whatever the fuck you want to talk about. I'm just going to get you the key to my room so you can go on up there."

"I'm not sharing a room with you!"

"Well, we can figure that out later I guess. I don't think you're going to find a room open at any hotel in town this late. Not only is the convention going on, but the Mavericks are playing in town tomorrow night. So unless you're going to go back to the airport and catch a flight back home I think you're probably stuck here."

"John. I'm not going anywhere with you."

"Claire, Jesus fucking Christ. This is my job. Okay? My livelihood. Don't embarrass me here or make me regret fucking asking you to come down here to begin with. I'm seriously about to start. I wouldn't go to your office and cause a scene. Just let me get my fucking key, you can go up, and wait for me. You're not going to find another room. You can use the phone up there and try to find one I guess, but I'm telling you it's not going to happen."

"Fine," she said.

Everyone was staring at them when they walked into the room. She supposed more than one near the door heard their conversation. They weren't exactly whispering. Claire remained by the door and their focus was mostly on John. A few curious stares in her direction. She didn't fit in here at all, though there were more than a few people dressed just normally in jeans or whatever.

"Sorry, everyone, my girlfriend is here and she seems kind of mad at me at the moment."

Lots more glances in her direction at that statement. Great. Just what she wanted. Embarrassing didn't even begin to cover it, overshadowing any excitement she would've ordinarily gotten at the fact he'd called her his girlfriend to a room full of a couple hundred people.

"Maybe she doesn't like that you killed off Bart."

A good deal of laughter was heard to that. Claire had no idea what they were talking about. She assumed Bart was a character John drew and he'd been killed. Logical assumption.

"That could be except I don't think she reads comics."

"What is she doing here then?"

"I asked her to come down for the weekend. I thought a few sixty degree days would be a nice change of pace. And well, a guy can hope maybe she'll become interested enough to pick up some back issues. Well, and a guy has to have something to do with his downtime."

Claire was used to being stared at, scrutinized even. She was used to getting attention. She'd thrived on it in high school and, well, she hadn't shunned it in college either. She was not expecting a room full of well over one hundred people to turn and stare at her, though. Some looks were curious, some were suspect, and some were downright angry.

"Anyone have any ideas to avoid my having to sleep on the floor tonight?" he said as he grabbed a jacket and reached into a pocket for a room key.

"What's her name?" someone asked.

"Claire," he said, walking toward her.

"How'd you meet?" someone else asked.

"We went to school together."

"She lives in Chicago?"

"She does."

"She going to be there next month?"

"I guess that remains to be seen. I'm not sure she'll be my girlfriend next month if she stays mad at me."

"What did you do to make her mad?"

"I have no idea," John said. "You know how to tell that, let me know."

"You never will either," someone said and everyone in the room started laughing. "Just say you're sorry and be done with it."

"I just got done sending her roses for Valentine's Day. That doesn't cover me from any wrongdoing for the week?"

"Not in my experience."

"You'd know, too, Fred. Didn't you just divorce wife number four?" John asked.

"Number three. I haven't met number four yet."

"There's still time this weekend."

"That's what I'm hoping."

"Just not Claire, all right. She's all mine."

"What color roses did you send her?"

He chuckled at that. "Red. They match her hair. Would I get any other color?"

John handed her the key. She took it, glancing behind him at everyone.

"What?" he asked, obviously having turned the microphone off.

"She said you left with people."

"She who?"

"The woman…"

"She said that?"

"She said …" Claire thought it over. She hadn't really said that. Claire had assumed because, well, because she was being paranoid.

"She doesn't look quite as mad now, John." The guy John had called Fred said.

John chuckled softly.

"There's only one woman I want to leave with, Claire. She's right here. I can't leave right now, though."

"I know."

"You could put your suitcase away and come back. I assume you paid to get in."

"I did."

"Then come back. I'm done in about twenty minutes. We can hang out. Fred likes you."

She glanced at Fred who was, among others, watching them very closely.

"Anton would've kissed her by now," someone said.

"Who's Anton?" Claire asked.

John shook his head.

"Someone you draw?"

"Good guess. He's one of Simon's friends. He's, some might say, a not so good influence on Simon all of the time."

"Oh. He kisses girls?"

"He likes to try."

"Do you?"

"Like to try kissing girls?" He smiled a bit, shaking his head. "Just one anymore."

"Good."

"I'm going to now. Okay?"

"Sure," she whispered.

"You're not going to slap me or knee me in the nuts or anything, are you? I'm kind of fond of them not hurting."

"Uh no."

"You sure? I'm not sure I'd want you to do that in front of a couple hundred people."

"Positive."

He leaned in and kissed her then.

"Thank you. It's room one twenty, by the way," he said.

"Okay."

"You coming back," he asked.

"I might."

"Good. Then I can introduce you to Tiffani. I want to have a word with her anyway."

He turned his microphone back on as he returned to the stage area.

"Did I do as good as Anton there?"

"You did all right. She doesn't seem mad anymore."

"I didn't think there were really still women out there who blushed from a kiss," someone said.

"You really got her roses for Valentine's Day?" someone asked.

"I did. Isn't that what guys are supposed to do?" he asked.

"No guy I know does."

"Hey, now, Vicki," John said. "Trust me, there's only one woman I'd ever send roses to. If a guy hasn't sent them to you yet that just means you haven't met the right one."

"Is he the right one?" Fred asked Claire.

"Aww, Fred, don't make her mad again," John said.

"Well, I wouldn't mind living in Chicago for marriage number four."

John chuckled at that and Claire chose then to leave the room, dragging her suitcase behind her. She was incredibly glad tonight she'd invested in a set of luggage with wheels. Ordinarily for a weekend trip it wasn't such a huge deal, but God she was still incredibly weak.

She did go back down there after about thirty minutes. She called her house to check for any messages. She'd left the office before one o'clock and then left the house before three to get to the airport in time to make her flight. She forgot to check for any messages when she landed, but there weren't any from the office so she was okay.

"I'm so sorry, hon," the woman from the check-in area said.

"What?"

"I didn't know who you were. I'm so used to dealing with fans, you know, I just assumed…"

"It's okay."

"You could've told me you really were his girlfriend."

"I'm not sure what proof I could've offered you. I don't have it tattooed on me or anything. You didn't believe me. I didn't realize I had to identify myself as that when asking for him anyway."

"I guess you don't. It probably would've gotten a nicer answer out of me, though. If you had some facts to back the claim."

"Really?" Claire asked, more than surprised by that.

"Don't worry, I won't pry for any intimate details, though if you break up with him and want to share some dirt…"

"Uh, no," Claire said quickly. She'd never do that.

She chuckled softly. "He's in there still. He's finished up, but he always hangs out afterwards and talks to fans, signs things, and stuff."

"He's mentioned that."

"Did he really send you roses?"

Claire scoffed softly at the question. "He did."

"Must be nice."

"It was very nice. I'm sorry they're probably going to die while I'm here."

She walked back into the conference room he'd been speaking in. She stood by the door watching him. His back was to her so he hadn't seen her yet, but he was talking to a small group of people. She couldn't hear what he was saying, but he was so animated talking, using his hands and everything. It was kind of neat to watch.

"You look tired," he said when she finally approached him after he'd stopped talking to the group of people.

"I am."

"Why are you here then?"

She shrugged.

"Well, I figured you'll be busy here."

"Yes."

"I can work when I can, sleep when I can, and see you when you can."

"Yeah?"

"I'm here, aren't I?"

"You are."

"That's what it is."

He smiled a little at that, sliding his arms around her to tug her against him.

"Still no slapping or kneeing in parts I value?"

"No. She apologized."

"She better have apologized. She'd better do some groveling, too, while she's at it."

"John. She doesn't have to do that."

"Not to you! To me. Do you know how pissed off I'd be if you had actually left? Never mind that. Do you know how pissed off I'd be if you were, say, someone from Rene's company and she said shit like that to make me sound like the convention's cad. I mean, they pay me and I usually make out ahead on the deal coming to things like this, but that doesn't compare to the potential of more movies coming from what I draw."

"Oh," she said.

"Yeah, oh. I don't do that shit. I won't say I never have. I mean, I'm a guy, sometimes parts of me think for me when they shouldn't, but I don't make a habit of it. And I don't when I have a girlfriend."

"Have you ever had a girlfriend?"

"Before now? She says you introduced yourself as that."

"Only after she didn't believe I knew you."

"Ah," he said, chuckling softly.

"Should I not have? I thought…"

"No, it's fine. I just told a couple hundred people you were and, believe me, more than that will know by the end of the night. So, you telling Tiffani that is fine," he said. "To answer your question, though, no I haven't. I mean I've had girlfriends I suppose, but no not like what I consider you."

"What do you consider me?"

He chuckled. "Wife number one material."

"How many do you plan on having?"

"Just the one."

"Yeah?"

"Uh huh."

He leaned in and kissed her then and she sighed softly as he did.

"You were mad at me," she whispered.

"I was."

"You hung up on me!"

"I did."

"John."

"We'll talk about it. Not here. Okay? Kissing you in front of people I have no problem doing. Talking about our life together I do."

"You told them about us."

"I told them vague details. They were curious and I was saving face from walking out of a packed room due to personal drama."

"I'm sorry."

"Oh, I don't blame you. I really don't. I was mad at you last night, I could see what thoughts might have driven you to think Tiffani was telling the truth about what I might be up to today. We hadn't exactly established a commitment exists between us."

"I'm still sorry."

"Me, too," he whispered. "But we're still going to talk about it later."

"Okay."

"There are some parties by the pool area. There's a whole block of rooms reserved. You want to go hang out for a while?"

"Sure."

"I can't guarantee you will have fun. I also can't guarantee some women here won't try to push you into the pool or that you won't be asked a million questions. Some of them may make you uncomfortable. If that sounds like your idea of a good time we can do that."

"I understand."

"All right then," he said, dropping his hand to hers. He didn't wait for her to take his, she noticed. It was the first time he hadn't done that since Paris.

"Thank you," she said.

"For what?" he asked with a frown.

"For touching me."

"Okay."

"No, first. Thank you."

"Oh," he said. "I guess I didn't even think about it. You're welcome. Thank you for letting me."

"Sure."

***

"What would you have done tonight if I wasn't here?" she asked once they were back in his room.

"I probably would've been here a few hours ago sleeping by now."

"Really?"

"Yes."

"Why did you stay up?"

"I don't know. You seemed as if you were having a decent time."

"It was all right."

"I figured as long as that was the case may as well stay."

"I can't believe how many people are here."

"You haven't seen anything yet. Just wait until tomorrow night. You think I'm kidding when I said you'd be hard-pressed to find another room. Did you try?"

"No," she said.

"I'm glad to hear that."

"I overreacted."

"You did."

"I," she sighed softly, regarding him. He'd left the light on by the door to their room while he changed for bed but the room was dark otherwise.

"What?"

"I didn't mean what I said the way it sounded."

He shut off the light then and she expected him to join her on the bed. He didn't, though, and that worried her a bit. Especially when he sat at the table.

"Are we talking about this now?"

"John. I'm apologizing."

"I understand that. I didn't think you flew down here to fight with me. I appreciate it, but I think it sort of goes deeper than an apology. Don't you? So, I'm asking if you want to talk about this now or wait until morning."

"You're the one who has to get up."

"I don't have to be up until around noon. You're the one who was in the hospital days ago."

"I know."

"What you said pissed me off."

"I know."

"Do you? I'm hundreds of miles away and you say that to me. Seven or eight years ago I probably would have been at a hospital last night because I'd punched a wall or something."

"I didn't mean…"

"But you did. Somewhere in there you think I'm going to be nice to you just because we had sex. Is that why you think I've been being nice to you? You think that was my ultimate goal?"

"No!"

"You sure about that?"

"John, I know it wasn't. You could've tried things plenty of times. You didn't."

"I remember that. I was there, too, you know? And that made me wonder what the hell I'd done to make you think something like that."

"I don't know. I just wasn't expecting you to ask me to come here."

"Well, I didn't expect to ask you. I've never been with someone I wanted to ask. I got here and saw the weather forecast and thought surely sixty degree temperatures would be better for you than below freezing temperatures."

"And thank you."

"Tonight I can sort of blow off. I'm different here. You've never seen me in this type of situation and Tiffani said something that she absolutely shouldn't have said. That shit, though, Claire. That I'm doing things or saying things because we've had sex will get old very fast."

"I know. I won't. I mean, I guess I can't promise. I'm unsure of myself, you know? I mean, in October when we met at Chi Chi's you never mentioned wanting to ask me out. I worry, I guess, that you think somehow because we've had sex there's some obligation…"

"I don't do anything out of obligation, Claire. I've come too far to this point to do anything because it'll make someone else happy. Personally anyway. Obviously I do things to make Rich and others I work for happy. As far as asking you out. I sort of thought the timing was bad. 'Yeah, I'll go away with you for a week. Oh, and by the way, I want to go out with you sometime.' I sort of figured that was a real great way for you to back out of your invitation."

"Why?"

"I don't know. It just didn't seem like the thing to do. I was going to wait until we got back. I figured we could go, I could play the good boyfriend, and maybe you'd be tempted to see if you'd like to see me actually be a good boyfriend. I wasn't joking when I said maybe you wouldn't want to break us up. I was hoping you wouldn't want to. Then you told me," he paused. "Those things and I didn't know what to do exactly."

"I know."

"I love you, you know."

"John."

"I don't mean in the 'let's get married tomorrow' way, but in the 'I want to find out if I want to spend the rest of my life with you' way. We had sex. That's a huge deal for you, for us, but that doesn't mean we have to again. I mean, if you told me tonight you just weren't ready that'd be okay."

"You'd be okay with that?"

"Would that be my choice? No, of course not, but I didn't go through what you've gone through. So, maybe you've had a day or two to think about it and it's too much. Maybe you thinking I'm doing something nice because you had sex with me makes you not want to again. I don't pretend to know what you might be thinking or feeling about it."

"I am a little confused."

"Well then, maybe we shouldn't, you know. Until you're not so confused."

"That's honestly not what I'm confused about."

"What then?"

"I don't know. Would you have been mad if I hadn't come down here?"

"Mad? No. Well, I don't know. After our conversation last night I probably would've been a little, yeah. I would've gotten over it, I'm sure."

"Because you travel, I get that. I can't…"

"Yeah, I know. And I know you're missing three days of work this week."

"I brought work with me."

"I know, but it's not the same. You and I both know it."

"I do."

"I don't expect you to come with me all of the time. I'd love it if you did. With more notice maybe you could work it into your plans. I admit the looks on some of their faces was worth it."

"Has Fred really been married three times?"

"Yes."

"All women he's met at things like this?"

"Two are. The first one was not. I've never met her."

"How?"

He chuckled. "Not everyone is like us, Princess. Some people just let their hearts lead them wherever they want to go."

"Why'd you say that?"

"Say what?"

"About loving me?"

"Why? What kind of question is that? I said it because I mean it. I want you to understand where I'm at. I didn't send you roses because I had to. I was going to send you flowers. Yes, the lie you've told swayed my decision on what to send you, but only the color. I probably would've gone with yellow roses."

"Oh."

"I want to go to LA with you next month and be as comfortable with each other as we can be. I want to have fun with you, you know? I mean real fun not on edge fun because we think we're lying to everyone about what we're doing. So, it's off by a few months. Who cares? When are we going to get to go to shit like that again ever?"

"I don't know."

"One thing you have to know, though. I will not cheat on you. People like Tiffani are going to say a lot of things. Women flirt with me. Men do, too, sometimes to be truthful. I've had women want me to sign body parts. I won't deny when I first started going to things like this I had some fun. It was a bit heady, you know, attention."

"You had my attention."

"I did, I didn't know what to do with it, though. The women I met at conventions like these," he shrugged. "I knew what to do with them."

"I'm sure you did."

"I stopped doing that, though, pretty early on. Not to say I haven't ever since, but I've always been pretty selective and discreet with what I do. So, if anyone tells you I've been with them or they saw me do something. They're lying or seeing if they can get under your skin. People like Tiffani are not going to believe you're my girlfriend because I don't talk about my personal life."

"I know."

"There's an author who I've seen at several of these now over the years. His wife goes everywhere with him. Some people think he's an idiot, but sitting around last night watching people – even though I was pissed off at you and wanted to drink a lot of beer – I sort of got the appeal of it. You know? Sit around and bullshit with the people who get what I do and then spend my night with the woman who gets me."

"I feel bad I don't get what you do."

"I don't expect you to know. I'm not overly clear on what you do."

"That's different. I deal with the law. You draw."

"Well, you want to learn, let me know. I do have some things you can look through."

"Some?"

"A lot," he said with a soft chuckle.

"I wouldn't say no to you letting me see them."

"Yeah?"

"Well, that's what people do for people they love, right?"

"I've heard tell, yeah."

"Then I think I want to."

"Aww, you're sweet, Princess. You going to buy me roses, too?"

She shook her head. "I don't think they make a color rose appropriate for you."

"I've seen black ones."

"They're dyed that color."

"I suppose."

"Do you believe I didn't mean what I said?"

"I believe you think you didn't, but I'm not so sure."

"Why?"

"I don't know. I don't like the idea you even think I'd do something like that. I mean, the guy you knew ten years ago, sure. Well, no, the guy you knew ten years ago I wouldn't have called you afterward. I mean, you I probably would've. You know what I mean. I didn't make a habit of calling women I just wanted sex with afterward to invite them on trips with me."

"I'm new at this."

"And I'm not?"

"You've had girlfriends."

"Yeah, sure, all right. I haven't met their parents. I haven't taken care of their cat."

"You said you did."

"Once. Like seven years ago and it was the worst experience of my life. I swore to God I'd never do it again."

"Why'd you meet mine then?"

"Because I knew if I didn't I'd blow any chance with you I had."

"I wouldn't have…"

"Maybe not, but eventually I would've had to meet them assuming we got to that point. I wanted to get to that point. I knew I did. So I did it. Other than your grandfather I thought it went all right."

"Who was she?"

"No one."

"You met her parents. She must have been someone."

"We dated for a while. She wanted me to meet her parents. I thought it was a pretty big step, but I did it."

"What happened?"

He shrugged, leaning back in his chair a bit.

"I was twenty-one. She was a stripper."

"What?"

He chuckled softly at that. "Yeah, talk about trust issues. I had them in spades and they make you thinking I invited you here because we had sex seem like child's play."

"Why?"

"Well, I do all right. I consider myself a decent looking guy. I'm not the smartest out there, but I'm not an idiot even if I don't let people see that. Even then I did all right. I wasn't rolling in money. I had barely better than a piece of shit car and a hole-in-the-wall apartment at the time. I had money coming in, though, and wasn't afraid to spend it."

"On a stripper?"

"Yeah," he shrugged. "I didn't meet her while she was working. I met her at a party. She was friends with a friend of someone who was friends with someone I was friends with. We dated for a couple of weeks before she told me what she did. I thought I was okay with it. I mean it didn't change who she was, right? Unfortunately, she was pretty good at her job so was popular. There were guys who'd shell out fifty to one hundred bucks to her a night just while she was dancing. Never mind the tips she got for doing lap dances."

She had no idea what to say to that.

"Yeah, I see you processing that. She swore she wasn't doing anything wrong during the lap dances, and I wanted to believe her. I had doubts, though. I mean, I know what kind of guy I was at a strip club so I had to assume they were all like that. I mean, even if I did believe her. I couldn't compete with guys who had hundreds of dollars a week at their disposal to spend on her."

"Did she tell you that?"

"No, of course not. That's why I met her parents. They didn't like me. I had no future. I had a crappy car. I had no background, not a good one. Ironic, right? The parents of a stripper judging me and my past?"

"Then what happened?"

"I was at her place one day. She was in the shower so we could go out. I don't think I was being nosey. I don't know. Maybe I was. I saw a statement from a clinic. I glanced at it. And, yes, I know I'm probably going to hell for looking at her mail."

"What was it?"

"A statement for tests and antibiotics."

"Okay," she said.

"The kind of tests she shouldn't have needed to get if she wasn't having sex with anyone else."

"Oh," she said. "You?"

"I'm fine. I went myself to get checked out more than once. I'd never been with her unprotected. Clearly she had been with someone without them. I don't know who or how many."

"Good," she said.

"I left her apartment and haven't talked to her since. She called a few times. Maybe I should've told her why or whatever, but I figured she'd know why without my saying so."

"I'm sorry. Did you love her?"

"No, I mean, I think at first I dug that this gorgeous woman who men fawned over wanted to be with me. Even before I knew she was a stripper I knew she got the attention of guys wherever we went. You know?"

"No," she said with a soft laugh.

"Yeah, I suppose you wouldn't get it."

"Why did she want you to meet her parents?"

"I don't know. I was gullible? Nice enough and insane enough to think she wouldn't be like every other stripper I'd ever met. They're not all like that. I mean, don't get me wrong, I'm sure there are some good ones out there. She just wasn't one of them."

"And you haven't dated anyone since?"

"Not seriously, no. I didn't want to bother."

"I don't blame you."

"Well, it's not nearly the same thing for me."

"It still hurt."

"It did."

"Probably for a while."

"I can admit that. I was scared shitless for a while at first. I mean, those things are fine. I've never had one break, but it can happen. What if one had? That's why I went more than once. I had to be sure."

"I can imagine."

He was quiet for a while, looking at his hands not at her.

"What?" she asked.

"Nothing. I'm just wondering if I'm an idiot for telling you that."

"Why?"

"You only have my word for it that I was fine."

"Some people I could believe would do that, Allen for instance. Not you."

"Did you?"

"What?"

"Uh, you know, get tests?"

"I did. The clinic in Minneapolis I went to ran them because I told them what happened. Until then I really wasn't one hundred percent sure exactly what all had happened," she shrugged.

"You couldn't tell?"

"I hurt everywhere, John! You think I was paying attention to one spot over another. I woke up with my own vomit in my hair and dried to my skin. You think I was worried about that?"

"Right. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to make it sound like I was doubting you."

"I guess I held onto hope that he didn't, couldn't, do that to his sister's friend."

"I suppose I can see that."

"Thank you."

"I'm not going to treat you like shit, Claire. Are we clear on that?"

"I know."

"Are you sure? I understand you're probably scared. So am I. I haven't gone through what you did so I have no idea what you've been feeling the past few days. I think if I'd had my choice I wouldn't have had sex with you for the first time two days before I was leaving for a week."

"You didn't choose."

"I realize that. I wonder, though, if you thought it through exactly. You know? Sex for me isn't that huge of a deal. Sex with you for me is a huge deal and obviously it is for you."

"I know."

He stood from the table then and joined her on the bed.

"You're ordering room service tomorrow. I'll tell Tiffani to let me know what I owe for it. I don't want you leaving this room until tomorrow night."

"What's tomorrow night?"

"After ten o'clock. No kids are allowed on weekends."

"Oh," she said.

He chuckled softly. "It gets interesting."

"Okay."

"Did you take your medicine?"

"I did when I was up here before."

"Good. I want you as well as you can be as quickly as you can be."

"I was very glad last night you didn't let me take Sammy."

"I'm glad, too, because you're here. Why were you glad, though?

"I wouldn't have been able to walk him last night."

"A dog is a little different than a cat. Next time, though, if you want to I'd be fine with it."

"Okay," she said.

He slid an arm around her, bringing her to him.

"I'm sorry," she whispered.

"For what?"

"Needing to sleep."

He kissed her ear, sliding his mouth to her neck and kissed her there. "You can make it up to me tomorrow."

"I can, huh?"

"Uh huh."

"Tomorrow morning or tomorrow night?"

"Are you going to drink tomorrow night?"

"I might have something."

"Yeah? I think it might be fun to get interesting with you."

"In public?"

"There's plenty we could do in public that's still legal."

"I suppose," she said.

"I certainly wouldn't complain about starting my day out that way, though."

She scoffed softly at that.

"Good night, Princess."

"Night."

Return to Top

***Chapter Fourteen***
Word Count: 2,994

March 1995

"Your dad is going to start thinking I'm a bad influence on you," he said.

"Why would you say that?" she asked.

"Well, I suppose he doesn't know about your trip down to see me last month, but you've missed a lot of work because of me."

"Being in the hospital was not because of you."

"I suppose not," he said. "You used it as an excuse though to miss an extra day and a half. That was after he'd let you go a day early to begin with."

"It was worth it."

"Yeah?"

"Yes! You don't believe me?"

"I'm glad. I thought so, too, but you know, I wasn't sure afterward if it was maybe too much for you."

"No. It was different, but some of them were really very nice."

He chuckled softly at that. "Some of them. They're people who just happen to have an interest in something that allows them to dress up sometimes. What kid didn't dream of being able to dress as Spiderman or Batman on Halloween?"

"You did?"

"Well, of course. No dreams of being Wonder Woman for you?"

"No, but it was still fun and not nearly as bad as I expected it to be."

"Obviously not you're here with me this weekend. I'm glad."

"Why are you staying at the hotel?"

"I don't usually. They offer, of course, because it saves on time and gas obviously. It makes me more accessible if I'm here from the time I wake up until I go to sleep. I usually say no. I feel like I eat and breathe these conventions when I go out of town for them, it's kind of nice not to have that when I'm close to home. I have you with me and it's a nice hotel so why not?"

"Jessica doesn't mind taking Sammy so much?" As it turned out, Jessica was really quite nice and absolutely no one Claire was jealous or worried about being interested in John. It wasn't the age difference either. She just clearly wasn't interested in John like that. She'd also been very nice to Claire the one time they met.

"No. Now if I had something next month right after this and next weekend she might say something."

"It's only one day of work that I'm missing."

"I know."

"I knew about it in advance."

"I know that, too."

"I'm still kind of getting used to this side of you."

He chuckled softly. "Me, too. Believe me. There are some days I wonder if I'm dreaming."

"But you're so good."

He shook his head a bit. "If only it wasn't my drawing you were talking about, Princess."

"Well, I think you're good at that, too."

"Now you're teasing me."

"I am not!"

He chuckled softly. "I know. I'm glad to hear that's true, by the way."

"You're not going to tell everyone today I'm your girlfriend, are you?"

"I don't know. Am I going to have a reason to this time?"

"I don't think so."

"You sure?" he asked, regarding her.

"Yes."

"All right. I mean, I can."

"No," she said quickly.

"You embarrassed or something?"

"No, it's just so weird people staring at me."

"The people who put it on know."

"They do?"

"Sure, people from cons talk. That's how you get asked to do other conventions. Or not asked in some cases. You know? I mean not entirely, but word of mouth can be good. And bad. I know one guy who got blackballed for a couple of years because he was a complete ass to someone at a smaller con. He thought he could get away with being a dick. He learned pretty quickly you can't do that."

"Huh," she said.

"So, yes, they know. They asked if you were going to be here. I told them you would for part of it at least."

"Is that all right?"

"Sure it is. I can do what I want with my down time."

"Well, good."

He stepped closer to her, grazing her hip with his fingertips to tug her against him. He leaned down to kiss her, finding her ear. He was getting much, much better about doing things like that without waiting for her to give him some sort of permission. It scared the hell out of her, but she was glad at the same time.

"I wasn't neglectful down in Dallas, was I?" he whispered.

"No, you weren't at all."

She blushed. He'd been the exact opposite of neglectful. He'd been busy, but she'd expected that and slept or worked while he was doing things. He'd come up to their room when she was working more than once just because she was there. He'd distracted her from her work more than once, too, but she had no complaints.

"I tried not to be. You were also recovering so I tried to keep that in mind and let you rest once in a while."

"I know."

"There you are," someone said from behind Claire.

"Were you expecting me to be somewhere else?" John asked.

"No, I just wasn't sure what your plan was."

"I'm all set up."

"I see that."

"I didn't know you were going to be here this weekend. I figured I wouldn't see you until next weekend," John said.

"I thought I'd come check things out."

"Uh huh," John said. Claire turned then and gasped a bit. She couldn't help it. He looked almost exactly like Paul Newman. If Paul Newman was still thirty years old anyway. The eyes. Holy shit. They were…

"Stop staring, Princess, you're starting to give me a complex," he whispered into her ear. He kissed her afterward, so he was evidently teasing her. Or just used to people staring at the guy.

"You must be Claire," he said, offering her his hand. She took it.

"Uh yeah," she said. "Sorry. I don't mean to be rude."

"It's all right. I'm used to it."

"Are you?"

"Related to him? I wish. No, just got lucky that someone's genes in my family that were passed onto me make me resemble him."

"I'd say."

He chuckled softly, regarding her pretty closely. She'd gotten used to that last month, though, people staring at her.

"So, you're Wren Savage's wife's best friend?"

"I am," she said, wondering why she suddenly felt … guilty about that.

"It's nice to meet you. I was beginning to think John was making you up."

"Why would he have been in Paris?"

"I hadn't come up with that part of it yet, but he sure has been good at hiding you."

"I'm right here."

"Clearly. I heard you were in Dallas, too."

"I was," she said.

"Is that why you're here?" John asked, sounding incredulous.

"Kind of."

"Why exactly?"

"I wanted to meet her."

"I assure you she's real and not out to disparage Simon's good brand reputation."

"I just wanted to meet her. We've been working together almost ten years now, right?"

"Pretty close to that, yeah," John said.

"You've never brought a woman with you to an event, even here close to home. I've certainly never seen pictures of you kissing one. Sue me for being curious who she is."

"You could have met her next weekend."

"And act as though I don't know what's going on in my own house. John," he said. "You know me better than that."

"I guess I do."

"She has red hair."

"You said you saw pictures of her."

"It was dark, hard to tell that."

"What of it?" John said, sounding defensive.

"Nothing. Just not what I pictured is all. Pretty, though. A lawyer you said? Who aced her bar exams so smart, too."

"You do know I'm right here, right?" Claire asked.

"I do," Rich said.

"He's just trying to figure out why you're wasting your time on a bum like me."

"I didn't say that."

"No, you don't have to."

"Actually, no. I was just thinking looks, brains, and the temperament that go with redheads you might be in for some fun."

"Her temperament is just fine."

Rich chuckled softly.

"Obviously you haven't gotten into a fight yet. Just wait."

"I don't plan on that happening."

"You never will either. I heard you had a bit of one in Dallas."

"It wasn't a big deal."

"Tiffani…"

"Tiffani said some things she had no business saying to my girlfriend or anyone else claiming they knew me."

"She told me."

"She did?"

"She did. She refunded the money we paid to have Simon promoted so highly there."

"Really?" John asked, surprised. "I didn't ask her to do that. I just didn't want her saying crap about me that wasn't true."

