"Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you," sang CJ along with a dozen or so fellow students who'd followed him outside the school building. They surrounded the teen as he presented his buddy with a Georgetown Cupcake treat―something he'd started doing for everyone in their group. "Happy birthday dear Harley, happy birthday to you."
The group of friends had congregated at the short wall in front of the structure so they could light a candle Autumn had placed in the cupcake. "Thanks, guys," said a broadly smiling Harley after blowing out the small flame. "But it's my seventeenth birthday, don't I get seventeen cupcakes?"
"Fuck you, homie. I only got one for mine so that's all you get." Thiago bumped fists with Harley before grabbing him around the neck in a mock strangling gesture. Typical straight boy show of affection.
"CJ cooked me breakfast for my birthday," said a smug Chipper, an air of superiority surrounding him.
"Yeah, but I had help. Don't you be starting no trouble. And that only happened `cause we were in New York on vacation." CJ plucked the candle out of the cupcake and stuck it in his mouth to clean off the stuck-on crumbs and frosting, before tossing it in a pocket. "Gotta save this one for Chipper. His birthday's the next one."
"Hell, no! You ain't putting that candle that's been in your mouth in anything I might want to eat." Chipper's feigned outrage drew laughter from the group. "By the way, speaking of New York trips, did anyone notice the black eye our resident rapist was sporting this morning? Or that he's been kinda limping the past couple of days?"
"José-María?" asked Danek. "I did. I figured CJ got hold of him in a dark corner somewhere and took care of the bastard."
"No fucking way," replied CJ. "I wouldn't be caught dead in a dark corner with that fucktard. I wouldn't want to be caught anywhere near him. So if he got beat up, it wasn't me. But if you find out who did it, let me know. I'd like to shake their hand."
"CJ Abelló, please report to the principal's office. CJ Abelló to the principal's office, please."
"Uuuhhh, someone's in trouble. Déjà vu all over again." The comment by one of the students made all the others in the room laugh.
"What else is new?" said another one.
CJ stood up, his grin matching the one on the teacher's face. "You're all just jealous witches. I get to skip class and you wish you were me." The boy picked up his book bag and walked towards the front of the room, noticing the reproachful stare from the instructor. "Not that I like missing your class at all, of course."
CJ suspected the request for him to go to the main office was so Mrs. Edwards could let him know about Bradley and Patrick Kennedy's application to attend WALLS. He'd approached her about his friends' move from Boston the same way he'd done previously, at the time Chipper was getting ready to leave New York. She'd promised to get back to him quickly.
"Good morning, Mrs. Edwards."
"Good morning yourself, young man," said the school principal, pointing towards one of the chairs by her desk. "Have a seat, please. We have a few things to discuss."
"Is it about my friends from Boston?"
"Partly." Mrs. Edwards picked the top sheet of paper from the stack on her desk and smirked at CJ. "You seem to be creating a lot of work for me recently. Anyway, although there's still the bureaucratic red-tape to deal with, I think both Kennedy boys will be joining you at WALLS this fall."
"Alright!" CJ's smile grew as he pumped a fist into the air.
"I hope you realize I'm discussing these private matters with you because both of them, their mother, and their father all suggested I do so. Patrick's an excellent student. You've seen his grades since they both copied you on the e-mails they sent me with the unofficial copies of their transcripts. I'm somewhat saddened by the fact the school doesn't field an ice hockey team. He seems like quite an athlete. You should also know we spoke about his behavioral issues and school suspensions. I'm confident he won't be facing the same type of bullying at our school he's been subjected to this past year."
"I promise I'll keep an eye on him next term, Mrs. Edwards. I won't let anyone pick on him and if they do, I'll make sure Patrick stays cool."
"There's no doubt in my mind you will. You've become well respected amongst faculty and students, and you seem to carry a lot of weight when you speak. Surprising for a sophomore, I must say. Now, about Bradley. His grades are not as good as his brother's and he may need a little tutoring to ensure his grade point average―"
"I'll do that too. Honest. And I'll get Harley and Chipper to help me. We'll all be in the same year and probably end up having classes together."
"Yes, I'm sure you will. I'm wondering what it'll be like around here when there's six of you instead of just four. I'm certain next school year's going to be interesting." The seriousness in Mrs. Edwards voice had faded somewhat and there was a playful tone to her comments. "Bradley's interest in playing for our lacrosse team helped sway our decision in his favor. Our coach is excited about having someone with the ability to play as well as his current coach mentioned in his letter of recommendation. Please make your friend aware of WALLS' strict academic standards. He's getting in, but he must meet them if he's to remain here."
