"Let's be friends first," said CJ, lazily running his index finger around Owen's nipple. "I'm sure this won't be the last time we're skin to skin, but we shouldn't rush into anything."
The guys had woken up with plenty of time to once again satisfy their desire for each other before they were supposed to meet the others for breakfast. Now, as the cool breeze dried the perspiration on their bodies, they spoke softly.
"I... I just thought you were feeling the same way I was," replied Owen. The Aussie had asked him to be his boyfriend and CJ had said no.
"Owen, I'm trying to use my head here." CJ rose slightly from the bed, propping his upper body on his bent arm. "I'm sixteen, barely out of the closet, and you and I have known each other for less than two weeks. I'm not ready to have a boyfriend."
"Does this have anything to do with that Harley guy you've mentioned a few times?"
CJ tried to suppress a chuckle, not wanting to make fun of the Aussie. "Harley's a bud, the first kid I met at school. He's my best friend. Period. Don't go getting jealous, okay?"
"Okay, if you say so. But you're going back to Washington and I won't see you again for eight months. I can't believe your dads won't let you come back for Mardi Gras."
"I can. The dads are very open minded, but they're still protective. Didn't they let me come to Sydney ahead of them? They didn't make a big deal about you and me sleeping together. Hell, they even made jokes about us having sex!"
"Yeah, I guess. I'm still dealing with that. Kinda embarrassing. They're nothing like any parents I've met before."
"That's my dads! They're special. Anyway, if I came back next month, we'd still not see each other again for the next seven. And think about it, you're going to be a law student. Do you want to date someone still in high school? Do you really want to be with someone who won't be able to get into a bar legally for another five years?"
"I don't care about your age. Or about the stupid bars. I've had enough of that shit already. I know how I feel, and..." Owen paused momentarily, letting his unfinished sentence reveal some of the turmoil he was apparently experiencing. "And by the way, those drinking laws of yours are stupid!"
"You'll get no argument from me in that respect."
"Will you at least stay in touch? Maybe we can Skype once in a while?"
"Dude, don't be stupid! Of course we'll stay in touch. I'll start working on the rents and see if they'll let me come back during summer break. I'd love to go diving the Great Barrier Reef and visit some other parts of the country."
"You could come spend your entire holiday here. We could travel all over. I just don't want you to forget about me."
"Let's play it by ear." CJ felt conflicted about his reaction. He knew his decision was the correct one, but felt bad about hurting Owen. "I'll have a better idea of what summer will be like in a month or two. I was offered an internship with a senator, and I have no idea what the dads may have in mind. Now, how about we go take a last shower together. I want to do a little shopping for presents. And I need to finish packing. But before all that, we need some food. I'm starving. And for the record, I don't see myself forgetting you anytime soon, ya big lunk."
• • •
The Rocks, the historical area in which the Russell Hotel was located, had a large variety of stores, many geared towards tourists. Owen dutifully, and somewhat quietly, followed CJ around for a couple of hours, while the teen browsed through the shops. The dads and uncles joined the two young men for the shopping excursion, but seemed to keep their distance. CJ noticed them whispering to each other now and then, and assumed they were worried about his reaction to the impending departure.
Tom was the only one to interact with them more than casually. He was in search of presents for his sons, and asked for their opinion frequently. The three other men limited themselves to window shopping.
On the way back to the hotel, they stopped for an early lunch. Their flight to the United States was scheduled to take off mid-afternoon; César insisted they needed to be there early, in case clearing security took longer than anticipated. When he was back in his room, CJ stuffed his purchases inside his suitcase and placed it by the door, ready for the bellhop to carry downstairs. Owen sat on the edge of the bed, slightly hunched over, elbows resting on his thighs, hands clasped together between his knees. He would return CJ's smiles each time the teen looked at him, but his countenance spoke of someone not entirely happy.
CJ sat next to the man who had been his first, snaked his arms around him, and leaned in to give him a soft kiss. "Stop moping around, bud. I may be leaving but we'll see each other again real soon."
