Winds had died down during the day and although the temperature was still below freezing, the wind-chill wasn’t the biting monster it had been in the early morning hours. CJ and Owen were dressed alike: black motorcycle boots, tight Levi’s 501 black jeans, and black leather motorcycle jackets. Each had a different color sweatshirt under their coats and the graphics on their Harley-Davidson knit caps were unalike, but they still resembled a pair of studs out of central casting. They strutted through the arrivals section at Washington National Airport drawing discreet glances and blatant stares.
“They’re staring again, CJ. We must look bloody hot.”
“Asshole!” CJ’s chuckling was loud and a few more heads turned to stare at them. “You're damn conceited, Aussie. It’s not like we did anything special to coordinate our outfits. But from now on, whenever we go out together, we’re checking in advance to make sure we don’t look like clones. And fuck ‘em if they can’t take a joke. Let them stare. You’re kinda right though, we do look hot. But that’s prolly ‘cause we are hot.”
“Who’s being conceited now?” Owen shook his head and gave his boyfriend a lopsided smirk.
Ritchie’s flight from Miami landed a few minutes before they arrived at the gate―they were collecting a minor and were allowed past the security barriers―and CJ’s brother was the first to deplane in the company of a pretty flight attendant whose smile grew when the boy next to her pointed at the leather-clad guys waiting for him. She compared CJ’s driver’s license to the name on the slip of paper in her pocket, released her ward into the care of the two men, and sashayed away after winking at them.
“Hi, CJ! Hey, Owen.” The boy bumped fists with both his greeters and hitched up the battered backpack he carried higher on his shoulder.
“Welcome to Washington, mate. It’s good to see you again. Hope you’re ready for some cold weather.”
“Oh, yeah, for sure. I like the cold. We don’t get a lot of it in Miami.” Ritchie looked worried when he shifted his gaze towards his brother. “What’s wrong, CJ? You’re not saying anything.”
“If you think I’m gonna let you get away with a fist bump, you’re crazy. We ain’t moving until I get a proper hug from my favorite brother.”
The kid’s face lit up. He allowed his bag to slide down his side, and wrapped himself around his brother. “Sorry.”
“Apology accepted. Don’t let it happen again.” CJ kissed the boy on top of his head and winked at Owen who stood with arms crossed watching the display of sibling affection.
“Mate, that rucksack’s toast. It looks like crap. I reckon we’re gonna have to take you shopping this weekend and get you a new one.”
“Okay. I’m glad I brought the quilted vest you and Cap bought me last year, CJ. It’s colder in here than I thought it would be.” Ritchie wore Vans, blue jeans, the Walls hoodie his brother had sent him as a present, and carried the aforementioned garment in his hand. He slipped it on before reclaiming the bag Owen had retrieved from the floor.
“Wait ’til you get outside, bro, you’re gonna freeze your ass off. But don’t worry, Defiant will be nice and warm with the three of us in it. I have the hard top on it and I’ll crank up the heater as soon as I start the Jeep. And the house heat is on so that won’t be a problem. Let’s go get your luggage and get home. Are you hungry?”
“Nah, not really. I liked sitting up front. They give you real food! And the pilot let me look in the cabin before we took off. I wanna learn how to fly planes when I grow up.”
• • •
CJ backed Defiant into the garage, touched the remote attached to the visor to bring the gate down, and turned off the ignition. “We’re home!”
“Can we ride the elevator? Please? I think it’s so cool you live in a house with one. I told all my friends in school about it after my last trip here. They wouldn’t believe me. Now that I have a phone, I promised to take a picture of it and post it on Facebook.”
“Sure thing, bro. But instead of posting it online, save it for when you get home. You can just show it to them when you get back.”
“Okay, but how come you don’t want me to post it?”
Owen chuckled and shook his head while folding the seat over and helping Ritchie out of the back seat of the Jeep. “Your brother’s not keen on posting a lot of stuff, mate. He’s a tad paranoid. You’ll get used to it.”
“Leave me alone, Ozzie. Don’t start picking on me or I’ll cut you off.” CJ grinned while hefting his brother’s suitcase out of the back and handing it to Owen. He knew well enough there was no chance he’d ever withhold sex from his boyfriend. “Here, carry this. You can do the manual labor. I’m not paranoid, Ritchie. I just don’t like everyone knowing all my business.” He held the elevator door open, allowing Owen and his brother to step inside.
