***Chapter Twenty-Five***
Word Count: 5,089

John stood from the couch more than surprised the food he'd ordered was getting here already. It was Monday night and there was a football game so Jake's was usually pretty busy. It wasn't just Monday Night Football either, the Bears were playing so he knew they were backlogged when he'd ordered. He hadn't had much reason to order in pizza the past few months at home. He still did to the office on occasion. He knew the delivery guys got bombarded with negative comments and insults for taking so long on busy nights. He never understood that, because they were usually pretty good when you called to place your order to tell you it'd be an hour or more for your pizza. If you didn't want to wait an hour then go to the store, buy a frozen one, and bake it in your own damned oven. People just liked to bitch, though. He was learning that through his business, too. As hard as he tried, you just couldn't please every customer every time.

He'd never been sued or anything at least. The, to this point few, issues that had arisen he'd been able to resolve pretty quickly. Ronda knew the people who were just trying to get a discount on their packages and those who had a serious gripe. As with everything she did, she handled things like a pro, fielding the scammers from the legitimate complaints so he only had to deal with those. He always bent over backwards to make it right. He didn't bend over and let them take advantage of him, but he went out of his way to be fair and decent. He didn't get referrals and repeat business by being an ass so he obviously had been doing something right over the years.

Still, though, he knew first hand dealing with the public could suck at times. There were times it was great. He met people he wouldn't otherwise know through his occupation. He had business cards that ran the gamut from lawyers to doctors to car dealers to travel agents to health insurance agents to accountants and everything under the sun from people who said they'd treat him just as fairly if he looked them up. He'd never really had need to (except the car dealer and an accountant), but he supposed the health insurance was something he should look into again now that he and Claire were married. He had when Ronda started, but she insisted she didn't need him to because she was on her husband's insurance. So he hadn't. If he was going to think about hiring a second photographer part-time for the summer months, though, it'd have to be something he had to look into. Though part-time employees certainly wouldn't expect insurance coverage.

Claire was down in the Kankakee area with her dad for some business venture thing they were trying to put the finishing touches on and wouldn't be back until tomorrow night so he'd gone the pizza route instead of dealing with cooking. Funny how easily he was getting used to cooking for two instead of just him and how he didn't want to bother cooking for just him a night like tonight when he was alone.

He grabbed his wallet before opening the door.

"Uh, hi," he said with a frown. It wasn't the pizza delivery guy at all. It was the guy from the wedding reception a couple of weeks ago. The weird one that hugged John out of nowhere like they were long lost brothers or something.

"Hi John."

"Yeah, hey," he said. He was pretty sure his confusion at seeing him on their doorstep was plain as day. "Claire's not home. She's down in Kankakee with her dad for the night on business, but I can tell her you came by."

"I actually came to see you."

"Me? Why?" he asked, sounding as suspicious as he felt. Friends of Claire's didn't just show up at his house looking to see him. Most of her friends hardly said two words to him when they were out somewhere together let alone seek him out. They'd had a fairly decent time at their reception, so he was hoping that his relationship with her friends (the ones she considered her true friends not the entourage who rode on her coattails to get into VIP sections of clubs) would continue to improve. He at least would like to feel comfortable going places with her if he had to. The wedding coming up they were going to was going to be interesting. He still wasn't one hundred percent sure Claire understood he'd be working and wouldn't be able to be with her every second.

"Well, I recently got engaged and we need someone to do our engagement pictures."

"Okay. I'm at home. You realize that, right? I don't work here. Most people, you know, come to my studio or pick up a phone and schedule an appointment."

"Right. I know. I'm sorry. It's very unconventional. I wasn't exactly sure where your studio was. I don't even know the name of your company. I just know Christopher told me you were a photographer."

"Ah," he said. That was a legitimate reason. Still odd, but, understandable perhaps. He'd obviously know Claire's whereabouts or be able to find them out easily enough through people they both knew. "Come in," he said, stepping aside to allow him to do that.

