***Part One***
Word Count: 4,183

Her mom would kill her if she knew where she was really going today. Brenda was covering for her because that's what best friends did for one another. Chris figured Brenda owed her a few coverings for last weekend. Chris dropped her long-time friend off at the mall where she'd do some shopping and catch a movie if she wasn't back by six fifteen. Their parents would ask for details since it was a school night, so one of them had to see a movie if it got late.

Chris hadn't told Brenda everything about that night last weekend. Like how close they'd come to not getting her mom's car back. Never mind if it wasn't for Joe Gipp she and the kids probably wouldn't be breathing today. Brenda felt bad enough Chris knew, so there was no sense adding to it. One thing she was fairly certain of, Brenda was never going to try to run away again.

She drove there, hoping he'd still be open. She'd had to look the address up in a phone book at the library because they'd been all over the place that night she wasn't exactly sure what the best way to get there from home was. She thought she'd be there before five o'clock, but the traffic was bad enough that she would cut it close. The neighborhood wasn't quite as scary when it wasn't eleven o'clock at night. Not being chased by mobsters probably helped, too. She knew it wasn't a neighborhood she wanted her mom's car to break down in, though. She'd given Brenda the address, too, just in case anything happened to her on the way.

She parked on the parking lot outside the garage and stepped out of her mom's car. She lifted the collar of her grandpa's coat closer around her neck, bundling her scarf around her a little tighter. Was it ever going to warm up? It didn't seem like it. Just last weekend she'd been worried about it being nice by prom so she and Mike could do something fun afterward. She was trying to push thoughts of prom and the fact she likely wouldn't be going now out of her mind. Never mind thoughts of how stupid she was. She still couldn't believe she'd fallen for his lines hook, line, and sinker. He had more experience where she had virtually none until him, so she was probably a pretty easy target.

She opened the door, glad it was unlocked. That had to mean he was still open. She went inside. Just like the other night there was no one there.

"Hello!"

He wouldn't leave the door unlocked if he was gone. No one in their right mind would do that.

"Mr. Dawson?"

His entrance wasn't nearly as dramatic as it had been last weekend. He just walked toward her from somewhere else in the garage. God, she'd thought for sure they were doomed when he'd refused to accept their forty-five dollars.

"Can I help you?" he asked. He wiped his hands on a towel, sliding it into his back pocket or maybe the waistband of his jeans when he'd finished. "Oh, it's you again. You got another flat tire you need fixed or something?"

"What?" she asked. "Oh, no. The car is fine. My mom has no clue anything happened, not even that the windshield is new. So, yeah, thanks."

"You're welcome. Feel free to send any friends my way."

"Uh, yeah, sure," she said.

"So, what is it you want then if you're not here with a car problem? This is a garage, you know?"

"I just wanted to give you this."

She walked toward him then, handing him the envelope she was going to slip under the door or put in his mailbox if he wasn't there.

She'd noticed how large he was the other night. It was hard not to really, but until now when his fingers touched hers more than a little to grab the envelope she realized he could have really hurt them had he been so inclined. His hands were huge, huge enough to have beaten any of them to a pulp. She swallowed. He'd done nothing to hurt them. He'd scared them and been a jerk, but he hadn't threatened them or anything.

"What's this?" he asked with a frown. He opened the envelope. The ten dollar bill drifted to the floor as he unfolded the piece of paper she'd written a note on.

"This is you? Chris Parker?"

"Yeah."

"I told you not to worry about the balance," he said. He glanced at the floor. "And it was only five dollars. That's a ten dollar bill. You're from the suburbs, certainly your schools teach you how to count if the Chicago Public School system taught me that much."

"Uh, yeah, I know. You didn't actually say not to worry about it, though, and I figured a little extra was called for. You have no idea what you saved us from."

"Oh, I have some idea what I saved you from. Or rather who. They came here after you got away from them."

She noticed now that he'd been beaten up pretty badly.