“Sorry… Did I screw up telling my friends?”
“Nah, don’t worry about it. It’s cool. It’s not your friends I’m worried about. But other people can see what you post. And if they know we have a house with an elevator, they’ll start thinking we’re like rich or something.”
“But you are rich, CJ. Dad used to complain all the time about you and your dads having so much money.” The worried expression the boy had exhibited moments before morphed into sadness when he mentioned his father.
Inserting his key into the panel, CJ pressed the button to take them to the basement. “It’s true the dads have some money, bro. But they’ve taught me it’s not nice to boast about it. So I feel funny about bragging or showing off.” It wasn’t only his parents’ lectures and approach to wealth which molded CJ’s views; Owen’s distaste for ostentatious displays had also colored his attitude. Although he had to admit the Aussie had been much more relaxed about it in the recent past. The man had not uttered a single complaint about who paid for what during their trip to Miami for the funeral service.
“Hey! How come you need a key? We didn’t have to use one before. And why are we going down to the basement instead of up to our rooms?”
• • •
“Ritchie seems to be doing okay, don’t you think?” Brett closed the bedroom door and followed César into the bathroom. Although the three other men in the house were all the way down in the basement, the constant stream of overnight guests had caused them to start shutting it at night.
“The resiliency of youth, Jarhead. We saw it with CJ.”
“Yeah, but we also saw how he kept things bottled and how they affected him without us noticing.”
“True, but I hope we learned our lesson. I’m going to talk to the kid this weekend. Actually, we are going to talk to him. He relates to you in a special way because you share a military background with his father. I think your idea of him seeing a counselor a few times has lots of merit, even if he appears to be doing well.”
“Good. I really like him, César. And I know what it’s like to lose both parents in an accident. I was older and maybe better equipped to handle it, but after my parents' plane crashed, I went into a tailspin. Boy, was I a mess. I want us to be there for him the way my grandfather was for me.”
• • •
“Good morning, Ritchie. How’d you sleep?” César removed his reading glasses and placed them atop the newspaper spread on the counter next to his coffee mug.
The boy rubbed his eyes and smiled even though it was clear he wasn’t entirely awake. “Morning. Where’s everybody?”
“I’m here.” A shivering CJ slammed the back door shut. “Brrr, it’s fucking cold out there. Morning, bro. I was in the garage putting something away in one of the tool-boxes. How’d you sleep? You want breakfast?”
“Slept good. Do you have OJ? And I’ll wait to eat. Where’s Ozzie?”
“Sit down, bud. I’ll get you the juice. Ozzie went home. He has to study some this morning.”
César leaned back on the stool, arms folded, watching the brothers interact. “Brett had a breakfast meeting, he'll be home soon. That sweatshirt you have on is way too big for you.”
Ritchie looked down at what he was wearing―sweatpants and a Marine Corps hoodie his brother had given him the previous night―and giggled. “Yeah, but it’s comfy. I hope Cap doesn’t mind me using it.”
“Nah, it’s not his. I bought it for myself last time I went to the Marine Corps’ Museum. Maybe we’ll pick up a couple for you when we go shopping.” CJ placed a glass and a container of orange juice in front of his brother.
“Oh, okay. Do you mind if I read the comics, Mr. A?” The boy pointed at the newspaper while pouring himself a glass of juice.
“Help yourself, son. So, what do you guys have planned for today? Going shopping?”
“I don’t know. It’s up to CJ.”
CJ sat next to his brother and ruffled the boy’s messy hair. “Nope. We’ll do that tomorrow. Since the canal’s frozen, I was thinking we’d go see Chipper and play around sliding on the ice―”
“Yeah! That sound like fun.”
CJ chuckled at his brother’s enthusiasm. “Then, after our nuts are frozen, we’ll go eat lunch somewhere.”
Ritchie giggled when his brother mentioned frozen nuts. “What about Ozzie? Is he going to hang out with us too?”
“I think Ritchie likes your boyfriend, CJ.”
The kid blushed hearing César’s comment. “I do. He’s real nice.”
“Yup, that he is. Listen, bro, Ozzie and I have a party to go to tonight so we won’t be around. But Dad and Papa want to take you out to dinner and spend time with you. Is that okay?”
“Sure, but I didn’t bring any real nice clothes to go out. All I have are jeans and sweatpants.”