"Not soon enough for me."
"You watch. Time's gonna fly by, and before you realize it, you'll be living a few miles from me. I'll be playing tour guide for you soon enough, instead of the other way around."
"Yeah? You're gonna show me around Washington?"
"Of course I will. I'll love doing it. And besides, I owe you."
"What do you owe me for?"
"Oh, for being a great guy. For being patient with me my first time. And for making this trip one I'll never forget for as long as I live. Now get up, give me a big kiss, and let's head downstairs before Papa sends out a search party for me."
• • •
Although mostly upbeat, CJ's mood was tinged with sadness. He'd been somewhat reserved since giving Owen a final hug, while saying goodbye outside their hotel. JP, Tom, and his dads had quietly slipped into the car after profusely thanking the Aussie, giving the youngsters time to say goodbye.
Headphones firmly planted over his ears, CJ had been lost in his own world during the ride to Sydney International, through the security screening and boarding process, and through the initial portion of the flight. It wasn't until their meal was served he turned off the music and joined in the conversation.
"How you holding up, bud?" asked César, who was sitting next to the teen at the moment. "Missing Owen?"
"Yeah. I guess. But I'm also dreading the weather. Did you know there's about a fifty degree difference in temperature between DC and Sydney? I'm gonna freeze my ass off when we get home."
"Really? Oh well, it won't be bad. We're landing at National Airport so it'll be a short cab ride home. Is that why you're looking a bit down?"
"Not sure. But you're right, I am missing Owen. I loved Australia and he helped make the trip extra special. You know he asked me to be his boyfriend before we left?"
"I guess he likes you as much as you like him. So is that what the two of you are now? Boyfriends?"
"Nope. I said no."
"I see... Wanna talk about it?"
"Not much to it, Dad. I'm fricking sixteen. I don't think I'm ready. I mean, I like the guy and all, but I don't wanna rush into anything. Plus, he's in Australia for another eight months. I don't want my first relationship to be long distance."
"Can't say I disagree with you. You know Brett and I trust you and we'll support your decision. We like the man. He seems like a great guy. And who knows, a year from now he may end up being our son-in-law!"
"Okay, okay. I'd say you probably made the right decision. It may be hard to leave him behind, but as you said, in eight months he'll be in Washington. The two of you can see what happens then. In the meantime, you know you can come to us if you need to talk about it."
• • •
CJ shivered―the bustling terminal felt cold after the warmth inside the plane―as he placed his suitcase back atop his dads' on the metal cart. Of course it had been his bag the lady from Customs and Border Protection had selected to inspect, he thought. Damn bitch wouldn't even smile. Why did she act as if he was smuggling something? The way she'd looked at the bag with the boomerangs pissed him off. What the hell did she think he was gonna do with them, start throwing them inside the airport?
Outside, the cold air blasted him, making him feel as if he was inside a meat locker. Washington was firmly in the grip of winter, with temperatures below freezing. Waiting in line for a taxi, he hid himself as well as he could inside his hoodie. He couldn't wait to get home and take a warm shower.
"The house's going to be cold, isn't it?" he asked his fathers.
"Nope!" replied a smug looking César. "I asked Doc to stop by at some point today and turn on the heat."
"Sweet! I hate this shit. It's so cold my balls have shrunk to the size of peas."
"So now you have two peas in a pod and a pea shooter?" Brett wiggled his eyebrows and grinned.
"Not fucking funny, Papa. And it sure as hell ain't a pea shooter. More like a bazooka. You're just jealous `cause mine's bigger. Can we just get home? I'm tired of this bullshit."
"Wow!" exclaimed Brett, poking CJ with his finger. "Feisty, ain't we?"
"Stop it, Papa. I'm not in the mood." CJ's tone teetered on anger, earning him a hard stare from the marine.
"Here's our taxi," said César, before neither his son nor his husband could utter a further word. "CJ, get in the front seat and warm up. I'll handle the luggage."
The driver had left his door open when he stepped outside the car to pop the trunk open, and CJ was able to hear his dads talking to each other.