"Thanks," he said.

"I can hang your coat up if you want," John offered. Claire would be so proud of him for making the offer. It wasn't something he'd ever thought to do until being involved with her. People came to his house, they took their own coats off and threw them on his spare bed or over a chair in his dining room.

"Sure, thanks. I really am sorry to just barge in here like this."

"Nah, don't worry about it. I'm just waiting on pizza and going to watch the game."

"Oh right," he said. "The Bears are playing tonight."

"Yeah. You a fan?"

"A little. I mean, I don't follow it really beyond to know if they win every week. I liked Walter Payton."

"Sure, who didn't," John said.

"It's too bad he didn't get to score a touchdown in the Super Bowl."

"I know it, man. I still can't believe William Perry scored two and he didn't get one. I mean, it was 46-10 so not a close game at all. How hard would it have been to get him the ball once at the goal line?"

He chuckled a bit and John realized maybe he'd been more enthusiastic about the subject matter than he should've been. His old man liked football. It was a legitimate excuse for him to sit in his recliner all day on Sunday and get drunk. Some of the knowledge rubbed off on John, though. When he was little they'd only had one TV in his house. (He'd stolen the little thirteen inch black and white set he had in his room when he was about twelve.) Then he'd gotten the press passes the year the Bears went 18-1 and won the Super Bowl and gotten a picture of his on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Well, he'd become a pretty loyal fan after that, even though the Bears had nothing to do with the picture getting chosen directly.

"You want a beer or something?"

"Sure," he said.

"You know, I feel bad for admitting this," John said as he walked toward the kitchen. "I met so many people that night that I'd never seen before."

"You don't remember my name," he finished for him from the living room.

"Yeah, sorry. I'm not real good at things like that," he said, returning to the living room with a beer.

"It's fine. I'm Phil. Phil Taylor."

John remembered now because of the way he said his name, almost as if he was waiting for John to recognize him or his name somehow. He did tonight, too, as if it should mean something to him. He wasn't sure why he would. As far as he knew he'd never seen Phil before the night of their reception in his life. Maybe around Shermer High if he was three years ahead of them as Claire said. He would have been a senior when they were freshman. Otherwise, he couldn't imagine where their paths would've crossed.

"All right, Phil, good to meet you again. Uh have a seat and I'll go look in the spare bedroom for some information for you."

"Well, I'm just really looking for general stuff. I mean, give me a card I guess and I can make an actual appointment."

"You sure? I mean, you came here. I'm happy to at least give some generalities. Obviously it would depend on what you're looking for as far as the pictures. Just for the newspaper announcement or bigger than that."

"No, I'm sure."

"All right," John said, opening his wallet and drawing a business card out. He had plenty of those. He knew his rates inside and out, but this was one of Claire's friends so he would give him a good rate and he wanted him to know that going into it. He'd done that for her friend's wedding coming up here this coming weekend. He thought her friend was going to have a heart attack at the drastic difference in his price and his competitors.

He wasn't trying to undercut anybody or anything, but he always thought it was a good way to get repeat business to be fair to people. And if word got around from Claire's friends that he was not just good at his job but fair he'd get more business from their friends and their friends' friends. That wouldn't be a bad thing because her friends had money to spend.

"What's EMS?"

"Oh, nothing. I mean, it's a long story and would mean nothing to you. I just tell people they're random letters I threw together."

"But they're not?"

"Kind of, not really," he shrugged, taking a sip of his beer. "It was one of those spur of the moments ideas that came to me. If I could go back and do it again I'd probably choose something that actually means something and makes sense to anyone but me. And Claire."

"How did you start taking pictures?"

"I, well," he said. "This neighbor was a photographer. I took an interest, I guess, and he was willing to show me the ropes. He'd done combat photographer during World War II, so he was real good. You know? Obviously, the photography bug wasn't taken out of him even after the war. He lost his wife and unborn baby, I think it was all he had to keep him going. He was retired by the time I came around, but had equipment and stuff in his basement so taught me how to develop my own pictures and everything. It turns out I was pretty good at it."

