"You're sure you can manage the place on your own while I'm gone? No food fights, open on time every day, still make it to all of your classes on time?" Chay asked for the thousandth time that day alone as he stood in the doorway of the bakeshop.
"Chay, I swear to be on my very best behavior and obey my baby brother like a good employee," Claude vowed for them both. "Now, you make sure you take good care of my prince, and both of you come home safe and sound with a big boat for all of us."
"I'll miss you, Chipper," Chay whispered as he hugged Keagan tightly. "I will think about you every moment."
"You'd better not," Keagan warned. "Cassie is counting on you looking that boat over for him. I want your full attention on that so we don't get a clunker. You can think about me after that, though," he added with a bashful grin.
"You're only going to be gone a few days, Sugarman," Claude teased.
"Unless we buy the boat," Cassius corrected. "If we do, we will be riding her back down here, which will take a little over two weeks."
"And just when were you planning to tell me you were going to be gone that long?" Claude demanded. "How am I supposed to…." His voice cut off as Cass kissed him thoroughly.
"Each moment away from you will be torture, my consort," Cass whispered in his ear after finally breaking the kiss. "I know you are worried, but I totally trust you to take care of everything here for me."
"Wait a minute, what do you mean everything?" Claude asked.
"Exactly what I said," Cass smiled. "I've already informed everyone that needs to know, if anything happens they can't handle on their own, you are my voice in my absence. You are in control of all that I own when I am out of town. The Queen will handle anything family-related, of course, but everything else is up to you, my love."
"I can't run your businesses," Claude protested. "I'm not even out of school yet."
"You are my consort, Claude Guebert. All that I have will be yours once we are joined officially by Aunt Dixie. You have every right to control it all while I am out of town for this trip. I have seen to that legally already. You have a legal, durable power of attorney for all my worldly goods as of 2 o'clock yesterday afternoon."
"Cass… I… I don't know what to say," Claude whispered.
"Well, a promise to not sell everything and skip town with the money might be nice," Cass laughed as he bent forward to press a kiss to his consort's cheek. "You should also promise not to forget to go to my apartment and feed Snagglepuss."
"Snagglepuss?" Chay and Keagan both asked.
"He found a little kitten out back of the restaurant three days ago, and it climbed him like a tree then snuggled on his shoulder purring like a freight train," Claude told them. "It was so adorable. The poor little thing is missing one of his teeth, though, so Cass named him Snagglepuss."
"And when do I get to meet my kitten nephew?" Keagan demanded. "I love cats. Have you checked around to make sure there weren't more hungry little kittens by the restaurant?"
"I hadn't thought of that," Cassius admitted.
"Men," Keagan grunted and rolled his eyes. "Claude, you are taking me over there as soon as we close the bakery this afternoon. We'll stop by and get Snagglepuss on our way. Maybe he can lead us to where the rest of his family is staying."
"Don't you lose my kitten," Cassius growled.
"Awww, I knew you loved our baby," Claude gushed. "You act so big and tough all the time, but I knew."
"Yes, yes, I have a soft spot for helpless kittens, sexy college boys, and cute little blonde angels," Cassius confessed as he kissed Claude and ruffled Keagan's hair.
"Stop messing up my hair; I'll tell Aunt Dixie on you," Keagan growled with all the ferocity of a kitten himself.
"Tell me what?" the woman in question asked as she walked into the bakery.
"Cassius mussed up my hair, Aunt Dixie," Keagan pouted.
"Dat sacrilege," the old woman gasped. "Told me this, my Sunshine, did he mess it up like this?" she asked as she too fluffed his hair. "Or was it more like this?" she continued as she rubbed his golden locks the other way.
"Aunt Dixie," the teen whined. He quieted down instantly when Chay kissed him, though.
"Goodbye, Chipper; I'll call you every night until we board the plane or the boat to come home," the baker whispered. "You'll keep an eye on them, won't you, Aunt Dixie?"
"Both of the blonde bombshells be just fine when you get back here, now skedaddle on out of here afore you miss that plane," the old woman laughed as she pushed Cassius and Chay out the door and shut it behind them. "Now, my bebes, let's talk some beignet."