"What the fuck's wrong with him? I was just kidding around and I though he was gonna bite my head off."
"Leave him alone, Brett," replied César. "Our son's upset about Owen, and sounds as if he's gone into post-vacation depression. He'll be okay once he gets warm and a good night sleep."
CJ woke up mid-morning, having enjoyed over eight hours of sleep. He felt rested but not entirely relaxed; he missed Australia, and if he was honest with himself, maybe Owen just a little bit. He knew he'd done the right thing saying no to becoming boyfriends, his Dad had told him so. But still, after sleeping with the big Aussie every night for the past week, it had been strange going to bed alone the previous night.
Although not cold, the temperature in the house was far from warm. The teen donned athletic socks, a pair of soft cotton sweatpants, and a bright blue Air Force t-shirt―it had belonged to his step-father at one point and he'd not worn it since moving from Miami the previous year. He picked his phone from the nightstand, and headed downstairs taking the steps two at a time.
Both his dads, sitting at the kitchen counter with steaming mugs in front of them, looked up when CJ stomped down the steps.
"Good morning, sleepy," said César, smiling.
"G'day, mate," added a cheerful Brett.
"Morning. That's a horrible Aussie accent, Papa."
"Guess I'll have to practice some more. Want us to fix you something to eat?"
"Nah, I'll just have cereal. Wait, do we have milk?"
"Yep", replied César. "Doc left us milk and orange juice when he stopped by yesterday."
"Cool. That was a smart move, Dad. I wouldn't have thought to ask him." CJ set himself up with a bowl, spoon, milk, and a box of Cheerios, and sat at the counter next to Brett. "Sorry I snapped at you yesterday, Papa. I was cranky."
"Apology accepted," replied Brett, raising the mug in his hands to his lips.
"What the heck is that?" asked César, when CJ's phone began making all sorts of noises. "Is it gonna blow up or something?"
"He, he, he. I never turned it on after we landed last night. Crap! Look at all the messages and emails! Check it out." The kid placed the phone flat on the counter so both his dads could see the screen.
――BRUH U HOME? KIK ME――
"Harley," said Brett, smiling at the message.
――CJ HOPE U HAD FUN CALL ME PARENTS WANT 2 TALK 2 U――
"That's Thiago," said CJ. "Wonder what his parents want?"
"Probably to thank you for the contribution we made in their son's memory," replied Brett, while César nodded. "Should have been listed as coming from the three of us."
――BUD C U @ LUNCH CAN'T WAIT――
"That's Chipper," said César, walking over to the coffeemaker to refill his mug.
"How do you know that?" A surprised CJ asked.
"Because he and Doc are bringing us lunch. Matt wanted to hang out and catch up," replied Brett. "How many more messages do you have, Mr. Popularity?"
"A few. The guys in Boston, Ritchie, Chatri, Autumn, Randy... Oh heck, there's a bunch of them. Guess I know what I'm doing the rest of the morning. Unpacking, laundry, and replying to texts. I'm not even looking at e-mails until after lunch. Maybe I'll post a big update on Facebook so I don't have to repeat myself too much."
• • •
"Hey, Chipper. Come in," said CJ, stepping aside to let his friend inside. "Hi, Uncle Matt, Dash."
"Welcome back, CJ," Chipper raised his arms, showing off two grocery store bags. "We brought food."
"Great! I'm starving. All I had for breakfast was cereal."
"Tell them the reason why. You woke up so late, Brett and I were already done eating," added César, walking up behind his son. "Come in, guys."
"Thanks, bubba," replied Doc. "It's good to see y'all again. Hope you don't mind Dash tagging along with us."
"Not at all. Welcome to our home, Dash."
"Thanks, César. Great place you have here."
"We like it," replied Brett, standing from the stool he'd been sitting on. "CJ can show you around if you want. He's our designated tour guide."
"Cool. I wanna see too," said Chipper. "When we came by yesterday to drop off stuff and turn on the heat, Uncle Matt wouldn't let me explore. I wanna see your birthday present."