"That was nice of him."

"It was. He gave me my first camera. I wouldn't have ever been able to get one otherwise other than steal it."

"I'm sorry to hear that."

"It's all right. I wouldn't have my business if it weren't for him. Hell, I probably would never have picked up a camera to know I was good at it if it weren't for him. He left me all of his stuff. I still use most of it because while old he took incredibly good care of it. I'll update as I need to and can, but I guess it's what I learned on, you know? So I stick with it."

"Makes sense. How do your parents feel about your career?"

John shrugged, standing when the doorbell rang.

"Hi," John said to the delivery guy. He was a regular so while John didn't know the kid's name he'd seen him frequently the past year or so. He was a high school kid, though, he knew that going by the letterman's jacket he wore with the numbers 90 on it.

"Hey," the kid said. "Thanks. Have a good night. Enjoy the game."

"Thanks, you too," he said.

He returned to the living room.

"My parents? What could they say? Why would they say anything?"

"You went into business for yourself right out of school, right? You're the same age as Claire."

"Oh, right. Dad pretty much thought only fags did something creative like take pictures for a living. He wouldn't have gotten it. Mom," he shrugged. "Well, I moved out as soon as I graduated high school so there wasn't a whole lot they could say to stop me or change my mind. I'm not even sure he knows."

"Would they have?"

"Said something?"

"Sure. They would've told me I'd never amount to anything and that any business I tried to get into would fail. You know the usual crap that parents' who suck feed their kids."

Phil looked kind of upset by that comment. Maybe he shouldn't have said that? John didn't believe in lying about his childhood, though. His parents had sucked. He'd gotten out and was achieving something despite the odds that said otherwise. He was kind of proud of that.

"Sorry," John said. "I realize it's foreign to you, growing up like you, Christopher, and Claire did. Not everyone had a life like It's A Wonderful Life depicted."

"Oh, I know," he said. "Anyway, I'm sorry I took up your time."

"Don't worry about it. I was just sitting here anyway. You can have some pizza if you want. I got supreme with extra veggies, which Claire won't touch."

"Still doesn't like veggies?"

"Not on her pizza anyway, no. Well, I think she'd be okay with the mushrooms, but not extra. And forget the onions and peppers, which I think are the best part."

"If you're sure I'm not intruding," he said.

"Nah, I'd just be sitting here by myself otherwise. Then I'd eat the whole thing between now and breakfast and I'd feel extra guilty about eating the entire thing myself. That would mean even longer at the gym tomorrow after work and I'd really rather not have to do that."

"Sure then."

John went to the kitchen, grabbing a couple of plates, paper towels, and beers for both of them. He was pretty sure Phil's was almost out. He knew his was.

"So when did you get engaged?" John asked, returning to the living room.

"I haven't yet, actually. I'm going to ask her over Christmas."

"Ah," John said. That was pretty typical.

"You don't sound impressed."

"Me?" He shrugged. What did his opinion matter? "Just see that a lot, Christmas proposals don't quite rival Valentine's Day ones, but they're pretty common."

"Huh," he said, grabbing a couple of slices to put on the plate John had given him.

"Does she have a name?"

"She does. It's Elizabeth. I met her at Stanford my senior year. She's Claire's age so just graduated in the spring and moved here for a job."

"To be near you?"

"Yes. Well, partly. The job was a good one."

"What does she do?"

"She's a corporate accountant."

"What do you do?" John asked, realizing he hadn't a clue.

He sighed softly. "I'm a nurse."

"Really?" John asked.

"Yeah. I sort of know how you feel about your parents not understanding. And the only gay men become nurses thing."

"I see," John said. Maybe his life hadn't been the way John pictured it being living in Claire's neighborhood after all.