"I'm sorry. So sorry. They did that to you that night?"

"Some of it. Some of it came the next day when they found out the license plate number I gave them was bogus."

"Why?"

He shrugged, glancing at her note again. It wasn't that long to warrant reading it a second time. She'd simply said thank-you and if he ever needed something to call her. Not that she had anything to offer him, but he'd done them a huge favor and who knew what the future would bring. Her father taught her that you never let a kindness go unacknowledged.

He shrugged. "They were pretty bad guys, you obviously weren't. I wasn't going to hand you to them on a silver platter."

"Well, thank you. Again. Are you all right?"

"I'll live."

"Well, if there's ever anything I can do for you. Clearly, five extra dollars isn't enough for saving our lives and getting beat up in the process. My number's on the note. "

"I saw," he said, sliding the paper back into the envelope. He put it into his back pocket then. He still hadn't picked up the ten dollars.

"Okay. Well, that was all. Thank you, really, for everything, but especially giving Sara her helmet back. You let her believe for a little longer heroes are real. Good night," she said.

It was entirely too quiet in there. The night last weekend she could understand why it was quiet. It was late; he was obviously closed beyond their car. He'd waited for them, as a favor to Mr. Pruitt, but he'd waited until almost midnight.

Now, though, well, she just always assumed a garage would be noisy. Tools and machines.

"Hey Chris Parker," he said when she reached the door.

"Yeah?" She turned to face him.

"Have some pizza with me."

She laughed. Surely he was joking. "What?"

"It's dinnertime for most people. You drove from the suburbs. Have some pizza with me."

"For real?" He was being serious?

"For real."

"Mr. Dawson."

"Erik."

"Erik. I don't think…"

"Why not?"

"I have to pick my friend up. She helped me get here today by going to the mall by herself."

He smiled then. "So, your mom thinks you're at Saks Fifth Avenue with your friend?"

"Yes. Well, not Saks, but the mall."

"How much time do you actually have?"

"Not a whole lot. It took me almost an hour to get here and traffic will be worse leaving the city this time of day." That wasn't entirely true. If she wasn't back at the mall by six fifteen, Brenda was going to go to the next movie that started.

"Better not waste it arguing with me. Besides, take an hour, have pizza with me and the traffic will be lighter. You'd probably be at the mall about the same time as if you left now."

"Erik. I'm not sure…"

"It's pizza."

"Yeah, but, why?"

He shrugged, stopping to pick up the ten dollar bill finally.

"I have to have a reason to invite you to pizza? Maybe I don't want to eat alone."

"But you don't even know me."

"I know you're someone I'd like to know better. Believe me it's not every day someone pays me back when I let them slide on a portion of their bill. That's why I don't do it for anyone I don't know."

"That's why I paid you back. I didn't want you to think I was trying to cheat you out of the money. And maybe the next person like me you'll remember that I did pay you back and believe they will, too."

"Yeah, well, I wouldn't count on that happening too many times. I'm here running a business to make money not give people their cars for discounts."

"I know and that's why I felt I had to pay you."

"Fair enough. So, pizza? I know a real good place."

"I don't think…"

"I'd just like to hear just what it was I got beat up over."

When he put it like that, how could she say no? He could have led Joe's boss right to her house. Her parents could be dead right now!

"Okay, then, I guess I owe you that much."

"Give me about ten minutes to clean up and lock up."

"Sure. I can wait in my car."

"You'll wait right here. I don't want anything happening to you out there."

"It's only a few minutes."

"Gang bangers don't need long to see a pretty woman and decide they want to have fun with her."

"Oh," she said.

"Life's a little different here, but I'll be back in a few minutes. You can sit in there," he said, gesturing to a room toward the front of the building.

"Thanks," she said. She assumed it was a waiting area until she walked in and realized it was his office he'd told her to wait in. She sat on the chair at his desk. There was another one in the room, but it had stuff on it. She wasn't going to move his things.