"Yes, ma'am," Keagan smiled as he rushed to the counter to plate up some of the pastries for her.
"I'll get you the chicory coffee, Aunt Dixie," Claude smiled as he followed his little brother to the counter.
"I still don't get why we landed at an airport in Kentucky to go to a city in Ohio," Cass said as they walked through said airport. "Don't they have an airport on the Ohio side of the river?"
"It's because many years ago, the airport in Cincinnati wound up on the bottom side of the river instead of the Ohio side," Chay joked, then he took a deep breath and shrugged his shoulders as if working out soreness. "Never thought I would be coming back here," Chay mumbled as he and Cass entered the luggage claim area of the airport.
"I heard that, Chayton Anthony," a woman's voice called out. "So you have been making excuses not to come back and see me."
"Mom, I…. What are you doing here?" Chay stammered nervously.
"You think you can tell me over the phone that you are coming up to check out a boat for a friend, and I am not going to meet you at the airport and tell you and your friend you are NOT staying in a hotel? You still have a room in my home, son. Now tell me, is this friend of yours a friend, or is he a boyfriend?"
"Cassius LeVeau, ma'am," Cass introduced himself as Chay coughed and sputtered in shock. "Just a friend, I promise you."
"So it's a good thing I made up the bed in the guest room after all," the woman smiled and wrapped her arm Cass' and watched for their luggage with them. "I didn't want to deny my son the need to keep telling me he's straight until he's ready to talk to me honestly."
"MOM!" Chay squealed, sounding very much like Keagan at that moment. "Can we not have this discussion in public in the airport?"
"As you wish, but don't think we won't be talking in the car on the way home, because your brother Mikolaj drove me here to pick you up, and I don't want you to make the dreamy eyes at him like you used to do. He's got a very nice boyfriend now, and I won't have you stringing him along like you did when you were younger. I wouldn't have put up with it then if I'd known that you two weren't…."
"Mom… What… I can't… I don't…." Chay sputtered more, cutting her off finally.
"Hold up, Chay. You told me you were an only child, and now your mom is telling me not only do you have a brother, but you guys were a thing?" Cass blurted in confusion.
"Can we please not have this conversation here?" Chay begged again.
"Mikolaj was Chayton's best friend growing up. As soon as they were old enough, they started working with Chayton's father, may he rest in peace, learning to work on the boats. Chayton, he wasn't as interested as Miko, though. I think Miko only started doing it so he could spend more time drooling over Chayton, but he really found himself in that job, so it stuck to this day."
"Ma, you weren't supposed to tell Chay that," a very muscular man whined as he walked up to them. "Some security guy got all crazy about me parking in the pickup area and made me move to a real parking space, so I came in to find you and let you know." He then turned to Chay and smiled. "Good to see you again, Chay."
"Miko, is that really you? My god, you've gotten huge," Chay said as he hugged the man tightly. "I can't believe you're still around here."
"Yeah, well, some of us didn't abandon our friends and family to move all over the country," the other man answered, but it was apparent he was teasing. "In my case, the family abandoned me."
"You don't think about them, Miko. You know you always got me for a mama," Chay's mom told him as she came over and hugged the big guy.
"I know, Ma, and I love you, too," Miko smiled. To Chay, he explained, "Your mom took me in after my folks disowned me for coming out of the closet."
"Wait, you're…? You never…. How did I not…?" Chay gasped.
"You really didn't know?" Miko questioned. "I guess I really should have just come right out and told you when we were fourteen like I wanted to do."
"Maybe I should stay at the hotel after all," Cass told Chay seriously. "Sounds like you got a lot of catching up to do."
"No, you don't," Mama fussed. "You get my guest room, just like I told you. These two don't need to catch up that much, or I'll have to listen to poor Sandy crying his eyes out again."
"Sandy was crying?" Miko demanded suddenly. "When was this, Ma? Why didn't you tell me? What was wrong? Why didn't he talk to me?"