"I started out with the intention of becoming a doctor, but I realized quickly I wanted the more hands-on role of nursing. I don't know. I like it."

"Then you made the right choice it would seem. You work at a doctor's office or a hospital or what?"

"At Shermer Memorial right now."

"Nice and local."

"Yeah."

"So you were giving it a few months?"

"What?"

"Sorry. With the girlfriend."

"Kind of. I didn't want her to think I was rushing her."

"Makes sense."

"How did you and Claire meet?"

"We went to school together."

"Really? You went to Shermer High?"

"And Shermer Middle, sure," John said.

"I had no idea."

"Really?" He seemed legitimately surprised by that information. John sort of thought it was assumed he was from here.

"No, I didn't know anything about you really."

"Not surprising." Why would he? He and Claire hadn't dated during school or anything for anyone who knew her to know anything about him.

"So you went to school together. She never dated growing up."

"I know," John said. John was the closest she'd gotten and he'd screwed that up. That was probably for the best, though.

"She sure made up for that the past few years."

"You can't believe everything you read, you know. She wasn't nearly as bad as the Trib and Times liked to make you think she was."

"Oh, I know, but she sure liked to have a good time. It drove her parents' crazy. At least, her mom told my mom it did."

"Yeah, I get the impression her mom freaks out over anything that might taint the Standish name."

"She does," Phil said. "They were always nice people growing up, though. I mean, I never felt like I couldn't be friends with Christopher or anything. I got the impression they didn't always get along, her parents I mean, but I guess what married couple with kids does every waking second?"

"Right," John said. "Claire mentioned you have an older brother, too," he said, remembering vaguely their brief conversation about Phil at the reception. "And a sister, too, I think?"

"I do. I have two sisters actually," Phil said.

"Oh, Claire only mentioned one," John said. "Or maybe I misunderstood."

"No, she's older than us. Mom and Dad were pretty young when they had her and waited a while afterward until they had my sister Erin. She's twenty-eight, Wayne is twenty-seven, and then there's me at twenty-five. She, my oldest sister I mean, moved out when she was pretty young and didn't come around much, so Christopher and Claire wouldn't really have known her. She'd be thirty-nine now I guess."

"I see," John said. "Is she still around here?"

"I used to think she wasn't, but I think so now, yeah."

"Oh," John said. He was sure that made sense to Phil but it didn't to him.

"She was kind of disowned so wasn't talked about much."

"Disowned?"

Phil shrugged a bit. "She got involved with a bad guy, got pregnant and my parents wanted her to let them adopt the baby since he would've only been a couple years younger than me. She wouldn't hear of it, ran away, and really didn't come around too much after that. Things were said, you know, I'm sure both sides wish they'd handled it better."

"Oh. That's too bad," John said, thinking over what Phil had just said.

"You?"

"Me what?" John asked.

"Brothers or sisters?"

"Uh no. Well, technically, yes. I just found out recently I have a younger brother."

"You didn't know?"

"No. I moved out right after high school, remember?"

"Oh, he's that young?"

"Yeah, he's three."

"You didn't know about him?"

"No, I haven't seen Mom or Dad since I moved out."

"What do they do?"

"Dad's in prison, he was a mechanic though and kind of the neighborhood handyman on weekends. You know, fixing things for neighbors that needed doing that they didn't want to pay an arm and a leg for. Mom," John shrugged. "I honestly don't know. I have no idea what she does for a living. She must work, she's maintaining the house."

"You saw her?"

"Yeah. She dropped a present off at my studio before the reception and I noticed she was taking the bus. She and Dad had two vehicles so I went over there this past Friday to get one of them running for her."

"That was nice of you."

"It was probably more than she deserved, but I guess I'm just a sucker for doing the right thing for women when it gets down to it."

"I'm sure she appreciated it. What's his name?"

"Billy," he said.