What was she agreeing to exactly? And why? She should get in her car and go back to get Brenda. Only, he was right, there was no telling she'd be back by six fifteen at this rate. It was crazy that it could take over an hour to drive less than twenty miles. If there was an accident or something along the away, forget about it.

"Questioning my motives?"

"More like my sanity," she said, watching him curiously as he shrugged into a coat.

"I enjoy hearing interesting stories and you have to eat, right?"

"I guess."

"Don't you like pizza?"

'Well, sure, who doesn't like pizza?"

"There are some."

She waited for him by the exit as he shut off lights, checked the stall door, and set an alarm. He locked the door behind them once they went outside.

"You really are from the suburbs, aren't you?" he asked.

"Sorry?"

"You just assume you're going to ride with me?"

"Well, I have no idea where we're going."

He set his hands on the hood of his car. "You don't know me from Adam yet you're willing to just get in my car with me. I could be anyone."

"Well, my friend knows I'm coming here."

"And that means what? That you're safe?" He shook his head.

"I could follow you, but I could get lost in traffic. I really don't know the city that well. Not areas like this anyway. I was lucky my library had a current map that showed me how to get here. I'd never find my way back here from anywhere but the expressway, and then I'd have to get out and ask for directions. That would put me in danger, which just a few minutes ago you were trying to avoid."

"Yeah, all right, get in," he said, opening his door. She heard the familiar click of automatic locks being worked and opened the door.

He took her to a place she had never heard of before in her life and likely would have gotten lost leaving from if she'd driven herself. The pizza was great, though. She told him about that night, everything from Mike standing her up to Brenda's phone call, which lead to their adventure downtown and ultimately his garage.

"She doesn't really think I'm Thor, does she?" He took a sip of root beer. He'd gotten them a pitcher, which surprised her. She figured he'd order a beer, leaving her to look like a kid having to order a Coke.

"I don't know," she said with a shrug. "I would assume not, but she does like Thor a lot. You should see her bedroom. Thor pictures everywhere, some she's drawn herself. She's actually not bad."

"You don't?"

"Like Thor? I guess I don't really know much about him. I mean, he's a god."

"The God of Thunder."

"Right."

"What's not to like about that?"

"I don't know."

"Not a comics fan?"

She shrugged. "Not really."

"No brothers?"

"Yes."

"And none of them introduced you to comics?"

"I just have one and don't think he really read them either. I don't remember it if he did. He was an athlete, even as a kid."

"Huh," he said, taking a bite of the pizza. It was loaded with just about everything, except anchovies. You couldn't take a bite without getting a piece of one of the ingredients.

"So, has the guy called yet?"

"Which one?"

He chuckled a little at that. "The one you were supposed to have a date with that night?"

"Why would he call me?"

"To grovel."

She laughed. "I don't think he's the groveling type."

"I think for the right woman any man is the groveling type."

"I'm not the right woman for him."

"Why not?"

"Because I wouldn't sleep with him."

"I suspect he would've been a dick even if you had slept with him."

"Why?"

He shrugged, refilling their glasses. The place was pretty packed for a Wednesday night. She was surprised, but it was dinnertime. It was obviously a neighborhood place so people probably came here on their way home from work. Their waitress knew him that much was obvious. She was friendlier to him than her anyway.

"He was setting you up, wearing you down until you would give in."

"I thought about it, too."

"The other night?"

"No! Nothing specific, I guess. Just him like that. Prom, though, maybe," she shrugged.

"Why do high school seniors all think they need to get laid as part of that stuff?"

"I don't know. It's just normal, I guess. I hadn't made up my mind, and he probably wouldn't have gone with me anyway now that I think about it."

"Why not?"

"He's older."

"Not unusual for chicks to date older guys."

"Now that I know he wasn't seeing just me, well, he would have had to worry about seeing one of his other girlfriends there."

"Yeah, that does get to be problematic when you're a two-timer."