"Perfect. Next topic." Mrs. Edwards retrieved a manila envelope from her top drawer and slid it across her desk towards CJ. "Your fathers were very clear they want you involved in the Davenport-Abelló Family Foundation programs. Inside the envelope is a list of names of education professionals who've agreed to be part of the committee which will administer the proposed scholarship program for WALLS students. You'll be happy to know James Rupple has agreed to serve on it. Please deliver the documents to Captain Davenport for me?"
CJ thought his English professor, who served as the Faculty Advisor for the Gay Straight Alliance, was a great addition to the team his dads were putting in place. "Sure thing, Mrs. Edwards. Are all the people on the list teachers at WALLS?"
"No, they're not. One's an instructor at George Washington University. Another's a guidance counselor at Howard. And one's an admissions officer at American University. Let your fathers know we're ready to start implementation whenever they give us the approval."
"I have one more item to discuss and it's a touchy subject. I've heard some rumors about what happened over spring break between you and your friend José-María. Would you like to tell me about it?"
CJ's body stiffened. The smile on his face disappeared, replaced by a scowl, and he stared at his shoes momentarily. "Nope. There's nothing to tell. We had a difference of opinion and we're no longer friendly."
"The whispered conversations I've heard seem to contradict you, CJ. I have a responsibility to ensure the safety of all my students. Anything which could endanger them is something I want to know about."
"I have nothing else to say, Mrs. Edwards." CJ stared hard at the principal when he spoke.
"Then you wouldn't have any idea why he had a bruise around his eye yesterday? Why he's been limping, or why he was wearing a soft cast on his arm this morning?"
"No. I honestly have no clue. I heard about the bruises on his face, but I didn't see him this morning."
Mrs. Edwards sighed and the expression on his face softened. "I have no reason to doubt you, even if you're not being very forthcoming with me right now. CJ, you're one of my finest students and your welfare's important to me. Even more, Ray and I consider your family our friends. If there's anything you want to talk about at any time, please come to me."
"That's all I have for you today, son. But you should be aware Mr. Flores was here this morning with his mother. He's withdrawn from WALLS. They claimed it was due to a family emergency. The two of them were returning to Venezuela, and he plans to complete his education in Caracas."
The 198 students graduating from Georgetown University School of Medicine walked into the Warner Theatre to the applause and cheers of family and friends gathered to celebrate their achievement. Chatri Mookjai, a Seattle native son of Thai immigrants, had his own small but vociferous group of supporters led by his fiancé, Helen and his best-man-to-be, CJ. The wedding was scheduled for the beginning of June and his parents, unable to afford trips to the east coast twice in such a short time span, were not there. Instead, the two physicians who'd become his mentors―Matt Calhoun and Prescott Harding―were present, along with their significant others. Dasan and Gray didn't know the newly minted doctor well, but had been made aware of their partners' interest in the young man's success.
Chipper had been coaxed into attending by CJ. Both teens wore khaki slacks, white shirts, and blue blazers; the one difference in their attire being their neckwear. Chipper had on a navy and gold repp tie, while CJ had opted for borrowing a pink bow tie with indigo polka dots from his father. César had smiled approvingly while checking his son's tie, while Brett made snarky comments about rich, spoiled, preppy boys.
"Fuck you, Papa," whispered CJ in Brett's ear. "Don't be hating on me just `cause I look hot when I dress up."
"He's got you there, Captain," said a grinning Gray from Brett's other side. "Your son does look good all dressed up. A heck of a lot better than the rest of you."
"Watch it, boy." Prescott's admonishment was uttered from between clenched teeth. "You're bordering on being disrespectful."
"I'm sorry, sir. It won't happen again."
"What the hell?" asked Chipper quietly, leaning close to CJ so only his friend could hear him. "He calls Prescott sir and apologizes for paying you a compliment?"
"I'll explain later. It's part of the dynamics of their relationship. Gray's the submissive partner so he defers to Pres. And in the leather community showing respect to others is paramount."
While the commencement speaker droned on, CJ and Chipper fidgeted in their seats and occasionally whispered to each other. Doctor Harding and Doctor Calhoun had planned a celebratory meal for their protégé after the ceremony since his parents weren't in town, and the boys were more interested in discussing the upcoming meal than in the minutiae of medical experiences detailed by the woman at the podium.
"Have you eaten at this restaurant we're going to?" asked Chipper, leaning towards CJ seated in the row in front of him.
"Yeah. Once before. The Old Ebbitt Grill's known for its oysters. I ate a whole bunch of them when I was there, and they were good."
"I thought we weren't supposed to eat oysters in months without an R in their name."