"She felt pretty bad."

"She had every reason to. I mean, like I told Claire if that had been someone from Wren's company." Claire found it interesting that he called him Wren to Rich because any time they talked about him he was always Rene. She supposed it was logical because that was what Rich knew him as. Would he even know his real name? She supposed people had to know it. She'd never stopped to think about it, though. Clearly people showed up for the wedding, reporters and stuff, so they had to know they were one and the same person.

"I couldn't agree with you more and evidently Tiffani realized she put her foot in her mouth. This time it was your girlfriend, but the next time it might not be. She wants you back next year."

"We'll see."

"That's why she gave us our money back. She wanted you to know she really felt bad."

"You know, maybe for once I'd like to be the guy that doesn't have to do these things every month all year long. Maybe I'd like to spend time with my girlfriend without my schedule being thrown off kilter by trips here and there all of the time."

"We can talk about lessening your load, but you've been willing to let us kind of make you the face of Simon more or less."

"Yeah, I know."

"It's kind of late backing out of that now."

"I know that, too, but once the movie has opened. There's not going to be another one right away."

"We don't know that, John. You've heard the phrase strike while the iron's hot. And if Wren Savage likes you and your girlfriend I'd say that's a pretty hot iron. Combined with the movie doing as well as I've heard rumors it will do. I don't envision a much hotter iron."

"I suppose."

"We'll talk about it. You know I'm willing to listen. I'm going to go mingle a bit I see some people I should make my presence known to. I'll see you later. It was very nice to actually meet you, Claire."

"Thank you, you, too. John speaks very highly of you."

"Does he? Interesting because I tried to get him to tell me about you and he hardly said a word."

"You didn't ask the right questions," John remarked.

"I guess not. I look forward to getting to know you better this weekend, Claire."

"You, too," she said, regarding John.

"Don't get mad at me!" John said almost as soon as Rich was out of earshot.

"I'm not mad at you."

"Thank God. I don't need him stirring up trouble, too. I didn't tell him. Wait, I told you! I didn't know what to tell him and I didn't want to say something I shouldn't say either way. And then, well, I don't know I didn't want to jinx it, I guess. Eventually, let's see, a couple of weeks ago I gave him the rough basics."

"I know."

"You do?"

"I do. I remember what you said and I'm sorry that he's giving you shit because of what you did for me."

"Thank you."

"Worried about that red headed thing now?"

"I have to wonder what he knows I don't, yeah."

"Let's just hope you don't ever find out."

"Great," he said.

"Though I don't know."

"About what?" he asked, looking at her suspiciously.

"I've heard makeup sex can be fun."

He shook his head a little at that. "Who've you heard that from exactly?"

"All of my friends!"

"I see. Are they the ones who started the argument?"

"I don't know. They just said that…"

"What?" he asked when she stopped talking.

"Nothing."

"Uh huh. You just realized you were about to violate some woman code, didn't you?"

"Sort of."

"All right. Well, we can pretend to fight if that'd make you feel like you're not missing out on that facet of a relationship?"

"No, that's okay."

"I'm just glad you're not freaking out because you think I don't talk about you or something."

"You proved in Dallas you're willing to talk about me. Would you really do less of these?"

"Yeah. I mean, I get why I'm the chosen one for the most part. I've told you before I'm single, no strings to keep me home except Sammy."

"You have something keeping you home now?"

"I'd like to be home as much as I can so that I can establish strings, yes."

"I see," she said. She hated how absolutely good that made her feel. Scared the absolute shit out of her, but it made her feel good.

"Well, it's hard for me to know if you're wife number one material if I'm gone a week out of every month and then making up for that week of being gone by being locked up in my office for a week to get my work done. And with summer coming up there's much better things I can think of doing with you than spending our time in places like this. Some of them even would let us bring Sammy and Tux along."

"Really?"

"Well, you know, if we went somewhere for a while together. Sure."

"And you want to do this?"

"Hmm, should I not have said that yet? Too soon? I don't know. I want the option available to me."

"I get it."

"Good. I'm glad. I mean I don't hate these things, but it does get kind of old when you've been doing it as long as I have. A break might be kind of nice."

"I know," she said. She hadn't been very fond of that couple of weeks before he'd left for Dallas. Not his fault. She'd been busy, too, but she'd missed him.

"Good."

"So, this is the part where I go walk around, right?"

"Do whatever you want. Sit in on lectures or whatever. Just try not to have any one autograph body parts."

"I'll save that for you later."

"Yeah?"

"Mm hmm. I even brought a special pen for you to use."

"Did you now?"

"Uh huh."

"Is it stashed anywhere fun?"

She smiled a little at that, shaking her head a bit. "Fun for who?"

"Uh me?"

"Maybe. That's up to what I let you do with it I guess. Probably yes."

"Hmm, all right," he said.

"I'll see you later."

"You are coming to hear me, right?"

"You're not going to introduce me as your girlfriend to a couple of hundred people again are you?"

"You asked me that and I said probably not, but I don't know. I kind of liked doing that."

"Why?" she asked, regarding him curiously.

"I saw a look on some of their faces I hadn't seen before. They saw me as a person. Until then I'd just been John Bender the comic penciler who is at all of these conventions because he clearly has no life and who draws Simon Forge. They probably thought I literally had no life. I suppose it helps that the woman I claimed was my girlfriend is very incredibly nice looking."

"Comic pencilers don't get nice looking girlfriends?"

"I think the stereotype would say no. You know, nerds don't get the hot chicks. I mean, look at Brian. I didn't talk to his wife or anything but she's exactly what I envisioned for ol' Brian to settle down with. Not you."

"Glad we could break that stereotype then."

"Me, too, babe, me, too." He leaned in and kissed her then. "And if you see Fred, you make sure you tell him that I said you're still all mine."

"I don't know. He was kind of cute…"

"Don't even. It's bad enough you stared at my boss!"

"John!"

"Yeah, I know. Trust me, you wouldn't say anything I haven't heard a million times before."

"Is he married?"

"Nope."

"Girlfriend?"

"Nope."

"Why not?"

"I think he likes looking like Paul Newman," John said with a soft chuckle.

"Oh," she said.

He leaned in to kiss her ear, lingering a bit. "I am also fairly positive he doesn't like women," he whispered.

"Oh," she said. "Why'd you tell me that?"

He shrugged. "Because I thought it might entertain you to have that bit of knowledge stored away in your head while you watch him this weekend."

"You mean people don't know?"

"Hardly."

"How do you know?"

"Some other time, Claire."

"All right," she said.

"I'll see you later then. Do you need me to hold your wallet or anything?"

"No, why?"

He chuckled softly. "Nothing. I was teasing. Go have fun."

She knew he hoped she'd have fun. Dallas was fun the things she'd done. A little weird and uncomfortable, but still fun. She hadn't been feeling great either. She still wasn't feeling great. Her doctor had told her it would take a while, but she hadn't imagined it'd take a month. He was hoping this one would be more fun so she'd be tempted to go with him to the next one. She didn't bother telling him she'd go to the next one fun time or not. There was always something she could find to do in a new town if she didn't want to hang out at the convention.

Return to Top

***Chapter Fifteen***
Word Count: 4,606

"I can't believe you didn't tell me you were coming to town this weekend," Claire said to April. Had she been a sight for sore eyes. She was having an okay time and everything, but she was trying very hard to stay out of John's hair especially with Rich here. She didn't want him thinking Claire was going to prove to be a distraction to him or something. Claire thought for sure she was seeing things, except it made sense in a way for Rene to be here this weekend with the movie opening next weekend.

"I didn't know, Claire, I swear! Rene just told me he was taking me with him. I assumed it was more boring business."

Claire laughed softly. "Only you would find movie business boring, April."

"I swear since we got back from our honeymoon that's all he's been doing is working."

"Can you blame him?"

"He makes movies all of the time!"

"It sounds like he's hoping this one will kind of be more than one movie."

"I know. I bet John is, too."

"I'm not sure he cares."

"No? Really? Come on."

Claire shrugged. "Not really. I mean, he does from the standpoint that he likes Simon Forge and the other characters and is glad other people will get to see them. It's not like he's the one that stands to make money. Maybe the comics will become more popular and people will pick up previous issues or whatever they're called, but it's not like he'll have to pencil more of them. They've already been made."

"He's worried, though?"

"A little."

"Rene said that and he can't blame him. He almost didn't send John the invitation."

"Why did he?" Claire asked. She was glad April brought that up, because Claire wasn't sure she should. She was curious though why John got an invitation. She wasn't mad John got one and she didn't or anything. There was no reason she should have gotten one.

"Because you're my friend. He couldn't not. He just hopes John will have an open mind."

"John would never say anything even if he hated it."

"He would to you."

"Well, yes," Claire said.

"Would you tell me?"

"April!"

"Well, I think Rene is curious."

"Why wouldn't he just ask Rich or anyone else?"

"Because I think he knows John actually cares about the characters."

"Rich does, too."

"Not in the same way."

"I suppose," Claire said.

"So would you?"

"Is that why you're here?"

"No, I'm just curious."

"No, I wouldn't."

April sighed a bit. She had to know Claire would give that answer. She'd never say something like that to someone else if John told her his opinion privately.

"Is he going to get mad I took you away for a while?" she asked.

"Mad? No, why would he?" Claire thought John was probably more than a little ecstatic he didn't have to worry about Claire for today at all. She had no work with her this weekend so he was a little worried that she'd be bored out of her mind and never come with him again. That's what she thought he thought anyway. She wasn't bored. She wasn't sure she'd ever completely get it, but she supposed she was unusual in that there was nothing that really interested her to the degree it did the people who came here. She watched TV some, but usually she read. Her brother hadn't been into comics so she'd never been around anyone to have it rub off on her as an interest. She'd seen Star Trek and Star Wars, of course.

"I don't know," she said.

April's idea of taking Claire away for a while was for them to get their nails done and massages together. Claire wasn't going to complain about either thing and as John seemed to like when she polished her toes she doubted he'd complain much about the result of the afternoon. He'd been very fascinated the first time he'd seen her feet at his house and the polish she had on them. Why she had no idea, but she didn't mind.

"Why didn't you tell me about him?" April asked after a while of silence between them.

"I don't know. We were busy. You know? I just," she shrugged not that April could see her do it. "You were getting married, I wasn't. I wanted to hear what you had to say. My dating someone didn't seem nearly as newsworthy."

"You have a boyfriend, though, Claire, that's huge."

"It's not that huge. People have boyfriends every day, April."

"People may, you don't. So it is, too, huge. This is you we're talking about. He seems to really like you. And he's cute, too."

"Great," Claire said. "I'm not dating him because he's cute." Claire couldn't deny she found John more than cute. She had almost eleven years ago now, too, for that matter. There was a reason she'd chosen him as her faux boyfriend that started this whole thing. He was the only guy she'd ever been completely attracted to.

"No, I mean don't get me wrong. He seems very nice. Rene thinks he's very talented. I was very surprised how well he seemed to treat you in Paris."

"Why?"

"I don't know. I wasn't sure, you know. You've never dated anyone that I know of. Not seriously enough to bring to Paris for my wedding. I was worried. For you."

"He's good to me."

"He took Tux in while you were in the hospital last month?"

"He did."

"How did his dog feel about that?"

She laughed softly at that. "I can't speak for while I wasn't there, but while I was there Tux and I got the bed."

"Hmm. Did John get the bed, too?"

"Yes," Claire said, knowing she was blushing profusely. She was glad she could answer that question honestly, though. "Sammy got on the bed, too."

"He has a big enough bed for all of you?"

"Not as big as mine," Claire said. "It was fine, though."

"Have you all slept in your bed?"

"No, I mean, yes, but no, he won't let Sammy get on my bed."

"Why not?"

Claire shrugged. She wasn't sure. Something about it being her bed and not his place to let Sammy think he had the right to do that to anyone's bed. Claire had wondered the first time how many other beds he planned on Sammy being able to sleep on. She remembered, though, things like Jessica. Maybe Jessica didn't want Sammy on her bed.

"So, can I tell you a secret?"

"Yes," Claire said. "Why would you even need to ask me that after all of these years?" There was only one thing about Claire April didn't know, but that wasn't April's fault.

"Well, no one else can know yet. I mean, if you told John I guess that'd be all right and everything," she said, trailing off. "You have to tell him he absolutely cannot tell anyone else, though. No one he knows."

"What?" Claire was suddenly getting a very bad feeling. Was she going to tell her something about the movie? Had something happened with it that she thought John was going to tell other people?

"I'm pregnant," April said.

"Wait. What?" That wasn't at all what she was expecting! "Holy shit. And you waited until now to tell me this? And why is it a secret?"

"With the movie and everything next week, we're just waiting to tell anyone. Our parents know, and now you. That's it."

"Oh," Claire said, thinking that made some sense. "How exciting! You can't be that far along."

"Well, obviously, I wasn't when we got married. About ten or eleven weeks I think. You know I was on the pill for so long we weren't sure it'd be as easy. It didn't take long at all, though. I went off of it as soon as I could after the wedding. And here I am."

"Well, even if you were pregnant then…"

"No, he wouldn't have done that."

"He's older than us."

"He is," April said. He wasn't ages older than they were, but he was like thirty-five. It made Claire think of John's neighbor who took care of Sammy. The way age differences were looked at. For April to be married to someone six years older than they were was no big deal. John had seemed to think it would be a big deal for him to be interested in someone that much older than he was.

"Never married? No kids?"

"No," she said.

"He didn't want to wait to start then, I take it?"

"No, I didn't either. I'm not getting any younger!"

"You're twenty-nine!" That wasn't that old in Claire's opinion.

"I know, but I don't want to be an old mother or grandmother. I mean, we're not going to have just one. We'd like to be done with them as far as college and stuff before we're both sixty. You know? Or at least the youngest one in high school by then."

"I suppose," Claire said.

At the rate she was going she'd be a very old mother and grandma. April pregnant meant Claire would no longer know anyone who didn't have kids. She was twenty-nine. How did that even happen? She certainly didn't consider herself old.

"Are you feeling all right?"

"Yes. I have to watch what I eat in the mornings. I can't eat eggs at all anymore. Just the smell of them makes me throw up. I feel like I'm tired all of the time. Rene has told me I could quit my job, but that's ridiculous. Women work while they're pregnant all of the time. I'm not going to quit because I'm tired."

"Well, he obviously wants you to rest as much as you can," Claire said.

"I know. He's good like that. Overall, though, I'm great. You know? I don't really have any morning sickness, once I figured out the egg thing anyway. A little sensitive places I didn't used to be, which Rene isn't too happy about, but my mother assures me that's normal. The sensitivity I mean, I wouldn't tell her Rene minds."

"That's good," Claire said, a little cautiously.

It'd been a long time since Claire thought on these things, but she remembered being tired all of the time. She'd thought, at the time, it was because she was doing too much with the theater and studying. How wrong she'd been. What were the odds she'd get pregnant from one time? Slim to none. So she thought. She hadn't gotten to the point of being real uncomfortable because she'd gone to Minneapolis as soon as she was able to. She remembered the morning sickness, though, and the sore breasts. (She experienced that every month as it was so that was one reason it had taken her a while to process she had missed her period and was pregnant.)

"At least I haven't gotten to the point where I have to go to the bathroom all of the time."

"That starts soon, though?" Claire asked. She hadn't gotten to that point and there was no choice for her as far as having it or not so she'd never researched when things like that started occurring.

"I guess. We're all different, you know, so there's no steadfast rule. Mom says she was even different with each of us. My brother she couldn't eat full meals the entire pregnancy. She had to eat smaller portions more frequently. With me she had nothing, no morning sickness or anything. With Molly she had excruciating back pain the entire time she was pregnant."

"Oh right, I just," Claire shrugged again. She'd never really been close enough with any of her other friends to have them share details like this with her. She'd never heard her mom talk about being pregnant with her or her brother either.

"Anyway, there I told you my big secret. Now I don't have to worry I'm going to tell you accidentally on the red carpet or something. Rene was afraid I'd do just that if I didn't tell you. I've missed talking to you and he was afraid I wouldn't be able to contain myself after not seeing you for so long."

"It has been a while," Claire admitted.

April had moved out to LA about the time Claire had graduated law school and moved back in with her parents. April was the only one who hadn't thought Claire was absolutely insane for living with her parents again and saving up for the house she wanted instead of renting a crappy apartment or ending up buying a place she'd come to hate a couple of years later. They talked, but as with most people she supposed when there was a distance separating them when there didn't used to be their conversations got briefer and less… personal. Claire was the first person April had called to tell her Rene had proposed, after her mother, but Claire could admit today she hadn't been as good a friend about it as she maybe should've been. She honestly didn't think April would go through with this engagement either. They'd talked some while in Paris, but she was obviously busy getting ready for a huge wedding. She supposed the last time they'd really talked like this was back in October when April told her she hoped she'd bring John to the wedding.

"I'm so excited to have you stay with us next weekend. I can't wait. We can swim and do all sorts of stuff that I never get to do because I hardly know anyone."

"I was surprised you made the offer, honestly."

"Why? Claire? Why would you even say that? You can come visit us anytime you want to. God, I'd absolutely love for you to quit your job and move out there. I miss you! Trust me, there's a need for lawyers in LA just as badly as there is in Chicago."

"I miss you, too. I don't know why I was surprised. It's just you've got to have a ton of stuff going on."

"Claire. You're welcome anytime. It's mostly Rene's stuff anyway, you know. I go with him and do what I need to do as his girlfriend and now his wife. If you were there visiting me I'd certainly be allowed to do all sorts of stuff. My stuff. You know, lunch and shopping and showing you around. A trip to DisneyLand. A trip to Napa maybe? The winetasting was so fun, wasn't it? Wouldn't that be great?"

"Yes, but the invitation was sent to John not me."

"That was Rene's idea. He thought John would get a kick out of it and realize Rene really wanted him there not just because he's my best friend's boyfriend. It was our way of inviting you. I mean, as much as I'd love to invite anyone, we can't."

"Oh, I get it and I'm not mad or anything. Trust me. He almost didn't open it because he had no idea what Rene would be sending him."

"I can imagine," April said. "Allen doesn't like him much."

"Rene?" Claire asked, surprised. "He was in your wedding, I assumed they were friends."

"No," she said with a laugh. "John."

"Oh, I know. He called my mother in December and told on me as if I was fifteen breaking curfew."

"Are you serious?"

"Yes. So, he was basically forced into meeting them on Christmas Eve. We hadn't quite gotten to that point yet, but he did it."

"Oh God. How did that go?"

"Surprisingly well. My grandpa wasn't too thrilled with him once he found out we'd stayed in the same room together. Being in Paris together for a week was evidently okay, but sharing a room was not. Who knows? I suppose Grandma and Grandpa were never alone like that until they were married. Mom and Dad probably weren't either."

"What is his deal with you?"

"I have no idea."

"You never had a thing with him?"

"God, no," Claire said. "Are you kidding me?"

"Well, I don't know. I've been trying to figure out why he hates John so much because he has said absolutely nothing positive about John since he left. He seems to think somehow that John knew who Rene really was and that he's using you to get close to him. No one else we know has said one unkind thing about him. We all liked him, especially considering he was basically forced into meeting a whole group of us at one time."

"That's absurd. Wait. You've seen him?"

"No, but he calls, Rene listens and relays the conversations to me."

"He doesn't believe him?"

"Rene? About John, you mean? No, he seems to like him."

"Good."

"He wouldn't have gotten the invitation if he didn't."

"I suppose."

"He seems to know Allen talks out of his ass sometimes."

"Sometimes?"

"You don't like him much, do you?"

"No," Claire said.

"You never have. You were the only one really who didn't."

"No," Claire said.

"You've never told me why."

"I just always thought he was an asshole. He thinks he's God's gift or something. I wonder how he'd feel next to Rich, Simon's creator. Now, he's someone who could get away with thinking he's God's gift."

"He does think that, too. You're right. You're just the only one who's ever said it. I haven't met Rich. Is he cute?"

"Well, I think so. If Paul Newman look-alikes aren't your thing then you probably wouldn't think so."

"Really? That cute?"

"That cute. Even down to the eyes."

"Wow."

"That's what I said."

It would sure be a pity if what John said was true. Not that Claire cared, but the idea of someone that good looking not having kids was just bordering on criminal.

"Did you hear his club is closing?"

"No," Claire said, unable to stop a very excited feeling from overcoming her just then at the idea something Allen was involved with would fail. "What happened?"

"Selling liquor to underage college students is my understanding."

"Really? They shut down bars for that?"

"After repeated violations? Yes."

"Oh," Claire said.

"Bonnie told me that. I haven't told Rene yet. He's been preoccupied."

"Understandably. Are they really that good of friends?"

"No, not really. Allen sort of latched onto Rene and I think at first Rene kind of liked it. Someone who wanted to be his friend, you know? I don't know many guys so whenever we did things together he always felt like he was surrounded by a bunch of women. He typically was. Then Allen came out with Bonnie once and they got along. Out in LA, in Rene's line of work, no one really has friends. Not without worrying they're going to stab you in the back or pull the rug out from under you if it means they'll get a step ahead of you."

"And you want me to move there?"

"Well, I'm not like that and you're not like that. I always thought it'd be nice having you out there with me."

"Maybe," Claire said.

"I somehow suspect John might have something to say about that now, though."

"Maybe," Claire said. She sure hoped so, though she was trying not to get too excited when he mentioned a future between them. It'd always been in passing or kind of as a joke to this point so she wasn't sure how serious to take his comments.

"You told me about him once, you know?" April said.

"I did?"

"Yes. I don't know if you even remember. It was one of the first parties we'd ever gone to. You got kind of drunk."

Claire laughed softly. "I vaguely remember which party you're talking about." She'd met a guy at the party April was talking about who looked kind of like John but was not like John at all. She'd been severely disappointed that was the case. She didn't remember the conversation with April, but she could see herself talking to April about him that night.

"It took me a while, like a couple of weeks a while, to realize your boyfriend was the same guy you'd told me about liking our freshman year."

"I wasn't hung up on him or anything."

"Oh, I know. I just think it's kind of sweet, you know. You guys liked one another back then."

"We did. We were just… I don't know, wrong place and time. Does that make sense?"

"Well, obviously things happen for a reason and it's not the wrong place and time now. I think that's great. And sweet. Romantic. You deserve that."

"I do?"

"Yeah, you don't think so?"

"Well, of course I do, but why would you think I do over anyone else?"

"Because you're my best friend? I didn't realize I need a reason for thinking that. You're one of the good ones, you know? You liked me from day one. I wasn't so sure about you and I know you thought I was a little different. Bonnie," April grew quiet a minute. "They never understood why we liked doing the theater stuff."

"No, they didn't," Claire agreed.

"I remember when I first mentioned it. You thought I was a little crazy, too."

"I did. I mean, where I went to school, only really weird people did that sort of thing. You know, the geeks and nerds. I'd only ever talked to one before in my life before college."

April laughed softly.

"You went with me, though, that was more than anyone else was willing to do."

"I liked it," Claire admitted

"And now look at you, dating a great big nerd."

"He's not! He draws comics, that doesn't mean he's a nerd, April."

April laughed then. "However you want to justify it to yourself, Claire. Look at what you're doing with your downtime today. You're here with me getting your nails done and a massage. What does he do with his?"

"He…" Claire sighed, exasperated. "Walks around, looking at the other peoples work."

"And?"

"Talks to people who want to talk to him about his work."

"And you were saying?"

"Shut up," Claire said.

"You love me."

"Not right now I don't."

"Fine. I'll make sure you get the really crappy guest room next weekend."

"How many guest rooms do you have?"

"Too many," April said, but Claire knew her friend wasn't complaining.

"Are you excited?" Claire asked.

"Yes. Are you?"

"I am, a little nervous, though."

"Why?"

"I don't know. It's a huge thing, you know. I mean, I realize John doesn't stand to make millions but he could certainly be pretty comfortable if the movie does well and more come after this. What if I'm asked something I should know the answer to but I don't? I've read some issues in the past month, but there's ten years' worth of them. I can't catch up in a week. What if John hates it? You're my friend."

"I don't think he's going to hate it. I don't think John realizes how much of Rene's time he put into this movie. I almost thought our wedding was going to be delayed because there was a bit of a last minute snafu with some editing or something. I don't pretend to understand it all. He's a huge fan of the comics. He has them all, all of the issues and all of the variant covers. So I know what you're talking about when you say ten years' worth of storyline. He may love Simon and his friends as much as John and the others who've been working on him all of these years do."

"I'm glad to hear that."

"Rene has talked about if there are more about somehow having the guys who actually do the comics, guys like John, do some work for the next movie."

"How?"

"I'm not sure. Well, like the movie poster. John did that, right?"

"Yes."

"So there are things they could do. Pictures that could be included in the movie or as part of the movie. I don't know. I don't understand it. I'm so out of my league."

"It will be exciting, though. Are you? Excited I mean?"

"Yes! A little nervous, this is my first as his wife. It's a little different. This year I have a ring on my finger, you know? I'm Mrs. Wren Savage. I went to a premiere with him last year, but it wasn't anything like this. I mean, for whatever reason this movie has gotten huge amounts of attention. I think because Simon Forge and his world was kind of an unknown so people are curious why Rene would choose to make a movie revolving around those characters."

"John has said the same thing."

"He's right. A lot of people think Rene's making a huge mistake, like a career changing mistake."

"I hope not."

"He's pretty confident it's a career making move. I believe him."

"Did you really change your name to Savage?"

"No. It's Sauvageau."

"I'm very relieved to hear that," Claire said.

"Do you have a gown yet?"

"Yes! I've never had to buy one for something like that."

"It's hard to choose when it's for something like this, isn't it?"

"Yes! I'm not famous or anything, so just stuck with what I know looks good."

"Has John seen it?"

"He has. I wanted to make sure it was what he had in mind. I have no idea. I've seen some of the dresses women wear to those things. He wanted to see it because he wanted his tie to match the color of my dress."

"That's sweet."

"I guess. My prom date didn't do that."

"Do you still talk to him?"

"No."

"Well, maybe that's why and John knows better than to repeat that guy's mistake."

Claire laughed softly at that. "I'm sure it's the reason."

"So, what should we do after this?"

"I don't know. This has been so great. I didn't even realize how badly I needed a massage."

"I know, right? Rene has a friend who does prenatal massages. I plan on making good use of her as I get further along."

"Really? That's a thing?"

"Sure. Your back hurts and stuff. So I've heard anyway."

"I suppose," she said.

"We could go see what our guys are doing."

"Is Rene expecting you?"

"I don't think he's expecting to see me until I get back to our room tonight."

"Really?"

"He's busy. John's boss is here. So, he's making nice. You know."

"I know."

"He's not really John's boss, is he, though? I mean, he doesn't actually work for them, does he?"

"No, he's independent, but he thinks of Rich as his boss. He does most of his work for them."

"Rene did mention the four of us having dinner if we were agreeable and John has time."

"Oh, I don't know…"

"Well, let's go find him and ask him. Rene really does like him."

"He likes Allen, too."

"Not so much anymore. The club closing thing will probably make it even that much more now. Rene tries to stay away from wrongdoing. Scandal. You know? He likes to keep a clean image."

"Well, that's something."

April laughed softly. "He must see whatever you see."

"I doubt it," Claire said.

"Well, if John can't join us it'll just be the three of us."

"I don't want to intrude."

"Nonsense. This is your city, take us somewhere wonderful for dinner. Enjoy showing a Hollywood producer and director and his wife around town, Claire."

"Oh God. Sure, whatever."

Return to Top

***Chapter Sixteen***
Word Count: 3,311

"So," John said, tracing his fingertip along her thigh. They'd come up to bed about two hours ago, but hadn't gotten around to talking until the last fifteen minutes or so. It was after three so she almost didn't start talking to him, but he'd initiated the conversation asking her how her day with April (and therefore away from the convention) had gone. "There is going to be a little Wren Savage pretty soon, huh?"

"I guess so."

"I think I can hear the hearts of thousands of women out in LA breaking from here when that news gets out."

"Right?"

"That didn't take long at all, did it?"

"That's what I told her!"

He chuckled softly, kissing her shoulder.

"You're happy for her?"

"Of course," she said.

"She seems nice."

"He doesn't? Is that what you're saying?"

"No, he does, surprisingly. I like him even. I didn't want to. I wanted to lump him in with all the stories I hear about douchebags out there. I don't know how nice he'd be to me if I wasn't your other half, but I watched him earlier today. The way he interacted with people and even our waitress. He seems pretty genuine. I thought for sure when the waitress brought him the wrong drink he'd freak out, but he didn't. He was very calm about it."

"He does seem very genuinely nice."

"Rich wasn't happy at all that he wasn't invited to dinner."

"I know, but…"

"Oh, I'm not complaining. We were having dinner with April and Rene, your best friend and her husband not Wren Savage and his wife. There's a difference. I get that, I'm just not sure Rich does yet. You know?"

"I do," she said.

"I was kind of wondering when he was going to ask me why I was taking you to the parties and stuff instead of him."

"Really?"

"Well, he's the guy who created Simon and everybody."

"I suppose, but the invitation was for you because of me."

"I know that. He'll figure it out eventually."

"So, why does he like men?"

"Uh, I'm not sure I can explain that."

She laughed softly, slapping his shoulder lightly. "That's not what I meant."

"Good, because I thought you were asking me to explain genetics or biology or something and I'm afraid that's a little steep for this guy."

"No."

"That's very good to know."

"You're avoiding my question."

"He, uh, kind of hit on me once."

"He what?"

"I know, freaked the hell out of me. I mean, not that he did necessarily, but he thought I," he shrugged. "You know, he made me wonder if I was putting off some sort of vibe."

Claire chuckled softly. "I don't think so."

"Well, I didn't either. He was a bit drunk and we've never, like, talked about it or anything. He told me at the time he assumed my not having a girlfriend and so rarely taking women up on their offers…"

"Meant you were gay?"

"Into both actually was what he basically implied. I'm not sure. Like I said, we've never talked about it. I'm not even sure he remembers doing it. He was that drunk and it was. Well, it was right after I broke up with Tina."

"Tina? She was the stripper?"

"Yes. He didn't know about her because she wasn't exactly a bring to conventions type of girlfriend, you know?"

Claire snorted softly at that.

"We were still kind of working out the nuances of our work relationship. The distance can be hard and there wasn't email at first so lots of Federal Express and phone calls. So it's not like I told him intimate details. Look at how long it took me to tell him about you and I knew you weren't going to get an STD from someone else while I was with you."

"Well, there's a ringing endorsement."