"Hush, it's over and done with," Ma soothed. "He was just a little worried that if you saw Chay again, you would dump him for your old flame."
"I keep telling Sandy, I've been over Chay ever since I laid eyes on him," Miko blushed.
"Well, you and he are coming for dinner tonight, and you can prove it to him once and for all," Mama told him firmly. "I remember those looks you used to give Chay, and they got nothing on the way you look at Sandy. He'll see that tonight, and you'll have him waking the neighbors later on."
"MA!" Miko and Chay both blushed as they squealed at the woman.
"I think I'm going to like you, ma'am," Cass chuckled as he grabbed his suitcase and her arm and headed for the exit doors.
"So, you're gay, and you had a crush on me when we were growing up, and you never said a word to me about it," Chay said as he stared at his childhood and teenage best friend.
"Look, I'm sure you're feeling creeped out by it. After you go back to wherever it is you live now, you never have to see or think about me again, just like you have for the last how many years since we graduated high school? I get it; you're straight. I know you probably left to get away from the gay guy that perved on your butt all the time."
"Hold up, first of all, nobody said I was straight; in fact, my mom just told me she knew I was gay years ago. Second of all, you were perving on my butt? I was drooling over yours," Chay admitted. "I left so nobody would figure out I was gay. Well, that and I never wanted to be a boat mechanic."
"Nautical engineer, you dumbass," Miko snapped as he punched Chay playfully on the arm, then he hit him again a bit harder.
"OWW! What was that for?" Chay demanded.
"That was for perving on my butt, you creep," Miko said haughtily. "If anybody was going to bottom, it was not going to be me."
"Yeah, right, like I would have ever taken that monster Polish sausage of yours," Chay defended himself. "I guess we wouldn't have worked out too well together even if we hadn't been so blind."
"I guess not," Miko shrugged. "You were nice eye candy, though."
"So were you," Chay admitted.
"Chay, your mother sent me back in to tell you both that if her hummus is ruined by the chickpeas soaking too long while you two act like hormonal teenagers again, she will remind you both that you can still be put over her knee and spanked like she did when you broke her mother's vase when you were twelve. Not that I have anything against such a floor show for dinner, mind you. I'm just delivering the message I was given," Cass announced as he grabbed Chay's suitcase and walked out the exit again.
"Alqaraf!" Miko and Chay yelped. They looked at each other and, in unison, said, "Don't say that around your mother, or she'll wash your mouths out with soap," before laughing all the way to the car in the parking lot. It was something they had both heard from Chay's father for most of their young lives.
"What is so funny, you two?" Cass asked them as they got to the vehicle.
"These are my boys, one son of my loins and one son of my heart, and I've raised them from birth. When they laugh like this, it's best I don't know," Mama said as she opened the driver's door of the car.
"Ma, you can't drive the car," Miko started.
"And why can't I drive my own car?" she frowned. "Now get in the back seat with Chayton so you can giggle like schoolgirls on the way home just like you used to do. This nice man can sit up front where the grownups ride."
"I am liking you more and more, ma'am," Cass laughed out loud as he sat in the front seat with her.
"I am a grown-up, you know," Miko and Chay said in unison again, and then started snickering again.
"Yes, you sound it," Mama said as she rolled her eyes, but she was smiling all the way back across the river as she and Cass had to listen to the whispers and laughter from the back seat.
"They're acting just like my Claude and High Prince Keagan," Cass observed with a fond smile at one point.
"What does that mean? Who are Claude and Keagan?" Mama asked him.
"Oh… well, umm… Some very good friends of ours back in N'awlins, who happen to be adopted brothers just like these two. You'd never know they weren't blood brothers, though."
"I think you're leaving out something important, but no matter," Mama smiled. "We can talk more after dinner," she added as she parked the car in front of an old apartment building. "I hope you don't mind the stairs, Mr. LeVeau, the building only has a freight elevator, and it isn't working this week, again."
"I don't mind the stairs, ma'am," Cass assured her.
"Enough with the ma'am," she scolded. "You don't have to call me Mama like these two knuckleheads, but you can at least call me Aunt Jesenia."