César smiled at the boy while ruffling his hair. “That works, we won’t be going out anywhere fancy. But maybe when you guys go shopping, CJ can buy you some khakis and a couple of shirts. You can leave them behind when you fly back to Miami if you want. That way you’ll have some stuff here next time you come visit. How does Chinese sound?”
“I like Chinese. But I can’t use chopsticks. I always make a mess.”
“Great! Brett and I will teach you how to eat with them if you want.”
“Anything special you want to do tomorrow before or after shopping, bro? Do you want to go back to the museums or to any of the other monuments you haven’t been to?” CJ was trying hard to ensure his brother had a good time during his visit.
“Can we go see the Smithsonian Museum at the Airport? The one where they keep one of the space shuttles?” Ritchie referred to the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center at Washington Dulles International Airport in Virginia. CJ knew the place had been built to house the thousands of artifacts which had remained in storage for years due to limited space at the National Air and Space Museum's building on the National Mall. The two primary hangars at the airport facility displayed missiles, rockets, space capsules, satellites, and a variety of airplanes including the Boeing B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay which dropped the first atomic bomb during World War II.
“Perfect!” CJ exclaimed. “Ozzie’s never been there and neither have Brad or Patrick as far as I know. Maybe they’ll want to come with. If they do, we may have to borrow your car, Dad.”
• • •
CJ took a final glance at his reflection in the apartment building's glass door before holding it open for Owen. He was satisfied with how he looked but was unable to shake off the slight case of nerves plaguing him since they’d left Georgetown. This was his first ever college party and he was certain he would be the youngest person there. It was a Valentine’s Day thing being hosted by one of his boyfriend’s classmates and he had no doubts it would be populated by law students, all in their twenties.
The discomfort was disconcerting. He never had problems interacting with his fathers’ friends and they were all older. Maybe it was because he was entering the current situation as an equal instead of as one of the Elite Eight’s sons? Or whatever the proper monicker was these days—their number kept fluctuating. He was here as Owen’s other half and he’d never met any of these people except for Ethan.
“Ready, mate?” Owen’s radiant smile helped him gather his courage.
“Yeah, let’s do this.” He leaned into the Aussie and pecked his lips. “But I gotta warn you, I’m a bit nervous.”
“You, nervous?” Owen sounded doubtful. “Mr. Outgoing? Mate, one of the things I love about you is your self-confidence. It’s sexy as fuck. You’ll be fine.”
CJ wiped stray flakes from Owen’s hair―a light snow had begun falling as they left Georgetown―and returned the smile. “You look good, Ozzie.”
“So do you,” the Australian replied, pressing the lighted button on the door-frame. “But then again, you always do.”
“Owen!” The greeting by the dark-haired guy who opened the door was warm and effusive.
“G’day, Oli. Happy Valentine’s Day, mate. This is for you.” Owen handed the man a bottle of Grey Goose vodka they’d picked up at Dixie Liquors. “CJ, this is my mate, Oliver. It’s his apartment. Oli, this is my boyfriend, CJ.”
“Hey, dude. Welcome to my humble abode.” Oliver bowed and with a flourish ushered them inside. CJ could tell the guy had already enjoyed a cocktail or two by his actions and the goofy grin on his face. “Let me take your coats and then I’ll point you in the direction of the alcohol. But I’m hiding this one from the crowd. You guys brought the good stuff.”
CJ unwrapped the scarf from around his neck and removed the navy trench coat he wore―an Eastern European military surplus thing he’d picked up at a store in Chelsea during their last trip to New York. Underneath he wore his motorcycle boots, 501s, and a soft green cashmere V-neck sweater one of his grandmothers had given him two years before for his birthday. He had bulked up since then and the garment fit like a second skin―the ridges of his abdominal muscles and his well-defined chest were noticeable.
Owen and CJ made certain not to dress alike this time. The Aussie also wore boots, but instead of jeans he had on a pair of black leather pants and a cable-knit bone-colored turtleneck underneath his motorcycle jacket. As CJ had warned him earlier, he was still not used to the temperature dipping lower than what he was used to back in the Hunter Valley.
“Fuck me, I sure hope you two are gay for real. Otherwise my girlfriend’s going to dump my sorry ass. Looking good, guys.” Oli stuffed the garments into a closet already overflowing with other coats. “Come on, let’s get you something to drink. You guys are the last ones here.”