"Hey, trust me, after being pretty scared for a couple of months there that's a pretty good endorsement. It's one of the reasons I sort of tapered off my behavior here, too. Condoms are good, you know, I mean, they work and everything but they do break. I really don't want one to break with someone who's been with twenty other comic pencilers this year."

"I know."

"Plus I sort of saw him with someone once."

"Really?"

"Yeah. I think he knows that, but, again, we've never talked about it so I'm not sure."

"You two need to talk."

"About his sex life? I don't think so. I walked into his office when I should've knocked first, saw something I shouldn't have seen, shut the door behind me, and never said a word. It was late, his admin was gone, and I'd been in another office working on something. I was going to show it to him. I just went right back to the other office and continued working. I'm not positive he saw me."

"Why not?"

"Because, Princess, when I'm getting a good blow job the earth could probably explode around me and I wouldn't open my eyes until I was done."

"Hmm. Do I do that to you?"

"Make me not want to open my eyes?"

"Uh huh."

"Only every time. Sometimes I keep them open because I'm still kind of astounded it's you giving it to me so I like to watch."

"Astounded?"

"Yes," he said.

"Why?"

He shrugged. "Because it's you and there's a part of me that thinks I shouldn't make you do that."

"You're not making me do anything."

"I realize this, I do, but in the back of my mind…"

"Ignore the back of your mind."

"I try! I've heard women talk, though, most of them I've heard talk about doing that seem to indicate they don't really feel they have a choice. I don't ever want you to think you don't have a choice."

"Women tell you this?"

"You'd be surprised at the conversations I overhear. Sometimes women are standing in line waiting to get me to sign something. Sometimes they're just standing around and I walk by so hear bits and pieces."

"I haven't done anything with you I haven't wanted to do, John."

"Including taking a shower with me?"

"I like taking showers with you."

"Just think how much water we'll conserve this summer."

"I can't wait."

"I have to admit I didn't mind the bath."

"That's only because my tub is really a Jacuzzi."

"There is that. It was pretty nice."

He chuckled softly.

"How did she rope you into doing theater stuff anyway?"

"I don't know exactly," she said. "I thought she was nuts for asking me at first."

"I would have thought she was, too."

"I liked her, though. I don't know how to explain it. I wanted to hate her. I'd never had to share my living space with anyone before and I wanted to loathe her, but she was just so nice. I couldn't. She heard me reading something out loud for English class. We each had to read some lines from some play. She said I should go out for a part in the show. I laughed."

"But you did?"

"Yeah, she kind of dragged me along. We both auditioned. I wasn't going to. I was just going to go with her for moral support, but she talked me into it."

"What play?"

"Noises Off."

"Never heard of it."

"I wouldn't expect you to. They made a movie out of it a couple of years ago I think, but it wasn't that good despite having Carol Burnett in it."

"Huh," he said.

"I had to run around stage in a slip for two hours."

"You did?"

"Yes! I almost didn't take the part. I mean, me! Can you imagine?"

"I can imagine it very clearly. It's a good thing I didn't know about it eleven years ago or I probably would've slugged the guys who got to see you like that."

She laughed softly. "It was fun, though."

"Well, if you ever get nostalgic and want to run around my house that way…"

"Very funny."

"She wasn't mad you got a part and she didn't?"

"No," she said. "I mean, I apologized, but she worked on the set and sort of found her calling in makeup and costumes anyway."

"She moved to LA five years ago?"

"Mm. Four. She moved here for a year to wait for another friend of ours, Tasha, to graduate. She was a year behind us. They both knew they were going to go out to LA."

"Do you still talk to Tasha?"

"Some. She was the actress. Last I talked to her she was working two waitressing jobs in between auditions," she said with a soft sigh.

"It's kind of funny they didn't even meet through the movie industry," John said.

"I know, right?" Claire said. "I'm glad you asked that tonight. I was kind of curious but I felt as if I couldn't really ask."

"You and Rene were talking away in French, leaving April and me very left out so I had to talk to her about something. It seemed a logical question to ask her."

"It was funny."

"Right? I wonder how many times people have had the guts to tell him to his face they didn't like a movie of his."

"I'm betting not many."

"She's lucky she wasn't fired," John said with a soft chuckle.

"Well, clearly he wasn't offended. He asked her out. What was he going to do though? Tell the owner of the restaurant she was working at that she'd insulted him?"

"See. Some of us guys like women who think for themselves."

"I'm not sure I'd live in LA and tell anyone I didn't like a movie, though. I'd be too afraid they were someone or knew someone who worked on it."

"You would, too, if you didn't like it. It sounded like she did. Like it I mean, but had some criticisms that he found to be sound ones."

"I'm sorry if you felt left out. I don't get to practice my French with a native speaker very often. It's exciting!"

"I was almost jealous for a few minutes there."

"Almost?"

"Yeah. He's not your type."

She chuckled softly, kissing his jaw. "You're right. I seem to have only one type."

"Yeah?"

"Uh huh."

"That would be?"

"You."

"That is very good to know because if it was someone else…"

"I don't think there ever was a chance for anyone else."

"Would you have said yes if I'd asked you out at the reunion?"

"I don't know. I really don't. I would've been tempted. I was happy to see you, surprised to see you."

"But?"

"I just… had it in my head that I didn't deserve it, you know? I certainly didn't think you'd come there to talk to me."

"I know what you're saying, I don't understand why you'd think that. It'd be one thing if you made the decision you did out of a normal sexual encounter. You didn't. I'm surprised you didn't get counseling or something."

"Rachel said that when I talked to her last month."

"Yeah?"

"She did. She said it wasn't too late."

"She's not wrong. I mean, I'm not saying you need it. I'm not you and I'm not in your head, but if you think it'd help you. I don't think there's such a thing as counseling too late for something like that."

"I don't know."

"Then maybe sitting back and watching as his club gets closed will be some sort of help to you."

"God, I can't believe that!"

"I can. I mean, who better to prey upon for a guy like him than under aged girls. You think they're going to say something to the cops about getting drinks from him? They'd get in trouble, too."

"They've obviously gotten caught."

"Obviously."

"I wonder," she said, glancing away from him.

"You wonder?"

"Nothing," she said, turning away from him.

"Okay, you don't have to tell me whatever it is you're thinking, but don't lie to me and tell me it's nothing. I can see it's not."

"I just wonder how many others there've been. Did my not saying something…"

"Don't, Claire," he said, kissing her shoulder as he pressed himself against her. "Don't even do that to yourself. You can't control what he does. He's the bad guy, not you. By the time you would've gone to the police the drugs would've been out of your system probably. You showered and stuff you said so the evidence was gone. That was if he even used something they could trace. That was a decade ago. Who knows what he used?"

"I know. I just, God, what if my not saying something…"

"Claire, I don't know the statistics, but women get raped every day and don't say anything. They're scared, they think they did something wrong, they're married and think their husband will leave them if he finds out, or whatever reason drives them not to say a word. You were fucking nineteen years old. It's not on your shoulders to cure all the evils in the world. You were worrying about finishing your semester and surviving. Tack on an abortion. I'd say you had your hands full."

"I know, but I'm a lawyer."

"Well, here's a thought. You know where he lives. Have you thought of calling the police to find out? You work for a law firm that does specialize in criminal cases, maybe you could ask if they have cases like it or something? I'm not sure how you'd do that being from Chicago, knowing to call that police station."

"No, I haven't" she said.

"You could. Maybe it'd ease your mind. Maybe the underage drinking is just a coincidence. Maybe he graduated and decided he didn't like unconscious women anymore."

"Or make me feel guilty if there are hundreds of unsolved rapes."

"That could happen, too, I suppose, though I still can't see it as being your fault. You wouldn't have raped them, he did. And if he's still doing it ten years later you clearly wouldn't be the only one who's said nothing."

"I'm not sure that'd make me feel any better."

"Why are we talking about this tonight?"

"I don't know. I guess April being pregnant makes me think…"

"Ah, I can get that. I'm sorry."

She turned to face him then, sliding a hand along his jaw and kissing him there. "I'm glad I can talk to you about it."

"Me, too. I mean, I hate him, you know that, right? You don't think I feel some guilt? Had I been brave enough to ask you out…"

"Yeah, but you said…"

"I know, I know it doesn't mean it wouldn't have happened. I know you having a boyfriend in Chicago wouldn't have stopped him, but maybe I would have been there that weekend. You know? I've thought that."

"I'm sorry."

"Don't," he chuckled softly, leaning in to kiss her. "We're here for a reason. Your parents seem to be okay with me. They wouldn't have been ten years ago. I know that."

She laughed softly at that.

"I love you, you know," she whispered.

"I love you, too."

"I'm sorry I haven't said it before now."

"It's all right. You did in a roundabout way. I figured you would say the actual words when you were ready. My saying it wasn't exactly an earth shattering moment."

"It was to me. I've never been told that before."

"Me neither. Said it or heard it."

"Did you know the guy?"

"What guy?"

"With Rich?"

He chuckled softly. "Really? That piqued your interest?"

"No, just curious if it's someone you ever see? You know, and have to see them both, knowing."

"Oh, yeah," he shrugged. "When I go there. I don't get the impression they're like together or anything, but I don't know what Rich does with his free time. I'm not in a position to make him tell me who his significant other may be. It makes me no difference, though. Hopefully he knows that's not happening with me for sure now."

She laughed softly. "I can't even imagine what made him think it would happen with you. Anyone knowing you would have to know."

"I'm not sure either, but maybe he thought I was compensating for something. I have no idea. Maybe he was drunk enough to think he could make me be interested. I'm sure it happens. Even I can acknowledge he's a pretty handsome guy. If he remembers. He's never mentioned it so I can't ask him to know."

"You haven't either I assume?"

"Nope. He doesn't act any different, I don't think I do. I didn't treat it as being any different than if it'd been a woman I wasn't interested in hitting on me."

"That was pretty nice of you, some would've freaked out. Maybe not worked for him."

"If it happened more than once or something, maybe. It hasn't. He either remembers so therefore knows what my reaction was or was so drunk and horny and I was the nearest available person but has no recollection. If he remembers and knows I haven't made a big deal out of it, he knows we're fine. There are worse things in life to get bent out of shape over than someone hitting on me. Who knows?"

She tugged him on top of her.

"You know what you said about Simon?" She slid her hand along his shoulders, chest and lower. She loved touching him, the feel of him. The look on his face when she did it. She didn't think it'd ever get old for her. She'd been worried about him being on top of her, which was why she'd been on top their first time. Worried she'd panic, feel smothered, or some other irrational thing happening. It hadn't, and she was pretty sure that was his doing more than her mental preparation for having him on top of her.

"Simon?" He was genuinely confused, she could tell. They hadn't talked much about Simon tonight at dinner. It couldn't be helped, some conversation about him, with Rene and John sitting together. Certainly they hadn't talked about him at all since getting back to their room. "Uh, no?"

"You told me about the picture you drew me. The woman," she said, brushing her thigh between his legs. He liked that so she did it again.

"Yeah?" He was looking at her as if she might have gone a little crazy. Perhaps she had. She wasn't sure. She just knew she'd been out of sorts since April told her she was pregnant and didn't feel that way so much anymore because she'd been able to talk to him about what was bothering her. She'd never had that before. Ever.

"What she is to him?"

"Okay…"

She used her hand to guide him into her. He would've gotten there eventually, but she wanted him there now for some reason. She gasped softly. She couldn't help it. She always had a hard time believing they were really doing this together. That it wasn't a dream, but the feel of his length inside of her always let her know it was real.

"I feel that about you."

"Hmm, which part exactly?"

"The good to my bad."

"There's nothing bad about you, Claire."

"No, but you make me feel better when I feel as though there is. Doubts. Fears. My past."

"That's good."

"You make me feel good."

"All of the time? Or just these times?"

"All of the time."

"How hard was that for you to admit, Princess?" He chuckled softly, lowering his mouth to hers so she didn't have to answer him, which relieved her to no end. It was incredibly hard for her to admit. He knew that, obviously.

Return to Top

***Chapter Seventeen***
Word Count: 7,159

"Well, at least we know whenever his parents get too old to live in that house of theirs he can afford the upkeep on it," John said once they'd been shown to their room for the weekend. He'd seen pictures of homes like this. Huge houses set back acres and acres away from the main road. Passersby would slow past the gated driveway, hoping for a glimpse of activity on the other side. To say Claire's best friend was doing very well with her life was an understatement. (John got the impression April did acceptable on her own professionally, but she wasn't anywhere near Rene's league as far as income bracket. She was working in the field before meeting Rene, just not steadily or lucratively was the impression he'd gotten.)

John couldn't help but wonder what the fuck Claire was doing with him when she had friends who'd married into this. Claire did well for herself, certainly better than John would ever do. He wasn't stupid enough to think he'd ever earn more than she did. He did fine and everything, but he knew he wasn't going to be able to compete with Claire even if she wasn't working for her father. He didn't know what her other friends had married into, but he doubted any of her friends had married bums who couldn't support their wives.

"Well, she did tell me they had plenty of guest rooms," she said.

He snorted softly at that. They had plenty of everything, including a beach right outside their house. John couldn't deny he'd find that a definite perk to living somewhere like this. It'd probably be a bit of a distraction, though, always tempting to go outside and watch the water for a while when he had work to do. Then maybe people who had houses like this took it for granted and didn't notice the huge body of water out their front door.

"What were you expecting?" she asked.

"I don't know. It's just so weird. I mean, forget that I'm here. I'm here because of you, don't get me wrong it's a hugely cool opportunity. One I almost called my old man to tell him about what I was doing this weekend. The only thing that stopped me was I knew he'd never believe me. It sure was tempting, though. You know, a little salt in the wounds that he's still living his version of a dream life and that 'drawing nonsense' he thought was meaningless is paying off. I know without you I'd be at home right now doing something with Sammy. You could come here anytime you want to and spend the weekend. You don't think that's just a little bizarre?"

"Not really. Am I supposed to? She's still my friend. She just has a nicer house than the apartment she lived in with Tasha until they got married."

"I don't know. Maybe you don't, but I think most people would. I mean your parents do well, but not quite this well. Then maybe for you it's no big deal because you assume your friends will achieve this type of success. I never had that with the friends I had."

"You could come here with me."

"Well, sure, but she's not my best friend. So, it's different. I'd be just the tagalong boyfriend."

"I know. I mean, you wouldn't be."

The house was amazing. Even John could admit that. The house in France had been nicer, but that was John's personal preference. He liked old buildings. This house was maybe as old as Claire's house and not an expense had been spared to ensure that it was impressive. He supposed when you were Wren Savage you did that sort of thing.

"Can you imagine a kid growing up here? Thinking this is normal?"

"It will be normal to him or her."

"I guess so," he said.

"You're sure you don't want to take him up on his offer of being able to take one of his cars tomorrow?"

"No, I'm not, but it seemed rude. I don't know. He offered, but he also said the car we're going in would bring us back here anytime we wanted to come back. It seemed stupid to take a car there when I don't know my way around. I figure we'll stay a while and when we're ready to leave we'll hit the driver up for a ride. I don't know how long we'll stay. Since I don't know anyone except the three of you I don't see myself staying all night. Rich won't be there, no one from the publisher will be there that I'm aware of. Even if they were, I wouldn't want to stand there and talk to them all night anyway. On the other hand, maybe we'll both have a great time and leave with them. Then driving separately will have been for nothing. I don't have that much to say to anyone so am I counting us leaving with them? No. He will probably need to stay until the end. Am I wrong? You want me to tell him we want one?"

"It's not my movie."

"It's not mine either. You, though, aren't recovering as well as you should be. I saw how tired you were at the end of the convention last weekend. You don't think I notice these things. I do, though. I saw it in your eyes. I saw how happy you were to be home in your bed Sunday night. I know how quickly you fell asleep. I felt pretty guilty, and we didn't even really do anything that kept us that busy. Here after this morning it's going to be non-stop until we're on a plane heading home again. I don't like the idea of you getting sick again because of me."

"I'm not going to get sick again. I'm fine. I'm just tired!"

"That's not normal. It's been over six weeks. I'm not counting, but it was the weekend before Valentine's Day and Dallas, so it's easy to remember. I mean, I understand you were real sick, though I can't help but think your furnace on the fritz contributed to your fainting. You'd made it through the day seemingly all right. Regardless, you should be pretty close to back on track. Shouldn't you?"

"I don't know."

"Have you seen your doctor lately?"

"No! I'm not sick so I've had no reason to go see her. I'm just tired. She said it could take a while to feel normal again. She didn't give me a time table, but I was in the hospital for almost forty-eight hours so I guess I figure it's just taking me time. Flying to see you while a relaxing weekend may not have been the wisest thing I've done just getting out of the hospital."

"Yeah, I shouldn't have asked you to do that I guess."

"You should have. I'm glad you did. It's not your fault. I made the ultimate decision to go, knowing I'd been running a bit of a fever earlier that morning. I had fun. I just can't help but think maybe that set me back a bit, you know?"

"I'm glad. That you had fun, I mean. I was a little worried Tiffani blew any chance of a good time you'd have. And well any chance I had with you."

"She didn't. And I'd go with you anytime."

"Yeah?"

"Yes. I mean, I can rent a car and do things if I feel like it. I'm never going to want to do more than listen to you and maybe walk around for a while. I mean, some of the other guests are interesting to listen to, but I don't understand half the questions being asked so I get lost. I still can't believe that painting I bought last weekend. I mean, how can she possibly make any money selling those things for ten dollars?"

"Enough people buy them…"

"I know, but she should have art in a studio being sold."

"I think she's one of those who goes where the money is."

"I guess. I still couldn't believe it. I almost wanted to give her more for it."

"I know."

She'd found a small painting by someone who was just there to sell her stuff. Her artwork could probably be labeled as fantasy, but it was unicorns and fairies and stuff. She wasn't using anyone's characters or anything. John imagined she probably did pretty well because he had to admit the painting Claire bought was nice. It wasn't huge, nothing she could hang on her wall or anything, but she'd framed it and put it on a shelf in her office next to her desk in her office. He liked that she had something from time with him in her office.

When had that even happened? Being involved with someone who had, things – tokens, from the things they'd done together. He wasn't sure. He was still coming to grips with the fact she'd told him she loved him last weekend. He hadn't expected that. He knew she did, but he'd assumed it would take her a lot longer to admit it to herself let alone him.

"So, you get to go do your girlie thing while I get to what exactly?"

"Do whatever you want. Swim, take a nap, walk along the beach, lay out, read a book, or watch TV. Something tells me there's no shortage of TVs here. I bet you could find a movie or two to watch."

"Very funny."

"I won't be long."

"You were gone for hours last weekend!"

"You were busy. I didn't think you noticed."

"Not notice that I didn't see you for hours? Uh, yeah, I noticed."

Tonight was a party. Tomorrow was the premiere and after-party. John wasn't sure what the party tonight was for, but he couldn't deny he was looking forward to it in a way. When was he ever going to get an opportunity like this? Rene wasn't going to invite him to other movie premieres so this was it.

"I kind of figured you'd be glad I found something to do."

"Well, sure, I was, and I was glad you got to spend time with your friend. That doesn't mean I didn't notice you were gone for hours."

"We'll be as fast as we can."

"That means absolutely nothing from two women who could probably spend all day doing that shit."

"John."

"I know, I know," he said. It was part of who she was. He got that, didn't mean he thought she needed to spend hours getting her hair done. He could understand it, he supposed. He'd taken her with him to buy a new suit for the weekend. He had no idea what he'd need for something like this. So, even he'd put some thought into what he'd look like, the image he'd project, out here.

"Sit out on that balcony and do nothing."

"It's not screened in like yours is."

"I know, right? You thought I was foolish for having something like that done to my bedroom."

"No, I didn't think you were foolish, but it's still kind of cold out back home so I didn't stop to appreciate how useful it might be come summer. Looking at this balcony, though, I can see the appeal."

"I did."

"Obviously."

She had a very small balcony off her bedroom. Big enough for two chairs and that was it really. She'd had it screened in, though. He hadn't gotten the appeal at first, but being able to sit out there before bed or in the morning after waking up without having to worry about bugs when it was nicer out would be nice. He imagined she'd already enjoyed it several times since living there.

"You'll get to sit out there with me."

"That's when I started appreciating it."

"When you thought of sitting out there with me?"

"Yes."

"I'm glad you did."

"All right," he said once they'd both gotten their things put away. "I guess let's go find something to keep me occupied until tonight."

"Ha ha. We won't be that long."

"What would you have done if we weren't where we are right now?"

"What?" she asked, clearly confused.

"I meant," he said, gesturing to the room. "Well, there's only one bed. Not a hotel room where people would know we were or weren't sharing it. Not a restaurant for me to go sit in forever every morning while you shower and get dressed."

"I probably would've gotten dressed in the bathroom. I don't know. I hadn't thought about it. I would've been able to sleep with you, though."

"That is very good to know." He slid his arms around her and drew her to him for a kiss. "Now, I just have to worry whether you'll let me get any sleep."

"Very funny!"

"I know, right? I crack myself up."

"What are you doing?" she asked him.

"Grabbing something to draw with."

"Why?"

"That's what I do?"

"No, I know that, but why now? You have a house you could do anything in…"

"Sure, I'm not going to snoop around someone's house when he's gone and his wife's out with my girlfriend doing stuff. I'll find a room with a TV and sit and draw until you guys get back. I have a few things I'm working on anyway. It'll be fine. I'm never bored at least. What would you do if the situation was reversed?"

"I'd probably use the pool and then come back in here and take a nap."

"Hmm. How long are you guys going to be?"

"I don't know. Why?" she asked him.

"Well, I could arrange for the nap part if you were going to come back and join me."

"Not after I've had my hair done!"

"I like your hair this way."

"What way? I didn't do anything with it this morning besides blow it dry and put some hairspray in it since I knew we were doing this."

"I know. It's down and loose. I like it."

"Really?"

"Yes!"

"I guess I didn't realize you had a preference."

"Down," he said. "Easy thing to have a preference about. I liked it the way you had it years ago, but I think I sort of fell in love with your hair a little bit at the reunion."

"Shut up!"

"It looks good on you. You wear the red well. Not everyone can even if that's what they've been given to work with. What can I say? I like it even if Rich seems to think it's a portent of bad things to come."

"It's not! Redheads are not any worse than anyone else. People just like saying that. We're different, you know, so have to paint us even more different in everyone else's eyes."

"I'll believe that after our first fight."

"I'm not planning on doing that."

"I'm not either, but I suspect inevitably it will happen. People fight. You know. You're a cat person, I'm a dog person."

"What does that have to do with anything?"

"Nothing. Other than obviously we're different, people are different. Arguments are going to creep up. I think I'd worry if we never had one, that can't be good."

"I suppose."

"I'm not planning one tomorrow or anything. Just saying. It's inevitable when two people spend time together."

"I kind of liked you taking it down for me at their wedding."

"I did, too," he admitted, twisting a bit of her hair around his finger. She didn't put as much hairspray in today as she usually did. Because she knew she was getting it done? Probably, though he wasn't sure. He hadn't paid attention when they flew to Paris together and they hadn't flown down or back from Dallas together since he'd gotten there before and left after her. "I don't think I've ever touched anyone for that long for, well you know, no reason."

"I bet you hadn't." She laughed softly at that. "It felt nice."

"Yeah?"

"Yes, very, you were touching me. Even if it was my hair it was you doing it."

"Well, I'd do it again, but my preference is still down."

"I'll see what I can do."

"I'm glad I said something then. I mean, I don't hate it up."

"That's good to know."

"All right, let's get you on your way. Hopefully April will show me where I can be to stay out of anyone's way."

"You're not in anyone's way. You were the invited one. I'm just the plus one."

He chuckled softly. "There's nothing just about you, Claire, but I get it. Still, it's their house."

He opened the door then, letting her pass through first. It was a nice room. He'd expected no less, really. Everything, though, from the little soaps in the dish by the sink to the alarm clock on the table next to the bed were very nice. John didn't need to know about things like that to know they cost a fortune.

April showed John to a room perfect for his purposes. There was a good sized desk for him to work at and a TV for him to watch if he wanted to do that. She showed him how to work the remote control since they had a satellite dish. John had just regular old cable at his condo. Watching TV wasn't really a priority to him.

One of their staff brought him the day's paper after they left him to his own devices, which John would've appreciated if he knew anything about LA to care about their news. He wasn't a Lakers or Clippers fan so that ruled out most everything. The staff person, Eve John learned because it bothered him to have someone checking on him he couldn't address by name, brought him a can of Coke and a sandwich from the kitchen (which he only agreed to because she offered it). She came in periodically, to check on him most likely, though she never disturbed him. She only spoke to him if he looked up from what he was working on. He guessed working for Wren Savage she was probably used to not bothering someone who was working.

So, he didn't think anything of it when someone walked into the room. She'd been in and out throughout the little while Claire and April had been gone.

"Do you ever do anything but draw?"

That wasn't Eve's voice. He would've preferred it over Allen's. Then he'd prefer anyone's over Allen's. Especially here this weekend. He'd been looking forward to a real nice weekend with Claire, and her friend. He really was worried about her, despite what she said he knew she wasn't getting better as quickly as she should be. She hadn't had a fever since February, but the fatigue and other things she just couldn't shake. She still had a problem eating things once in a while, which bothered him probably more than the fatigue. She got enough sleep, he did his best to ensure she did. Eating, though, he couldn't control what she tried to eat when she was at work and stuff so he had no idea what she ate some days.

"Nope," John said. "My mom told me once that I picked up crayons before I even knew what they were for. Not much has changed I guess. Just pencils now and better paper."

It's all he'd had growing up to distract him from the shit that surrounded him at home. Eventually, he was old enough where he didn't have to be there all of the time, but he still had to distract himself from the shit. It still went on even if he wasn't home to see, hear, and experience it. Making friends wasn't real easy for him because it seemed as though anytime he got close enough to befriend someone they stopped hanging out with him once they found out what his life was like. Or their parents found out, knew about his parents and stopped them from hanging out with him. As if it was his fault who his parents were.

By the time he'd gotten to junior high and eventually high school he'd perfected being a loner. His pencils and paper were all he needed. Throw in a joint now and again and he was good. Eventually, though, his drawing proved to be a benefit, something he could do to reel people in. He didn't do it often, he'd stopped putting himself out there to get shunned or ridiculed by people. Claire was one of the few he'd drawn a picture for their senior year in a long time. By then he'd had a group he hung around with who didn't give a shit about his background. He brought good dope, which was all they cared about. He had friends, but not in the way Claire had them. Then, maybe there wasn't that big of a difference between their friends back then when all was said and done. Neither of them were able to be themselves. She did it with the rich crowd, he did it with the burnouts. He thought he had more fun, but they'd both ended up here so obviously it turned out okay.

"Where is everyone?"

"Out," John said.

"Obviously," he said.

"I didn't realize you were going to be here," John said.

He hadn't. It wasn't any of his business, but April had made it sound like the rose was off the bloom for Rene where Allen was concerned. At least that was how Claire presented it to him. She'd been happy to hear that. She hated the idea of him getting close to Rene and even closer to April. Then he remembered Claire had mentioned April hadn't told Rene about the club thing yet. So that was probably why he was here. Rene didn't know. John couldn't fathom not telling the guy, but then he supposed that was what one did in a relationship – protected one another from things that could hurt or upset them. Rene didn't need distractions this weekend.

"Rene invited me to come into town for the weekend."

Not to the premiere, though, evidently, was the implication. John smirked slightly at that. He couldn't help it.

"Huh. To do what exactly? Supervise that his guests' drinks get mixed right?"

"I'm not a bartender."

"Doesn't sound like you're going to be a bar owner much longer either."

"How did you…"

John shrugged, Allen was obviously processing where and how John would have that information.

"Bonnie," he whispered. "Stupid women, can't keep their mouths shut."

"And that right there probably sums up why you were at the wedding and are here this weekend stag and Rene and I are not."

"Don't be so cocky. You're not married last I checked."

"I didn't realize I claimed I was. Not yet anyway. I'm working on that. I'm still not here by myself. Your sister isn't even here with you this trip."

Then again, maybe that wasn't a good thing. Maybe his sister knew, suspected what kind of guy he was and had her husband stay home so her brother wouldn't be free to prey on the single women at April and Rene's wedding. John would never know, he supposed. He hadn't even realized Allen was going to be here so he hadn't been prepared in the least for a run-in with the guy.

"I still don't trust you."

"Fantastic. I'll sleep much better tonight knowing that hasn't changed. That means the world is just as it was back in December. Anything else?"

"This isn't your room or even your home. You can't dismiss me."

"No, I suppose not, but you could choose not to be rude and intrude when I'm obviously doing something. If you can't do that well then I can leave and go to my room. You can't follow me there. Well, I guess you could, but I somehow don't think even you are that big of a dick as to do that."

"You expect people to buy that you just ran into her at your reunion and started dating her months before April's wedding to Rene?"

"What's to buy? It happened. I can give you some names of people from our senior year who will tell you very plainly we were into each other then."

"But you never asked her out."

It was on the tip of his tongue to explain, to justify his actions (or non-actions) to this guy but he stopped himself. He didn't owe him anything and somehow he knew if Claire knew he had any details about her life, however distant those details were, she'd be mad.

"It's worked out pretty well for us so far I'd say."

"Awful convenient for you that her best friend was marrying the guy directing your comic hero's movie."

"She mentioned the wedding to me in," John thought back on what might be a reasonable time-frame. "September maybe? I don't remember. I'd already been seeing her for months by then and she never even told me the guy's name April was marrying. She just wanted me to know she was going to be gone for a week and why."

"Yet, somehow you managed to come with."

"Blame your sister! She, April, and the others from their sorority who were at the wedding wanted to meet me. They seemed to think because we'd known one another for years spending a week together in Paris wasn't an issue for a couple who'd only been dating a few months. I had no problem staying home." John chuckled softly as Allen was doing his best not to look at what John had been drawing when he'd come in here. He had no idea whose desk this normally was or if it was just one in a room so that people like him had somewhere to work if they wanted to. The house was big enough he supposed it was a possibility.

"Why are you so concerned with who she dates anyway?"

"I just don't like you."

"The feeling's pretty mutual. So, I'll say again what I said back in December. Stop worrying about my girlfriend and worry about your own life. Sounds like you've got enough going on to keep you busy for a while without worrying about what she and I are doing."

"She's not what she seems, you know."