"Yes'm, Aunt Jesenia, but if I do, you have to start calling me Cassius, or just Cass."
"All right, Just Cass," she said with a smile as Chay and Miko started snorting laughter again. "I apologize that I didn't make as much food as I would like, but the Lebanese market down the street closed down, so now I have to go all the across town to buy my food from the Greek market instead. They don't have some of the things I would need to properly welcome my son home again."
"Don't you believe her," a handsome man said as he opened the door of the apartment on the fourth floor. "Mama's been cooking for two days getting ready for her son, the world traveler, to come home. Hi, I'm Sanderson Hutchins," he introduced, holding his hand out to Chay.
"You date Miko? You deserve a hug for putting up with this dumb Pole," Chay said as he pointed at Miko before embracing the stranger. "Wait until I tell you about him growing up."
"HEY! Get your own cutie, you big doofus," Miko complained and pulled Sandy away.
"He done did," Cass laughed and then coughed as everyone turned to stare at him and then at Chay.
"Gee, thanks," Chay said sarcastically. "Don't think I'm not telling your Aunt Dixie about you throwing me under the bus like this."
"You know she'll just laugh at us both," Cass defended with a smirk. He got serious then and added, "I am sorry, Chay. It was out before I could stop it. At least, I didn't tell them he's only sev… Oops. Shutting up now."
"Please tell me he was going to say seventy," Mama whispered icily as she glared at her son.
"Keagan is seventeen, Mama, but I haven't laid a finger on him, I swear," Chay defended. "He'll be eighteen in two months."
"I know my son," Mama murmured as she turned and walked toward the kitchen. "I know I didn't raise my boy to tell me lies to my face, and I know when he does anyway. I trust you, Chayton. I just want to make sure this boy isn't trying to get you into any kind of trouble. You've worked so hard to get your own bakery and to lose it all to a scandal…."
"There won't be a scandal, Aunt Jesenia," Cass assured her. He then told them all the story of how Keagan had come to New Orleans and gotten the job working in the bakery.
"You saved this boy from the streets," Mama gushed as she grabbed Chay and kissed him all over his face. "I knew my boy was a good man. I'm proud of you, my falcon."
"Falcon," Cass questioned.
"That's what his name means in the language of the man he is named for," Mama answered. She went over to a cabinet with glass doors and reached inside to retrieve a picture in a frame. "This man saved my husband's life in World War II by losing his own. He was an American Native of the Sioux tribe. My Caleb never forgot that. When we married after the war, he told me that if we ever had a son, he wanted the boy to be named Chayton in honor and memory of his friend from the war." In the picture, a tall, dark-haired man was relaxing on a beach in only shorts and lying next to him was a man who could only be Chayton's father due to the strong resemblance.
"My brother made such a sacrifice for another man in Vietnam," Cass said quietly. "It is a good thing to honor such men. It is why I honor High Prince Keagan. You are blessed for such an act," he added formally. "If it is all right, I will go to the room where I will be staying. I need a few moments alone."
"I certainly didn't mean to bring up bad memories or upset you," Mama told him. "I understand grief, though. Your room is the first door on the right down the hallway." Once the door was closed to the guest room, she turned to Chay. "Perhaps you could tell us about your Keagan and why Cass keeps calling him a prince?" she asked softly.
"Well, what he was referring to just now has to do with Keagan's parents," Chay told his mother and the two men. He gave them the story of Keagan's parents going to thank Cassius' family for his brother's bravery, and then went on to relate what had happened on their way home that day.
"How horrible," his mother gasped. "That poor child."
"There has been some happiness and closure from it, though," Chay said. He then went on to explain about the furniture in his apartment and how it had come into his hands through Aunt Dixie, who was Cassius' blood aunt. "Their family has recognized Keagan as part of their house because of that connection of the families, among other things."
"So why did he call this Keagan kid High Prince?" Miko asked curiously.
"Oh, that's right, you weren't there when Cass introduced himself to Mama," Chay said. "His last name should give you a bit of a clue. It's LeVeau."
"You mean like Marie?" Sandy gasped.