"I really never saw it coming. I mean, I knew he was experienced and everything. And Darryl said Mike beat him up last summer. I didn't believe it when he said it, but now. Well, I just wonder if I knew him at all or if he was just that good at hiding who he really was."

"At least it sounds like he could have afforded better than the backseat of his car."

"It was a Camaro, we wouldn't have fit."

He chuckled. "You'd be surprised what people can accomplish in cramped spaces if they're so inclined. It wouldn't be my choice, but I guess if you have nowhere else to go."

"I'm not sure you'd fit in the backseat of a Camaro."

"Front seats recline," he said.

"Oh," she said and knew she was blushing terribly then.

"Thanks, Shelly," he said when the waitress brought them another pitcher of root beer.

"How often do you come here?"

"At least once a week. They make the best pizza in town."

"It was great."

"I've eaten my share of pizzas to know."

"You always eat here?"

"Usually. Sometimes I take it to go, but pizza is best hot so why let it get cold? I suppose it's about time to get you back to your car."

She glanced over her shoulder to look at the clock on the wall there. It was after six o'clock now. Brenda should be picking out a movie about now.

"I have a little more time," she said.

"Is that right?"

"Yes. I didn't want to make her sit there for hours, so she's going to go see a movie if I'm not back there to pick her up by six fifteen. I figured a little over two hours should have been enough time."

"Cutting it close, though."

"Yeah, I know. I don't drive down here much at this time of day."

"So after you graduate what then?"

"I'm not sure. I kind of thought I knew, but now…" she shrugged.

"You thought you were going to marry the two-timer?"

"The thought crossed my mind. I fell for him."

"I guess so."

"My parents want me to pick a college."

"You don't?"

"No!"

He frowned a bit at that. "Why on earth not?"

"Why?"

"So you can get a good job."

"You seem to do just fine. You have your own garage, a wrecker."

"Yeah, well, I didn't have a choice. I didn't have parents who were willing to send me to college. So, unless you have some awesome manual labor skills that I'm guessing aren't there I'd say college is your best bet."

"Everyone says that."

"Maybe you should listen."

"Why do you care?"

He shrugged. "I don't, but you drove all that way to give me five dollars. You did everything you could to be sure those kids got home safe and sound the other night. That tells me you're a good person. Good people deserve better than working fast food restaurants."

"I," she shrugged.

"I get it, you thought you were going to marry the guy and wouldn't have to worry about things like a job."

"I thought, maybe, yeah," she said softly.

"And what about if he got hit by a bus three years from now and you had two kids to support?"

"What are the odds of that happening?"

"Getting hit by a bus? Okay, maybe not so likely, but living in Chicago there are a lot of ways to die. Why would you want to leave yourself and any kids potentially destitute?"

"You sound like my mother."

"Just someone who's been on the other side of high school for a while and who sees a lot of stuff in my line of work."

"I suppose you get lots of excuses for why they can't pay."

"That and I get some pretty interesting offers to pay off the balance."

She scrunched her nose at that. "Really?"

"Yeah."

"I would never have thought about doing that."

"I didn't think you would have."

"Weird."

"I wouldn't be sitting here with you right now if you were that type."

"Thank you. I still say it's weird, though. Using sex as a bartering tool, thinking that would even work."

"Not really. People are desperate and look at me and probably think I'm simple – and desperate enough myself - to take them up on their offers. There are those out there who don't make a habit of saying no to those offers."

"You don't seem desperate."

"Yes, because I'm sure you always get invited to pizza with virtual strangers every day."

"Well, no, not every day. That's not desperation, though."

He chuckled.

"Why did you ask me to have pizza with you?"

He sat back a little on his chair, regarding her. "I think you're pretty."

"Thank you," she said, knowing she was blushing again.

"You're welcome. I figured maybe you showing up like that today. Well, it couldn't hurt anything to ask you."