"Nah. It's cool. I read up about it. The warning's because in the hot months shellfish can absorb stuff from algae blooms. But most oysters served in the US come from farming, so the risk's been all but eliminated."
"Good. It wouldn't be nice if we got sick on your one year anniversary."
César and Brett made a big deal during breakfast―and then shared their enthusiasm with their friends―about it being exactly one year since CJ had come to live with them. When they brought it up over coffee, the boy's mind replayed the past twelve months. He found himself concentrating on the better times and discarding the painful ones. They were a part of him now, but he'd decided to follow Dragon's advice and not let them dictate his future actions entirely.
"Morning, Eli," said CJ as he walked around the old, beat-up, pickup truck blocking one of the garage doors. He'd been at the university campus' gym and walked through the driveway between his house and Mary's place, intent on using the back door so he could leave his water bottle in the kitchen sink.
"Morning, bud," replied the young construction worker. "Out jogging?"
"Nah, not today. I was lifting this morning. I try to hit the weights three times a week."
"It shows. You got a nice build, man."
"Thanks. What're you doing here today? I thought you guys were starting work on the basement next week." It'd been a month since Leo Dallas―Eli's uncle and the owner of Leatherneck Construction―had met with his fathers about the job. During the subsequent week there was a constant stream of calls and e-mails between the general contractors being interviewed for the job, his dads, and his cousins in Chicago, culminating in written bids. Although his estimate was a couple percentage points above the lowest one, Brett had insisted on awarding the contract to his fellow marine.
"We are. It'll be only me and your friend Gray here today and tomorrow. Since your dad's still not a hundred percent, he hired us to help move most of what's stored in the basement. We're taking everything in there to the garage for the duration of the remodeling."
"Cool. I'll find out which car they plan on keeping outside while all this goes on and move it for you."
"No rush. I'm here early and I'm waiting for Gray to show up." At the request of CJ's dads, Leo had hired Gray to work on the basement buildout. Prescott's boyfriend was qualified and he was the one who'd first suggested Leatherneck Construction as a possibility, based on what he claimed was great word of mouth on the street.
"Then come inside. The dads should be in the kitchen still. You can hang out with them and get something to drink if you want. I need to take a shower and get ready for school." CJ walked in the house smiling, thinking Eli looked hot in his cut-off denim shorts, wife-beater, and tattered construction boots. The teen said hello to this fathers and ran upstairs to his room; he figured he had enough time to rub one out in the shower, and the hunky worker was going to provide the inspiration.
• • •
"Careful, CJ. Climbing stairs carrying heavy boxes while distracted could be dangerous. You don't want to fall and break your ass." Gray chuckled, walking behind CJ who was following Eli. All three had a box full of compact discs in their arms which were destined for CJ's bedroom.
"Sorry," said the teen as he recovered from the misstep he'd just taken. "I kinda spaced out there for a minute."
"Spaced out. Right," mumbled Gray. "Something in front of you distract you?"
CJ felt warmth rise on his face realizing he'd been caught. It wasn't so much he'd spaced out, he'd been mesmerized by the bouncing of Eli's bubble butt in front of his face. "You know what, guys? Forget taking these up to my room. Let's drop them off on the main floor instead. That way I can go through all this shit tonight when the dads are around. I can ask them questions if I have any."
"So, what's the deal with all this stuff anyway?" asked Eli, bending over to drop the box he carried by the couch in the living room.
"Papa told me when he and Dad digitized all their music, they couldn't decide what to do with all the CDs. So they packed them up and put them away."
"And now?" Eli lifted the hem of his shirt to dry the sweat off his face. He and Gray were both sweaty and grimy after a day of moving boxes and odds and ends. CJ had joined them in the basement when he returned from school. César was at work and Brett was in their bedroom, working on something or other on his computer.
The boy licked his lips unconsciously seeing the man's flat stomach and the sparse treasure trail leading from his belly button into his shorts. He snapped his head around when he heard Gray chuckle one more time. The boy had been caught once again. "They have all their music on the laptop they keep at the bar. That's where they control the house's sound system. I want to see if there's anything I want to put on my computer. I think it'll be easier to go through each CD than to try scrolling through thousands of songs."
"Hope they have backups," said Gray.
"Yeah, online and on an external hard drive too. Papa said there's a lot of 90s electronic dance music in there. I think some of it would be good for workout playlists."
"Wow! Your dads are into EDM? I never thought of them as part of the dance party crowd."
"I think the dads were a bit wild while they were single and probably for a time after they met. I've heard them mention going to circuit parties before. But nothing since I moved up here last year."
"What are you going to do with them once you get done?" asked Eli.