"You think you know her better than I do? Really? No," he said simply. "You didn't even hang out with her. You didn't even live near her after her freshman year. And I know you don't know anything more about her than what April passes onto your sister because she's admitted to me she and your sister aren't so close anymore. So if you're trying to somehow make me jealous of her having some eighteen year old crush on her friend's big brother ten years ago you've failed. I don't care what she did before last June."

"You don't care?"

"Nope," John said. "And there's nothing disparaging you could tell me I'd believe anyway because you seem to have some sort of ulterior motive. And I know Claire."

"She deserves better."

"Well, I'm not Wren Savage, I admit that, but I do all right. She's a big girl and can figure out her own love life. Besides, her parents love me. I have you to thank for that, too, I understand. I haven't had an in to meeting someone's parents paved for me so smoothly before in my life. I had her brother offer to take my dog this weekend if I didn't have anyone lined up. I'm pretty sure her mom has been thinking of China patterns to convince Claire to choose since then. So, that worked out great."

"You wanted to meet them?"

"Well, yeah. They're her parents. I don't talk to mine so it was sort of one-sided, but you know. It is what it is. They put on an excellent Christmas dinner, by the way. I've never had one before, so really you did me a favor. Thanks for that."

Silence. Evidently Allen was processing the fact that his heart-to-heart with Claire's mom hadn't had the desired effect at all. John wondered what the guy had been hoping for exactly.

"I didn't know you'd be here."

"Well, I am. With Claire. Did we get your usual room or something? Is that what has you all pissed off? Or are you worried that your buddy Rene isn't going to throw you a bone since another guy's around."

"I was hoping to talk with Claire."

"Here?" John asked. That couldn't be good. "This weekend? I think she's going to be a little busy doing things with me and April."

"I need a lawyer. As you pointed out…"

"Claire's not going to be your lawyer," he said. Yeah, no way in hell was that happening. "I wouldn't let her be even if she wanted to do it."

"You think you could stop her?"

"Yes," John said. She'd feel guilty for some crazy-assed reason and he'd have to step in and force her to do the right thing for her instead of for someone else for a change.

"She can't represent me anyway. I'm not in Illinois. I have a few names, I just thought she might know if one is better than another…"

"Yeah, I can relay that message to her without you having to talk to her. Easy. Consider it done."

"You can't stop her from talking to me."

"I can't, you're right. Go ahead. Talk to her. See what kind of answer you get out of her. She'll mention it to me because that's how she is, so the answer will still be no. Maybe you should've kept your feelings about me to yourself. I don't make it a habit of helping assholes, Claire needs to stop doing it, too. May as well start here and now with you."

"You're a controlling ass. I don't know why no one else sees it."

"Yup, that's me. Now, are you done talking to me? Or are you really going to make me take all of my shit up to our bedroom to get away from you? I realize you don't understand what I do, apparently it's too complicated a concept for you to get. I am working here, though."

"Who is that?" he asked, surprising John.

"I don't know yet," John said with a shrug. "Sometimes I just draw things and I don't know what's coming out. This is one of those times. Sometimes they find their way into comics, sometimes they find their way into other things. Sometimes I finish them up real nice and sell them at conventions I go to. People are willing to pay for something original I've drawn."

"Huh," he said. "That's actually pretty good."

"Thanks," he said cautiously. He sounded suspicious even to himself. He wasn't sure what angle the guy was going with all of the sudden complimenting John's drawing.

"And the idea just comes to you?"

"Yes. I don't know how to explain it," John shrugged. He'd tried to people who didn't get it and it was impossible. It seemed to him it was either one of those things that was inside of you or it wasn't.

"I don't think I could draw a flower to save my life."

Allen wasn't the only one out there with that problem so he hadn't just said anything John hadn't heard before. "Are we done bonding now? Can I get back to work?"

"When do you think they'll be back?"

"I don't know. They're women getting their hair and nails done. You figure out how to tell how long that takes you'd probably win a medal from all of the men in the world. I imagine they will probably take the time to do some shopping in there, too. Individually, I could give a guess on Claire, but those two together. I have no clue. I swear last weekend I thought she'd gotten lost or kidnapped or something they were gone so long. So, really, they could be gone until they have no choice but to come back for the party tonight."

"You're going?"

"Yup," John said, realizing with his answer and Allen's reaction to it that Allen apparently wasn't going. Interesting. Maybe Rene didn't need the information about the bar closing and why to realize Allen was a jerk.

"You know they have more than sandwiches here," Allen said, evidently noticing the empty plate on the desk near John's pencils. Eve hadn't come back to collect it yet, which was fine with John. He'd told her not to fuss over him. He probably could've made himself a sandwich, but he wouldn't have known where anything was and likely would have disrupted whoever did things like prepare sandwiches routine. He knew where the kitchen was. If Eve didn't come back soon he'd return the plate himself the next time he got up, but the plate wasn't bothering him so he just hadn't done it yet.

"I bet they do. It's all I wanted. Thanks for the tip, though."

John watched him leave. He was still having a hard time figuring the guy out. He didn't seem like a rapist. Then what did a rapist seem like? Never having met one, that he knew about anyway, he had no idea. Allen was a decent looking guy, he was decently intelligent from what John could see, and when he wasn't being a dick for whatever reason was a fairly nice guy. John saw the way he interacted with others at the wedding back in December. He didn't get it. He didn't get the guy's seeming interest in Claire or John. It made no sense.

He shook his head a little, returning his attention to his drawing. Fortunately, the guy hadn't interrupted him an hour ago when he was really concentrating and focused. He would have been really pissed off then. Now he was just irritated in part because he had to play nice with a guy he had no desire to do that with.

***

"Here you are," Claire said much later. He wasn't too far off when he'd told Allen they may not get back until they were pushing it to get dressed and leave on time for the party.

"I'm here. Were you expecting me to be somewhere else?"

"No, I just wasn't sure where you might be."

"I came up here about an hour ago, figured I'd get a head start on showering and shaving so the bathroom was free for you when you got back."

"Thank you."

"Sure," he said.

"What's wrong?"

"Did you know Allen's here this weekend?"

"April told me while we were out, yes."

"You didn't know before that?"

"No!"

"He wants to ask you if you know some lawyers."

"What?"

"Yeah, I told him I'd relay the message to you. So I've held true to my word. Says he has a list or something and wondered if you knew if any were better than the others."

"I could…"

"Don't. Don't you dare help him, Claire."

"John."

"Claire. Do you know sometimes when you wake up next to me I feel you start to panic?"

"I do not."

"You do, too. It's like you're half waking up and not sure where you are and you freak out. Do you know how that makes me feel every time that happens? I feel like shit. I wonder if you're really ready for this. If I'm pushing you somehow for more than you are ready for."

"You didn't push me into anything!"

"Realistically I know that, but when that happens I wonder. You know? I hate wondering that. I hate wondering if I'm somehow contributing to you thinking you're somewhere you don't want to be."

"I'm exactly where I want to be."

"I'm glad to hear that, I am, but I do not want you helping the guy who causes you still over nine years later to wake up and freak out because I'm lying next to you."

"I'm a lawyer. I do know people down in Texas. I might…"

"He can find his own damned lawyer, Claire. It's not your job from Illinois to help him."

"Yes, but…"

"Do what you want. He doesn't deserve it. Never mind that, I don't like it. If that means nothing to you then so be it."

She sighed softly and he saw tears in her eyes.

"I'm sorry. I'm not trying to fight with you. I'm really not, but I know you. You'll do what you think is the right thing for him never mind what it does to you. I don't like you talking to him! It's bad enough I have to."

"I know. I'm sorry, I didn't know or I could have prepared you."

"He still doesn't like me much."

"That's too bad," she said. She leaned up and kissed him. "Do you like my hair?"

"I do," he said, noticing for the first time really since she'd come into their bedroom that while styled very elaborately with part of it up there was still a good amount of it down. "Best of both worlds, I guess. I get to take it down later yet it's still down."

"I thought it was a happy medium."

"It is."

"I love you. I won't help him."

"I love you, too, and thank you."

"And I didn't realize I did that, woke up that way."

"It's not every time or anything. I don't know if you're dreaming of something, or if a noise in the house rousts you enough that you're just not quite awake and not used to my being next to you yet."

"I'm not!"

"Yeah, I'm not so used to it either."

They didn't spend every night at one or the other's place, but rarely had more than two nights gone by since she'd been in the hospital where they didn't spend the night together. He'd be worried they were moving too fast if they were anyone else. Ten years wasn't too fast in his opinion, but he knew others would probably caution him.

His dad would certainly. He'd tell him Claire was out to catch him somehow. Only thing was John wasn't so sure he didn't want to get caught. So how bad could letting her do it be?

"Since you're in the mood to give into what I ask you to do," he said cautiously.

"Yeah?"

"I'd really feel better if you made an appointment with your doctor. I don't care what you say, you're not recovering as fast as you should be. What if there's something else wrong and you need different antibiotics or something?"

"I doubt that, but I suppose it couldn't hurt."

"I would feel better."

"I'm sure it's nothing, but I'll call on Monday and see if she wants me to come in."

"Thank you," he said. "I don't really want to show up at your house one day to the same scene as that night."

"I don't either."

"Well, good, we're in agreement there. And if it turns out to be nothing and you have a copay or something I'll pay it."

"You don't have to do that."

"I'm asking you to go."

"I'm not going to make you pay for being concerned."

"Thank you."

"You just want me to stop being so tired all of the time so I can be up later in bed with you."

"Well, considering I know how much rest you've been getting lately and it's not fixing it, yeah."

"I know."

"Wait, you think I'm worried because of our sex life?"

"Well, I know I'm too tired sometimes…"

"Jesus, Claire, that's not why I'm asking you. It's going on close to two months. I'm worried about you. I could give a shit about our sex life."

"You could, huh?"

"Well, okay, perhaps that was the wrong phrasing to use. I give a shit, of course, but that's not why I'm worried." He frowned a little, regarding her. He slid his arms around her and brought her to him. "You think I'm unhappy?"

"No, I mean, I try."

"You succeed very well. I have no complaints."

"Now I know you're just saying that to be nice."

"I am not. What could I possibly have to complain about?"

"I don't know," she said.

"Well, I don't either, and I'm the one you're talking to. We're fine, Princess, I swear it. I just want to make sure you're good physically. You know?"

"Okay."

He slid a fingertip under her chin, tilting her face up a bit so he could look her in the eye. "I don't like hearing you say stuff like that. We're fine. If I had a problem with something I'd speak up."

"Yes, but you never…"

"I never what?"

"You always wait for me to, you know," she shrugged, casting her eyes down a bit.

"Initiate?"

"Yes!"

"Yes, for you I do that. You started this, Claire, until I know you're comfortable with it I'm leaving you in charge."

"That can't be very fun for you."

"Sweetheart, it's more than fun for me. I'm fine with it. I don't want to hurt you, you know?"

"You don't. You couldn't."

"Well, I still worry, I guess that you'll wake up one of these mornings and wonder what the fuck you started by taking us down that road."

"I won't."

"I'm just being safe. I'll be honest, the thought crossed my mind this weekend," he shrugged. "But with him here." He shook his head. "I think I'll store that thought away for another weekend."

"I'm sorry."

"It's not your fault. Not at all. Now, if we were years into this not weeks I maybe would feel differently."

"I hope you don't wait years."

He chuckled softly. "Well, obviously by saying I'd thought about it this weekend I don't plan on it."

"Why this weekend?"

He shrugged. "I don't know. We're somewhere nice, doing something fun that's a once in a lifetime thing for both of us, really. I just thought I'd know if you were receptive to it."

"I get it."

"Good, because I'm not sure it made sense, but in my head it sure did. So, do you need help getting dressed?"

"What kind of help did you have in mind?"

"I don't know. You need a zipper done or anything?"

"I think I might."

"All right. I'm just the man for such a task."

"Good to know," she said.

He leaned in and kissed her. She kissed him back with such emotion that he was a bit overwhelmed. He wasn't sure why he thought she was going to have second thoughts about having sex with him. Six or seven weeks now should tell him she wasn't, but he didn't pretend to understand what she might be thinking at any given time.

Return to Top

***Chapter Eighteen***
Word Count: 2,124

"This wasn't exactly what I pictured when I suggested I could take your hair down for you again," he whispered. He'd gotten a couple of the hairpins out, but she was distracting him by giving him a blow job. Not just any blow job either but a pretty damned enthusiastic one, which he wasn't complaining about. He did wonder how much she'd had to drink tonight, though, but couldn't find it in himself to stop her long enough to ask her how sober she was. He didn't think she'd had too much to drink.

She didn't answer him. He didn't really want her to either. So they were on the same page there, thankfully.

He hissed softly as she licked a particularly sensitive spot on his shaft. She'd managed to find sensitive spots on him he didn't know he had. Either that or he hadn't had them before now, it was just heightened sensitivity because she was the one with his hard on in her mouth. Very possibly that could be. He had no idea. Regardless, she found spots on him that caused him to shudder, hiss, cry out, and more than once come so suddenly he'd been surprised because he hadn't expected to be able to so soon.

He didn't want to do that tonight. He loved when she did this until he came, loved that she was willing to swallow but tonight he really wanted to be inside of her.

He worked the few hairpins left in the hairdo out, dropping them on the floor by her feet. Anywhere else would have required him getting up and her stopping what she was doing. Putting them on the bed seemed the wrong thing to do or they'd get scattered around.

He slid his fingers through her hair and they both groaned as he touched her like that. He wasn't sure he could tell her enough how well he liked her hair long and down. Tonight it wasn't as easy to get his fingers through it as it usually was. Extra hairspray to keep the style in place. Tomorrow night would likely be worse. She'd already warned him it'd be up.

"Princess," he whispered, groaning as she slid her mouth off of him. He wanted her to, but he always missed the warmth and willingness of her mouth when she first pulled away.

"Let's see about getting your gown off…"

She tugged on her skirt then, lifting it up as she kicked her heels off and out of the way before she moved to straddle him.

"Or, I guess we can take it off later. Whatever works," he said with a soft chuckle as she slid her arms around him.

"This," she said, taking him inside of her. He always felt guilty when she did shit like this. He enjoyed it. Immensely, but moments like these when he'd done nothing to her. Well, he felt like a bit of an asshole. She didn't seem to want him to, which oddly made him feel guiltier. He wasn't used to being with a woman who didn't expect tit for tat, in a manner of speaking.

As enthusiastic as she'd been with her blow job until a minute ago she was equally that way riding him. Taking him so deep inside of her he swore he never wanted her to slide him out of her again.

"So good," she said, echoing his feelings very well. She'd mentioned recently how she felt that he completed her. He couldn't deny he felt the same way. He'd never felt … emotionally tied to a person during sex before. He'd had feelings for women, sure, but not as he did with her during the actual act of making love to her. She left him feeling as though he wanted to say all sorts of stupid shit, like marry him here and now. (Somehow he didn't think a priest or whatever would take too kindly to marrying them joined like this, but it sure would be a fun way to go about doing it.)

He touched her through her dress, gently. She hadn't been too keen on him doing that too much lately. He wasn't sure why, but she'd told him more than once that it felt different to her right now. Something about her time of the month, which until her no woman had ever told him about any side effects of so he had no clue things like that could happen. Through her dress didn't let him touch her the way he wanted to anyway.

She reached for his tie, undoing it and drawing it out from his collar before unbuttoning his shirt just enough to kiss his neck.

"You should have left it tied so you don't have to do it again tomorrow night," he whispered. She'd tied it in some fancy knot that went way beyond his knowledge of tying ties. She'd seen him struggling to do a basic knot and had helped him. He wore suits so infrequently. He'd cheated when he'd gone with her to Paris and had his neighbor tie it for him the night he was packing. He'd just left it that way so she wouldn't think he was an imbecile for not knowing how to do something that to most men in her life was probably the same as tying their shoe. It looked pretty sharp, though, he had to admit.

No response. Evidently she didn't care. He didn't really either and he wasn't going to belabor the point and have her stop what she was doing. He loved when she did this, gave him little love bites. They were never very big. He always wondered why because it wasn't as if he had a job in an office to go to. Even if he did, he wouldn't care. She did, though, for some reason. So she made them small and he very rarely left her visible ones. There'd been a couple since the one in Paris, though.

He cried out as she took him deeply inside of her again and kept him there, shifting her hips a bit almost as if trying to take him deeper into her. She chuckled softly.

"Sure laugh at me for enjoying these things you do to me."

"Poor baby," she whispered, nipping at his ear.

"I know. It's pretty rough, letting you have your way with me. I feel so used."

"I bet you do." She grazed the spot under his ear with her tongue before kissing it. "Just to prove that's what I'm doing…"

"Using me?"

"Uh huh," she said softly. God she sounded so fucking sexy when she whispered to him like this.

"I'll try not to get mad."

"Good, because I want you to come now."

"Now?"

"Yes."

"Well, you're the one kind of in control of that."

She slid her hands along his arms to his hands, sliding them to her hips. "You can be in control."

"Yeah?" he asked.

He loved being in control with her this way. Absofuckinglutely loved pressing himself into her as she rode him because when he had control she didn't just sit there. She met his thrusts. She slid her mouth to his, kissing him as he did just as she wanted him to do.

She broke the kiss after she'd finished, sliding her mouth to his ear again.

"Love you," she whispered barely loud enough for him to hear.

Ridiculously, that barely heard utterance sent him over the edge probably as much as being inside of her by itself did.

"Love you, too," he said.

They weren't to the point that they said it all of the time or anything, so she'd surprised him saying it. He assumed after the one time she said it he wouldn't hear it again for a while. He knew she was a little unsure about saying it. He was, too, but he was a little more comfortable with his feeling that way than she was. That was the impression he got anyway.

"And thank you," he said, finding her neck.

"For?"

"Saying that?"

"Well, it's how I feel."

"I know, sweetheart, I'm glad. I just like hearing it once in a while. You know? A guy likes to know his woman's heart is in the same place. That he's making her happy."

"My heart isn't going anywhere."

"Good to know. Mine's not either so we're good there."

"Good."

"You need to get up, you know that, right?"

"Nuh uh."

"Ya huh," he said. "You could maybe fall asleep in what you're wearing, but I have to wear this suit again tomorrow."

"No fair," she whispered against his neck.

"I know. You could've waited until we were undressed and ready for bed."

"That would've been no fun."

"No fun? Really?"

She laughed softly, kissing his neck.

"Okay, not as fun."

"Well, I always love when you do that. You know that."

"I felt bad you thought you couldn't initiate."

"I'm sorry? That was because of what I said hours ago?"

"No, it wasn't. I just didn't want you to think I wouldn't want to because he's here."

"Well, I would've understood."

"I know. I wouldn't have. I told you, I'm done letting him have that power over me."

"I'm glad."

"I don't want to move."

He chuckled softly. "Well, I can move you to your spot on the bed and take the dress off you."

"Something tells me we'd end up doing that all over again if you did."

"Maybe," he said. He couldn't deny undressing her always did that to him.

"Then go ahead."

"Yeah?" he asked, sliding her off of his lap and onto the bed. "I always like sex with you after I've undressed you."

"Why?"

He shrugged. "It's like Christmas. I get to unwrap you and have what's inside the packaging, too."

"It's not December, though."

"I know, this is even better. It's like Christmas all year round," he said, sliding his hands along her thighs to roll her stockings down and off.

"You say the sweetest things sometimes."

"Only sometimes?" He kissed her inner thigh before doing the same to her panties he'd done to her stockings.

"Well, if I say all of the time you'll stop saying them thinking you do enough."

"Huh," he said, taking a second to stop undressing her long enough to kiss her clit. He didn't pull away right away, chuckling softly as she pressed herself against his mouth. She slid her hands to his hair as he licked her there. He slid a finger inside of her, groaning softly at how wet she was around it. Because of him. Fuck that was more of a turn-on than he thought it'd ever be.

"John, please," she whispered and he slid a second finger inside of her. He started focusing on her clit a little more seriously than he had been initially. He'd just meant to tease her as a response to her saying she thought he thought he'd ever think he did enough. He knew he couldn't possibly do enough. Not as much as she deserved in his mind anyway.

"That sweet enough for you," he asked, grazing her inner thigh with a kiss again.

"It was pretty good, yeah."

"You seemed to like that."

"You've never done that before."

"I have to!"

"No, not that. I know you've done that to me before, but not after…"

"Oh, yeah," he shrugged. "Can't say I ever have before. You seemed to like it, doesn't seem much different than me kissing you after you've gone down on me or I have you. I can't say I'd do it every time or use my tongue anywhere else…"

"I didn't ask you to, your fingers were just fine."

"Fuck were they, I got hard feeling how wet you were."

"You helped."

"Oh, I know, I guess I've never," he shrugged. "You know, never felt the product of our efforts."

She laughed softly, sliding a fingertip along her inner thigh where he'd kissed her. She reached for his hand, bringing it to her mouth. He watched rather entranced as her eyes fell closed as she licked his fingers clean.

"I like the product of our efforts."

"Yeah?"

"Yes."

"I can certainly deliver more product."

"You haven't finished unwrapping me yet."

"You distracted me!"

"You licked me!"

He chuckled at that. "Let me see the zipper, Princess," he said as she turned onto her side so he could work the zipper on her dress. "I like unzipping much better than zipping."

"Me, too," she whispered.

"Good."

"How much more product do you think you have?"

"As much as you want, sweetheart, barring some recovery time."

"See, there you go, saying sweet things again."

"I try my best."

Return to Top

***Chapter Nineteen***
Word Count: 4,301

April 1995

It had moronically been the longest three weeks of his life. He'd had some pretty shitty ones before, too, so for these last three to rank as the worst was saying something.

Forget not seeing or talking to her, both bad things in and of themselves he'd come to discover. The sleeping with her thing, though, was really what he found he missed. It wasn't even the regular sex. She'd never said no, but he knew there were some nights that she was just too exhausted so he'd held his libido in check. The sleeping with her part, though, he missed that. A lot. He was becoming very familiar with what Cinderella sang about in You Don't Know What You've Got (Until It's Gone) because he'd never imagined missing sleeping with someone until now.

Moronic because it was his own fucking fault he hadn't been able to see or sleep with her. He had no one to blame but him and his big fucking mouth. He couldn't have kept it shut. No. He had to say probably the most insulting thing he could have said to her. He'd assumed after a few days she'd be willing to talk to him, but she'd been stronger willed than he gave her credit for.

He was stuck. He had no idea what the fuck to do. She wasn't answering his calls. She wasn't returning his calls. She wasn't answering her door. He could, he supposed, camp out on her driveway until she had to leave in the morning, but something told him she'd just call in sick to work until he left. Or call the police on him.

She was making it very difficult for him to fucking apologize. Not that he could blame her exactly. He hadn't exactly been … The world's nicest guy the last night he saw her. He wanted to claim it wasn't his fault, but he knew he could've handled it better. But, fuck him, if it'd come out of nowhere.

He'd contemplated sending her flowers, but knew that wasn't going to fix anything. She'd probably refuse them anyway. This was his last resort. He was taking the chance that she wouldn't publicly, in front of everyone she worked with, tell him to fuck off. Again.

Not that he didn't deserve it. He did. He knew he did.

"Did you have a bad weekend at your grandparents' house or something?"

"No, why?" she asked, picking at her salad. She hadn't touched much of the dinner they'd made together.

"I don't know. You don't seem like you're in a very good mood today. I was just making sure they were all right and everything." They may not have cared for him overall, but he thought they were decent enough people the one time he'd met them.

He'd basically invited himself over. She'd agreed, but she hadn't been as thrilled about it as he'd expected considering they hadn't seen each other since Wednesday.

"I'm fine. Just tired," she said, but she didn't look at him so he wasn't sure she was being honest.

"You saw your doctor, right?"

"Yes, last week," she said.

He thought he remembered her saying she was going on Thursday during her lunch hour. He hadn't seen her, or even spoken with her since then really because she went away for the weekend. So he wasn't sure she'd actually kept the appointment. He hadn't even realized she still visited her grandparents, but he supposed that shouldn't be a shock. Most people probably did things like that. She just hadn't mentioned it to him before Thursday night or anything. She hadn't asked him about looking after Tux either. Then he supposed leaving on Friday and coming back Sunday she didn't need anyone to look after him. He still would've checked on him if she'd asked.

"Everything's fine, right? I mean, you would've told me if everything wasn't fine."

"Yeah," she said.

"Okay," he said. She didn't sound overly convincing with that answer.

"It's just…"

"So there is something wrong?"

"No, I mean, yes, but not," she shrugged, setting her fork down.

"What is it Claire?"

She sighed softly. "I was really hoping she'd call back by now and tell me she was wrong."

"Wrong? About? Fuck, Claire, you're scaring me. It can't be that bad. You had the flu!"

"I know."

They'd been out, quite literally, all night the night of the movie premiere and its after-party. John had been thoroughly surprised not only by how well he liked the movie but the party afterwards. He hadn't expected to. He hadn't expected people from the movie to be … likeable or give a shit who he even was. Being out until the sun came out had taken its toll on her, resulting in her staying in bed until she absolutely had to get up so they could get to the airport on time. Allen had made some snide comment until Rene (thankfully) had informed him Claire had been in the hospital last month. He wasn't so snide after hearing that. John had insisted after that she go to the doctor even if he had to physically take her. Being out all night should not have exhausted her to that degree.

"So what then?"

"It's nothing."

"No, don't tell me that. I can tell you're lying."

She picked up her fork again, but she wasn't eating the salad any better than she had been the past ten minutes or so.

"It turns out I'm pregnant," she whispered after a pretty lengthy silence. He couldn't force her to tell him anything. He realized that, but he'd hoped with as concerned as he'd clearly been about her she'd tell him what was going on.

"I'm sorry. You're what?"

"Pregnant."

"You can't be…"

"I know, I told her that! That's why I keep waiting for her to call back and tell me it's wrong. She looked at someone else's test results instead of mine."

"How?"

"I don't know."

"Claire, you told me you were on the pill. You promised me we were safe."

"I am!"

"Obviously you did something wrong."

"I did not! I take it every day. Even in the hospital I did. You brought my purse with me, that's where I keep them."

"Well then?"

"I don't know! She said something about the antibiotics I was on that weekend possibly weakening the effect."

"And they wouldn't tell you that? Warn you to double up on something just in case?"

"I didn't admit myself, John! Remember? I was unconscious so my being on the pill wasn't a known factor."

"So it's my fault?"

"I didn't say that!"

"It sure sounds that way. How the fuck would I have known someone who'd never had sex before would be on the pill?"

"You wouldn't," she admitted.

He hadn't believed her at first either. It hadn't even dawned on him that first time until afterward that they hadn't used anything. Totally out of character for him. He was usually over-militant about using them.

"Unless you lied to me."

"What?"

"Maybe you never were on the pill. You just told me that so I wouldn't use anything myself."

"No," she said. "I wouldn't do that."

"I'm sure every guy who's had that done to them gets told the same thing."

"I didn't lie to you!"

"All right. So, you've been pregnant, presumably since then. You were pregnant. How could you not know you didn't miss it?"

"I didn't think I did! It was super, super light. I told her that, too. I did, I swear. She said that was probably spotting when the egg was implanting itself. She said that happens sometimes and makes a lot of people think they're not pregnant."

"And you didn't know something was wrong?"

"No! I didn't even think about it."

"That was like eight weeks ago. Something tells me going back to my high school health class there should've been two of them in there somewhere."

"I've been tired, sick, stressed I thought it was something like that."

"It never occurred to you?"

"No."

"No?"

"No!"

"I don't know. It's awful convenient you getting pregnant right around the same time April is."

"I didn't know she was pregnant for weeks after I… After we first did that."

"So you say. I have no way of knowing that."

"What?"

"Come on. She's your best friend."

"Yeah."

"That's what best friends do, do everything together."

"John."

"I don't want kids, Claire."

"I didn't mean to!"

"Still doesn't make me want them."

"But you said you wanted, implied wanting a future with me. Was that all bullshit?"

"I can want to marry you and not want kids."

"You don't think I might want to know that?"

"When I got to the point of actually asking you to marry me, sure. I didn't think, with you saying you were on the pill, that it would be an issue."

"You knew I wanted one, that I said I thought that was the only chance I'd get to have one."

"Yeah, why do you think I haven't told you I don't want them?"

"Get out."

"What?"

"Get the fuck out of my house."

Jessica, the only person he even knew to talk to something like this about, told him he'd fucked up. As if he didn't know that. She'd asked him what he was prepared to do about it. He didn't know. He didn't think she would stop talking to him entirely. He absolutely didn't want kids. He'd been so, so very careful to ensure that he didn't fuck that up.

So, here he was not at all sure she wasn't going to tell the receptionist to tell him to get the fuck out and have a security guard escort him out.

He wouldn't blame her. Didn't she get that the idea of having a kid to him was absolutely the most terrifying thing there was? He supposed not, because he'd never told her so.

It was late enough when he got there that he rethought the going up to the offices aspect of things. He'd been hoping to catch her at the end of her day so that they could actually talk. While searching for a place to park, though, the idea occurred to him that if he waited near her car she wouldn't have a choice but to at least hear him out.

As long as it took her to get in her car and slam the door in his face, he supposed. It'd be better than the no chance he'd gotten to this point.

Rich had asked John more than once if everything was all right. He'd thought, incorrectly, John hadn't liked the movie. John had in actuality been very impressed with the movie. It turned out the actor playing Simon Forge had been a fan of the comics since before puberty so he had a pretty good handle on not just the character but the world. John hadn't told Rich what was going on, it wasn't his business. He sort of had an idea what Rich would tell him anyway.

The same thing Jessica had.

Jessica knew him well enough to know that even though he didn't want kids, wanting something more serious from Claire was new for him. He'd never wanted a serious relationship before either. So, her point had been maybe the kid thing wouldn't be as bad as he thought it was going to be either.

Totally different thing there. Marrying someone was not reliving his childhood. He'd come awful close to hitting a woman for the first, and only, time in his life when he'd found that doctor bill. If she hadn't been taking a shower, if she'd been standing there next to him he couldn't say for certain he wouldn't have. That was how mad he'd been. Not just at her for getting whatever STD she'd gotten, but at himself for being so stupid.

He remembered that moment, though, the anger inside of him he'd never experienced before or since then. It had scared the shit out of him enough to swear off kids. No way was he going to become his old man. Nuh uh. It was the reason he'd walked out of her apartment instead of waiting for her to confront her about it. He'd been scared shitless of what he'd do.

He got out of his car when he saw her walking towards hers. It was late enough in the day he'd been able to find a vacated spot near hers to keep an eye out. He knew when she saw him. She didn't look pleased. He couldn't blame her he supposed.

"What do you want?"