"Erik, I…"

"Hey, it's just pizza. Don't worry."

"I'm not worried, I just. Thank you."

"Let's get you back to your car so you're not late picking up your friend."

"Okay," she said, standing to put her coat on.

They were pretty quiet on the ride back to her mom's car.

"So, which suburb do you live in anyway?"

"Oak Park," she said.

"That's not too far."

"No, it's not."

He left his car on as she got out, doing the same.

"I can walk to my car myself."

"I'm sure you can. Just making sure," he said, opening the door for her. "You come here again, lock your doors."

"Oh, yeah, I wasn't expecting."

"Got it. It's just really not that great of an area. I'm good with cars, but even I have my limits on what I can undo to your mom's car."

"Well, thank you for the pizza. It was very good."

"Thank you for coming with."

"Sure. I'm glad you're okay," she said, reaching hesitantly to touch his eye where the worst of the bruising was on that side of his face. "I can't say how sorry I am."

He shook his head. "Forget it. Part of the job."

"Getting beat up is not part of your job."

"I guess when you want a little girl not to get hurt it is."

She wasn't sure what to say to that. She started to say something but he stopped her with a kiss. Her hands went to the front of his coat, her instinct to push him away. He leaned into her, backing her up against the side of her car. God, he kissed her like he really wanted to kiss her. She slid her arms around his neck then, drawing him deeper into it.

She broke away first. She had to. She had absolutely no business kissing him. She was supposed to go out with Dan this weekend. Kissing someone else shouldn't be on her mind at all.

"So the other guy?"

"Who?"

He chuckled lightly. "The guy who drove all the way out there to return the little girl's roller skate."

"Yeah?"

"You going out with him?"

"Yes."

"This weekend?"

"Yes."

"Friday or Saturday?"

"I'm not sure yet."

'That number you gave me."

"It's real."

"I'm going to use it tomorrow."

"Tomorrow?"

"Yes, to ask you out for whichever night you're not going out with him."

"I can't…"

"Have two dates on the same weekend? Why not?"

"Because it's not right."

"Well, if you'd been seeing him I'd agree with you, but it's a first date. I doubt he's expecting you to be committed to him before that even happens."

"I've never done that."

"Is that the only reason?" he asked, grazing her jaw with his lips.

"I don't know you."

"Seems to me that's the point of dates, and you can't know him any better than you know me."

"I don't know. My mom would probably freak out."

"Maybe. Maybe not," he said, finding her ear with his mouth.

"Okay," she said softly, not at all sure she should be feeling the things she was just from his kissing her ear.

"Okay you'll go out with me?"

"Yes," she said softly.

"Since I actually asked first do I get to choose the day?"

"He asked first."

"Seems to me if he really wanted to make plans with you he wouldn't wait until Thursday to make them."

"Are you saying he doesn't? He's busy. He has classes and stuff."

"I want Saturday."

"Okay," she said with a shake of her head.

"Questioning your sanity again?"

"Yes," she said with a soft laugh. "This is crazy. I can't go out with both of you."

"Sure you can. Tell him about me, I know about him. There shouldn't be an issue as long as you're honest."

He took her note out of his pocket and showed it to her. "Write down your address for me."

"Why?"

"So I can pick you up Saturday. Early."

"How early?"

"Noon."

"Noon? For a date?"

"Yes."

"Okay," she said, reaching into her purse for a pen. She put the paper on her window and wrote her address down, not easy to do given the window was cold.

He tore a part of the paper off, wrote something on the piece he tore off and gave it to her.

"Call me when you get home tonight so I know you got home safely."

"You're not serious?"

"I think I am, yeah."

"Okay," she said.

"I'll talk to you later then, Chris Parker."

She smiled a little, reaching up slightly to kiss him one last time. "Thanks again, Erik."

"Anytime," he said, opening her door for her.

He stood there while she let the car warm up, watching as she drove out of the parking lot.

"What have you done, Chris?"