"Not sure. Probably give them away to a charity's thrift shop or something. The dads said we could get rid of them. Why? You want `em?"
"I don't want them to keep, but I wouldn't mind looking through them with you. Maybe there's some I'd be interested in ripping."
"That's cool. I'll hang on to them and maybe one day next week you can stick around after work and we can look through them together."
The call from Harley's father earlier in the week had surprised Brett. He and César had met Harley's parents on several occasions since their sons became friends, and even joined the couple for dinner a couple of times. The unexpected conversation was prompted by Harley's refusal to join his parents and sisters on a weekend trip over the Memorial Day Weekend. The boy insisted on remaining home so he could attend the Rolling Thunder Motorcycle Rally on Sunday with CJ and his dads.
The men decided instead of having the boy stay alone in his house, he'd spend the weekend in Georgetown. He came home with CJ after school let out on Friday, his parents dropped off an overnight bag that afternoon on their way out of town, and he planned on returning home Monday night.
Unlike the previous year, when Brett's boss, Colonel Ray Edwards, had hosted a special breakfast the morning of the event, there was no pre-rally meal at the Pentagon. Instead, Dragon had once again joined them at the townhouse before the five men rode their bikes to breakfast―CJ sitting behind César on the Road King, while Harley rode behind Brett on his Road Glide.
The arrangement remained the same on the ride from the Pentagon across the Memorial Bridge to the Vietnam Veterans memorial and subsequently to Rogo's for the after-party. There was no face-off against a vociferous homophobe this year and Harley only had to be told to shut up half a dozen times. The dads joked about it being a boring event.
• • •
"Okay, who you beat up this time?" asked Danno, throwing an arm around both CJ and Harley as soon as they walked into Rogo's.
"Leave me alone, Uncle Danno," said CJ, struggling to get out from under the tall, muscular man. "I'm a lover, not a fighter."
"Cough, cough, cough." Dragon was right behind the boys and used his hand to cover his smile. "Yeah, right."
"Et tu, Dragon?" CJ's quick reply made everyone around him laugh. "Why don't you guys pick on Harley for a change?"
"Hey! I get enough of that at school and from my fricking sisters." Harley aimed a slap, across the Hawaiian's body at his friend's stomach, but CJ moved out of the way just in time.
"See? He tried to hit me. I never pick fights." CJ looked around the place, searching for Chipper, Doc, and Dash. He found them sitting at the large table in front which had a reserved sign on it. His dads and Dragon had parked their motorcycles inside the warehouse next door and walked through the connecting door to the bar. "Where's Uncle Trip?"
"Go grab a seat, guys. Trip was at the National Mall covering today's events," replied Danno. "He'll be here after he files his story. Any idea where JP and Tom are?"
"They should be here soon," replied César. "They were stopping at the new house to take pictures. Tom's kids keep bugging him about seeing the new place. I guess that was to be expected now that they're moving down here permanently."
CJ led the way to the table set aside for their group, winking at Chipper conspiratorially as he approached. "Happy birthday, Uncle Matt. How does it feel to cross over into your late thirties?"
"Y'all can go fuck yourself. I'll have you remember thirty-five is the middle of my mid-thirties. None of this late thirties bullshit, you hear?" Born in 1979, Doc was two years younger than César, five younger than Tom, and older than the rest of the members of the Nifty Nine―the new name CJ had started using for his dads' friends, after Dasan had become a permanent fixture. The recent trip to New York had seen the physician end his intimate relationship with Sean, claiming he wanted to pursue whatever was developing between him and the real estate agent.
"Do you have it?" asked Chipper, looking up at CJ.
"Yep. It's in one of Papa's saddlebags. I wanted to make sure it was okay to bring it in first. I'll go get it now. Save me the seat next to you." CJ extended his hand towards Brett who placed his keys in it. The security fob had to be within short proximity when the bike was started or even jarred, otherwise the lights would start flashing and the alarm would go off. "Be right back."
"What are you guys up to, Chipper?" asked Danno. "You two better remember this is a respectable establishment."
The catcalls and hissing aimed at the owner of Rogo's were still going on when CJ returned carrying a flat parcel wrapped in the colorful comics page from the Sunday Washington Post. Chipper retrieved an envelope from the backpack hanging from the back of his chair and laid it on top of the present CJ placed in front of Doc.
"Happy birthday, Uncle Matt," repeated both boys in unison.
"Thanks, guys," said Doc. "Can I open them now?"
"Hurry the hell up, oh ancient one."
"Yeah. Before you die of old age."