“Sorry about that. My fault,” CJ said. “My younger brother’s visiting. We were playing pool and I lost track of time.”
“You got a table at your place? I’m inviting myself over sometime soon. What can I get you guys? We have vodka, rum, bourbon, and beer. And I think there’s a couple of boxes of wine in the refrigerator.”
Owen’s hearty laugh cut through the din of conversation making people look at them. “Mate, you know my family’s in the wine business in Australia and you offer me stuff from a box? I can’t drink that shit. I’m a wine snob. I’ll take a rum and coke. CJ’s grandfather keeps pushing that stuff on me every time we’re in Miami and I’ve become addicted.”
“What about you, CJ. What’s your poison of choice this evening?”
“Ummm, just a Coke for me.”
“Dude, you can’t be serious.” Oliver looked at him cross-eyed, draping an arm around each of the guys’ shoulders.
“Yeah, just Coke. I’m driving, plus I’m not old enough to drink so don’t want to risk smelling like booze in case we get pulled over.”
Oliver stared at CJ for a moment, a look of surprise on his face. “What do you mean you’re not old enough? How the fuck old are you?”
“Fuck me! Seventeen? Dude, with that thick beard and all that hair sticking out your shirt you look older than Owen. Damn, Aussie, what the fuck?”
“Don’t give me any crap, Oli. I reckon I’ll have to go hit on your girl if you do. She’s the redhead, right?”
“Fine, fine. I won’t give you shit about your man’s age and you stay the fuck away from my woman. Deal?”
“Deal.” Owen bumped fists with their host and he and CJ followed him into the tiny kitchen, saying hello to friends as they went along, promising to return as soon as he had something to drink in hand.
Sometime later, CJ excused himself from the group of people he and Owen were talking to and went in search of the bathroom. The door to the bedroom next to it was ajar and he spied Oliver and Ethan inside without being noticed himself.
“Ethan, dude, you gotta stop drooling. You ain’t got a chance.” Oliver had a hand on Ethan’s shoulder and was turning him around to face the room’s entrance. CJ scurried inside the bathroom and closed the door without shutting it. He stood motionless, in silence, and eavesdropped on their conversation.
“What?” CJ heard Ethan reply.
“You gotta stop staring at Owen the way you’ve been doing all night. You don’t have a chance of getting in his pants.”
“Really? I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.” Ethan sounded drunk, slurring his words.
“Yes you do. We all know you have the hots for him. But the way he and his boyfriend look at each other tells me your chances are slim to none. And I’m pretty sure Slim’s packing his bags, ready to get out of town.”
“Fuck you!” Ethan slammed the door open, stepped into the hallway, and CJ watched him drain his beer before storming off in the direction of the kitchen.
When CJ returned to the living area, he found Ethan standing close to Owen, talking to him. He watched as the inebriated man put a hand on the Aussie’s ass and smiled when it was slapped away.
“Ethan, you’re drunk, mate. Maybe we should call you a taxi?” Owen put a hand on Ethan’s chest, pushing him back a bit until there was separation between them.
“Fuck the taxi. Actually, what I wanna do is fuck you. Why don’t you come back to my place? I’ll take good care of your ass.” His volume had risen and people were staring at him now, some murmured while others chuckled.
“Not gonna happen, mate. And you know it. I have a boyfriend, I’m happy with him, and I don’t cheat.” Owen's comment made CJ feel warm all over and a smile crept up on his face.
“Fuck him too! The twerp’s not even old enough to drink. You need a real man. Not some snot-nosed kid you gotta take home when he shits his diapers.” Ethan once again grabbed Owen’s ass, squeezing it while trying to kiss the Aussie.
The snot-nosed remark bothered CJ. It was the type of attitude he’d feared coming to the party but had not faced up to this point. He took a step towards the two law students and clenched his fists. He was angry and fought against the desire to deck Ethan right then and there.
Owen slapped the roving hand away and took a step back. “Stop it, Ethan. You’re making a fool of yourself. You’re gonna regret this tomorrow.”
“Are you gonna do something?” Oliver’s words made CJ turned around and look at their host. “Didn’t Owen tell me you’ve got a couple of black belts or something?”
The interruption helped steer his thoughts away from the image of Ethan on the floor after a couple of well-placed kicks. He relaxed, unclenched his fists, and smiled: he decided to let the scene play out. “Nah, my man’s a big boy. I do, but Ozzie can handle himself. Plus, Ethan’s so drunk I might get in trouble if I hurt him.”