"We have frozen bagels Chipper brought down from New York, lox, tomatoes, onions, cream cheese, and two large containers of red lentil soup. Hope you boys are hungry."
"Why don't we set things up in the kitchen while CJ shows off his Jeep?" suggested César.
"Great idea," replied the teen. "Come on, Chipper. Let's go check out Defiant. Dash can skip this part if he wants to. He saw it the day of my party. When we get back from the garage, I'll show you guys the upstairs."
"So how was Australia?" asked Chipper, following CJ through the inner door leading to the garage.
"Insane. I'll tell you all about it after lunch. But I wanna hear about your move. How ya doing?"
"Pretty good. Uncle Matt's been great. It's still kinda strange. I miss Mom and my sister, but I think I'll like it here in Washington. I came down a couple of days after Christmas and it was weird not seeing a tree or decorations at his place. I'd forgotten he's Jewish."
"Hell, there's no decorations here either."
"Yeah, but that's `cause you guys went out of town. I'm sure you'll have some next year." He stopped to stare at the yellow Jeep parked in the last bay, and offered his fist for CJ to bump. "Man, that's sick! Awesome wheels. When are we taking it out?"
"I need to get my learner's permit first. Hopefully this week. Then I have to wait six months before I can get my license so I can drive alone. But I plan on lots of driving between now and then. Papa promised we would go out as often as possible so I can practice."
"Are you gonna be taking it to school when you can?"
"Hell no, man. You've been to WALLS, there's no parking. The dads give me a ride once in a while, but I take the bus most days."
"Uncle Matt said he could give me a ride almost all the time. His office is supposedly right by the school."
"Yeah, WALLS is a couple of blocks away from the hospital and his office building. But I think he goes in early all the time, doesn't he?"
"Real early. He said he goes to the hospital first, visits patients, and then goes to the office. I think I'll be taking the bus a lot."
"Cool, we'll ride together. You'll have to walk to M street like I do. But when one of my dads takes me, we can pick you up. Unless Papa's on the Harley. No room for you then."
"Your dads ride their motorcycles to work?"
"Papa does it a lot. Dad doesn't. But he always has to wear a suit to work."
"Okay, that makes sense."
"Let's go back inside. I'm hungry."
In the kitchen, the food had been laid out for each person to help themselves. Brett and Dash were already sitting with a bowl of soup and a sandwich in front of them, while César and Doc fixed themselves plates.
"Save some for us," said CJ, walking up.
"We brought plenty," replied Doc. "How'd you like CJ's new toy?" he asked Chipper.
"It's awesome! CJ was telling me we'll be taking the same bus to school, so no riding the Jeep. But I can't wait until he gets his license so we can take it out."
"Are you going to take your father up on the offer to buy you a car?" asked Dash, looking at Chipper.
"What?" sputtered Brett, soup dribbling down his chin. "Chip offered to buy you a car? Are you speaking with your dad again?"
"I have no choice. Part of the deal is he'll let me live here, but I have to talk to him on the phone at least once a week. It's not that bad."
"That's good, Chipper," said César looking at the dark-haired kid, before shifting his gaze to CJ. "He's your dad, and no matter what may have happened between him and Doc, I'm sure he loves you."
"Yeah. I guess. But I'm still pissed at him for cheating."
"That's in the past, bubba." Doc ruffled Chipper's longish hair affectionately. "We should concentrate on the future and we'll all be better off. And I'll give you both a ride to school Monday. I want to pop in and say hello to Principal Edwards."
"Really, Uncle Matt? You're gonna give us both a ride in your Vette? Have you noticed both of us are fairly tall? How the hell are we going to fit?" CJ glanced at Doc with a grin, while shaking his head. "We'll take the bus so Chipper can get used to it. I'll text him when I get back from the gym and we can meet at the stop. "
"Sounds like a plan." Chipper once again held up his fist to bump. "You go to the gym before school all the time?"
"Most days. The only things I've lifted the past two weeks are forks and wine glasses. I need to get back to the weight room."