"To talk?"

"Have you not figured out I don't want to talk to you?"

"I have, yes, however, I do want to talk to you."

"You were pretty clear the last time we talked."

"Claire, come on, you can't hold that against me."

"I can and I will."

"That's totally not fair! You'd had days to adjust to the fact you were pregnant before telling me. You're going to hold my reaction to something I didn't think was possible against me?"

"You accused me of lying. You basically were saying that I was a lying, scheming bitch out to trick you. That I can't forgive."

"What about the baby?"

"What about it?"

"What are you going to do? Not let me see it?"

"I work for a law firm. Have you forgotten that?"

He hadn't forgotten that, no, but Jesus fucking Christ. Could she really do that? Do something legal-wise to prevent him from seeing it? Her? He didn't know. He didn't think so, though, because dad's had rights. He knew that much. Then her lawyer would be her dad and brother who would probably scour every old law on the books to find one that suited their needs.

"You don't want kids anyway, so why do you care about seeing it?"

"I don't! I wasn't ever planning on it."

"Well, then, don't worry about it. We'll be fine."

"That's your plan?"

"You were hoping I wouldn't have it? I've done that once. I still have nightmares. I'm not doing that again."

"No, of course not."

"I don't believe you. That would surely be nice and convenient for you."

"None of this is convenient, but I wouldn't want you to do that, no."

"Don't worry about it. Okay? I'll be fine."

"Claire, come on."

"No, John. You don't get to say those things and then think showing up here will make it all better."

"I know it won't make it all better. I realize what I said wasn't nice."

"That's an understatement."

"Again, though, you had days to process it. That's why you went to your grandparents' house, I bet. I wondered why you hadn't mentioned it to me beforehand. So you get four days to process and digest the news but I don't? That doesn't seem fair."

"My first thought wasn't that you'd done it on purpose. Or tricked me somehow into getting me pregnant all so I could be pregnant at the same time as my best friend."

"I know. I'm not saying I reacted well."

She scoffed at that.

"I have to go, John."

"Claire, come on, I drove down here."

"I'm sorry you wasted your time. I'll save you the effort for any other time. Don't bother."

"Fuck, Claire, I love you."

"Sure."

"You don't believe me?"

"No. I don't think you ever did."

"Oh, come on."

"Someone who loved me wouldn't have accused me of lying to them."

"Someone who's scared to death of turning into his own father might."

"You're not your dad."

"I didn't ever want to find out if I was."

"John…"

"No, that's half my kid. I get a say in this shit, too. I'm here, aren't I? You think I'd come down here if I didn't realize what I'd said, how I'd reacted wasn't the worst thing I could've done to you."

"You're right, it was."

"I know that. I'm trying to apologize."

"You still don't want a baby."

"But I'm going to have one! So, that sort of negates the not wanting one thing. Don't you think?"

"No."

"So you're going to raise it by yourself?"

"People do it all of the time."

"Not you! Not my kid."

"Just pretend you don't have one. Easy solution."

"I can't do that! I mean, come on, you thought I'd be happy?"

"Well, no, but I didn't think you'd accuse me of doing it intentionally. I thought you'd understand about the antibiotics thing."

"I don't understand because I don't get it, I guess. That happens? I mean, it must, but people are on the pill and take antibiotics."

"I think it was the potency of them. I'm not sure. I'm sure there might have been other, different options if they'd known I was taking it."

"That maybe should've been something I knew. Don't you think?"

"I didn't want you to think I was planning on having sex with you! Or use it as an excuse to try and get me to have sex with you."

"Well, I understood why you'd been on it when you explained it to me, so no I wouldn't have thought that."

"Really? How many women talk to you about their periods, John?"

"Well, none," he said. "I mean, I knew my mom had it and stuff. I'm not a complete fucking moron."

"It wasn't something I felt I needed to share with you. I wasn't on it for the purposes of sex so I didn't think it mattered."

"As it turns out, it mattered a lot, wouldn't you say?"

"I didn't know!"

"I never told you the day I found that doctor bill I got mad."

"You did, too."

"No, I mean, mad enough that if she'd been standing there I am pretty sure I would have hurt her."

"You wouldn't have seen the bill if she'd been standing there."

"Valid point, however, the anger was still there."

"You left, though," she said.

"Yes."

"So it hasn't occurred to you over the past six or seven years that you could've waited for her to get out of the shower? You could've gone into her bathroom? You could've done all sorts of things to confront her and let that anger out? You didn't. You left."

"Well," he said. He hadn't thought about it like that, sure. She was right. He hadn't. He'd left. "No, I guess I never thought of that."

"Trust me. My dad and Christopher defend men all the time who didn't turn around and leave the room like you did. So please don't talk to me about anger issues you may have."

"Those men probably didn't grow up the way I did, though."

"Maybe, maybe not."

"Claire, come on, can we talk about this?"

"Talk about what?"

"What we're going to do."

"I don't want to do anything. I told you, I'm fine. We'll be fine."

"I have the right to see it."

"Fine, after it's born I'll let you know."

"That's months from now."

"That's usually how long it takes, yes."

"You're not going to see me between now and then?"

"Why should I?"

"I want to?"

She sighed softly, shaking her head. "I have to go, John."

"Claire. You don't have to do this by yourself."

"You going to come to doctor appointments with me? Breathing classes?"

"If you wanted me to I could, sure. It's not like my schedule is cast in stone, you know that. I just want to see you."

"Why?"

"The past three weeks have been hell?"

"Maybe you should've thought about that…"

"And again, you had some time to adjust to the situation. I didn't get that! I thought we were being careful."

"I thought so, too."

"You had to have suspected?"

"Not really. A little, I guess. The spotting threw me, so I just assumed I was late. I don't know."

"Are you late often?"

"No," she admitted.

"So, you knew."

"No, I didn't know because the pill is supposed to prevent that from happening!"

"I'm not accusing you."

"I mean, I guess, some of the symptoms should have been obvious, but I haven't been feeling sick or anything."

"Well, that's good."

"I can't talk to you about this."

"Why not? Who else are you going to talk to about it to?"

"I don't know."

"Please tell me no one else knows yet?"

"Why?"

"I don't know. I can just imagine what you told them about me if they do."

"Sonia asked me why you haven't called or been there lately, but I haven't said anything, no."

"So, you had to know by my calling you and trying to talk to you that I realized I acted like an asshole."

"That doesn't mean I wanted to talk to you."

"I get that. I'm sorry. If I could do it again…"

"I'm sure."

"I'm not going to be that kind of dad."

"You don't want kids."

"Yeah, well, I'm still not going to walk away from one that is mine. You're right, ideally I'd have none."

"I still can't believe you didn't tell me that."

"Why?"

"You don't think I'd want to know?"

"Of course, and you would have broken up with me over it because I knew you wanted kids."

"And that means you're an asshole."

"No, it doesn't. It means I love you and wanted to be with you and I was hoping by the time we'd get to that point you'd have had time to hear me out on the subject."

"Never mind I wanted one?"

"Well, people go through life without kids."

"Not who want them! And can!"

He shrugged. He supposed she had a point.

"I don't know what you want me to say. I thought if you loved me we could work it out when the time came. I really did. I mean, it's not like I asked you to marry me and waited until we were married to say anything. I didn't think it was anything I had to worry about for a while yet anyway."

"I can't do this right now, John. I'm late."

"For what?"

"Dinner with some friends."

"Anyone I know?"

"Some of them."

"I could…"

"No, you can't. Not tonight. I'm leaving. When I'm ready to talk to you I'll let you know."

"Claire."

"I'm pregnant, John. There's no baby yet. There are no laws telling me I have to let you see me. I suppose the ultrasound could be an iffy thing since technically that's seeing the baby, but that's not for a while yet."

"So you're just not going to see me again for months?"

"I don't know yet."

"Did you miss me at all?"

"I have to go," she said, reaching for her car door then. He opened it for her. "I can do it!"

"I know you can. Fuck, I've opened your door for you before. Chill out."

"Don't come here again, John."

"I'm making no promises to that, Claire. I reacted badly, I won't deny that, but you of all people should understand why having a kid might possibly scare the shit out of me. I'm not just going to give you the chance to forget about me for the next seven or so months."

"Why?"

"Because I love you. Because that's my kid. I'm not going to give you the chance to find out you can do it all on your own to where you think you don't even need me. I've made it perfectly clear I want a future with you. This is a little backward way of doing it and a little faster than I'd had in mind. I was thinking a year or two maybe, you know. I know Allen's not the only one who thinks I'm an opportunist, latching onto you and your salary."

"I'm not marrying you."

"I didn't ask you to! Fuck. I wouldn't do that right now anyway. Give me some credit. I know a baby is not a reason to get married. Trust me. I know that first hand."

"I suppose you do."

"Thank you! Drive safe. You're not drinking are you?"

"No," she said with a shake of her head.

"You had to have a clue," he said.

"Why?" she asked with a frown.

"You didn't drink much at all the past couple of months."

"Because it made me sick! Every time I tried to drink something I got sick so I didn't try after a while. I just assumed it was residuals of being sick. It's not like I drank every day or anything to begin with so it wasn't a big deal for me not to do it."

"I know," he said. "I'm glad, though, you couldn't drink for whatever reason."

"I am, too," she admitted.

"Be careful then, all right?"

"Yeah," she said.

"And Claire?"

"What?" she asked and he could tell she was ready to leave.

"I really am sorry about what I said."

"I believe you want to be, but I'm not sure I believe you really are."

"Yeah," he said. He couldn't make her believe him. He let her go then, closing her door for her and letting her pull out of her spot.

He saw her brother walking to his car when John was leaving the garage, but he didn't see John which was probably fine for now.

She'd talked to him at least. That was better than the nothing he'd gotten out of her for weeks. Fuck. She really would do it by herself, too. He knew that. He also knew that she wouldn't lack for guys wanting to pick up where John left off. That part bothered him immensely. It'd been on the tip of his tongue to tell her the reason he wasn't going to just go away was that so she couldn't meet someone else. He realized that would be insulting so he'd, wisely, refrained from putting his foot in his mouth again with her on this subject.

Return to Top

***Chapter Twenty***
Word Count: 8,022

"Hello?" John said sleepily. He'd put his head down on his desk for a few minutes, trying to clear his head a bit. He'd been drawing like shit today for some reason. All weekend really, but today had been the worst of it. A bit had turned into over thirty minutes now he realized.

'Hey, John, it's Chris. Christopher Standish.'

"Yeah, hey, Chris." John said. Christopher had never called him before, but John was half asleep so that part didn't really register.

'You busy?'

"Not particularly, no. What's up?"

'I think you may want to get down to Rush Presbyterian as soon as you can.'

"Uh, okay," he said.

'Claire's here.'

"Oh," he said, suddenly a lot more awake than he had been a minute ago.

'She was in a car accident.'

"Is she okay?"

'I just really think you should get down here, okay?'

That didn't sound good. He'd tell her if she was okay, wouldn't he?

"Yeah, sure," he said, regarding the clock again.

'I'm her emergency contact so it's just me here, but I think she's going to want you anyway.'

"I'm not so sure of that," he said.

'I know you haven't seen one another too much lately. I really think she will, though. I'm the one making the call because I think you'll want to be here. You'll come?'

"Yeah, of course. I'll get there as soon as I can," he said.

It was late enough in the evening he wouldn't have to deal with five o'clock rush hour. He knocked on Jessica's door, grateful she was home so she could at the very least take Sammy out for him so he didn't have to waste time doing that.

"He didn't say what happened?"

"No, just that she was in a car accident."

"Oh," she said, looking a little worried then.

"What?" John asked.

"Nothing, I'm sure it's nothing."

"No, what?" he asked.

"Well, I had a friend… She had some complications because of a car accident."

"Complications?"

"Yeah, with the baby. They had to deliver him early. He was distressed or something."

"Oh," John said, not even realizing that was done. Huh.

"That doesn't happen all of the time or anything. I mean, I also know someone who fell down some stairs and she and the baby were fine. So, who knows what causes things to happen? I shouldn't have said anything, now you're worried. I'm sure she'll be fine."

"I hope so," John said. Then would Chris be calling him, knowing they weren't exactly on speaking terms right now if she was okay? He wasn't sure.

He made it down there in decent time, finding the room number Christopher had given him.

"Oh, hey, Michael," John said. He supposed it made sense Christopher's son would be here, too. He just hadn't expected it, especially since Christopher had said it was just him. "How are you?"

"Good," he said.

"Good to hear. How's school?"

"Almost done!"

John chuckled softly at that. He remembered feeling that way very well. Grade school hadn't been so bad, but as he'd gotten older John loathed the confines of school and craved the freedom of summer. Mike wasn't that old yet, so he was sort of surprised to hear that answer from him. Then with only a month left he supposed any kid was a little anxious this time of year. Weather was getting nice, kids wanted to be outside all the time not just some of the time. At least that was how John had been when he was the kid's age. Even in high school he'd preferred being outside even if his activities weren't legal while being outdoors.

"I hear that. It'll go by fast and then summer will be here."

"Hey, John," Christopher said.

"Hi," he said.

"Glad you could come."

"Sure. I'd do anything for her. What happened?"

"Not sure, really. She got rear-ended and pushed into the intersection, causing her to get sideswiped."

"Jesus," he said. "Is she okay?"

"She's okay, yes," he said. "Banged up and bruised. A broken arm."

"Wow, okay," he said. John would like to see what Christopher defined as being not okay. A broken arm was pretty serious as far as John was concerned.

"Michael," Christopher said, pulling out his wallet. "Why don't you go down to the cafeteria and get Dad and John a couple of Cokes, okay? Get yourself something, too."

"Sure," he said, taking the money Christopher offered him and ran off in the direction of the elevators.

"Sorry. He's nine, you know, I don't want him repeating some things to my parents or his friends at school."

"Right, I get it."

"The doctor isn't so sure about the, uh, baby though."

"The baby?"

"Yeah, something about bleeding, the placenta. Heartrate isn't as strong as they'd like it. I'm not sure. We're waiting for the on-call OB/GYN to come in and look at her."

"Is she okay?"

"She's groggy. They gave her something to calm her down a bit."

"Is that safe?"

"The doctor seemed to think it was safer than having her stress over whether the baby was going to be all right. She told him she'd been having some somewhat heavy spotting for the past couple of days and I guess there was quite a bit of visible blood after the accident and she was freaking out over that."

"I suppose," he said. He could see why she would freak out over that. That wasn't supposed to happen when you were pregnant. Even John with his lack of experience knew that.

"How far along is she?" Chris asked.

"Uh," John shrugged. "Like three months," he said, using Valentine's Day as a benchmark was kind of easy.

"The doctor said they may be able to stop the bleeding, but if there's an abrupted placenta they can't fix that."

"Okay," John said. "Am I supposed to understand what that means?"

"I have no idea what that is beyond what they explained to me. It's where they get their nutrients and oxygen, basically everything from the mother comes through that. It's supposed to be attached, fixed. It, like breaks from being attached. She'd be on bedrest basically for the next six months. There are issues potentially to the baby. Oxygen being cut off, lack of nutrients, and stuff."

"Oh," John said.

"That's why I called you. She was very distraught at the possibility of losing the baby, but the doctor told me that this far along there really isn't anything to do. Bedrest would not guarantee anything."

"Yeah, I got it," John said, not at all sure how he felt about that. He was just wrapping his mind around the fact she was really pregnant.

"It can be pretty dangerous to her, too. Kidneys and stuff, blood loss."

John sighed softly. "What do you want me to do?"

"Talk to her. See if you can get her to understand what's possibly happening here."

"Which is?"

Christopher glanced at the floor then.

"Oh," John said.

"We're talking the possibility of a slim chance of the baby surviving if that's what it is. The placenta thing I mean. She thinks she did something wrong. She seems to think she won't have another one. I don't know what your situation is, but I'm hoping you can assure her that this isn't her only chance for having a baby. I don't want her spending the rest of her life thinking she could've done something different tonight."

"Well, yeah, me, too." Of course there were things Christopher didn't know that would make Claire feel doubly guilty about losing a baby now. Fuck, John wasn't even in the car with her and he felt it, too. If they'd been talking would she have been going wherever she was going tonight?

"I'll go find Michael."

"Sure," he said, watching Christopher walk toward the elevators. He hated hospitals. He really did. Her last visit here hadn't been awful. She'd been sick. Ironic that that visit led to her being here today.

"I told him not to call you," she murmured when he walked into the room.

"Of course he's going to call me. He's going to assume I care about you and the baby, which I do. You may not want to believe that and I realize I haven't heard its heartbeat or anything as you probably have, but it's still mine."

"I didn't want him to bother you."

"Bother me? Claire, it's not a bother."

"John, I…"

He slid his hand into hers.

"Those things you said. Hurt me."

"I know they did. I said I was sorry."

"You know, it wasn't even that you thought I'd lied to you that hurt."

"No?" he asked.

"No! It was that you thought you could withhold the fact you didn't want kids from me when I'd told you I did. You thought that was right?"

"Well, no, I thought it would be an issue to discuss when we were actually to the point of doing something more permanent."

"It hurt, though. I felt incredibly used."

"I didn't mean to do that, Claire. I wasn't using you. Fuck. You started this whole thing. Remember that? You slept with me, remember? I didn't do either of those things."

"I know. I just, God, I couldn't believe you'd say those things and do that to me."

"Don't. Okay. I've said I'm sorry. I expect I'll be saying a lot more sorries for the next while. I am sorry. Just don't. Calm down. It's not good for you to get all excited right now."

"They gave me…"

"Yeah, I know. I can see it in your eyes. It's been a while and I was never in a controlled environment like a hospital, but I recognize the look well. They were worried you were going to stress out too badly."

"Yes, but that can't be good …"

"I know," he said.

"I can't do that again, John."

"Claire," he said. "You're not going to do anything. I mean, not like before, it just may not survive. That's not at all the same thing."

"But I don't want to lose it."

"Better than losing you. You can have another baby."

"Not yours."

"Yes, you can. You think I'm going to let you have someone else's baby?"

"Yes, but…"

"Claire, don't stress. Okay? That does neither of you any good. The doctor they're waiting for will be here and will know what to tell you. Maybe it's not as serious as they're saying it is. I promise you we'll have another one."

"Yes, but…"

"You keep saying that. Come on. Give me a little while. Okay? Get married maybe and then we can do that. You aren't the only one who's had the last month or so to think things through. Maybe you not talking to me was good, I don't know. I know the idea of you marrying someone else and having their babies pisses me off."

"You're just saying that so I stay calm."

"No, I'm not. A year or so, maybe? I want you to trust me before I ask. You know? You think I want you breaking up with me and going off to find someone else to marry and have kids with? No."

"Is that the only reason?"

"I love you! That's the reason. I know you may not believe me and I'm sure I'll have an insane amount of groveling to do to make up for what I said to you, but I'm willing to do that. I need you here, though, in order to do it. I mean, bad stuff can happen to you. You get that, right? I'm not a doctor, but I realize that you need your kidneys. Obviously we can make them. We will again."

"You don't want…"

He shrugged. "You want. I want you happy. You had a point in what you said on how I reacted to Tina. I just, it scared me, you know? Getting mad enough I wanted to do something. I really wanted to hurt her."

"I know," she whispered. "I'm sure part of that was because you'd trusted her and probably thought about being with her without one."

Maybe. He'd never thought about it like that, but she had a point. He'd never contemplated not using a rubber with anyone but Claire. He'd been with women who'd claimed to be on the pill before, but they were never anyone he was serious enough about to forego the extra protection from things the pill didn't prevent.

"I don't have a real good example on how to be a dad."

"I know."

"I may fuck up."

"I know that, too."

"Obviously, I already have."

"I understand why you thought that."

"No, I know better than to think you'd do that deliberately. I really do. I just, it was a knee jerk reaction, you know? Every guy's fear come true. I'm twenty-nine years old and believe it or not, I've never heard those words directed at me before. Not even with an 'I think' in front of them."

"I'm sorry."

"Don't be sorry. I'm sorry."

"Where's Christopher?"

"Letting us talk."

"He didn't tell my parents."

"Oh," John said. That explained why he didn't want Michael overhearing their conversation.

"Have you told anyone?"

"No," she said.

"Why not?"

She shrugged. "I don't know. You hurt me so badly and made me so mad it was hard for me to be excited. I almost felt guilty for wanting to have it. Or like I really had done something wrong."

"And again, I'm sorry," he said.

"If I did they'd ask me how you felt and then I thought about what I'd say to that. So, I just didn't say anything," she said.

Yeah, he could imagine what her friends would say if she'd repeated to them what he'd said.

"I, uh, told Jessica."

"You did?"

"Well, I had to talk to someone. You weren't returning my calls."

"What did she say?"

"She was the one who suggested groveling."

Claire laughed a little, stopping herself almost immediately.

"You okay?"

"Just aches."

"Well, then don't laugh. Certainly not at my expense."

"I know."

"Just wait and see what the doctor says, all right? There's nothing you can do at this point anyway. Worrying about it certainly won't help either of you. What happened?"

"I don't know! I was stopped at a stop light. This guy ran into me. It happened so fast. I didn't even see him come up from behind me. I tried to stop my car from being pushed into the intersection."

"It's hard to stop that."

"I know that now," she said. "I'm pretty sure my car is totaled."

"Better than you being totaled."

"I suppose," she said.

"Did the guy get a ticket, I hope?"

"I don't know. It took the police and everything a while to get there. I stood from the seat and saw so much blood, John. It scared the shit out of me. I told the EMTs I was pregnant and they rushed me here."

"Your brother said you told the doctor you'd had some bleeding before tonight?"

"Yes, the past few days. I was going to see my doctor tomorrow just to be safe."

"So, you knew…"

"I knew that much blood was bad. I mean, it was way more than just spotting."

"He hit you that hard?"

"Yes. Or there was something wrong and the accident just exacerbated it."

"Are you all right otherwise? Other than the arm, obviously."

"Yes. I just ache."

He chuckled softly. "I bet you do."

She shivered as she shifted a bit on the bed. She had a thing attached to her stomach, monitoring the baby he imagined so she couldn't move much or turn over or anything.

"Cold?"

"A little."

He reached for the covers then and she grabbed his hand. She was real lucky she'd broken her left arm. He couldn't imagine writing legal documents with her left hand would be much fun.

"Don't," she whispered.

"What? Why not? You just said you were cold."

"I know. I just," she shook her head.

"Claire, I don't know what you think I'm going to do here. I'm just going to move the sheet and blanket a bit so it's covering you better."

"I know. I've just been bleeding so much. I'm a mess."

He frowned at that. She really thought he gave a shit about that? Maybe so.

"Move your hands, Claire. I can handle it."

"But…"

"Claire. Come on. We spent the bulk of our nights at one or the others place. You don't think I realize that's part of it?"

"Yeah, except I didn't…"

"Yeah, I know that now. I realized the past month that I should have noticed that myself, but I didn't. Other than my mom I've never really been around it to pay it any attention. Still, it's not going to bother me."

"Different."

"Yeah, all right, you did just hear the part earlier where I said to give it a little while right? Marriage suggests I'd be around it all of the time. So, trust that I'm not going to run away screaming and just move your hands for John. Please, Princess?"

She was having trouble focusing on his face but he could tell she didn't believe him. He tried to picture his dad having even remotely a conversation like this with his mom. Nope, couldn't fathom it in a million years. His mom would've just stayed cold if this was them here tonight. He had to believe the doctors knew what they were doing giving her whatever they'd given her. She was coherent so wasn't sedated out of her mind, but he could see in her eyes that she was definitely on something. Either that or they were more certain she was in the process of losing the baby than they were letting on and didn't want her freaking out about it. That last thought bothered him more than he realized it would. Him, for his sake, not just for hers.

"What?" he asked as she finally did as he asked so he could bring the blanket around her better.

"You said please."

"Because I really wanted you to move your hands."

"Thank you," she whispered.

"Sure," he said.

"Sorry you have to keep visiting me at hospitals."

He chuckled softly at that.

"Me, too."

She slid her hand out from under the blanket and found his, sliding her fingers over the back of his hand.

"You know, I covered you so you could get warm."

"I'm sorry."

"About what?"

"I shouldn't have even told you."

"What?" he asked. "Of course you should have told me."

"Then you wouldn't have to sit here with me."

"Fuck, Claire, I'm sitting here with you because that's what people do for one another. I'm not sitting here because of the baby."

"I just…"

"Hey, you think I want you going through this alone? Not a chance in hell I'd do that to you."

"You shouldn't have to…"

"Well, I helped make it so I say I should have to."

She sighed softly, gripping his hand. Her grip wasn't super tight right now.

"I love you," she whispered.

"I'm relieved to hear you say that. I love you, too."

"I swear I felt my heart stop beating when you said that to me."

"I know. I'm sorry, Claire. If I could say it a thousand times over I'd tell you I'm sorry."

Christopher and Michael came back, apparently hoping the OB would have been in by now. No such luck. They probably figured Claire was stable so other cases that were direr took precedence.

"So did you get to see the Simon Forge movie yet, Michael?" John asked.

"Yeah, Dad took me last weekend."

"How'd you like it?"

"I liked it!"

"Yeah? I did, too."

"You saw it?"

"I did with your Aunt Claire out in California with Wren Savage and everything."

"Really?" he asked.

"Yup. It was very cool."

"How do you know him?"

"Well, I don't, really. You aunt's best friend is married to him, so I know him by way of knowing her I guess."

"Cool," he said.

"Listen," Christopher said, walking up to Claire then. "I'm going to go see what's taking the doctor so long. I understand they might be backed up, but you sitting here worrying isn't doing either of you any good."

"Okay," she said.

"Is it okay if Mike stays here?" Christopher asked, glancing at John.

"Yeah, sure," John said.

"Thanks," he said. "You sit and watch TV or whatever. Don't bother Aunt Claire right now."

"I know, Daddy, I won't," he said with a bit of an attitude in his voice. John had to stop himself from laughing. He couldn't help but smile a bit. Of course his old man wouldn't have just given him a verbal warning and Mike's response probably would've earned him a slap across the mouth for being a smart ass.

"You're in third grade?" John asked, trying to remember what Claire had told him about her nephew. He didn't want to think about his dad right now.

"Yes."

"You like it?"

He shrugged.

"You're up pretty late tonight, aren't you?"

"Yeah, I think that's why Dad's checking on the doctor."

"I suppose," John said. "I could always take you home if it got to that."

"You're leaving?" Claire asked.

"Well, no, but if Christopher has to be here to talk to doctors and stuff."

"Oh," she said. He'd thought she'd been dozing off so was surprised she heard him. "I'd rather you…"

"I don't think I can," he said. He'd thought on that when Christopher went off in search of the doctor. John had absolutely no right to do anything. She wasn't his wife or anything. He knew she could've gone off and had an abortion and he wouldn't have any say. Really, if she chose to leave here tonight and remain on bedrest for the next six months despite the apparent odds suggesting the baby wouldn't survive he couldn't stop her. Christopher was hoping John would be able to make her see logic that was all.

"I suppose," she said.

It wasn't that late yet, not even nine o'clock, but he had no idea what time she'd gotten here before Christopher called him. Before knowing about the baby Christopher wouldn't have thought to call John more than likely. He had no idea how long the doctor was going to take either.

"What's the machine for?" Mike asked.

"To monitor heartrates I think," John said evasively. John wasn't sure how to read the machine, but he knew one of the numbers was supposed to be a heartrate for the baby. Come to think of it, no one had been in here since John had come in here to look at the sheets the machine was printing out. Was that a good or bad sign? He wasn't sure.

"Oh," he said.

"What'd you do at school today, Mike?" Claire asked. Evidently she wanted him focused on something other than the machine, too.

"Uh, you know, the usual. Math, reading, social studies, writing. We had gym today."

"Yeah? What are you doing?"

"Basketball," he said.

"You any good?" John asked.

"Yeah," he said. John could see that. He was a fairly tall kid, pretty lean, too.

"Did you get to go outside for recess?" Claire asked.

"Yeah."

"I suppose, it's May, not much indoor recess."

"No," he said.

"Well, good," she said.

Christopher came back and the doctor followed a few minutes later. Few minutes later being relative to the length of time they'd already been waiting anyway.

John took Michael out with him to the hallway.

"Where are we going?"

"I thought I'd ask one of the nurses for a piece of paper. Maybe I could draw you something to go with the picture I drew you at Christmas."

"Really?" he asked.

"Yeah, I have no idea how long they're going to be. If I don't finish it tonight I will and get it to you through your aunt, okay?"

"Sure," he said.

He got a piece of paper and a ballpoint pen from the nurse. No pencils evidently and took Mike to the waiting room.

"Your other one is in my locker at school."

"Really?" John asked.

"Yes. One of my friends didn't believe me that you were the same guy who draws the actual comics."

"He didn't, huh?"

"No. He just thought you were someone who could draw Simon real good. Or that I'd found it somewhere and copied it onto the paper. Or stole it."

John couldn't remember what he'd drawn the last picture on. Was it something he'd had to tear off? He didn't recall. He just remembered it had been Simon at Christmastime. Bad part of drawing in pencil, things like copying were possible.

"He reads the comics?"

"He does."

"Hmm," John said. He supposed at that age there could be some doubt about something like that. He wasn't sure he would've believed it either. He probably wouldn't have if he'd seen a picture of Spiderman or something in someone's locker at school either. He may have believed the artist drew it but that they'd personally given it to him, no.

"So, you like gym class?" John asked.

"Not really," Mike said.

"I never did much either."

"My dad did."

"Yeah, I'm sure your dad did," he said. His dad was Mr. All American so he probably loved sports before he knew what they even were.

They were both fairly quiet after that. The TV was on in the waiting room and Mike paid more attention to that, which was fine. He did watch John on and off.

"Is Aunt Claire going to be all right?" Mike asked after a while of both of them saying nothing.

"Sure, buddy, she'll be fine. She was just in a car accident. They happen all of the time."

"Then why does she need to see a doctor and stay here?"

John shrugged. "She was in an accident, two really from the sounds of it. She was hit twice. I think they just want to be sure she's all right."

"Oh," he said.

"She'll be fine, though. Really. Didn't she seem fine?"

"She was talking funny."

John sighed softly at that, surprised the boy comprehended that. "They gave her some medicine to make her that way. She's a little groggy. For pain, you know. You ever go to the dentist for a filling?"

"Yes."

"Kind of like that when they numb you up so you don't feel it."

"Oh."

"They want her to rest, that's all."

"You signed it," Mike said when John handed him the picture.