“You’re awfully calm watching some guy hit on your boyfriend like that.”
“Dude, I know who Ozzie’s going home with and whose bed he’ll be sleeping in. And I find it kind of flattering Ethan thinks my boyfriend’s hot enough to make a fool outta himself in front of everybody.”
“Look, Oli. I could kill the fucker if I hit him just right. I’ve had to learn when and where to get physical and when to hold back. I have a temper and I’ve struck out a few times. But only in self-defense. The guy’s so gone it wouldn’t be fair. And I’m kinda enjoying the show. Aren’t you?”
They watched Ethan lean in once again trying to kiss Owen. The Aussie placed both hands against the man’s chest and pushed hard this time. Ethan stumbled and the plastic cup he was holding flew out of his hand. Beer spilled all over the place, some landing on Owen who jumped back in a futile attempt to remain dry. Ethan’s arms windmilled as he tried to regain his balance but it was no use. He fell and struck his face on the upholstered arm of the sofa. CJ decided it was time to intervene.
“Hey, Ozzie. What’s going on?”
Owen turned to him and smirked. “Asshole! I saw you watching and smiling. You enjoyed that.”
“Maybe… Let’s say I found it amusing.”
“Yeah, well, not so amusing for me. I’m covered in beer. I think it’s time we went home.”
“I’m good with that. Ritchie and the dads are for sure sleeping by now. We can have our own private celebration.”
• • •
CJ reached for the ringing phone on the nightstand while Owen tried to burrow further under the covers. “Hello?”
“Morning, sunshine. You and Ozzie need to put on some clothes and come up here. You guys have a visitor.”
“What the fuck, Dad? It’s too damn early. Who the hell is it?”
“Not that early, buddy. There’s a guy by the name of Ethan here. He’s sitting in the kitchen with Brett having a cup of coffee. By the looks of him, he’s nursing a pretty bad hangover. You want me to send him down?”
“What the fuck? Ethan? What’s he doing here?”
“You’re repeating yourself, CJ. Why don’t you guys come up here and find out what he wants. Or do you want him to come downstairs?”
“NO!” CJ’s shout make Owen groan and reach an arm to pull his boyfriend closer. “Sorry, I mean, no. I’ll come up and get him. Give me a minute to pee and put on some clothes.”
“What’s going on?” Owen grumbled when CJ threw off their blankets and sat on the edge of the bed. On cold mornings like this one, he was glad his dads had a radiant floor heating system installed in the basement during the remodeling.
“We need to get up. Ethan’s upstairs with the dads.” CJ was already walking towards the bathroom as he spoke.
“Ethan? What’s he doing here?”
“I have no idea. I’ll go get him, you throw on some clothes. You want me to bring you coffee?”
“Please… and aspirin, I’ve got a headache.”
“You didn’t drink that much last night. Imagine how he feels. There’s aspirin and ibuprofen in the medicine cabinet.”
“Oh, yeah, I remember. And screw Ethan, he was an ass last night.” Owen picked up the sweater he’d worn the previous evening from the floor and sniffed it. “My clothes still reek of beer. And my mouth tastes like crap. I need mouthwash and I’m gonna borrow shorts and a hoodie.”
“Help yourself. You know where everything is.”
CJ pulled on sweatpants, a t-shirt, and thick socks―the wood floors upstairs weren’t heated―and ambled towards the staircase. He raked fingers through his disheveled mop of hair and did the same with his beard, trying to make himself somewhat presentable. Not that he cared much what anyone though, but more out of habit. Opening the door to the main floor, he squinted in the bright sunlight streaming through the windows at both ends of the wide-open space.
“Morning… I need coffee.” He ignored the visitor while retrieving two mugs from the cupboard above the coffeemaker, poured himself some, and leisurely sipped while fixing the other one the way Owen liked it. When he turned around, his dads and Ethan were staring at him. The older men seemed amused but Ethan looked miserable. “You can follow me downstairs. But keep it quiet, my brother’s still sleeping.” There was no need to specify who he was speaking to; he would talk with and explain the previous night events to his fathers later.
Not bothering to see if Ethan followed, CJ retraced his steps downstairs, taking care not to spill the mugs' contents. Owen waited for them, standing by the couch. He accepted the mug his boyfriend handed him with a quick kiss.