"Forks and wine glasses? What did you like best about Australia?" asked Chipper.
"Owen!" chorused his fathers, causing the teen to blush.
"Assholes," mumbled CJ. "I liked a lot of things."
"Who's Owen?" asked Doc.
"You remember Spencer from last summer," replied Brett. "JP's cousin? Owen's his older brother. Great guy. He's the one coming to live here to go to law school. Hung around us almost the entire trip. He and CJ hit it off. Personally, one of my favorite things was the surfing. It was good to get back up on a board."
"The wine," added César. "Oh man, we drank so much of the stuff. Even CJ was hitting the bottle every day."
"Really? You got to drink a lot?" asked Chipper, sounding surprised and jealous.
"Yeah, drinking age's eighteen, but no one ever asked me for an ID."
"Don't sound so proud of yourself," said Brett. "Drinking age is eighteen, and you may look old enough, but even younger kids are served as long as they're with a parent or guardian."
"Hell, we spent half the trip going from one winery to the other." CJ smiled, exaggerating the time spent touring cellar doors. "I rarely had to order, they would just shove glasses of wine in my hand the moment we walked into the place."
"I think we'd get the same treatment in Argentina if we visited. What with Mom working for a wine company and all. Hurry up and finish eating, CJ." Chipper pushed the empty soup bowl away and reached for his sandwich. "We're headed to see JP and Tom once we're done here. I wanna hear more about the trip, and about Owen, before we leave."
• • •
"Okay, this is silly," said César, placing his phone on the charger and sitting on the edge of the bed. "We just got back from vacation and the social calendar's full."
"What's going on?" asked Brett.
"We're meeting the gang for a late lunch tomorrow afternoon, and we agreed to dinner at Thiago's parent's house next weekend. Then, we have tickets for a Wizards' game, a show at the Kennedy Center, and some black-tie charity gala. All of it this month. And that was Randy. He and Ty want to come back in the next couple of weeks to review what they think we should do with our basement. Let's not forget this is my busiest time of year. I'm gonna have to make an appointment with myself to scratch my ass."
"Or," said Brett, picking up the stacks of documents he'd spread around himself. "You could get naked, jump in bed, and I'd be happy to scratch your ass for you."
"Pig! What's all that, Foundation reports? Shit, I forgot we also have to spend some time on that project."
"Yeah, these are details on all the grants and contributions we made last year. You know, I can do most of the preliminary work on what we discussed we wanted to see happen. And once we settle on the changes we need, I think we're going to have plenty of help getting them implemented."
"Yeah, you're right. I hope your relatives don't throw a fit when they find out about it. Sooo, Dash. He'll be there again tomorrow, eh?"
Walking into Rogo's brought a smile to CJ's face. Last time he'd been there it was for mere minutes, before being dragged next door to Danno's place for his surprise sixteenth birthday party. Today, the late afternoon crowd was noisy, cheers and groans erupting as a result of plays on the National Football League playoff game on the TV sets. The front corner table usually occupied by his dads and friends had a reserved sign on it, and Dragon was already sitting at it.
The big black man, wearing a Howard University football letter jacket, stood as soon as his friends walked in, his eyes zeroing on CJ. He pushed his chair back, took a step in the direction of the teen, and wrapped him up in a hug. "Damn, it's good to see you, CJ. Happy belated birthday, buddy. I'm so sorry I missed your party."
"Hi, Uncle Dragon. It's okay, I understood. I'm sorry about what happened between you and Uncle Rash. Any chance he'll come back?"
"Anything can happen, bud. But I don't think he'll be back anytime soon. You and I can talk about it later, okay? How was Australia? Did you have a good time?"
"We had a blast!" replied CJ. He removed his coat and placed it over the back of the chair next to Dragon's, motioning for Chipper to take the one on the other side of him. His dads had stopped by Doc's place on the way to the restaurant and the five men had ridden in together.
"Don't you dare sit down!" Danno's booming voice momentarily stopped him, making him turn around to face Rogo's owner. "If my roomie gets a hug, so do I."