"Yeah, I don't draw as well with pen, can't erase any lines I didn't mean to draw. Your friend should believe you now, though," he said.

"Thanks," he said.

"Sure," he said.

Now John didn't have anything to do, though, and he was left wondering what the fuck was taking so long. He could've taken longer, but after hearing the other kid hadn't believed him about the first picture John drew at Christmas he wanted to be sure he finished what he'd started tonight.

Christopher found them a while later.

"Look at what John drew for me," Mike said.

"Hey that's good," Christopher said.

"Now Larry will believe I've met him."

"I guess he will have to, yeah," Christopher said. "I'm going to talk to John for a minute. Okay? You stay here and watch TV. I'll be right back and then we'll probably go home."

"Okay."

"She's okay?" John asked.

"Yes, she is. That's really your main concern?"

"What kind of a question is that?"

"I don't know. I know she hasn't been seeing much of you the past month or so."

"No," John admitted.

"And I find out tonight she's pregnant. I'm guessing the two go hand-in-hand."

"I can admit that," John said.

"You're worried about her, though?"

"Of course I am. She hasn't seen me. Not the other way around. You were married, but not when you found out your ex was pregnant. How well did you react to the news?"

"What?"

"I'm asking you to remember how you reacted when you first heard your ex was pregnant. I didn't react so well, you know. She hasn't really given me the chance to be all right with it. I can guarantee you she wouldn't have called me to come here tonight. I'm glad you did."

"I don't think you're going to have to worry about that anymore anyway."

"What?" he asked.

"The baby didn't survive, John. There's been no heartbeat for a couple of hours now going by the printouts, I guess."

"That's why they sedated her?"

"Yes."

"I thought that might be the reason."

"They're going to need to do a procedure," he said, explaining the process to John. Fuck, she was going to be devastated. Maybe not so much about having lost the baby, but from the sounds of it she was basically going to go through what she'd gone through before. That was absolutely going to crush her. She hadn't talked at length about it, but he knew she felt guilty and in some ways hated herself for what she'd done.

"So, they're going to put her under?" John asked.

"Yes, the doctor said normally they wouldn't, but she thinks it's best for Claire as distraught as she is."

John could imagine she was. Very distraught. John was the only one who'd understand why, too.

"All right."

"You're going to stay?"

"Yes," John said.

"All right. I've told them to call me for anything else, but I made the decisions I needed to make. Claire wanted to give it more time, but the doctor said it wasn't going to happen. Over an hour with no blood flow or oxygen, who knows what else. She's lost a lot of blood, too."

"Right," John said, getting it clearly.

Christopher glanced behind John, likely looking at Mike who was sitting in the room there watching TV.

"I'm sorry," he said.

"Thanks," John said. He wasn't sure how to even respond to that. He hadn't even had the chance to comprehend he was going to be a dad. Yeah, he'd had over a month to come to grips with the fact that she was pregnant, but it wasn't the same as what she was going through.

"I'm going to say something not so nice here," Christopher said.

"Okay," John said cautiously.

"I like you. I think you're good for my sister. She's been happier. She's always had friends, you know, but she's never been very good at forming relationships. April, well, I think that was because they found something they could do in common that extended beyond partying every weekend. Their theater. I was shocked she stuck with it. I figured it'd be a flash in the pan interest, not as popular as something else and she'd give up on it."

"Right," John said, wondering where the not so nice part was in this.

"I swear to God, though, you break up with her because of this…"

"Hey, talk to her. I'm not going anywhere unless she tells me to. I'd like very much to be a very permanent fixture in her life. I didn't have a great childhood so I didn't want kids, so when she told me initially I reacted badly. I can admit that, but that doesn't mean I don't love her."

"I'm just saying."

"I have no intention of going anywhere."

"She may push you away."

"I know," John said. He'd thought of that. He imagined the next little while wasn't going to be easy. He supposed he could talk to Jessica about her friend and what she'd gone through for some gauge on what to expect because John hadn't a clue. "I don't give up on things I have my mind set on."

"The doctor said she'd give you some names of people Claire might want to talk to. You might, too, I don't know. You don't seem like the type, but Claire may want to." She hadn't nine years ago, but that was a very different set of circumstances. In a way John hoped she would this time because he knew she was going to think she'd somehow done something wrong. Or that God was punishing her for the abortion she'd had. Something.

"All right, sure, I'll give them to her."

"Thanks for doing that for Mike. He was devastated that Larry kid wouldn't believe he'd met you. His mother living so far away I think makes it rough on him sometimes. Mostly it's mothers around, not usually the dad that does the things I do for and with him."

"I get that," John said. "It's not a problem. I like drawing, I particularly like drawing for people who like what I draw. He's a good kid and he's Claire's nephew so of course I'm going to do it."

"Okay. I'm going to get him home. If you need anything, give me a call."

"Are they doing that now then?"

"Yeah, I told them I'd tell you and they said they'd let you know when you can go in the room again."

"That fast?"

"I guess so," Christopher said. "It could fit in the palm of your hand, she said, at this stage. And that bothers you," he said.

"No, I mean, sure, but I guess I hadn't thought about it like that. How big it'd be at this point. I've barely had time to adjust to it happening."

"I didn't much either. Tammy was gone already and we weren't exactly cordial at the time, so I had next to no involvement. So I wouldn't have had a clue either. You want me to send Mike down to get you something before we go?"

"No, I can do it. Thank you."

"All right. If you need anything, call."

"I will," John said.

***

"You're here," Claire said, certain she was seeing things.

"You think I have somewhere else to be?" he asked.

"You look like shit," she said.

"I love you, too. What kind of thing to say is that?"

"No, you," she said, reaching for him. She pointed at his face.

"Oh, yeah, funny, I hear you're in the hospital after being in a car accident and things like showering and shaving weren't a priority for me."

"Oh," she said.

"It was a long weekend."

"Good or bad?"

"If you count the drawing I did for your nephew the best thing I've been able to draw since Friday good then sure."

"Sorry," she said.

"It's not your fault. I have moments like that now and again, it'll pass."

"What do you do?"

"Usually try to draw something I'm not working on. That's why the drawing I did for Mike was good. No pressure. No deadlines. Just drawing to draw."

"He liked it?"

"Yeah, said something about one of his friends not believing I really drew the one at Christmas for him."

"Oh, I didn't know that."

"Yeah, I was going to do something nicer, you know, maybe take a day or two but once he told me that I just did something quick. All I could find around here was a ballpoint pen so it's not my greatest sketch. It'll give him something to go to school with so the other kid doesn't think he's lying about meeting me."

"Thank you."

"You don't have to thank me."

"Still nice of you."

"If you say so."

She started crying then. She couldn't help it.

"Hey," he said. He grabbed a Kleenex from the stand next to her bed and wiped her eyes with it. He was no expert at doing it, but he tried. She gave him points for that.

"I just…"

"I know. I mean, I don't, I can't possibly, but it's absolutely not your fault."

"I know. She said that it may not have been caused by the accident at all just bad timing with the bleeding I'd been experiencing before and everything."

"It's possible. We'll never know. You can't stress over it."

"I just don't even know what to feel."

"You're allowed to feel whatever you want to feel, Claire. There's no wrong or right. Crying is fine. I just hate seeing it."

"I know," she said. "Did you mean what you said before?"

"What?"

"About us?"

"Well, I said a lot of things, but there's nothing I said I didn't mean."

"What changed your mind?"

"I told you. The idea of my unwillingness to do that with you leading you to someone else who is willing to do that with you. I don't want you with anyone else."

"I don't want to be with anyone else."

"That is very good to know."

"I shouldn't have gone to my grandparents' house. I should have told you right away."

"Why didn't you?"

"I couldn't believe it at first. You know? And then I don't know, I just needed time, I guess. I wondered if I'd done anything wrong the two months leading up to it. You mentioned drinking. I didn't do it a lot, but I did some."

"Yeah, I bet you're not the only one who doesn't realize they're pregnant and do things like that."

"I know," she said.

"Good."

"Are you going home?"

"No. Jessica has Sammy. I wasn't sure what was going on, but she said if she had to put him in my condo before she left for work in the morning she would."

"Good."

"He's missed you."

"He's missed my yard you mean."

He laughed softly. "Yeah, I guess I do."

"I've missed him, too."

"I bet I could convince him to come help me to get you settled in when they let you go home."

"You could, huh?"

"I think so."

"You know I can't for a while, right?"

"Can't what?" he asked.

"John…"

"I'm sorry. You think I'm inviting myself over to have sex with you now?"

"No, I'm just making sure you…"

"You must really think I'm an asshole, Claire. That wasn't even on my mind. Getting you home and comfortable was."

"No, I know, I just meant. It's going to be a while even before I can and I don't know if that's going to bother you."

"And again, that's not my priority."

"So you don't care?"

"Jesus. You haven't talked to me the past month, good reason or not. You think I'm worried about having sex with you right now? I'm more worried about being sure I do the right thing so you keep wanting me around."

She sighed softly. "I just wanted to be sure you knew."

"I know now. I don't care. I mean, I care." He sighed.

"Thank you."

"Sure," he said. He settled his head against her leg. She ran her fingers through his hair. "You're here over night then, I take it?"

"I think just to make sure there are no complications and the bleeding gets under control."

"You do know I realize that happens, right?"

"I know, it was just different. We've never. I've never."

"Yeah, I get it. I haven't really either. Certainly, covering you up wouldn't be an issue."

She sighed, settling her hand over his head. "You should go home," she said.

"I'm fine," he said.

"You're tired."

"Yeah, I'm worried about you, too, that comes first."

"They knew all along, didn't they?"

"I think so," he said. "I mean, I don't know. They didn't say, but Christopher and I guessed that's why they gave you something."

"I did, too."

"I'm sorry."

"It's not your fault."

"I know, but I can't help but think if we hadn't fought would you have been where you were tonight?"

"I would have because I was dropping papers off to a client."

"Oh," he said.

"It's not your fault anyway. Maybe it happened for a reason."

"Claire," he said, sounding cautious.

"I hadn't told anyone because," she shrugged. "I felt so stupid. You know? I was afraid of what my dad would say. And, yes, that's why I went to my grandparents' house. I spent the weekend with them, wondering how disappointed they were going to be."

"Jesus. It's a baby not gonorrhea."

"I know that, but you met them. You even know they liked you until they found out we'd slept in the same room together. They didn't stop liking you, but you knew the same as I did they didn't like hearing that."

"Yes."

"So, imagine them finding out I was pregnant."

"I can imagine it."

"I mean, I'm not happy about it and I'm not glad it happened or anything, but I really had no idea what to tell anyone. My dad," she shrugged.

"Yeah, I thought of your dad more than once the past month. That explains why I didn't get a visit from him. You not telling him yet, I mean."

"I just didn't know what to say. It sounded ridiculously stupid to me and I'm the one it happened to!"

"Well, I'm sure it must happen if your doctor said it does."

"I know. I still felt stupid."

"How would you have known to even ask? I've thought on it, too. Why would you have asked? Your doctor, the one who prescribed the pills to you, I mean, had no reason to tell you things like that because she knew you weren't using it for that reason."

"Yes."

"The hospital would probably have assumed you did know that and so wouldn't have said anything. Though they should, just as a precautionary measure. I mean, I know some women who've been on that for years. You think they remember warnings given to them initially? Probably not."

"Right."

"Are you going to be able to go back on it?"

"Yes," she said.

"I mean, I'm asking for you, regulating and stuff. Whatever the reason you were on it. I can't say I completely get it, but I understood enough to know it seemed necessary."

"I know."

"Good."

She sighed softly. God, she didn't want to be here. She felt utterly and completely … Lost. She'd only known for a month, which wasn't that long. Long enough, though, for her to focus on what she was eating every day. Long enough that she wondered if it would be a girl or a boy.

"That mean you're letting me take you home?" he asked, drawing her out of her thoughts. That was exactly what she needed, too, so she was grateful.

"Yes," she said, sliding a fingertip along his cheek. Even that spot was rough, stubbly. How long had it been since he'd shaved? She knew this wasn't just from this morning.

"Sorry," he whispered as if he knew what she was thinking.

"It's okay. I told you that day on the plane I don't mind it."

"You like the Grizzly Adams look?"

"I don't know. I've never kissed Grizzly Adams."

He snorted softly at that.

"You want to get the experience?"

She scrunched her nose and he laughed again.

"I guess that's a no."

"I don't mind what you have and I don't mind when you forget…"

"I get it. I have no desire to grow a beard anytime soon anyway. I just really forgot. I was having a shitty-assed weekend. I had actually put my head down on my desk for a few minutes, trying to clear my head when he called."

"I'm sorry he bothered you."

"That wasn't my point at all. Obviously I would want him to call me for you."

"I'm glad he did," she admitted.

"Yeah?"

"Yes," she said. "I'm glad you're here. I like him and everything, but he's not you."

"I'm glad, too."

"Come here for a second," she said.

"Here? I can't get any closer," he said.

She rolled her eyes. "No, here," she said, pointing to her face.

"Oh," he said, standing then and doing just that. He kissed her and she sighed softly, because she'd really missed kissing him.

"Probably more than the rest of it," she whispered.

"Huh?" he said softly in return.

"I was just thinking I really missed kissing you."

"Yeah, we definitely have that down pretty good."

"I'd say we've done the rest of it pretty well, too."

"We have," he said, kissing her again.

"Thank you," she whispered when he drew away.

He snorted softly, sitting down by her side again. "You're welcome. I missed it, too, by the way."

"Don't say something like that again."

"I won't. I learned my lesson, believe me."

"Thank you," she said.

"You're bossy when you're incapacitated."

"I guess I am."

"So, when I take you home tomorrow I'm stopping to get Sammy?"

"If you want to. He'll need to be let out by then I imagine."

"Yeah," he said.

"That's fine. He's welcome anytime. Tux may not be thrilled, but he'll make do."

"Am I staying then?"

"You do remember…"

"Claire! I remember. I'm not a douchebag. What guy would think you'd want to have sex after this just happened anyway is beyond me? Even if you could?"

"I'm sure there's someone out there. I know people who have babies like ten months apart."

"I'm sure there is, too, but not me. I'd just feel a lot better knowing you're resting and everything if I was there."

"That's fine."

"Fine?"

"You can stay."

"I like the sound of those words, Princess."

"You do?"

"Yup. Is your brother going to tell your dad?"

"I don't think so," she said.

"I don't think so either. Although two hospital visits in the last two months. Your dad is aware who my old man is. He might think…"

"He will not! Christopher would never let him think that anyway. Clearly I was sick in February. You didn't ram your car into me. I would tell him the truth if he thought something like that, John."

"Do I get to sign your cast?"

"Sign it? I'm expecting a John Bender original on it."

He chuckled softly at that. "You are, huh?"

"I am."

"I gave you one of those once."

"I know you did. I still have it."

"Do you?"

"Yup. It's in a box with some other things I moved to the house but didn't quite know what to do with them, but, of course I kept it. It was beautiful."

"You never said anything."

"I just forgot, I guess. Initially I didn't because you put it in my locker so I took that to mean you didn't want me to say anything about it."

"Not really. I would've denied it was me."

"I know, and recently," she shrugged. "I just hadn't thought about it until now I guess."

"I'd like to do another one."

"Why? There was nothing wrong with the one you did. I loved it."

"Yeah, I know things about you now I didn't then…"

"You cannot draw a naked picture of me."

"I can draw anything I want to, Princess. It's a free country last I checked."

"John," she said.

"Don't worry, I won't embarrass you."

"I doubt that!"

"No one would see it but me."

"I know," she said.

"And you."

"Obviously."

"I don't know. That one I might keep for myself."

"You wouldn't dare! If you're going to draw one I want to see it."

"Why?" he asked, sounding curious.

"I'd want to see how you see me."

"I'm not sure you can handle seeing how I see you."

"Why not?"

"Because I think you're pretty fucking amazing and whatever I'd draw of you that'd come through."

"You think that?"

"I do."

"Why?"

"The fact that you've gone through what you have. Before tonight. Add tonight into the mix and you're sitting here talking to me …"

"I can't do anything else."

"I know, but I'm sure it's tempting."

"It is."

"That's why I think you're amazing."

"Thank you."

"Welcome. You should try and get some sleep, though. If you want me to go home I can."

"No, but you're not going to be very comfortable here."

"I will be fine. Don't worry about me. Get some sleep," he said.

Return to Top

***Chapter Twenty-One***
Word Count: 4,532

She was settled in and resting with Tux by her feet when John went downstairs. Sammy stayed upstairs, too, which sort of surprised John. He figured he'd follow John down here. So much for loyalty. Either that or he just sensed Claire needed comfort. He'd suggested the couch since she'd been lying in bed at the hospital, but she figured since she had a TV and everything in her room there was no sense in adjusting throw pillows and everything to get comfortable just to have to do it again for her to go to bed. He'd do it, but she didn't really seem to want to be anywhere but her bed.

She'd been released late this afternoon and was understandably grateful to be home in her own bed with her cat and her own blankets that were much warmer and softer than hospital blankets. She'd eyed the bathroom, but decided to put off a shower until morning. She'd taken one at the hospital this morning, but he was sure it wasn't the same.

He'd be up there with her but she said she was hungry so he was down here to see what he could make for her. Soup and a sandwich would probably work best. He wasn't sure what she was in the mood for, she didn't exactly say. He had something to do anyway, so would've come down here anyway.

He picked up her phone in the kitchen, dialing out. He hadn't had a chance to do this last night and he'd been kind of dreading it all day.

"Hi, Stacey, it's John Bender. How are you today?"

"I'm good, John. How are you?"

"Oh, I'm all right, thanks."

"Just all right?"

"Yeah, you know one of those days."

"I do know, sorry to hear that. You didn't come see us when you were in town in March."

"I know I ran out of time. My girlfriend and her friends kept me a little busy. Next time, though, for sure."

"Good. We always enjoy seeing you."

"Thanks. Say, is Rich around?"

"He is. He's on another call, but it shouldn't be long so let me put you on hold."

"I really just need a minute of his time, but it is kind of important."

"Sure, let me slip him a note you're on the line. Okay?"

"Thanks, I appreciate it," he said.

He found some soup in the freezer. Her mom's soup he remembered from when she'd been sick in February. Her mom had made a whole batch of it so Claire had frozen it in single-serving plastic baggies instead of a big container. He would never have thought of doing that in a million years, but it was pretty handy. All he had to do was open the bag, put it in a bowl and reheat it in her microwave. One individual bowl of homemade soup in a matter of seconds. He was going to keep it in mind for the next time he made chili. He loved chili, but eating a whole pot of it for one person, even two people if Claire was going to help him, was a bit much. Freezing like this would be a great way to handle the leftovers.

The sandwich wasn't quite as easy, but he was on hold anyway so he could do a grilled cheese easy enough while he waited. He'd kind of laughed back in February when she'd been sick and chicken soup and grilled cheese had been her preferred thing to eat. He hadn't had a grilled cheese sandwich until that week in years. (He had to admit it tasted pretty damned good, though his preferred soup to go with a grilled cheese was tomato. Oddly that was the one fond memory of his mother he had, eating tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches with her when either one of them were sick.)

"Hey, John," Rich said.

"Hey, how's it going?"

"Oh, busy. You know. One of those days. I don't have a lot of time, but Stacey said it was important. What's up?"

"I was hoping you could find someone else to go to Kansas City this weekend."

"John, it's Tuesday evening. The convention opens Thursday night."

"I'm aware of that."

Silence.

John had made his request, he wasn't going to say anymore unless he was made to.

"Why don't you want to go to Kansas City?"

"It's not that I don't want to go, it's that I'm needed here."

"Needed there? What does that mean, John?"

"It means exactly what I said it does. I know you're not used to anyone needing me, but someone does. You can't just take my word for it and find someone?"

"John. Need I remind you the movie just came out? This is it, buddy. I don't know about you, but I hear the cash register drawers opening as we speak."

"I don't need a reminder, no," he said, sighing softly. Of course, Rich and the other executives stood to make the most money. He was sure he'd see something, somewhere but nowhere near what the suits would.

He really didn't want to do this, but here it went. He'd never in all the years he'd worked with Rich pulled the personal issue card. He'd gone where he was told to go. He'd gone sick more than once. He rarely complained.

"Claire had a miscarriage last night, Rich. She's got a broken arm, too. She just got home from the hospital about an hour ago. I'd rather not leave her alone because she's hurting. Is that needed enough for you?"

"Oh, I had no idea."

"Obviously because I didn't tell you. I thought after years of never saying no I'd be allowed a free pass without delving into personal shit I didn't want to share."

"Hey, don't get snappy with me."

"I'm not. One time I call and ask you to find someone to replace me in the years I've been doing this and you bust my balls about it. I shouldn't have to tell you my personal business to get out of it once."

"You're right. I just wasn't expecting that as your answer."

"I'm not sure what answer you were expecting?"

"I don't know either. We'll take care of it."

"Thank you," he said.

"Is she all right?"

John shrugged as he buttered the second slice of bread before setting it on top of the cheese slices already on the other piece of bread in the pan toasting. Rich obviously couldn't see the shrug. "Define all right. She just lost a baby. How all right would you be, do you think?"

"No, no, I get that. I mean, is she okay? You know. No problems?"

"Oh, aside from the baby that was inside of her yesterday morning when she woke up, you mean? Why would that be a problem, but I get what you're asking. Some pain, which they said would be normal probably over the next couple of weeks. The procedure is supposed to make them less severe, but the doctor said that's not tried and true."

"Right, there's an exception to every rule."

"I guess."

"If there's anything we, I, can do."

"Do?"

"Yeah, I don't know. If you need anything. Help?"

"I'm fine. I stopped by my condo on the way here to get Sammy and my stuff. I'll be fine."

"I'm not asking for deadlines, John. If you need time off… If you needed me to fly out there."

"No, you don't need to fly out here, but thanks for the offer I guess. I think I'd prefer to be kept busy anyway."

"All right, well, if you change your mind. You've never asked for time off before."

"I'm glad that's occurred to you."

"It does."

"Thanks," John said.

"Thanks for telling me, even if that's not what you called to do. I'm sorry. How far along was she?"

"Three months."

"Really?" He could almost hear the unasked question hanging there. Rich was wondering why three months had gone by and John hadn't said a word about it. "That's tough," he said, evidently realizing John wasn't going to explain himself.

"Yeah," John said. He glanced at the palm of his hand for a second thinking about what Christopher had said about the baby's size. Three months and in six more months it grew to the size of, well, a baby. He had no idea how big babies were, not really, but he'd heard six, seven, and eight pounds. Clearly, nothing six pounds would fit in the palm of his hand.

"You all right?" Rich said.

"I'm okay."

"You sure? It's normal for you not to be all right, too. I mean, if you're not, and you need to talk."

"I'm fine."

"All right, just know the offer is there."

"I'd probably talk to…"

"Claire?"

"Yeah, I guess not," John said, realizing that'd be foolish. And cruel.

"Well, the offer's there. You know my numbers. Call anytime."

"Why are you so sympathetic?"

"It's a baby, what's not to be sympathetic about? I like you, John. I hate to see bad things happen to people I like. Losing a baby is a bad thing."

"Thanks," he said.

"Hey, and if she needs time to recuperate I bet her friend would let her stay with them for a while."

"I don't think she has plans on going to California anytime soon."

"That's too bad."

"Why?" John asked.

"Because that'd mean you'd come out, too. I like when you come out."

"Oh," John said.

"You take care, John, and I hope Claire's all right. She seems nice and good for you."

"She is both," he said, realizing he'd come awfully close to fucking that up.

"And don't worry about the weekend. We'll get it taken care of."

"Thank you."

"Sure. Thanks for calling, and not waiting until the last second."

"I would've called last night…"

"Well, if it just happened last night you had your hands full. I understand."

"And Rich?"

"Yeah?"

"I'd appreciate it if you don't tell anyone else. If they ask, tell them I had a family emergency or something. Tell them about the broken arm, whatever. Just not the baby. We hadn't told anyone. Her brother knows and you know now. That's it. We hadn't gotten to the point of telling anyone. I don't need her friend April finding out through the grapevine and calling her up…"

"I get it. We're good."

"Thank you," he said.

He hung up, finishing her sandwich and finding the tray he remembered from February. He probably should have waited to let her get comfortable in bed until after she'd eaten but she hadn't mentioned being hungry until they'd done that.

He brought everything upstairs, shaking his head slightly at Sammy and her cat. It was a good thing she had a big bed because something told him they'd be using every inch of it tonight.

"Hey," he said as she shifted so he could put the tray around her on the bed. It was pretty handy, he had to admit.

"Sammy, down," he said before doing that. The dog as good as he was could be clumsy sometimes.

"He's fine."

"I know, but we don't need him getting curious and knocking the soup over."

"Oh, right," she said. "Thank you for letting him be up here."

"You let him up here."

"I know, but you wouldn't let me before."

He shrugged. "You wanted him up here. He's fine. I just don't like him in the habit of thinking he can jump on anyone's furniture. I don't care about mine."

"I felt bad he had to sleep on the floor whenever you stayed here before. Besides, he's a good snuggler."

"He is," John admitted.

"I never thought I'd hear you admit that."

He set the tray around her then while Sammy laid on the floor by his feet. Tuxedo hadn't moved. He shrugged. "I can admit to enjoying his company and not having to sleep alone every night."

"Me, too," she said. "Who were you talking to?"

"Rich," he said.

"Oh, is everything all right?"

"Yeah, more or less. I was supposed to go to a convention in Kansas City this weekend, but I asked him to find someone else to go."

"John…"

"I'm staying here. I'm needed here. He can find someone else to go. I've never canceled before."

"Because of me! I feel bad."

"Don't. You didn't ask me to. You didn't even know about it because it came up during the time you weren't talking to me."

"Oh," she said, apparently realizing she hadn't known about it before.

"I did tell him what happened, but asked him not to tell anyone else. I don't think he will. I think he'll respect that we haven't told anyone else."

"I hope so."

"I told him I didn't need April or Rene finding out through the grapevine, so I think he'll keep quiet. He said he was sorry."

"Thank him for me the next time you talk to him."

"I will. Is the sandwich done enough?"

"It's fine, thank you."

"All right," he said. The last time he'd made one he hadn't cooked it long enough for her. She'd eaten it, but she'd commented on it not being dark enough so he'd tried to cook it a little longer this time.

"You could sit next to me."

"Well, I was going to let Sammy out and see what Tux needed and then I figured by then you'd be done and I could bring that stuff downstairs."

"You don't have to wait on me."

"I know I don't. Add it to the groveling chart," he said.

"Stop."

"Okay. Call it taking care of you."

"I am going to work tomorrow."

"I know you are. That doesn't mean I'm not going to take care of you tonight. And tomorrow night."

"I know."

"Come on, Sammy," he said. "You need anything from that side of the bed before I'm downstairs for a while?"

"No," she said wryly.

He chuckled softly.

"All right, well, I'll be back up in a bit. Tux's stuff is still in the same place?"

"Yes. It's only been a month."

"Yeah, well, I know how women are when they get mad. They clean and shit. At least that's why my mother did. Tried to do. I don't know. Scrub the refrigerator and stuff. I always knew I was going to get it pretty bad when Dad got home the harder she was working on something."

"I hate hearing you say stuff like that."

He shrugged. "It is what it is, you know? I just wanted to make sure you didn't go off on a remodeling binge since my last visit."

"No," she said. "I've been too tired to be that ambitious."

He supposed she had a point.

"Okay then."

***

"Remind me never to break my fricking arm again," she said after coming out of the bathroom. He'd helped her into the bathroom, but she'd insisted on doing what she needed to do alone. He'd let her with the door ajar. He'd had a cast once. It was a little more difficult to maneuver and do things than people thought it was. You never realized how much you relied on both hands until you were restricted to just one.

"Yeah, sure," he said. "Like it was your fault."

"I know, but God, what a pain in the ass."

"You're going to need help with the shower tomorrow, aren't you?"

"Probably."

"Lucky for you I've seen you naked so I can do that."

She smiled a little at that.

"Everything okay?" he asked.

"Yes, why?"

"I don't know. You haven't gone to the bathroom since being home. Just making sure."

"I'd tell you if I thought I was hemorrhaging or something."

"I am relieved to hear that."

"Why am I sleeping on this side of the bed?" she asked when he helped her into the bed. The cast was going to pose a problem for her if she wasn't planning on him staying here until it came off. Not that he got help when he had his, and he knew she could do it without help, too. He liked that she was letting him help her, though.

"Because with the cast on I can't sleep on that side of you."

"You can, too!"

"Not and touch you. And before you freak out, I said touch not accost. You know, put my arm around you. The thing I've done several times when we've slept together before tonight."

"Oh," she said.

"Didn't think I'd want to touch you?"

"Maybe."

"Sweetheart, I'll always want to touch you. God, it made me mad you didn't even want me to open your door for you that day I tried talking to you."

"I know," she said. He took his turn in the bathroom then. He did take the time to take a shower. He hadn't yesterday or yet today and wanted one badly. He joined her in bed not too much later.

"You didn't shave."

"You want me to? I can. You said you didn't mind. I just felt like I needed a shower, but didn't feel like taking the time to do that."

"I know that feeling."

"I'm sure you do," he said.

"You don't have to."

"I will tomorrow, though, since you commented on it."

"All of it?"

"Well, no, just the scraggily stuff you don't seem to like as well."

"It's not bad."

"I don't want you to look at me and think it's not bad, Claire."

"I don't!"

"All right. Is there anything else I need to do for you before the lights go off?"

"No, I'm fine."

"You're sure? No pills to take? No lotion you need me to put on somewhere?"

"I can put lotion on."

"I know you can, I'm offering. It's like a bonus for me, I get to touch you yet do something you need."

"I'm fine, John, really. I'm not an invalid."

"I'll remind you of that when you try to get your shirt on and zip your skirt by yourself tomorrow."

"Shut up," she said, but she laughed so she wasn't mad at him at least.

He reached for the light then, turning it off before moving next to her. She didn't have a whole lot of choice as far as laying went. The cast would probably get too heavy for her to sleep on her side so that left her back. He slid his arm over her waist.

"That okay?" he asked after a moment of considering maybe that wouldn't be comfortable for her right now.

"It's fine," she whispered.

"You need me to move it…"

"I'll just move it if I do. It's fine for now."

"You're going to have to walk me through the pool equipment over the weekend," he whispered as Tux adjusted his position on the bed and Sammy joined them now that he seemed to sense they were in bed for the night and he wasn't going to get scolded.