“Sit.” CJ glared at Ethan and pointed at one of the leather covered recliners. He sat on the couch and patted the spot next to him, inviting Owen to join him.
“What are you doing here, Ethan? What do you want?” Owen spoke between sips of his coffee.
The dark-haired man placed the mug he was holding with two hands on the coffee table and glanced at the guys staring at him. “I… I came to apologize to you. To both of you. Last night I was drunk―”
“That’s not an excuse for your behavior.”
CJ remained quiet. He’d enjoyed watching his man deal with the unwelcome advances at the party and realized there was no need for him to interfere.
“I know. Alcohol can make you do things you might otherwise never do, but I know it’s never an excuse.”
“You sexually assaulted me last night!” Owen had raised his voice and CJ was surprised at the vehemence with which he spoke.
“I don’t think―”
“I don’t bloody well care what you think!” Owen’s volume had ticked up another notch and CJ placed a hand on his arm in an attempt to keep his boyfriend calm. “You grabbed my ass and tried to kiss me repeatedly. Even after I told you no. That constitutes sexual assault. Fine fucking lawyer you’re gonna make if you can’t understand that.”
“I know…” Ethan lowered his head, staring at the floor. When he looked up again, CJ was certain there were tears in his eyes. “I’m so, so, sorry. When I first met you I thought you were the most gorgeous man I’d ever seen. And then I got to know you. You’re smart and kind and generous and I started to fall for you.”
“I know the feeling.” CJ’s mumbled comment earned him a squeeze of the knee from Owen.
“That still gives you no right to act the way you did. I told you I was in a relationship. I belong to this guy”―Owen pointed a thumb over his shoulder at CJ―“and I have zero interest in anyone else.”
“And that makes me jealous. I want someone to look at me the way the two of you look at each other.”
“Well, that ain’t gonna be me. I’m bloody happy with―”
“CJ? Ozzie? What’s going on? Are you guys fighting?”
CJ placed the coffee mug on the floor, jumped off the couch and rushed to Ritchie’s side. “Shit! Sorry, bro. Guess we got too loud. And no, we’re not fighting.” He hugged the boy and with an arm around his shoulders, steered him towards the sitting area.
“Sorry we woke you up, Ritchie. My fault. I got a little too loud.” Owen stood, gave Ethan a reproachful look, and hugged Ritchie the way CJ had done. “Ethan, this is Ritchie. He’s CJ’s brother and he’s visiting from Miami. Ritchie, this is Ethan Feldman. He goes to school with me.”
“Hey, Ritchie, nice to meet you. Sorry about the noise. My fault, not Owen’s.”
“Hi, how’d you get the black eye?”
Ethan reached up and felt his cheek below his right eye. He grimaced while feathering his fingers over the somewhat inflamed area with a reddish-violet tinge to it. “I drank too much last night, made a fool out of myself, and fell. I hit a piece of furniture.”
“How’d you make a fool of yourself?” Ritchie’s question made CJ chuckle; leave it to his kid brother to get right to the point.
Ethan reclaimed his seat and held the top of his head with both hands. “I was mean to Owen and we argued. When I tried to grab him, he pushed me out of the way and I fell.”
“You tried to hit on my brother’s boyfriend?” The twelve-year-old kid didn’t sound too happy.
“Yeah. Pretty stupid, eh?”
“You’re an asshole! If I’d been there you would have two black eyes and a broken nose. I’m glad you hurt yourself.”
CJ couldn’t contain his laughter and Owen covered his mouth to muffle his chuckles. “Damn, bro! You don’t pull your punches, do you?”
“Hell, no. Nobody fucks with my brothers. If they do, they have to deal with me.”
The use of the plural didn’t go unnoticed by CJ. “I’d be careful around my kid brother, Ethan. He’s been taking boxing lessons. And as soon as he’s old enough I’m gonna start him lifting.”
“I promise I’ll never do anything like that again, Ritchie.” Even Ethan cracked a smile for the first time since arriving.
“You better not.”
“Hey, Ritchie, why don’t you head upstairs. The dads are in the kitchen and they’ll feed ya. We’ll be up in a few.”
Ethan waited until the youngster had gone up the stairs before speaking again. “Any other relatives I need to be careful around? That boy has spunk. And don’t think I didn’t notice he used 'brothers.' As young as he is, he figured that one out faster than I did.”