Doc paused momentarily, raised both middle fingers and waved them around to the gathered friends. When he finally ripped off the wrapping paper and opened the light blue box, he smiled. Inside was a lovely silver frame with a picture of the physician and the two boys―with a partial view of the Manhattan skyline in the background―which had been taken on the High Line during their recent trip.
"We bought it at Tiffany's when we stopped there last month," said Chipper.
"Hope you like it," added CJ.
"I love it! If I had a fireplace it would be going on the mantle. But I'll find a good spot for it. Thank you."
"CJ! My main man. Wassup? You all here?" It was early in the evening. The Tombs wasn't very crowded, and Spike had obviously just started his shift; the man's every hair was perfectly in place and his shirt and tie were spotless. Spike had recently finished his junior year at Georgetown University and decided to remain in Washington for the summer. Working as a server at the popular neighborhood watering spot was his part time job during the school year and he'd agreed to work during his vacation while he was an intern at the State Department.
"Yep. Eight of us." As Chatri's best man, CJ fretted over his responsibility for planning the bachelor party. He was underage and couldn't enter many establishments serving alcohol, much less arrange for anything at a strip joint. The groom solved the potential problem by insisting he didn't want the traditional drunken evening, letting CJ know he preferred to go out to dinner with the boys the night before the wedding. Since the ceremony was on Saturday morning, it would have to be an early night for the groomsmen and friends.
With his dads' permission, CJ approached Spike about having the gathering at their favorite neighborhood pub. Chatri had no siblings, but Helen had a brother and a married sister whose husband would be there. Additionally, three friends from medical school joined them, and Chipper was also a guest. Since Doc was invited to the wedding, his ward had been too.
• • •
"That was a blast," said Chipper while CJ signed the credit card slip. "Thanks for inviting me."
"It definitely was fun," added Chatri, pushing his chair back to stand. Already walking away from the table, he added in a softer tone so the others wouldn't hear. "You shouldn't have paid for the whole thing."
"Yeah, I should have," replied CJ. "The dads got you and Helen a wedding present for all of us, but I wanted to do something myself."
"Well, thank you again. I had a great time even if some of those stories the guys told embarrassed the heck out of me."
"I'm gonna start keeping notes for when CJ gets married." Chipper was rubbing his hands and trying to look evil as he spoke.
"Asshole. You're officially uninvited. That's if I even get married. Ever!"
"Yeah, right. That's what I used to say before I met Helen and look what I'm doing tomorrow. I'm signing my own death sentence. Willingly!" Chatri's words were a bit slurred. CJ had made sure he had a full mug of beer at all times; the nervous groom had had his fair share of the pitchers Spike kept bringing to the table. "Your friend, the server, was real good. How you know him?"
"The dads and I come here a lot. We usually sit at the bar and became friendly with this one bartender. He and Spike were both in the School of Foreign Service, they both rowed for Georgetown, and they both worked here. Avery just graduated, but a couple of months before he did, he introduced me to Spike and told him to keep working on me. They want me to apply to the SFS and join the crew team."
"Are you?" asked Chatri.
"I have no fucking idea what I want to be when I grow up," replied CJ. "And college is still a couple of years away. I have time to figure it out."
"Yeah, right. Mr. I-don't-plan-ahead-at-all." Chipper ducked out of the way in time to avoid the head slap from his friend.
CJ stood facing the full length mirror, staring at himself. He could feel his father's body heat as the man stood close behind and smiled at their reflection. César placed his hands on the boy's shoulders, leaned forward until their faces were next to each other, and placed a soft kiss on his son's cheek. "You ready, buddy?"
"Yeah, Dad. Let's do this."
"Turn around. Let me have one last look."
Doing as he was told, the boy slowly pivoted within his father's embrace and couldn't help smirking when he saw the dazzling smile on the older man's face. "I look hot, don't I?"
"Yes, you do, you little shit," said Chatri as he, Chipper, and Brett chuckled, watching the display.
The marine walked over to where his husband and their son stood, and gave both men a small peck. "You look great. Both of you do. But I think it's time you guys stopped admiring yourselves. We have a wedding to go to."
Chatri and Chipper had spent Friday night at CJ's place and woken up to a big breakfast prepared by César. They'd showered and changed into their wedding outfits soon after; the ceremony was scheduled for 10:00 a.m., so there wasn't a lot of time to waste. Brett wore his dress blues, César a light-gray suit, and Chipper a blue blazer over khaki pants. The groom and best man both donned their tuxedos. Chatri had a brocade vest in shades of charcoal and CJ wore a black cummerbund, as would the other three guys in the wedding party.
The cool, dry weather was perfect for the short stroll from the townhouse to Dahlgreen Chapel on the campus of Georgetown University. "Do you have a Viagra for tonight?" asked CJ.