"I can hire someone…"

"I know you can, but it's not like I'm incapable. Mowing the lawn I don't need you to tell me how to do unless you have a particular way you mow it I suppose. I just don't know how to do the pool. Even after you get the cast off you're not going to be back up to normal again for a while."

"If you're sure you don't mind."

"I'm positive."

"I can walk you through it over the weekend. The week-to-week isn't bad, just adding chlorine and testing the water to be sure levels and everything are right. The pool vacuum I have in there gets most of the crud so I hardly have to skim it really, leaves occasionally. I've had a bird or two in there."

"Dead?"

"Yes," she said, sounding sad about that.

"And Tux doesn't go out?"

"No!"

"Hmm, another cat maybe?"

"Maybe. I don't know. I hadn't thought about it."

"I find it hard to picture you cleaning a pool."

She sighed softly.

"Believe it or not, I like doing things at my house for myself."

"Fair enough. You won't even get to use it this summer, will you?"

"I know," she said with a sigh.

"Sammy and I will make up for it."

"That's not very nice."

"Well, if I'm going to clean it and you're going to pay the electric bill to run it we may as well use it."

"Still not nice."

"Once the cast comes off I'll swim with you."

"God, I hope so."

"Promise."

"Was Rich mad?"

"Mad? What could he do? Make me go where I didn't want to be? I suppose he could have, I realize the Simon Forge frenzy is at its peak right now, but there are others who can step in for me just as well and still have the name represented."

"I know. I just feel bad."

"I don't! I was kind of mad he asked me for a reason, as if I'd bowed out of these things time and time again."

"Well, you did tell him…"

"Yes, I know, but I wouldn't just call in two days before I was supposed to be there. I'm more professional than that."

"You would've been asked where I was."

"Maybe. Kansas City is certainly close enough for you to have come with me."

"What would you have said?"

"Uh, before or after this week? I mean, what are you asking me?"

"Before, I guess. If we still weren't speaking."

"Oh, I would've told them you had to work or something."

"You wouldn't have said we'd broken up?"

"No! We had a fight. A pretty major one, I get that, but people fight. I'm sure it won't be our last."

"Probably not."

"I did not consider us broken up."

"It's my turn to be relieved to hear you say that."

"Oh, I won't deny I thought about it…"

"What stopped you?"

He sighed. "I love you too much to do it. And, well, that would have been a pretty shitty thing to do. Find out you were pregnant and then go have sex with someone else. To you and the other woman."

"I'm glad you didn't."

"I didn't get beyond the 'fuck it, she told me to leave' stage."

"I was surprised you left."

He shrugged. "You told me to."

"I know."

"Just do me a favor, okay?"

"I can try."

"The next time you're pregnant…"

"Oh God, John…"

"I know, hopefully it'll be a while yet before that happens again. Just saying, maybe ease me into that news. Okay?"

"Ease you into it how?"

"I don't know. Maybe remind me of the symptoms April was having and that you had similarly so I can have a chance to come to that conclusion on my own."

"I didn't come to it!"

He chuckled softly, kissing her shoulder. "I suppose you didn't."

"Hopefully the next time I find out I'm pregnant it's because I'm trying to get that way."

"That I look forward to."

"Shut up," she said, no laughing this time.

"What? I do."

"A month ago you didn't want kids and now you look forward to trying to get me pregnant?"

"I look forward to the process of trying, yes. I'm not claiming I hope the process takes on the first or second try."

"Oh," she said.

"The tenth would be all right."

"Why the tenth?"

"I have no idea," he chuckled softly. "It just sounded good."

She was quiet for a while. He thought she'd drifted off to sleep or was at least on her way to.

"I wonder what it was…"

"We'll never know, sweetheart. Don't go to sleep thinking like that. Please," he said. He didn't want her thinking like that because he didn't want to think like that. Thoughts like that would likely eat at both of them if they let them, but especially her.

"I know, I just…"

"I understand. I can't tell you how sorry I am."

"Thank you. I'm sorry, too."

"You don't owe me anything."

"I know, but you didn't even get a chance to…"

"Claire, we're fine. Please don't think like that, okay?"

Quiet again.

"Would you without being married?"

"Huh?" he asked.

"Try again?"

"Oh," he said, shifting his arm over her a bit. He was worried about pressure there whether she said she was fine or not. "Wouldn't we upset some people if we did that? I mean, once was an accident and we had a legitimate reason to explain it away because of."

"I don't care about upsetting anyone else."

"Claire," he said cautiously.

"So you wouldn't?"

"I didn't say that. I'm just not sure that tonight, the day after losing one, is the proper time to talk about this."

"I just…"

"I'm not going to say no, but I think there's a better time to talk about this than right now. I have no idea what you're feeling, loss. I get that much. I can't relate because it wasn't inside of me. I never heard the heartbeat or anything. You did. Your best friend is pregnant so again someone is going to have a baby at the same time you were supposed to. I'm sure the natural instinct for you is to want that again. You come at me again in a few months or something with the idea then we can talk about it."

"Just wondering."

"I know I'd tell you to think long and hard about things. Your parents and grandparents. Living arrangements. Your clients. Things like that."

"Living arrangements?"

"Uh, yeah, I think something better than separate residences would be in order if we were going to have a kid together, don't you?"

"Yeah, I guess," she whispered.

"Get some sleep now," he whispered, kissing her shoulder again. "Never mind you getting sleep. Let me sleep, I'm the one who has to wake up at the ass-crack of dawn to make sure you get ready for work."

She laughed softly.

"I'm glad Christopher was willing to pick me up."

He would have had to drive her otherwise. She could drive and probably would be able to the day after tomorrow, but she'd been on some pretty heavy-duty painkillers because of her arm and whatever they put her under with for the procedure they'd done. He and Chris both agreed she didn't need to be driving for a day or two after that.

"Willing? You think he wouldn't?"

"Oh, I don't know. He's Christopher. I'm sure he's disappointed."

"From the guy who divorced a woman who was already pregnant with his kid? I don't think he has room to cast any stones."

"I know. But they were married and he didn't know she was."

"True. That's why they call them accidents, Princess."

"I'm sorry you have to wake up so early."

"It's all right. I'll take Sammy on a long walk or something. There's a park not too far from here I've noticed." It wasn't nice enough in March to walk him all the way down there, but he'd do it now.

"There is," she said. "There's a school, too, so you may not be able to walk him there."

"Ah, thanks for telling me. I didn't realize. I'll figure something out."

"You could just get back in bed."

"I feel weird sleeping in your bed without you."

"Really?"

"Yes," he said.

"I didn't have a problem sleeping in your bed without you."

"I noticed that, believe me. I like to assume that's because the one time you had to sleep in it without me you were sick!"

"That may have been the reason."

Return to Top

***Chapter Twenty-Two***
Word Count: 5,439

June 1995

"So everything's okay then?" Jessica asked when John was there basically to collect his mail. He hadn't been home more than a few hours here and there since Claire got out of the hospital. He did things in his office while she was at work, but he spent as little time as he could here. Honestly, he had no desire to ever stay here again, but he knew that was rushing things so he hadn't said that to her. He'd go home if she told him to, but she hadn't to this point. He had most of the things he needed at her house and she seemed to like not coming home to an empty house after work every day.

"I guess," he said. "How can I tell that? I mean, she seems okay. I don't know."

"Well, have you asked her?"

"Not every second, no. Do I want to do that? She's never going to … get better if I keep bringing it up."

"Well, no, but she may not think you want her to talk about it."

John sighed. He had no idea what to do. Talk to her about it? Don't talk to her about it? Spoil her? Act as if everything was normal? He just didn't know. He wasn't real good with emotional stuff to begin with and this went deeper than anything he'd ever encountered before. He imagined he wasn't the first guy in the world to not know how to handle this situation. At least he was handling this part of it better than he'd handled her telling him. He hoped he was anyway. He was sure trying.

"I suppose. I just don't want to harp on it either. Kind of like the having another one thing."

Jessica smirked a bit at that.

"What?" he asked.

"Nothing. It's just funny hearing the difference in you now from when you first told me about her being pregnant."

"I was freaked out! Not to mention I knew I'd totally fucked up the best thing that's ever happened to me."

"Have you actually talked to her about why you didn't want kids?"

"What do you mean? She knows. She knows firsthand. I mean not every detail of my childhood, no, but she knows."

"All right."

"I mean, had I before this? No. I don't know. We weren't even having sex until a few months ago so it wasn't an issue. How do you bring up not wanting kids with someone you're not even in the position to possibly make them with?"

"But you wanted to."

"Have kids with her?"

"No, be in a position to possibly make them with her."

"Well, sure. I did ten years ago, too. I'm not a moron. She does it for me. She always has. I was just too chicken to actually do anything about it back then. I mean, I could've gone to Paris with her and said fuck it that was fun when we got home, but I didn't want to do that."

"I don't blame you. I told you that then, too. I admit I thought you were a little crazy for flying to Paris with someone you really barely knew and hadn't even seen for more than an hour or two since high school."

"Oh, I thought I was crazy, too, but who was I to say no to that falling into my lap. If I'd said no," he shrugged. "I doubt she would've said yes to a date."

"I suppose not, especially since she would've had to go to the wedding without you and explain that to her friends."

"I know," he said. She was the only one who knew the truth. He couldn't get away with lying to her because she knew he didn't have a girlfriend before their trip.

"I guess it worked out, though, even if I miss you and Sammy," she said.

"It's not like we're never here."

"Yes, it is. That's fine. I'm not complaining. I miss running with him."

"Well, you have my number there. I have to come here anyway to work and get mail. There's nothing saying I can't stay for a while when you want to take him for a run. You can call me to tell me what time you had in mind running." He'd given her his number at Claire's in case any packages or anything got delivered for him. Mail was generally not important, but packages could be time sensitive.

"Oh, I don't want to bother you, especially when you guys are going through something."

"It's not a bother and she wouldn't mind if you think that. It's not as if she doesn't know you so you'd be a random woman calling me asking me to come home."

"Well, true. Maybe I will sometime when you stop coming here during the week. I'm glad she's okay with it."

"Me, too. I don't have many girl friends. I'm not sure how I'd handle having to choose especially since I'd have to see you since we're neighbors."

"Have you and Sammy been enjoying her pool?"

John chuckled a bit at that.

"Yes. We both have. It's not as much fun knowing she can't swim with us, but he loves it more when I go in with him. I try to during the day when she's at work so she doesn't feel as if she's missing out too much."

"I bet it's not so fun for her to watch. How's her arm?"

"Fine. She hates the cast. You know, it's hot and itchy."

"How much longer?"

"Three to four weeks I think. They said six to eight weeks."

"Any plans tonight?"

"No. The usual staying home stuff. I'm making dinner. I've cooked more the past few weeks than I think I have in a long time on a regular basis."

"Is it edible?"

He laughed softly. "Most of it."

"Has she brought up a baby again?"

"No," he said. She'd probably be mad he talked to Jessica about this stuff, but he had to talk to someone. He couldn't talk to her about it. Like he'd realized when he was talking to Rich that would just be inconsiderate talking to Claire about it.

"Is that good or bad?"

"I'm fine with it for now. More than fine. I mean. I'm in no hurry or anything."

"You'd sell this place, wouldn't you?"

He shrugged. He'd thought about that when he'd brought up living arrangements with her. She had a house. He hadn't bought a house because he hadn't needed a house. Certainly, though, if they were talking about kids a house would be more practical. Kids needed space. His condo while decent sized wasn't really what he pictured when he saw a family. People did it, sure, but it just seemed super cramped to him having no basement or yard right out your door. Kids needed space, room for toys and things.

Kids.

A house.

Both things he swore he wouldn't do. Be responsible for something he couldn't take care of. He'd watched the house he grew up in turn to shit because neither of his parents cared after a while. He didn't want to repeat their mistakes. Yet, fuck if the idea of letting her go sat well with him. So he didn't see himself having a choice. He just hoped he got a little more time before she brought the kid thing up again. He didn't think he had it in him to say no to her, which she probably knew.

"Probably. Not that we've talked about it, but it would make more sense. A house is better with kids. I've always thought so anyway. She basically had it built for her and there's a grade school right down the street. I'm not real attached to this place or anything. It just beats paying a landlord to get richer. I mean, I'm still giving someone my money but at least it's earning me credit and stuff."

"I know."

"I'm not going anywhere tomorrow or anything."

"It was just nice not being the only single person in our building."

Ah. Yeah. The two of them were the only non-attached people in their building. Not in their complex, but the rest of their building was occupied by couples or families. It was one of the reasons they'd become friendly in the first place. Sammy had helped. Actually, Sammy was the reason they'd started talking to begin with. Then she found out he boarded him when he had to go out of town and she'd volunteered to pet sit. She charged less than the boarding place did. John suspected she liked the company but didn't want to get a dog herself full-time. He had no idea why she was single. She was attractive, smart, had a good job, and was really pretty nice. She'd been married once before, but she never revealed more than that bit of information so he had no clue if she'd gotten burned real bad or what.

She'd been on her way to work when he got there so they didn't talk real long. He'd never had a female friend like her before. He wasn't sure if it was because she was older than he was, but there'd never been an awkwardness between them that always seemed to be there with other women he knew. Usually there was an underlying flirtation or uncertainty about intentions that just couldn't be prevented when friends with someone of the opposite sex.

He opened the windows letting some air in. He hadn't been here since Friday so it was pretty stuffy from being warm over the weekend. No sense running the air when he wasn't even here to need it cool. He opened the screened door that led to his balcony so Sammy could go out there if he wanted to. Sometimes he liked to lounge out there.

He didn't plan on being here real long, but almost felt as if he had to spend time here. He wasn't sure what that said exactly, but he hadn't come here over a weekend since she'd gotten out of the hospital.

He was surprised when his phone rang. It was pretty early for most anyone to be calling him. It was still before seven for Rich and while he wasn't a slacker he didn't usually call John this early in the day. He wouldn't know that John was adjusting his sleeping and working schedule to fit better around Claire's so he was awake when people were normally more often than not these days.

"This is John," he said.

'John? I was almost expecting to get your voice mail.' John recognized the voice immediately. He didn't know very many heavily accented Frenchman. He actually knew only one, and he had to admit he liked the way the Frenchman said his name. It made it sound much more exotic than plain-old John.

"This early in the morning it's a fair expectation. I just happen to be up and moving this early today."

'Is your weather well?'

"Uh, yeah, it's nice. You know, June. Yours?"

'Nice as well. And work?'

"It's going well. Keeping busy."

'Busy is good, yes?'

"I like to think so. It keeps the bill collectors at bay anyway. How are things by you?"

'Good. Busy as well.'

"Aren't you working on something?" John thought he remembered Rene mentioning not much of a break after the Simon Forge movie opened.

'I am, yes. That is why I am up so early.'

"Ah," John said. "Is there something I can help you with? I mean, not that I don't appreciate the call…"

'Well, I was hoping you could tell me if everything is all right with Claire.'

"Claire?" he asked.

'Yes. She hasn't returned any of April's calls for weeks now. She's becoming a little concerned for her friend.'

"Oh," John said. He had no idea. He really didn't. "How many calls?"

'I'm not certain of the exact number, but it's been more than just a few.'

"Well, I can mention it to her. I really don't know. She hasn't said anything."

'So she is not upset with April? With us? You had a nice time here with us, yes?'

"Yeah, we had a great time. She loved it. I loved it."

'Perhaps you shouldn't say I called. I was really just concerned because it coincided with your trip here. Before that they spoke regularly.'

Yeah, he supposed it did. She'd found out she was pregnant and probably would've wanted to tell her best friend the news but John had reacted like a dumb fuck so she hadn't been able to. Her best friend would of course assume John was equally as excited as she was based on the fact they'd been dating close to a year. At least that's how it appeared to everyone else.

"I'll see what I can find out without letting her know you called. Okay? How is April? She's feeling all right?"

'She is. I think she just misses Claire.'

"I know Claire does, too," John said. She did, he knew that. She'd had a great time not just their weekend in California but when Rene and April had been here the weekend before. Like Christopher said she didn't make close friends real easily. John understood it to some degree. It was hard to trust people when someone you trusted violated that trust as severely and violently as Allen had.

'There are some things we men just cannot provide for them, no?'

John chuckled softly at that. "As much as I hate to agree with you, you're right."

'If you find there is something wrong…'

"I'll let you know, Rene, but I'm sure there's not. I'm sure she's meant to call. The time difference can be a bit difficult. When it's a decent time here it's too early there."

'Oh yes, of course. She can call anytime, though.'

"I'll see what I can do. I'm glad you called."

'I don't sound like a, what is the term, busy body?'

"No, you sound like a concerned husband."

'She's hoping Claire will be godmother, which I believe is the reason she's been trying so frequently to get a hold of her.'

"Oh," John said. He wasn't sure how well Claire would react to that. Did she have an idea that's what April was calling about and was avoiding her so she didn't have to answer the question? John really didn't know. "I will definitely see what I can find out then. You have a few months, though, right?"

'Yes. Mid-September.'

"Is there a good number for me to call you back on?"

'Yes, I'll give it to you. I don't always answer, but it's my personal cell number so leave a message and I will call you back.'

"All right," he said, jotting down the number. Man, what some people would pay for this information. It was so fucking weird that he had a direct line to Wren Savage.

'I feel foolish dragging you into this, but if there was a problem I didn't want to seem as if I was confronting Claire.'

"No, it's fine. I honestly wasn't aware she'd been trying to get a hold of her. I know you're concerned for April's sake and everything."

John heard him cover the phone and some muffled talking. He didn't sound too happy whatever the situation was. What the hell could he be doing before seven o'clock in the morning anyway? He supposed movies got made at all different times of the day and night.

'I must go. Take care, John,' he said.

"Yeah, you, too," he said, hanging up.

He had to admit, he wasn't a bad guy. Maybe he was different around people who weren't dating his wife's best friend, but John hadn't found him to be a pompous asshole any of the times he'd been around him.

He turned in his chair to face the window, looking out as he thought over the conversation. Claire hadn't been calling April back. That wasn't good, even John knew that. Was she not dealing with things as well as she seemed to be? He thought she'd been doing all right for the most part. He knew she was feeling a lot of things, but she seemed in general all right. Sometimes she cried, but he assumed that was normal and natural.

He sighed not sure what exactly he was supposed to do. He couldn't make her call April, and he wasn't sure how thrilled she was going to be at the concept of being a godmother to a baby born only a month or two before theirs would have been.

He almost wished he didn't know Rene because then he'd never know. He glanced at his watch not that it was going to help him decide what to do. He wasn't going to call her at work, but he could get there early enough to take her to lunch and maybe mention April to see what she said. He'd been at her house frequently enough he'd notice she hadn't talked to her. She hadn't talked to anyone really that he'd noticed, a little out of the ordinary now that he thought about it. He just hadn't taken the time to notice before and he supposed he should have.

It'd been years since he'd had to look for signs of his parents' emotional ups and downs, but that was totally different. They were unreasonable and under the influence of all sorts of different things. He was out of his element with this.

"All right, Sammy," he said, bringing Sammy inside from the balcony. He was getting spoiled at Claire's being able to go out to her yard whenever he wanted. There were mornings he stayed out in her backyard for two or three hours.

He got to her building a little before eleven, which was early but he'd hung out in her office for a while before when he'd been early so he didn't see a problem with doing that again today.

"Hi John," the receptionist said when he walked through the door.

"Hey, Carly. How are you today?"

"Doing well."

"Good to hear. Is Claire around?"

"She is. Go on back," she said.

"Thanks," he said, going through the door that led to the actual offices area. Few questioned why he was here anymore. He'd come fairly regularly the past month.

"Hey John," Christopher said.

"Hey," he said.

"You here to take Claire to lunch?"

"If she'll have me."

"Try to talk her into having the two of you join us at the Cubs game tomorrow. It's supposed to be eighty degrees."

"The Cubs game?"

"Yeah, she said she didn't think you liked baseball."

"I don't really, but I'd have no problem going to a game. I just don't enjoy sitting at home watching it on TV."

"Well, tell her, maybe you can convince her."

"I'll see what I can do," John said. "You need an answer today?"

"No. I'm coming to work regardless. I'm going to bring Michael with. If you two go you'll be the other two seats, otherwise Dad will go I suppose."

"Oh," John said. "Well, sure I'm game if she is."

"Well, hopefully we'll see you tomorrow again."

"Sure," John said, making his way to Claire's office. Sonia wasn't at her desk so John went to her door, which was open anyway. Her back was to him. She was standing at her bookshelves, paging through a book. Looking something up no doubt. He took the opportunity to take her in. He still couldn't believe they were here, doing this. There were times he was sure he was going to wake up and it was going to be the day after detention, this whole thing a weird dream. He'd never pictured himself loving anyone enough to contemplate marriage and kids. She'd worn her hair down today, which he loved. He loved it any which way, but down just looked extra nice on her.

"Hi," she said softly when she realized he was there.

"Hi," he said, chuckling a little to himself at the light blush on her cheeks from catching him staring at her.

"What are you doing here?"

"I thought I'd take you to lunch."

"I thought you had work to do."

He shrugged. "I can do it after lunch."

"John…"

"I'm current on everything, even a little ahead. I'm good."

"Okay, as long as you're sure."

"I am," he said, closing the distance between them so he could kiss her. "I'm better now," he said when he drew away.

"Me, too," she whispered.

"Yeah?" he asked.

"Yes."

"Good. I like when you're better."

"Is Sammy at the house?"

"No, he's at my place. I went there first."

"Oh," she said.

"I went through my mail and stuff. Fun and exciting."

"So fun and exciting you needed a break I take it?"

"Yes!"

She slid a hand along his arm then.

"Well, I suppose I could break away."

"You sure? I can wait if you were in the middle of something. I mean it's not like I have anything to be back for."

"No, I was just looking something up."

"But you're not in the middle of something?"

"No, I found what I needed."

"Funny, I have, too," he said.

"Yeah?"

"You need me to prove it?"

"Probably not here."

"Well, no I realize here wouldn't work, but you name the place and time and I'll be happy to prove it any which way you need me to prove it."

"Wow. Really?" she asked. There was that blush again, not as light as before either.

"Yes. Really."

"I think," she said, glancing behind him. He sensed somehow they were no longer alone. He liked the blush there just the same.

"Yeah," he said. "Just know the offer is a sincere one."

"I know," she whispered.

"You two going to lunch?" Sonia asked.

"I think so," Claire said.

"You think so? You have a more appealing offer?"

"Well, no," she said.

"Good, then you can explain to me why we're not going to the Cubs game tomorrow."

"Christopher saw you I take it."

"He did."

"I didn't think you'd want to go."

"It's a baseball game not an opera. Three hours on a nice day outdoors with you. I'll do it."

"All right. Then we'll go. If you're sure."

"Positive."

"That means you wouldn't go to an opera with me?"

"That means you'd need to make sitting in a suit for three hours listening to something I don't understand very worth my while."

"Oh," she said.

He chuckled. "Let's go eat."

She actually seemed as if she was in a pretty good mood today. She even tried to tell him about the case she'd been looking something up for. Any time she did it went over his head generally, but he listened because sometimes she just clearly needed to talk about things. He usually got the general idea and she obviously couldn't divulge details, but sometimes he could tell she just wanted someone to listen to her.

"So, I ran into Jessica when I got to my place."

"Oh?"

"Yeah. She finally saw the Simon Forge movie over the weekend," he said. She'd actually seen it the weekend before, but he wasn't quite sure how to bring up April otherwise. The movie seemed like a good opportunity to bring up their trip and therefore April.

"How'd she like it?"

"She liked it a lot. She's not a comics reader so she doesn't know the story or anything."

"So, she's like me, you mean."

"You've read some issues."

"I have," she said. She'd read quite a few actually. He was impressed. He doubted she'd read beyond Simon Forge, but that was okay. He didn't care, just the fact she took an interest in that character's comics was fine with him. She always took an interest in what he was drawing and everything.

"It got me thinking, though. Have we heard from April and Rene since being there? I feel kind of bad because we had a pretty nice time with them and I haven't really been able to tell them that. I suppose you would send them a thank you note or something for their hospitality."

"I'm surprised you know the word hospitality."

He chuckled. "I know, right? Surprised me, too. I had to dig deep in the memory banks for that one."

"And, not really."

"Not really?"

Claire shrugged. "She's called a few times, but I've missed her."

"You haven't called back?"

"Not yet."

"Why not?" he asked.

"I don't know. I don't know what to say to her. She's going to want to talk about being pregnant and I'm just not sure I want to hear about it for an hour or more right now."

"Understandable. Have you thought of telling her that?"

"What do you mean?"

"Well, is there a reason that you wouldn't tell your best friend what you went through?"

"I don't want to make her feel bad!"

"As opposed to not talking to her for going on two months now? She probably thinks we're mad at them or had an awful time or something."

"No, she wouldn't think that."

"Really? Because you've gone two months without talking to her before in ten years?"

"Well, no," she said. "I mean before her wedding we didn't talk at length."

"You still talked, though. I remember teasing you about your lack of information on her groom."

"Yes."

"Maybe it'd be good for you. I don't know. She's your best friend. Don't you think she'd want to know?"

"But she'd probably feel bad."

"She may feel bad. You're right, but right now she's probably wondering why you're not talking to her. That's probably making her feel worse than knowing what's going on. I realize we haven't told anyone, but that doesn't mean we can't. I don't have a reason to tell anyone besides Rich and Jessica. I'm ashamed of my response, but not of the fact you were pregnant. I never will be either no matter what happens between us. You know that, right?"

"I do."

"You have no reason to be either."

"I know," she said.

"I mean it's up to you. I understand why you think it'd make her feel bad and you're right. She probably will, she's your friend so of course she will. And maybe she'd hold back telling you stuff, but at least she'd know to do that. At least you two would be talking. Right? Does she even know you broke your arm?"

"No," Claire admitted.

"Claire," he said cautiously. "You can't shut yourself off from everyone but me and work."

"I'm not. I just," she shrugged. "I don't know. I didn't want to make her feel bad."

"She's your best friend. I don't have one of those, never have really, but I've seen it enough to know she's not going to feel bad. She's going to feel bad that you thought she'd feel bad and didn't tell her."

"Maybe."

"Hey, call her or don't call her, but maybe you'd feel better if someone knew. Maybe it doesn't seem like it really happened to you since no one else knows. I don't know. I'm doing the best I can here. I'm trying, I really am. Jessica asked me today how you are and I said I thought you were all right. I really don't know so maybe my trying isn't good enough."

"You're doing fine."

"You say that, and I want to believe that, but it's because of me she doesn't know any of it and I feel really bad about that."

"It's not because of you. I could have told her."

"You could have, but you would have had to admit that your boyfriend was an asshole. Who'd do that?"

"She may have helped me realize that you weren't reacting completely out of the norm. I mean what guy would want to hear those words who wasn't expecting to hear them."

"Sweetheart, I want to give you better than normal."

"You do."

"I'm glad you think so, but you deserved better than that."

"And I am fine for the most part. I just," she shrugged. "I felt like it happened for a reason. My getting pregnant. What were the odds?"

"Well, I told you after you've had time to think about it and you can to talk to me about trying. Your doctor has to clear you, though. So talking about it until then is sort of pointless."

"You don't really want to."

"I won't deny I'm scared, Claire. I really am. I don't think I'm him. You brought up a valid point about that day and the fact I didn't stick around, but he probably didn't think he was an asshole either."

"You're not."

"I want to believe that, but can you understand why my goal in life wasn't to find out?"

"I can."

"So, am I in a hurry? No, but I'm not going to say no to you. I'd at least like to be living together first, though."

"Aren't we basically doing that anyway?"

"Except we're each paying our own mortgages."

"We are."

"That would need to get fixed I think. I already hate having to go home during the week."

"Then don't."

"My stuff is there. I mean I have the necessities at your place, but that's no way to live. For either of us certainly with a kid thrown in there."

"I'll make room."

"Is this you talking or the hormones talking?"

"It's me talking."

"Let me look into some options."

"Like?" she asked.

"Well, I'm not sure how fast places like mine are selling. I may be better off renting it on a month-to-month thing to someone I know. There are a couple of people who might be interested in doing that that I'd trust not to total the place while living there."

"Okay."

"You realize if we do this I'm not going away, right?"

"What?"

"I said at least living together. I want more than that, but a kid deserves both parents around him every day."

"I agree."

"You still need to think about things like your parents and clients. Like I said, let me look into things and we can talk when we have more time than less than a lunch hour to talk about it. You need to think about those things, though. Your parents would probably be all right, maybe. I don't know. Not thrilled I imagine, but they'd deal with it. Clients, though. I imagine you deal with some people that finding out you're not married and having a kid may not like that so well."

"They're paying me to be their lawyer not for what I do in my personal life."

"No, but they may wonder what kind of lawyer you are if you're promiscuous."

"I'm not!"

"You know that, I know that. Conservative men in their fifties and sixties who I'm guessing account for a good chunk of your clients may not know that. So, we both have things to think about, figure out. I'm in. All I have to figure out is whether I'm going to put my place on the market or rent it out for a while and then put it on the market so someone doesn't move in for a month and then it sells. That wouldn't be fair. No one I work with is going to care where I live, who I live with, or if we have twenty kids together without being married."

"I think twenty at our age is a little ambitious."

"Sweetheart, I think I'd have a lot of fun trying to make twenty of them with you."

"Me, too," she said, blushing. He chuckled softly at that.

"So, you think about it, the possible consequences and let me know."

"I don't have to think about it."

"I want you to, though."

"Why are you assuming you'll move into my house?"

He frowned at that. "Why wouldn't I? Are we moving somewhere else?"

"I don't know. Why do you have to give up your condo?"

"Because your house is nicer and kids deserve a house and a yard. It just makes sense."

"I just wondered. You just assumed…"

"Well, sure. Because it makes sense."

"I guess so. It just doesn't seem fair."

"Fair?"

"Yeah."

"Uh, I get you out of the deal. What's not fair about that trade? I mean I'm already mowing the lawn I may as well just complete the yuppie picture and live there."

"Only because I can't!"

"I'm teasing, Princess."

Return to Top

***Chapter Twenty-Three***
Word Count: 2,870

July 1995

Claire knew John was fighting the urge to go to his now empty condo and hide out for the next week. He still had electricity, water, gas, and everything so he could bring a sleeping bag and Sammy and camp out there for the week. He probably thought Claire or April would never notice his absence. She'd notice, though. He hadn't spent a night at his condo since the night she'd been in the hospital.

It had taken Claire a week or so after he'd suggested it for her to call April but she finally did. John had a long conference call he had to be a part of and felt more comfortable at his condo where he had his computer and everything so she'd taken the opportunity while he was gone to call her friend.