“Well, one of my dads’ a retired marine, so I’d be careful around him. But he generally lets me fight my own battles.”
“Look, guys. I can’t apologize enough. I was a dick. But I hope you give me another chance. I’d like to be friends with both of you.”
CJ looked at Owen and winked before replying. “We’ll talk about it, okay? Maybe you can come over some other time, hang out with our friends, and play pool or something. That is, if you don’t mind being surrounded by a bunch of high school kids. You may have to deal with shitty diapers.”
“Ugh! I said something like that last night, didn’t I?” Ethan’s grimace made CJ smirk.
“You did!” CJ and Owen replied in unison.
“I’m sorry... I’m so fucking embarrassed. Nothing like it will ever happen again. I swear.”
After Ethan left, CJ and Owen joined the rest of the family in the kitchen for breakfast. There was a simmering pot of steel cut oats on the stove and CJ defrosted the last of the everything bagels in the freezer before using the toaster. “We need to make a bagel run. That’s the last of them.”
“Are you gonna get them today? Can I come with you?” Ritchie’s innocent question caused uproarious laughter.
“Mate, your big brother has fancy tastes. You can’t just pick up the bagels he likes at the corner market.” Owen slathered vegetable cream cheese on half of a bagel and took a bite. “He likes the ones from a place down the block from his apartment in New York City. These are from a trip we took there in November.”
Ritchie’s eyes widened in surprise. “Oh, I’ve never been to New York. How come you own an apartment there, CJ?”
“I don’t! Ozzie’s exaggerating. The dads own the place with their friend Matt. You’ve met him before, he’s the doctor. We’ll have to plan on spending a few days in New York next time you come up. Maybe the dads will let us go during your spring break. If not, we’ll do it during the summer.”
“That’d be so cool! I wanna go to the Empire State Building. And to the Statue of Liberty. And to Yankee Stadium. Can we get tickets and watch a game?”
“I’m sure we can arrange something.” César smirked and winked at CJ. “You know what? I’m thinking that apartment’s one property we’re going to keep. With us selling all the stuff in California, the one property we haven’t figured out if we wanna keep or sell is the lodge in Colorado. We need to decide what to do with it, Jarhead.”
“Wait a minute, wait a minute.” CJ’s head kept shifting from side to side as he stared at each of his dads in turn. “We own a place in Colorado? Why the hell didn’t I know this?”
“What’s this we stuff? You got a mouse in your pocket or something? We don’t own shit. That one’s still in my name.” Brett’s comment had Ritchie giggling, Owen chuckling, and César rolling his eyes.
“It belonged to Brett’s parents. I’ve been in the place once. Maybe we should fly out there before we decide.”
“Not to change the subject, but changing the subject, sounds like you guys had an interesting evening.” Brett said, waving a knife in the air like a conductor’s baton. “Care to illuminate us?”
Ritchie cut off his giggling and was quick to reply. “Ethan got drunk, tried to hit on Ozzie, and ended up falling and hitting his head on a sofa. That’s how he got the black eye.”
All CJ and Owen could do was nod in assent as peals of laughter filled the kitchen once again. “That’s about it in a nutshell, Papa. Of course, now that Ritchie threatened to give him two black eyes and a broken nose if he tries it again, I think we’ll avoid a repeat performance.”
“He’s a jerk. I don’t like him.”
“Don’t be too hard on him, bro. He definitely was a jerk last night, but he did come to apologize this morning. That takes balls. His honesty showed courage. A real man always admits when he’s wrong without placing blame on others. He had to be hurting this morning. I didn’t drink, Ozzie barely did and we could have both used more sleep. Imagine how much effort it took for Ethan, hung over and in pain, to make it here this early.”
Ritchie paid rapt attention to his brother as he ate while Brett and César sat back listening and exchanging occasional glances.
“There’s two qualities I think are the most important for a man to have, Ritchie.” CJ paused and looked at the men sitting around him before continuing. “One’s loyalty, and you displayed that this morning by sticking up for Ozzie and me. I’m very, very proud of you for doing so.”
The boy’s cheeks flushed at the compliment from his big brother. No one could miss the hero worship he often exhibited and CJ tried to be careful of what he said and did in front of him.
“The second one’s honesty. You have to be honest with yourself and with those around you. I haven’t always been the best at that one, but I keep working on it. Ethan showed it in heaps. He was honest with himself acknowledging he’d fucked up. And then he was honest with us when he owned up to what he’d done. He could have blamed it on being drunk, but he didn’t. He admitted his mistake and faced us.