"Fuck you, twerp," replied a smiling, but nervous sounding Chatri. "I don't need that shit. I'm more concerned about the building caving in on us when you walk in."
"Hey! I'm sure I'm not the first atheist who walked into a church. And anyway, it didn't collapse the other night during the rehearsal. I think we're safe."
Chipper had been walking a few steps ahead, alongside Brett, but turned around after hearing the last comment. "I didn't know you don't believe in God. Didn't the priest ask if you were Catholic?"
"Nope. And since he didn't, I didn't volunteer information. That's what Dad says he tells his clients to do when the IRS audits them. He asked if I'd been baptized and I said yes."
"I'm scared now," said Chipper. "I think I'm gonna sit in back in case lightning strikes."
"Pull up your shorts, nigga," said Dragon, slapping CJ on the butt. "We don't need to be seeing your nasty-ass boxers."
"HEY!" shouted CJ, goose stepping away from the man. "Give me a chance to fix myself. Geez..."
The teen had ripped off his black Harley-Davidson t-shirt―with an eagle surrounded by a chain circle on it―as soon as the men stepped on the sidewalk outside the Dupont Circle Metro Station. Along with Chipper, who'd also stripped to the waist, CJ walked in front of the group of friends towards the Capital Pride celebration. This was his second year attending the Washington DC Gay Pride Festival, he had a good idea what to expect, and had promised his buddy they would have a blast.
"Damn, CJ, what are you doing?" Brett was chuckling as he took an extra-long step, caught up with his son, and wrapped an arm around his shoulders. "Are you trying to get lucky or are you just turning into an exhibitionist?"
"Neither. I'm happy it's warm and sunny. Not sure I want to go through another winter like we just did. But if stripping off attracts a hottie or two, I won't complain. And if that guy's with his girlfriend, Chipper can take care of her."
A crowd of mostly men found their way out of the subway tunnel, jostling each other in a festive mood. Prancing muscle Marys, hairy leather daddies, butch twinks, preppy professionals, and a wild assortment of others proved the gay community was as varied as the colors of a rainbow. Loud conversation, happy greetings, and throbbing music created an infectious party atmosphere. The crowd moved as if drawn by a magnet towards the exhibitor tents and the food booths.
"Fuck it!" said Tom, grabbing the front hem of his shirt and pulling it over his head. "If the youngest one in the crowd can show off, so can the oldest one." A few people stared at the cop's tattooed body, and the handgun he retrieved from the holster in the back of his shorts. Detective Kennedy hung his badge around his neck to identify himself as a police officer to anyone questioning him carrying a firearm. The gun itself he put inside the fanny pack he wore around his waist.
"Nice gun, officer," cooed JP. "I'd love to play with it sometime."
"Pig!" Doc chuckled as he reached for Dasan's hand. Intertwining their fingers, the physician gave his boyfriend a semi-shy smile. "Y'all better behave. We have minors with us."
Dasan moved a bit closer and rubbed his shoulder against Doc's side. "Relax, babe. I'm sure the minors could teach us a thing or two."
"Yeah, Uncle Matt. You have to be doing something wrong. There's not enough moaning and screaming coming from your room whenever Uncle Dash spends the night." Chipper's crack earned him an elbow from CJ.
"Stop picking on the old guys, bud. They can't help it if the equipment doesn't work as well anymore. I know the dads don't go at it as often these days."
"Dude, really?" Brett spoke while César shook his head and chuckled. The two wore Madras summer shirts unbuttoned and wide open, neck to navel. The fur on their chests was beginning to glisten with drops of perspiration. The group of men, led by the two teens, attracted more than their fair share of admiring glances and stares as they weaved their way amongst the crowd.
"What, Papa? I mean you're older than us, right? Some failure in original equipment is to be expected."
"CJ? Why don't you and Chipper go play in traffic?" César's comment made them all laugh. "We really don't have time to waste listening to you two whipper-snappers talk trash. Remember we have to be back at the home before sunset and we want to be on time for the early bird specials at Rogo's."
As much as CJ enjoyed hanging out with Harley, Thiago and the rest of his posse, he realized he loved spending time with his dads and their friends. Their easy going nature and humor was infectious. He may have claimed he didn't know what he wanted to be when he grew up when asked about his future, but one thing he was certain of: he wanted to grow up to be just like Brett and César.
The acres of white enamel his son displayed as he returned from the test, were enough to clue in Brett on the results. He'd collected CJ at WALLS and allowed the boy to drive Defiant to the Motor Vehicles Department. His last bit of practice before taking the driving portion of the exam for his license.