This weekend was a result of that phone call. Rene was out of the country filming so April decided to come spend the weekend leading up to the July Fourth holiday with Claire and John.

Was Claire nervous? Incredibly so. She wasn't sure how she was going to react seeing April obviously pregnant. She was happy for her friend, though, and well she was coming to terms with the fact she'd have her chance when she was supposed to.

Her doctor had cleared her to have sex a few weeks ago but she hadn't told John that yet. She wasn't sure why. Nerves. Guilt. Uncertainty because he'd told her it was up to her whether she went back on the pill. He was fine with her decision either way once he was moved in here. She probably would have been able to before her doctor told her it was okay, but with the cast and everything she hadn't really felt like trying. She knew he wouldn't try anything first. That bothered her in some ways, but she understood his reasoning both before losing the baby and after.

While John mowed the lawn and did the pool she'd used her parents' cleaning service to do the inside of her house. He hadn't complained about that especially since he'd spent the last month cleaning his own place in order to put it on the market. If it didn't sell in the next six months he was going to look at renting it out to a friend until it sold.

"Sammy. Come on. Out," she called before closing the door to the bedroom April would be using. She was starting to understand why John didn't want him on her furniture when he started bringing Sammy with him here. He thought he could lay anywhere now. He could, of course, but she'd ensured this room was completely clean yesterday. Somehow she wasn't sure April would appreciate Sammy hairs all over her pillows. He hadn't been in there long, following her in there because she'd bought some flowers to put on the dresser in there.

"You're home early," John said, opening the door to his office.

"I had my physical therapy today."

"Oh, that's right," he said. "I forgot, sorry."

"It's okay. I understand, you've been busy."

He'd pushed a deadline back so that he could get everything moved in here and his condo clean. He'd left some things there, like furniture so the place wasn't empty. The realtor he was using told him empty places didn't sell as easily for some reason. She'd think people would like to see the space, but maybe not. So, he was preoccupied trying to get caught up. She was sure he'd use that to his advantage to stay out of their way as often as he could get away with, too.

"How'd it go?"

"Fine."

"Sore?"

"A little. I imagine I will be more tomorrow."

"Probably so. You have some exercises to do at home?"

"Yes."

"Make sure you do them," he said. "I want your arm as good as before."

"I will."

"And whatever you need me to lift, tell me. I know she probably gave you some weight restrictions for a while."

"Yes. You've done so much already. The yard, the pool, and washing my car."

"Claire. It's fine. We're talking lifting some things that you shouldn't be doing yet not like a car or anything. I don't mind doing those things," he said, taking her into his arms.

"I know," she said, leaning up a bit to kiss him. He really had done more than he needed to do. She felt kind of guilty because a lot of it had been before they'd even talked about him moving in here.

"Have you checked on her flight yet?"

"Yes. So far it's on-time."

"Good. I'm glad she's coming."

"Why?" she asked.

"Why?" he repeated. "What kind of a question is that? She's your best friend. I'm glad you called her, talked to her. I'm glad you've had someone to talk about this stuff, too, because try as I might I just don't feel as if I can give you what you need in that department. Her coming out here means she cares about you. I'm glad that's the case because that means she and I are on the same page there."

"I guess it does. She wouldn't be coming here if Rene was in town."

"This weekend, no, but that doesn't mean she wouldn't have next weekend, the weekend after, or last weekend. It doesn't sound like she has a lot of good friends out there so she wanted to celebrate the holiday with someone she knows and likes."

"I know."

"She's not really kept in touch with your other friend…"

"Tasha."

"Right. She hasn't, has she? I didn't meet her when we were there in March so I assume not."

"Not really. I mean, they do, but you know, April's where she is and Tasha is still working two and three jobs so I think there's some jealousy there."

"Understandable. I encounter that sort of thing, too, especially that I can do what I do from my house."

"I bet you do."

"I still have people who don't believe I just walked up to Rich the way I did. Rich still doesn't believe it some days."

"I believe it."

"You do?"

"Yes. I believe if you thought you were good enough to get his attention you'd do something like that. The John I saw wouldn't have had a problem doing that. I know others might be surprised, but not me. You had nothing to lose."

"No, just the fee it cost me to get in there."

"How'd you come up with it?"

"You don't want to know."

"I'm sorry you didn't feel you could've asked me."

"I wasn't going to ask you for money!"

"Well, maybe I would've gone with you."

"Maybe, I didn't see that happening then."

"I go with you now."

"Yeah, because you're sleeping with me. That's part of the deal."

"Is it?"

"Yeah. I mean, I can't really return the favor, but if I could I'd do it. You know that?"

"I know."

"I mean, the next time you're in court, let me know and I'll be there to watch you or whatever."

"I know."

"It's not quite the same."

"Not really, but I know you'd be there."

"Did you ask her about swimming?"

"I did. She said it should be fine."

"How long until April gets here?"

"Over an hour at least before her flight lands never mind getting her luggage and getting here."

"Want to go now?"

"Where?" she asked, confused.

He chuckled softly, kissing her.

"Swimming."

"Now?"

"Yeah," he said, sliding his arms around her and bringing her closer to him. "You've been watching me for the past two months. I thought it'd be kind of fun."

"I know. I should…"

"You've done everything you need to do. Her room's clean. The grocery shopping is done." He slid his mouth to her neck, kissing her there before finding her ear. "Come swimming with me," he whispered.

"John," she said.

"Come on. I've been working all day…"

"I'm surprised you didn't save it for after she got here."

"Why?" he asked.

"So you could hide in there."

"I like her. Now, tomorrow when your other friends are here you will find I have more work to do."

"I bet you will," she said. "I don't even know where my suit is."

"So? You don't need one."

"John, I can't…"

"You can. Your yard is fenced in. No one's going to see except me."

"Are you serious?"

"Very," he said, sliding his mouth to her throat to kiss her there. "Come on…"

"I swear to God if you laugh at me."

"Laugh at you? Why would I laugh at you?"

"I don't know."

"Jesus, Claire. Where the fuck did that come from? I mean, I know it's been a while since I've seen you naked, but I've never laughed."

"Yeah, well, not outside."

"I'm not going to laugh at you."

He slid his arms out from around her, moving them to the front of her blouse. He worked the buttons open and her breath caught slightly when he slid a hand inside of it. He brushed the back of his hand over the tops of her breasts, lower along one of her peaks.

"Don't close your eyes," he whispered.

"Huh?"

"I want you to know there isn't even a hint of laughter when I look at you, Claire."

"I know, I didn't mean it like that. I just," she shrugged. "We've never been outside. We've never really been out of a bedroom. It's always been relatively, you know, dark. I was pregnant…"

"Yeah, you want to get that way again sometime so if you thought I was going to laugh at you for being in that condition when you weren't even showing yet I'd be pretty pissed off at you for wanting me to be the guy doing that with you."

"I wouldn't want any other guy doing that with me."

He chuckled. "Now I'm laughing, but not at you."

"I know," she whispered.

"I'm laughing because I got a little crazily excited at you saying that."

"Only a little?"

"Oh," he said, sliding his hands behind her to work the clasp on her bra. "I think it might be other things contributing to the bulk of my excitement right now."

"Mine, too," she whispered.

"You intent on wearing this anymore today?" he asked, sliding her blouse over her shoulders.

"I was going to change."

"Good," he said. She worked the buttons at her wrists so he could slide it off.

"That I was going to still wear…"

"Too late," he said, tossing her bra on the floor with her blouse. "I like you better without them."

"I have to wear one!"

"Not right now you don't."

"I suppose," she whispered as he slid his mouth along her neck and lower along her collarbone. He nipped at the skin near there. She groaned when the nip turned into more than that. It'd been too long since he'd done even this. She knew why, but God she'd missed it. And his hands felt absolutely amazing touching her the way he was right now. They always felt so good around her, warm and protective which was probably a weird thought to have when he was touching her this way. She did, though. She always felt safe with him.

He slid his hands lower, drawing away from the spot on her neck he'd been focusing on as he found the zipper to her skirt and slid it down. He helped her slide out of it before taking a peak into his mouth. She slid her hands to his head, running her fingers through his hair as he worked his tongue over her there. He knew exactly what to do, too, to bring her so close to finishing just from his doing that.

As if he knew she was that close he slid her panties lower and slid a hand between her legs. She cried out as a fingertip circled her nub. He darted his tongue lower along her stomach, circling her belly button before finding her nub. He slid an arm around her seeming to realize she wasn't sure she could trust herself to stay standing with him doing this so freaking well. She finished almost as soon as he did that, but he didn't stop for a while after that. He kissed her hip before drawing away and standing, offering her his hand which she took so he could lead them to their room.

Their room.

It was so weird to think of it that way.

They had a bedroom together. A house together. She had a dog.

He slid his shirt off, working the zipper on his jeans as she got into bed.

"Please tell me we can do this," he said, sounding very much as if he wasn't certain he could stop now even if she'd said they couldn't.

"We can," she said.

"And you're sure you want to?"

"Do I seem unsure?"

"God I'm happy to hear you say that. Cold showers are not nearly as effective or fun."

"I know, I'm sorry…"

"Don't," he said, joining her on the bed.

"Yes," she hissed as he slid inside of her.

He snorted softly at that. "I was going to say fuck yes, but yes works just as well."

"Too long," she groaned at the feeling of him thrusting inside of her again.

"I think a day is too long."

"God, me too. How did I become like that?"

"I'm just that irresistible?"

She scoffed, kissing his shoulder and then his neck as she brought her legs around him as high as she could, arching into him so he slid deeper into her.

"You sure?" he asked.

"God, yes," she cried out afraid he'd stop. She didn't want that. Not at all. She needed him in her just like this, deep and as full as he could make her feel. She found his ear, kissing it.

"Love you," she whispered before capturing his mouth. She knew he'd show her very well that he loved her, too.

"All that to get out of going skinny dipping in your own pool?"

"All that? I didn't do any of it! You started it with your hands and the touching me."

"Yeah, because you're beautiful and you're you and I love you. You said this ridiculous thing about my laughing at you. I had to prove you wrong. Plus, you know, you were standing there without that stupid cast on for a change."

She laughed softly, kissing his shoulder. She was still getting her mind wrapped around the fact he'd done that without knowing she wanted to, too. She wasn't sure what it meant that she wanted him to again.

"Maybe next weekend?"

"Yeah?" he asked.

"Yes."

"I can wait a week, I guess."

"You guess?"

"Well, if you won't go, there's a neighbor down the street who I might be able to convince when you're at work…"

"Don't even joke about that."

"I don't know that I'm joking. She's pretty cute. Legal I think."

"I am legal and I'm more than pretty cute."

"Fuck right you are. I'd never settle for just pretty cute anyway."

She scoffed at that, snuggling against him. She slid a foot along his calf as he ran a hand along her hip. Even without her cast he positioned them so she wasn't laying on that arm.

"Frame of reference?" he asked later when they got ready to take a shower so they could both be ready for April to get here. (She would never again take for granted a simple thing like taking a shower after weeks of having a cast to deal with.) They were going to be cutting it pretty close, but she couldn't say no to him when he'd wanted to again. It had excited her to no end that he'd started touching her first with sex obviously as his goal. He'd apparently noticed, too, because he'd commented on it.

"Yes?"

"Was that an attempt?"

"The timing is a little off, so not really. I mean, I guess technically," she admitted, hoping he wouldn't get mad that she'd given that answer. He'd said it was up to her. She wasn't entirely sure she was ready to find out getting pregnant wasn't always as easy as it had been for her twice now. Her doctor had warned her that may be the case.

"So, no pills?"

"No pills."

"Okay," he said simply.

"That's okay?"

"Did I answer like I wasn't okay with it?"

"No, just making sure."

"It would've been my fault for asking after the fact anyway. So if I wasn't okay and it happened it'd be my own fault. I'm okay, though. I've told you my fears, you understand the basis for them."

She couldn't exactly argue with that reasoning.

"I do," she agreed.

"A little off though?"

"Yes."

"I'm not entirely sure what that means. I mean I get the gist, but trust you get more than the gist. So you'll tell me when we're not a little off?"

"I'll try to remember, yes."

"That's all I ask, Princess. Even if it's, you know, afterward."

Return to Top

***Chapter Twenty-Four***
Word Count: 4,173

October 1995

"Is everything all right?" he asked when she'd been home from work for a while and hadn't said much. She'd been pretty quiet all evening. They didn't always have in depth conversations every day or anything, but they usually at least talked. She hadn't even asked him what he'd been working on today. That was unusual for her, she always seemed to ask even if he was working on things away from Simon Forge and his world. She didn't seem mad at him exactly, but he could tell she wasn't in the best of moods.

"Yes," she said.

"Okay," he said, not at all convinced. "Come on, you've even got Sammy looking at you as if he wants to do something to make you feel better."

She shrugged, sliding her hand along Sammy's back. She had gotten used to having a dog pretty quickly. A lot quicker than John was getting used to being responsible for a cat. Not that she'd shifted the responsibility of Tux onto him or anything, but he was home so it was innate in him to check on the cat and give him food when it was Sammy's dinnertime.

"It's nothing."

"But there's something wrong?"

"No," she said, sighing softly.

He couldn't make her tell him as much as he wished he could. He wanted to push, but he didn't because he knew that would just get her mad.

"April had her baby today," she said a little while later.

"Oh," he said, frowning a bit. She was upset about that? "That's good news, isn't it? I mean, everything's okay, right? The baby's okay? She's okay?"

"Yeah, she called me actually right as I was leaving the office."

"Well, okay. That's good then," he said. He wasn't surprised April had called her afterward. That's what best friends did and John knew April wished Claire could've been out in California instead of here today. "What was it?"

"A boy," she said.

"Okay, I realize this isn't the easiest thing for you, but I thought you two were okay."

"We are. I'm happy for her. Them. I told her I'd fly out whenever she needed me to."

He knew that, too. Hell, John had offered to fly out there and help out after the baby came if need be. Claire couldn't really take time off on an hour's notice. John could bring his stuff with him wherever he went. April and Rene both had parents, though, who were of course excited about their grandchild. So John's offer was an unnecessary one. They'd be going for the christening, though. John wasn't sure who the godfather was going to be, a childhood friend of Rene's was the impression he'd gotten but Claire wasn't totally sure either.

"So, what's the problem then?"

She stood from the couch then, patting Sammy on the top of his head before walking to the window to look outside.

"I was just kind of hoping," she shrugged.

"What?"

"That I'd go out there…"

"Oh," he said. He got it now. "I don't know what you want me to say? I'm sorry?"

"I know, it's my own problem."

"Don't. Don't do that. It's not a problem. It's certainly not just your problem even if it was one. I'm sorry it's not happening as quickly as you'd hoped it would."

"Are you?" she asked, turning to face him.

"Am I what?"

"Sorry?"

"Uh, yes. You have been in our bedroom the past few months, right?"

"Yes, but why hasn't it worked then?"

"How the fuck should I know? I'm not a doctor."

"I know."

"You know, but you sure seem as if you're blaming me somehow."

"Well, I know you don't really want one."

"We've already gone over this, Claire. It scares the shit out of me, but I want you happy."

"And you don't want me to meet someone else who'd want to have kids with me."

"Well, of course not. Fuck. The idea of that asshole touching you ten years ago pisses me off more than you can imagine, so someone doing it now with your permission and because I said I couldn't do it wouldn't sit well with me at all."

"So, how do I know you're not doing something?"

"Something?"

"Yeah, I don't know," she shrugged.

"I hate to tell you this, Claire, but there's nothing underhanded or sneaky I could do to prevent you from getting pregnant. It doesn't work that way. There are no pills for me to take. You'd certainly notice if I was wearing a rubber all of the sudden."

"You could be pulling out."

"You'd know if I did that!"

"I wouldn't."

"Jesus fucking Christ. Are you kidding me right now? You would, too, know. Trust me. Somewhere on you or the bed would be a mess if I pulled out of you before finishing. If not inside you it'd have to go somewhere. You know?"

"Maybe you go to the bathroom when we're done…"

He stared at her for a minute, certain he was hearing things right now. She was accusing him of what exactly? He wasn't sure what he was more insulted by actually. That she thought he'd be that deceiving as to do that or the fact she thought he was lying about being willing to have a baby with her. Either way, she was accusing him of lying in one form or another.

"Okay. Yeah, sure. I leave our bed and the woman I love in it to go to the bathroom after I, what exactly? Fake coming and jerk off in the bathroom?"

"You could. Or you could do that before coming to bed so you don't have as much."

"I haven't had to do that in so long I can't even remember the last time I did it was. Certainly before February."

"Not even when we weren't talking?"

"No, Jesus. You were mad at me, I had just found out I was going to be a dad. The last thing on my mind was getting myself off. Besides, I don't think it works that way anyway."

"There is something you could do I wouldn't know about," she said.

"What?" he asked with a frown.

"You could have gotten a…"

He left the room then, gesturing for Sammy to come to him. He did. Ironically, there were times the past few months that John was starting to question who Sammy was going to be more loyal to. He started to listen to Claire far quicker than John had assumed he would. He always came to John, though, unquestionably when he asked him to even if Claire had also asked him to go to her.

"What are you doing?"

"I'm taking the dog for a walk."

"What?"

"I can't stand here and have this conversation with you, Claire. I understand you're hurt and upset, I don't know what else you're feeling with her baby here now. But I can't stand here and have you accusing me of doing shit I'm not doing. Never mind I'm not doing it, I haven't even thought about it. I told you I was fine trying for one. You have me standing here, though, asking myself why in the hell you want to have one with me if you think I'm such an asshole as to do what you're accusing me of doing."

"It's not a crime to do that."

"Accuse me of lying?"

"No, to," she shrugged. "Make yourself."

"Well, no, obviously I know that or I would've been in jail a long time ago along with everyone in the world out there. I didn't stay to hear the rest of it, but you were just going to say I could've had a vasectomy. Right?"

"You could…"

"I wouldn't fucking do that. Never mind I'm almost positive I've heard that you can't have sex afterward for a while so where in the past five months since you lost the baby have I had the time to do that and not have sex with you."

"Right after I was in the hospital…"

"Sure. I think you would've noticed me being in pain myself. I've never had it done, but know guys who have. They certainly weren't out mowing the lawn and cleaning their pools the same day as getting one. Never mind I was taking care of you. Forget all that, though, because those are factual things you have to know point to the fact I didn't do that. You think I'd tell you we'd try for one and then go out and do that behind your back?"

Did she really think he'd do that? He supposed there were some guys who would. He wasn't one of them. Actually, he honestly wasn't sure he would like the idea of anyone snipping anywhere near his dick and nuts. He liked them fine the way they were.

"Claire," he said, hoping what he'd just said was registering with her.

"You weren't going to tell me about not wanting kids."

"I said I'd planned on it when we got to the point it was an issue. You know, talking about marriage. I wasn't going to go out and get snipped at my age as a kneejerk reaction to you wanting a kid. I'll be back."

"So you're just leaving?"

"What do you want me to do? Stand here and have you accuse me next of having sex with someone else in an effort to, whatever you think I'm doing by all the jerking off you seem to think I'm doing."

"I just don't understand…"

"I don't either! Your doctor told you it may take a while. She said it could take a couple of months for you to even begin whatever it is you need to do to get pregnant. She said a period doesn't mean everything is running as normally scheduled. I was there for the conversation because you wanted me there. Remember that? It's only been five months. Didn't she say things could be a little screwy for a while because of hormone levels and the fact you were pregnant?"

"Yes, but I got pregnant twice…"

"They were flukes. Even I know it's not always as easy as that. I can't explain it, maybe she can. Obviously you can get pregnant and I can get you pregnant. It will happen when it happens. I was content with that, I thought you were, too. I thought we were having fun with the trying, but maybe it's not fun for you. If that's the case…"

"No, it is."

"It shouldn't be a chore either. Maybe we're trying too hard?" he shrugged. Was there such a thing? He had no idea.

"That's not possible."

"No, I mean, mentally. I don't know. Can't that play a role in it, too? Stress and shit? Maybe worrying about it isn't good. Have you asked your doctor?"

"Yes," she said.

"And?"

"She says there's nothing wrong."

"Okay, well, take her word for it. Well, and in July I was gone during the good time for that. So, that rules out one month. You knew that, though."

"I know," she said.

"Claire. If being their son's godmother is going to do this, stress you out, make you feel some sort of pressure to have a baby tomorrow maybe you should say no."

"I can't!"

"You can, too. Both of them would totally and completely understand if you said you couldn't do it. I can't speak for April, but I know Rene would."

"You do not!"

"He told me!"

"What?"

"He told me! He called me a few weeks ago to ask me if I thought you really wanted to be godmother. He was willing to talk April out of it if I thought you didn't want to."

"When did you two become friends?"

"I don't know. We talk sometimes. We're men involved with women who are best friends. We don't talk every day or anything. He loves April so therefore cares pretty deeply for you, someone who his wife is obviously very close to. I feel the same way about April versus your other friends, you know? He's the one who told me you hadn't called April in the spring."

"He did?"

"Yes."

"Oh," she said.

"I told him I wouldn't tell you, and I didn't because he just wanted to make sure you weren't mad at April for some reason. This time he called because he really wanted to be sure you were okay. They're both concerned for you and don't want you to feel obligated, and I guess they figured him calling me would be better than April randomly calling me."

"I suppose," she said.

"Don't do it if you don't want to. No one's making you and no one's going to be mad at you for backing out."

"I want to! She's my best friend."

"Exactly the reason she'd understand."

"I know."

She was quiet for a while, no longer accusing him of doing absolutely insane shit to avoid getting her pregnant. So that was an improvement.

As if.

"You haven't told him about Allen?"

"What? Fuck, no. I wouldn't do that. I wouldn't violate your trust in me like that. The day he called me back in the spring I didn't tell him anything about what was going on. I listened to his concerns, told him I'd find a way to talk to you without it being obvious I was doing that. I thought I did an all right job of it, April was out here in a matter of a month afterward. I certainly wouldn't have a reason to tell him about what happened to you with that asshole. It's no one's business. I won't deny I wish more of your friends knew so they'd know what kind of guy he really is, but standing by and watching him get in trouble the past few months has been sort of enjoyable knowing what I know."

"It has," she admitted and he knew that was hard for her to admit. She wasn't a bitch. She wasn't mean or vindictive by nature. It was the reason she didn't want to practice criminal law. She didn't have that shark circling the bloodied water mentality.

"Why don't you come with us?"

"What?"

"Sammy and me. Come on. Get your jacket and come with us."

"John…"

"Get outside and stop thinking about this shit for a while."

Sammy was sitting by the back door, waiting patiently. He didn't really care which of them walked him as long as he got a walk out of the deal. He did seem to like it when they both walked him, though. The walks tended to last longer when Claire went with him.

"You want me to go to your doctor and take some sort of test to prove I'm functioning I will."

"I know you wouldn't do that."

"Do you?"

"Yes, it's just so confusing and it hurts so much thinking of sitting back watching someone else have a baby…"

"I know. I mean, I don't, I can't possibly, but I understand why that's got to be a tough thing to see. I'm sorry. I'm not doing anything to prevent you from getting pregnant."

"I just wish…"

"I could think of an idea…"

"What?"

"Well, you know a week or so in advance of the timing, right?"

"Yes," she said with a soft laugh. She knew he had no clue what went into knowing what was and wasn't a good time. He knew the gist, but he didn't really want to know the specifics. He didn't care. As long as she knew them.

"So, as soon as you know take those days off from work."

"And do nothing but have sex with you for days?"

"Well, yeah," he said with a shrug. "I wouldn't complain."

She laughed at that. "I bet you wouldn't."

"Just an idea. I mean, it's not exact so maybe we're just not timing it as right as you think we are."

"I'll think about it."

"When is the service anyway?"

"Uh, not until December."

"Oh," he said. "It's not going to be in Paris again, is it?"

"No, in Iowa."

"Iowa?"

"Yeah, it's where April's from."

"Really? I didn't know that."

"Yup."

"Huh. Well, I've never been to Iowa."

"Really?"

"What in the world would I go to Iowa for before now?"

"I don't know."

"Have you been there since you graduated?"

"No," she said with a shrug. "No reason to, really."

"Have you been to her house before?"

"Sure, not since college, but sure. We spent more than one weekend at each other's house."

"Huh," he said.

"That surprises you?"

"Kind of," he said with a shrug. He wasn't sure why. He just didn't see her choosing to spend weekends at someone Iowa home when she was nineteen.

They walked to a field that was a few blocks from their house and John let Sammy off his leash so he could run around freely for a while.

"I'm sorry," she said.

"It's all right," he said with a shrug.

"No, I shouldn't have…"

"It's understandable for you to get frustrated."

"I shouldn't have accused you…"

"You're right, you shouldn't have." He took her into his arms, though. It pissed him off, really it had but he had to bear in mind, too, she was feeling things he wasn't going to ever understand. She hadn't been a complete emotional basket case since the miscarriage so he supposed he had gotten off fairly easily to this point.

"You need me to demonstrate for you when we get back how you'd be able to tell if I'd been pulling out?"

"No!"

"Hmm, you sure?"

"That would be very wasteful."

He chuckled softly at that. "We wouldn't want that."

"No. Have you ever done that?"

"Pulled out? Well, you know the answer to that since you're the only one I've ever been with where that would be necessary, but no."

"So, you don't know…"

"Claire. It would still come out. That I do know. You'd know! Trust me."

"I know! That's not what I was going to say. I was going to say you don't know if you could actually do it anyway."

"Well, if I had to I'm sure I could. You want me to start practicing, let me know."

"No," she said.

"Never?"

"Well, I'd go back on the pill in between…"

"In between implies more than one. Let me get used to one then we can talk about more than one. Okay?"

She smirked a bit, but kissed his jaw.

"You want to start following me to the bathroom afterward?"

"No! I know you're not doing anything like that."

"I swear to God, Claire, if the fact I said I'm willing isn't enough…"

"It is. I know you are. I know you're not disappointed it hasn't happened right away."

"Well, I was sort of joking about it taking until the tenth time."

"I know," she said. She kissed him then. A pretty nice kiss, too, considering they were outside where anyone could walk or drive by and see them. Neither of them were huge into public displays. He liked kissing her in public, sure, just not to the point people would tell them to get a room or something.

"Let's go do something."

"What," she asked. "We already ate."

"Yeah, so. This is Chicago. Come on. We could see a movie even."

"I work…"

"I'm not suggesting we stay out all night, just get out of the house and away from things our minds have been on for a while."

"Your mind hasn't been on…"

"Don't say that. You don't know where my mind has been. You don't think I haven't noticed what you go through every month. I live here! I may not comment on it because I'll be honest I don't know what to say and I thought you realized it may not happen at the drop of the hat this time. I saw how hard it was for you to see those pictures of April in that magazine last month."

"She looked beautiful."

"Of course she did. Not as beautiful as you will, but that's me being absolutely biased and not wanting to sleep on the couch tonight."

"Smart man," she said.

He chuckled at that.

"So, pick a movie or something."

"You're sure. You don't like going out…"

"I don't mind going out. It's just when I'm gone so much and spend money on food and stuff as a result of that I just got into the habit of sticking around my place when I was home. A movie isn't going to break my wallet."

"Well, I can pay…"

"No way are you paying for a date."

"We live together!"

"It's still a date."

"They're naming him Rene," she said when they were walking back to the house with Sammy happier now that he'd been allowed to roam free for a bit. John was understandably happier now, too, knowing she was over whatever mindset she'd been in back at the house. She was even letting him hold her hand on the way back when she hadn't let him on the way out.

"Why does that not surprise me? At least they're not naming him Wren," he said.

She laughed softly. "There is that."

"So, a little Wren Savage, huh. Lucky kid."

"You think so?"

"Well, not as lucky as ours will be, but sure. He made out pretty decently when it came to parents it would seem."

"You like them?"

"Yeah. You know, it's innate in me, I think, because of how I grew up to be suspicious of anyone, what personality flaws they're hiding. I also wonder why anyone wants to have kids. I mean, God it's a lifelong commitment. Forget eighteen years. I'm unusual getting out like I did, not everyone severs ties with their parents I know this. I don't think you understand how completely terrifying the idea was to me until a couple of months ago. Your friends, though, they seem all right. I don't know Rene well or anything, but I know you and you wouldn't have stayed such good friends with April all of these years if she wasn't a good person."

"You think ours will be luckier?"

"I know they will be, because they will have us as their parents. Can't get much luckier than that."

"If only I knew you weren't joking."

"I'm not."

"Even though I just basically accused you…"

"Even though. Funny that I might just be the rational one of the two of us when it comes to dealing with any kids."

"I told you that you would never hurt someone, John. You're not your father."

"I'm actually starting to believe you. Please tell me you didn't accuse me of getting a vasectomy behind your back after agreeing to move in with you as some sort of test to find out if I was or not."

"I'm not sure I was thinking that clearly."

He knew she wasn't. Living with her, seeing her every day, all day for the most part except the days she was at work or he was traveling. Well, he was starting to understand Rich's warning about her. She didn't always get as mad at him as she did today, accusing him of completely outrageous and possibly bordering on delusional shit. He'd seen her temper aimed at others, though. He was always very glad that he seemed to have the ability to talk her into calming down. Sometimes it wasn't immediate, but that's when he did what he was going to do tonight and take Sammy for a walk. Usually thirty minutes or an hour alone gave her time to realize she was acting crazy.

(Not that he'd ever tell her she was acting crazy. He'd called her doctor about a month after she'd lost the baby wanting to know what to expect from her emotionally and physically. She'd warned him that even though she'd lost the baby her body was still going through things. Her first period or two after the miscarriage hadn't been fun. For her more than him, but the first one especially he'd thought she was hemorrhaging or something for a little while. She was the one who'd told John it may not happen again right away.)

"I am sorry, you know. I mean, I don't have the sense of urgency you seem to feel. I do feel bad when it doesn't work, but it's not me that nothing's changed about from month to month. If I could make it work…"

"I know."

"It will happen when it's supposed to."

"You believe that?"

"I didn't used to."

"What changed?"

"You."

"Me?"

"Yeah, you, dropping your offer into my lap a year ago now. I never had much reason to believe in things like fate or whatever you want to call it until then."

"I'm glad you said yes."

"Princess, haven't you figured out by now I can't say no to you."

"I'm starting to, yeah."

Return to Top

The Breakfast Club Fan Fiction Index Page | Fan Fiction Index Page | Home
Send Feedback

Story ©Susan Falk/APCKRFAN/PhantomRoses.com