"Hi, Uncle Danno. Your roomie?"
"Yeah, my roomie. I guess you need to catch up with us as much as we need to hear about your trip."
"Did you know about this?" asked CJ, looking at his fathers.
"Kinda," replied Brett. "Doc told us yesterday after you and Chipper had gone to your room. But we want to hear details. All we know is Devon moved in."
CJ shook his head at Chipper. "And you didn't tell me? What good are you?"
"Hey! Don't give me that look. I'm the new kid on the block. I have no idea what anyone knows or doesn't know. I just met all these guys in the past week, anyway."
"So you're living with Uncles Danno and Trip?" asked CJ, finally sitting.
"Just the Hawaiian," replied Dragon. "Guess you haven't heard Trip's not around anymore, either."
"WHAT?" CJ halfway lifted himself from the chair, looking at his dads for confirmation. Both gave him a quick nod. "I need a beer!"
"Sorry, buddy," said Danno, chuckling. "You know I can't serve you alcohol in the bar. How about a Root Beer. On the house."
"Fuck! I miss Australia."
"Laws are a bit more relaxed down under," said Brett, looking at Danno, by way of explanation. "Our boy may have acquired a taste for good wine, and craft beers."
"Can I go on the next trip?" asked Chipper, eliciting laughter from the men.
"Yeah, sure, whatever," replied CJ. "What happened with Uncle Trip?"
"I'll answer that one," replied Doc.
"You better not be so quick with my private info, Doc." Tom, JP, and Dash had walked in and stood behind the physician. Tom shook his friend's shoulders for emphasis. "We don't need anyone else hearing about how big I am."
"Y'all scared the bejesus out of me!" exclaimed Matt. "The only big thing about you is the bill I'm sending you for frightening me half to death. And anyway, I'll have y'all know Trip asked me to explain what was going on. Told me so right before he left."
"Where'd he go?" asked CJ.
"Hang on, CJ. Chipper," said Doc, looking at his ward. "CJ's been around us for a while, so he knows the rules. You're new to the group, you're going to hear a lot of things about us. That's private. Not to be discussed outside the group unless you have the permission of those involved."
"Yes, sir," replied Chipper.
"To a rehab facility," replied Doc. "Trip has a history of alcohol abuse. His grandfather's condition stressed him to the point he fell off the wagon."
"But I've seen him drink here all the time. He never got drunk..." CJ's confused gaze roamed amongst the group of friends. All now sat in silence, leaning forward, paying attention to the quiet conversation.
"He drinks non-alcoholic stuff, CJ." Danno's tone was just as soft as Doc's had been. "It wasn't until last month he started with the booze again. And on New Year's he had a little breakdown. We were next door with a couple of friends and in the middle of sex he started crying. I left Dragon with the other guys, and took Trip to bed. Later in the morning, we called Doc and made the arrangements with his help."
"Anyway," continued Doc. "Trip spent most of the past two weeks drunk. When Danno called me in, we did a little intervention. Yesterday, he flew out to a facility in Arizona for treatment."
"Wow!" exclaimed CJ. "How long will he be gone?"
"At least a month. But could be as long as ninety days. Depends on how it goes." Danno turned around and waved in the direction of the bar. "I asked the servers to stay away until I called for them. Wanted to get Trip's story out of the way first."
"Good. I'm hungry," said CJ. "But I wanna hear more about Uncle Dragon moving in and Uncle Trip moving out. I can't believe all this happened while we were away."
"When are you not hungry, mate?" JP's chuckles were echoed by others at the table. "How about we change the topic of conversation for a bit? Dash, you wanna do the honors?"
"Sure," replied the apparent new member of the group. "I'm happy to announce that this afternoon, John Paul and Tom accepted a contract for the sale of their home."
"That's fantastic news," said César. "Let's hear the details."
"This one was fairly easy to sell," replied Dash. "I showed it three times, got two offers, and then had a miniature bidding fight. We ended up a couple of percentage points above asking price."
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