"Be right back, Papa," said a smug sounding CJ. "I gotta have my picture taken for my new license."
"Dude! Congratulations! Now we gotta get you the required night-time driving practice hours you're gonna need."
"Thanks! Owe it most to you, since you were the one taking me out to practice most of the time."
"Did you get a perfect score?"
"Nah. Missed a couple of points for supposedly doing a rolling stop," replied CJ, rolling his eyes. "But I killed the parallel parking. Screw all those cars that park themselves."
"Go get your pic taken. I'll text your dad and let him know we'll pick him up at the office. How `bout we go for Sushi tonight to celebrate?"
"Damn this feels nice," said Brett, looking at his husband and their son. "It's been like forever since we had a home-cooked meal just the three of us."
"I know, right?" CJ was grating cheese over the mound of steamed broccoli on his plate. "The weekend was non-stop."
"Par for the course around here," said César. "The last three months have been a bit overwhelming. This is nice. And it gives us a chance to talk about a few things."
"Really, Dad? You have more serious stuff to talk about? Whatever happened to just discussing the latest episode of Game of Thrones?"
"Boooriiing..." Brett's comment made César shake his head. "Let's talk about our plans for the summer."
"Papa and I decided to let you go to Australia by yourself." César's comment was met by his son pumping a fist in the air.
"That was eloquent," continued César. "But we think it should be in late July. That way you and Owen can fly back to the US together."
"Okay..." CJ hesitated for a moment, his suspicions about what else his dads had planned leaving him unsure of what else to say.
"But you'll have about a month between the end of classes and your trip. Papa and I plan on spending a week in California at the end of this month and―"
"Sick! I can't wait. I've never been out to the West Coast―"
"Your dad said... he and I... want to spend... a few days... by ourselves." Brett's drawn out reply caused CJ to stick a finger in his mouth and make gagging sounds.
"I heard what he said, Papa. I'm not deaf, but I'm not sure I understand. Why can't I go too?" the boy whined.
"There's a couple of reasons. First: when I turned thirty last year and then married, I received a final distribution from the trusts my grandfather and my parents established for me. If I'd remained single, the final distribution would have been made at thirty-five."
"That's weird." CJ's furrowed browed displayed his uncertainty as to where the conversation was headed.
"Actually, fairly standard. There's a common belief marriage shows maturity and the ability to handle money better than a single man would. It's why we've started making changes to the foundation and our investments since then. We own a lot of real estate out west and we want to meet with the managing companies and inspect some of the properties."
"Fine. What the heck am I supposed to do while you're out there having a good time without me?" CJ's pouting made Brett smile and look at his plate unsuccessfully trying to hide his face.
"Now you're sounding like a spoiled brat. No whining allowed. Remember?"
"Anyway," continued César. "If you're interested, you could take a road trip on Defiant while we're out there."
"Yeah, really," replied Brett. "Your dad and I had lunch with Harley's father today. If you agree, you and your buddy will drive the Jeep to Wisconsin. You'll spend a little time in Oshkosh with his grandparents. The two of you can visit Milwaukee for a couple of days too."
Harley and his father stopped in Georgetown before the party to pick up CJ, and to review the final plans for the road trip the two teens would be starting in a couple of days. On the way to Autumn's house they collected Chipper and Thiago from Doc's place―the two had spent the afternoon practicing and Chipper carried his acoustic guitar with him.
Arriving at the Kalorama Heights house, they bid their ride goodbye with Harley promising to behave. All four boys planned on spending the night at CJ's place. Before they'd taken more than two steps on the walkway leading to the front door, a sweet smelling smoke wafted their way from where a handful of their schoolmates clustered by the large tree in front.
"Yeah! The party's on," said Chipper. "Did you remember to bring it?"
"Duh!" replied CJ. "I stopped at Dixie Liquors on the way home from school yesterday. Harley and I each have two pints of Bacardi 151."
"Why do you think we're both wearing cargo shorts?" asked Harley, pointing at the somewhat bulging front pockets. "This is going to be sick, guys. Do you realize this might be the last time we see some of these people? Although a few of them could come back for a class reunion at some point. Do you think we will once we graduate? But we're only sophomores so I'm not sure if―"
"Homie, enough," said Thiago.
"I think you need a drink to relax," added CJ.
"How the fuck are you going to put up with him, CJ?" asked Chipper. "You're gonna be locked up in a car with him for hours on end."
"Hey! I'm not that bad!" protested Harley.
"No you're not, bud," said CJ, placing his arm around his friend's shoulder. "I'm glad we're taking the first long trip on Defiant together. First of many to come, I hope."