He seemed to be mulling that over a bit. John wasn't sure why his younger brother was of interest to the guy, but whatever. He seemed nice enough and the conversation was better than sitting at home alone tonight. He, oddly, found his house rather empty without Claire in it with him. Odd, only because he'd been living on his own for so long now it seemed strange that living with someone for a little more than three months could become so normal to him.

"Was it weird?"

"Yeah! I went over there a few days beforehand to scope out the situation, you know. I wasn't sure what the deal was and I saw him. I wasn't sure what I was seeing so I visited an old neighbor who still lives there and she told me about him. She's the one who told me the old man's in prison."

"That must be weird."

"A little. Not at all unexpected. He wasn't the nicest guy on his best days so I wasn't surprised to hear he'd done something to finally get in trouble with the law."

Phil glanced at the scars on John's arms and John wished he was wearing a long-sleeved shirt. He just never thought about it around the house anymore because Claire knew and touched every inch of him whether he was wearing short sleeves or not.

"I'll be right back," he said, going to answer the phone in the kitchen.

He wanted to put a phone in the living room, but Claire insisted it wasn't necessary. It was the one room in the house besides their bedroom they ever got time together and he supposed she didn't want the phone interrupting them. They'd still have to get up to answer the phone, but it was easier to ignore it if they had to do that. There were evenings they didn't have any problems ignoring it from their couch. He was so glad she wasn't an "in the bed only" type of person. As long as they weren't doing anything illegal John didn't see why they couldn't do things anywhere. And, hell, from the privacy of their own home even if it was illegal he didn't see why they couldn't. Smoking a joint once in a blue moon was as illegal as they got.

"Hello," he said into the phone.

'Hi,' she said.

"Well, hello to you."

'What are you doing?'

"Eating pizza and watching the Bears game with your friend Phil."

'Phillip Taylor?'

"Yes."

'What's he doing there?'

"Evidently he's going to propose and wanted to talk to me about picture information."

'At our house?'

"That's what I said. He didn't know the name of my company."

'Ah,' she said.

"That's also what I said. Anyway, I'd already ordered the pizza. We were talking so I invited him to stay."

'Let me guess. Supreme with extra mushrooms?'

"Yes! You're not here to be overly picky about pizza toppings."

'I know. Wow, making friends with my friends and you're not dropping dead.'

"He's not the type of friend I have an issue with and you know it. He seems like a pretty decent guy actually. He's a nurse, did you know that?"

'No, I guess I didn't. See, you get to hang out with someone and eat the pizza you prefer. It's good I'm gone for the night then.'

"Well, I don't know about that at all. I don't like the idea of the other half of my bed being empty. I'm kind of used to it being occupied every night now."

'It's just one night.'

"I know."

'I'll be home tomorrow night and it won't be empty anymore.'

"I look forward to it."

'Me, too. Over a day is entirely too long.'

"To hear you say things like thatů"

'I know, shocking, right?'

"It makes me very happy, that's for sure."

'Yeah?'

"You know it does. I like that you think that it's too long."

'I like that you like it.'

"How'd your day go?"

'You know, busy. Meetings and paperwork. Dinner with clients. Drinks with clients.'

"Drinks?"

'I'm not drunk.'

"I might be tempted to drive down to Kankakee if you were."

'Only if I was drunk?'

He chuckled softly. "Not only. If you'd called before I left work I'd be on my way."

'Maybe next time.'

"Yeah?"

'Sure. I think Dad just wanted to see me on my own this time, how I'd act and stuff.'

"Right, I get it. Don't want the new husband around to embarrass you and ruin a deal."

'You wouldn't embarrass us and Dad knows that.'

"Thanks for saying so."

"Hey, John," Phil said from behind him.

"Sorry," John said, almost forgetting he was there even though he'd just been talking about him. "One second, Princess," he said.

"I'll let you go. Thanks for the beer and the pizza. I'll call you once I've asked her for an actual appointment and everything."

"No problem. Call anytime," he said. "I'll be right back," he said into the phone. "Don't hang up, okay?"