“So I’d like you to give him a second chance. If Ozzie agrees, we’ll do the same. I think he could turn out to be a good friend.”
• • •
“When did we turn into a pair of old farts?” César shook off the last drops and tucked himself back in his boxers.
“Speak for yourself, my farts are always young. And fresh. And smell like roses.” Brett's deep inhale as he fanned the air behind him, earned him a head slap.
“Asshole! I stand corrected: I’m old. You’re just a child. A child in a grown-up’s body, but still a child.”
“Yeah, but it’s a hunky body.”
César shook his head, chuckled, and stared at Brett. “Fine, I’ll admit you’re hunky.”
“What brought on the self-pity?”
“CJ. That boy has a habit of throwing me off. We used to say he was fifteen going on thirty when he moved in. Now he’s seventeen going on forty. This morning blew my mind.”
“Yeah! He did pretty good. The way he handled Ethan was impressive.”
“That’s the least of it. What impressed me was the way he talked to Ritchie. Honesty and loyalty? Where the fuck did he learn that shit? He talked to Ritchie the way most adults could only dream of speaking to their kids.”
“I know exactly where he gets it from. You! And to a lesser degree from me. But I’ll admit he’s changed a lot since the summer. You were right in letting him travel by himself. After the New York fiasco I wasn’t so sure about it, but I’m glad you convinced me.”
“And I’m glad you allowed me to convince you. Sometimes I worry he’s growing up too fast. Missing out on being a kid.”
“Nah, all we have to do is give him a joint and he acts his age.”
“You know something? Even there he acts more mature. He read his friends the riot act about smoking or drinking while Ritchie’s visiting. Ozzie told me about it. Do you know there’s a Harley-Davidson Coffee container in our safe right now? He asked me to put it there for the weekend.”
Brett rubbed his hands and wiggled his eyebrows. “If that can has what I think it has, can we break into it?”
“Yeah, right. CJ tells his buddies there’s no pot smoking while Ritchie’s here and we break into his stash? Grow up, Jarhead.”
“But… but… I don’t wanna grow up. I’m a Toys R Us kid!” The stare Brett received made him raise his hands in surrender. “Kidding… Anyway, I think Ozzie’s part of the reason for his grown-up behavior. CJ’s dating a college guy and he wants to fit in with the older crowd. We heard how jealous he was of other guys hitting on Ozzie from the Chicago boys. Our boy’s smitten and he’s doing what he has to do to keep his boyfriend.”
“Ha! I don’t think he has to work too hard. It was Ozzie who rebuked Ethan last night. Do you realize we met eight years ago tonight and we’ve been together since? It may not have been instantaneous for those two like it was for us, but I’m starting to believe they’re headed down the same path we took.”
“And would that be so bad?” Brett peeled back the blankets part way and slid under them, patting the spot next to him. “Get in here, stud. Time to celebrate our anniversary.”
• • •
CJ steered Defiant into the parking spot, turned off the engine, and turned to his brother in the passenger seat. Ritchie had been quiet during the drive from Georgetown to the airport; he’d spent the entire time staring out the window looking morose.
“Come on, bro. Cheer up. You’ll be back here next month during your spring break. And if the dads let us go to New York, you’ll get to see everything you told us you want to. Then I’m coming down to Miami during my vacation the following month. We’re gonna be seeing each other all the time.”
“Yeah, I guess…” Ritchie didn’t sound very convinced. “But I’d rather stay here! It gets kinda boring at Aba’s. And I miss Mom and Dad.”
“I know, buddy. But you heard what Papa told you about how he felt when his parents died. He only had his grandfather to look after him. You have Aba and Abo, you have my other grandparents, my dads, me and Ozzie… And you have Wingnut. You have to look after him, you know?”
“Yeah, I guess. You think your dads will let me come spend the summer here? Or are you going back to Australia again?”
“Nope, no plans for any big trips this year. And for sure the dads will let you come. They like you, bud. They really like you.”
“Okay.” Ritchie let out an exaggerated sigh and gave his brother a half smile.
“Come on, let’s get you checked in. We have time before your flight leaves. We’ll stop somewhere and have a Coke.”
Thank you Mann Ramblings, Kitt, and Reader 1810 for your hard work.