The end-of-year party was full of graduating seniors with a sprinkling of younger schoolmates thrown in. Near the end of the evening, after Chipper had put away his guitar when Thiago claimed he couldn't sing another song, Autumn sat on the picnic table in the backyard surrounded by the GSA members still there.
"Too bad I won't be in Michigan until the end of July," she said, looking at Harley and CJ. "You guys could have stopped for a visit on the way to Milwaukee."
"Are you staying here until then? I figured you'd be headed up to visit your boyfriend as soon as you could." CJ wasn't drunk, but he'd had a couple of cocktails and was feeling no pain. "Aren't you ready to be with him?"
"Yeah, but my mother gets all weepy every time I mention I'll be gone in the fall. So he's coming to visit over the Independence Day week. Then I'll drive to my grandparents with him before we end up in Ann Arbor. Who's gonna be here that weekend? Maybe we can all get together and he can meet you guys."
"I'll be here," said Thiago. "All I'm doing is working. Gotta keep saving for school. I want to avoid working once I start college if I can."
"Sorry, I'll be in Buenos Aires," said Chipper. "Part of the deal for me being able to stay in the US was I'd spend most of my summer vacation with my mom. I'm meeting my sister Cristina in New York next weekend and then we're both flying to Argentina."
"I'll be here," added CJ. "We can totally get together. That'd be cool."
"I won't be back until right before classes start." Harley wasn't motor-mouthing as usual. CJ suspected the alcohol had mellowed him out enough.
"Guess I'll check around and we can figure out what we can do when the boyfriend's here." Autumn was quiet for a moment and when she spoke again her tone wasn't as airy as before. "I had a long e-mail from José-María, guys. He asked me to say hi to all of you."
The silence following her comment was broken when someone said, "Fuck him. It's what the jerk tried to do to our friend."
"I'm not excusing what he did, okay? But I think you should know he apologized profusely in his message. And he asked me to let CJ know how sorry he was for not standing up to his cousin."
"Yeah well, he blew that one," said CJ.
"Prolly wanted to blow you instead. Fucktard!" Chipper had made his feelings about their former friend clear more than once since returning from New York.
"He also said you should be proud of how loyal your friends are, CJ. He says he was beaten up every day after what happened came to light. That's why he had black eyes and was limping."
"What the fuck? He's now trying to blame my friends for beating him up? Nobody did anything to him." CJ's response was met with complete silence from the group. "Right? Nobody beat him up. I would have heard about it."
"CJ, I think your buddies acted on their own to get revenge for you."
"I didn't ask anyone to do anything. Hell, all I wanted was to forget about him."
"That may have been the case, but we all saw him. He definitely got beaten a couple of times at least. Anyway, he says when his father kept asking about the bruises, he finally broke down and told him what had happened. The next day his mom withdrew him from WALLS and they flew to Caracas. One other thing he mentioned is that his cousin lost his job once José-María's father reported him. Oh, and that the guy's wife has filed for divorce."
"I'll drink to that," said Chipper raising his plastic cup. "Fuckers deserve everything they got and more."
"Look, guys." CJ held his hands together and stared at his shoes for a moment before raising his gaze. "I want you all to try and forget about what happened. I sure as hell am trying to. I know I can't always control my emotions. I'm gonna get upset, even angry, no matter how much I may not want to. But I can control my actions most of the time. My initial reaction might be to lash out and use whatever skills I have to hurt someone, but that ain't gonna make whatever got me to that point go away." CJ looked at each of his friends as he spoke in a calm and measured way. "I've kept my feelings bottled up enough to realize all the hating and wanting revenge ends up eating at you. It'll affect everything you do. Trust me on this. Enough people have crossed me in the past year and it took a lot of conversations with different adults to make me realize I was wrong. I don't want revenge, and none of you should think about it. I'm not going to let them rule my actions. Fuck all them nasty people. Let's concentrate on the good times and try to do the right thing. We have all the time in the world. We have the most important thing we could ask for. We're alive."
How time flies when you're struggling to learn how to write.
By the numbers so far:
· One year in CJ's life.
· About two years writing the story.
· 69 chapters (please keep your minds out of the gutter.)
· Nearly 300,000 words
Who would have thunk it? My thanks to all of you for sticking with a rookie and supporting me as I tried to tell a slightly different type of story. Some of it may have made you uncomfortable but I hope it also made you cheer, shed a tear or two, and cheer for our heroes no matter what.
My everlasting gratitude to Mann Ramblings for his hard work, his patience, and his guidance. And also to Kitt and Buck for their invaluable assistance. The story is better because of you.
CJ Abello 2016
Edited by Mann Ramblings
You may contact me at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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