'Yeah, sure,' Claire said.

He set the phone down on the counter and walked to the front door with Phil after getting his coat for him from the coat closet. Until Claire moved in the coat closet had been virtually empty. Now there was all sorts of stuff in it from an umbrella to sneakers she could wear to and from work on snowy days to coats and hats. There were even extra hangers in there to hang up coats of guests like Phil. It was crazy. He'd never realized how sparse his living conditions were until she'd moved in. He'd never cared to hang up anyone's coat.

"It was nice to talk to you," Phil said, offering John his hand. It wasn't a hug, which was an improvement over the last time they'd said good bye. John took his offered hand and shook it.

"You, too, Phil, sorry I forgot your name."

"Don't sweat it."

"And good luck with the proposing."

"How did you do it?"

John chuckled softly. "You don't want to take tips from me, trust me. I'm no romantic."

"But she said yes."

"Well, sure, I got lucky, believe me," John said. "I'm still not entirely sure she's sane."

Phil laughed at that. "All right. Save your secrets. Have a good night," he said and then reached in and hugged him again.

"You, too," John said, shutting the door behind him and locking it. He'd think the guy was into him or something except he clearly liked women if he was on the verge of proposing and the hugs he'd given him weren't like that at all. He just had no idea what to make of it. Maybe he was just a friendly guy. Some people were like that John knew. He knew some people like that, but they knew better than to get touchy with John. Phil evidently didn't.

John returned to the kitchen and the phone there.

"Your friend hugged me again."

'Really?'

"Yes. What is his deal?"

'I have no idea, hon, I really don't.'

"It's kind of weird. And we need to invest in a cordless phone instead of this wall phone in here if you're going to be going out of town with your dad with any frequency."

'Why?'

"Because now I'm stuck in the kitchen where if I had a cordless I could walk to our bedroom and talk to you from our bed."

'I like that idea.'

"Me, too. A lot. It could be kind of fun. If you know what I mean, both of us in bed together even if it's not the same bed."

'You could call me back.'

"Yeah?"

'I'm not going anywhere.'

"All right," he said, liking the thought of that immensely. "Do I get phone sex out of the deal?"

'You'll have to call me back to find out.'

"All right," he said, writing her phone number down on the paper by the phone. "I'll call you back in a few minutes. Let me just lock up. I wasn't expecting you to call this early."

'We just got done earlier than I thought. I didn't think you'd have company or anything.'

He thought on that for a minute, wondering if that was why she called this early. He figured she'd call closer to about the time the game would be done since she knew he'd be watching it. It was the first time they'd been away from each other since getting married. He didn't think she thought he'd do something like that, but he could perhaps see why she'd wonder.

"You sure about that?"

'I did wonder if maybe you'd go out with Glen and Charlie somewhere to watch the game.'

"I didn't really want to tonight."

'Well, I know you didn't have a woman over.'

"I have all that I can handle in the one I'm married to, but I'm very glad to hear that you know that."

'Me, too,' she said.

"I'll call you back in a few minutes then."

'And John?'

"Yeah?"

'I love you.'

"Hmm, maybe it's me who should be worried about you having a man over."

'With my dad right here?'

He chuckled a bit at that.

"You never know what people do on business trips."

'I just felt like saying it. I haven't seen you all day.'

"You can say it as much as you want to. I don't think I'll ever get tired of hearing those words."

'You'll get used to hearing them one of these days.'

"Maybe so. I'll still want to hear them, though."

'I know.'

"I love you, too, you know, even if I don't say it as often as you'd like me to."

'You do fine.'

"I do?"

'You may not say it, but you show me very well.'

"I'm glad you think so."

'Go do your stuff and maybe you can show me before I fall asleep.'

"I love the sound of that."

She laughed softly. 'I know you do. I'd accuse you of being a pervert, but I kind of like the idea, too.'

"We can both be perverted together then, Princess. I'll call you back in a few minutes."

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