"I don't know these names," Mama confessed in confusion.
"Marie LeVeau was a voodoo practitioner in New Orleans long ago; in fact, she was and is referred to as the Voodoo Queen," Sandy said softly.
"Aunt Dixie is her reigning heir," Chay told them. "And Cassius is her designated heir."
"I just shook hands with the future king?" Sandy squeaked.
"You seem to know a lot about this," Chay pointed out.
"I don't have the powers, and I'm not from one of the families, but I have a friend that is," Sandy explained. "He taught me how to be a pilot on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers."
"You're a pilot?" Chay questioned.
"Yes, but an unemployed one at the moment," Sandy admitted. "I had just gotten hired on as the pilot of a great paddle wheeler, but a week later, the owner dropped dead without a will. His kids are demanding that the boat be sold off and the money split between them."
"Would this paddle wheeler be going up for auction in a day or two, by any chance?" Chay asked as he leaned forward.
"Yes, it is," Sandy confirmed. "Wait, that's why you guys are up here, isn't it?"
"Cassius hopes to buy it if it's in good shape, and then we'll need to hire a captain to take her down to New Orleans for us," Chay smiled.
"Hey, you'll need a mechanic for that trip too, you know," Miko pointed out. "We can give you a package deal," he offered, gesturing to himself and Sandy. "Best mechanic and pilot on the river."
"Well, I figured I would be the mechanic," Chay said thoughtfully. "I mean, that's why I'm here with Cass. I'm to look the boat over and tell him what sort of shape she's in."
"Chay, I thought you told me that you had a successful bakery," Mama said pointedly. "Now you tell me you're going back to engineering. Son, if you need money…."
"Mama, I do not need money," Chay explained. "It's just that I have the background that Cass needed for this trip. To be honest, Mama, once we get it back to New Orleans, I will be the head pastry chef in the restaurant Cass intends to open on the boat, and I will still have my current bakery as well, so I would say I'm doing pretty well actually."
"My son is a chain," Mama gushed proudly. "But son, you can trust Miko on this boat. She's a good one. He worked on this one himself before the owner died."
"Oh, so you really are a package deal with the boat," Chay smiled. "I'm sure Cass will be glad to know that not only is it a good buy, but we have the crew we need as well."
"You'll have a passenger as well," Mama said firmly. All three men turned to look at her. "If I'm to have a… what do you call your beaus these days… oh yes, if I'm to have a cutie in law, I want to meet him. After dinner, you three can help me start packing."
"How long do you want to visit, Ma?" Miko asked her.
"What visit? I'm sick of the winter. If I never see another flake of snow, it will be too soon. So, I'm moving to New Orleans to be closer to my children, all of them," she explained as she kissed each man on the head and then shooed them out to the living room to start taking down the pictures while she got back to work on dinner.
"Did I miss something?" Cass asked as he came out of the room a bit later. "Did we get evicted?" he joked as he saw Chay and the other two men following Mama's directions to carefully pack these things, to put those things aside to donate to the Goodwill store, and to put the other things in the other room so she can give them to friends before she leaves.
"Cass, meet your new mechanic, pilot, and the admiral of the fleet, Mama," Chay joked. "Now pitch in start packing with us. Mama has decided she needs to move to New Orleans to meet Keagan."
"If ever there were people to move across the country for, it would be Prince Sunshine and his brother, Claude," Cass agreed.
"Wait, I thought the kid's name was Keagan," Sandy asked in confusion.
"He may be blond, but he's a good pilot on the river, I swear," Miko said teasingly. "Ouch!" he yelped and rubbed the back of his head where Mama had hit him with the wooden spoon.
"You give your sweet man a kiss and tell him you're sorry for what you just said," Mama scolded. "I raised my sons better than to talk about their boyfriend in such a way."
"Yes, Mama," Miko pouted, but he did go across the room and kiss Sandy, who was giggling rather than pouting.
"Now that you're feeling better, Cass, it's time to eat," Mama called out. "Sandy, Miko, Chay, go wash up and try not to flood both my bathroom and Mrs. Winfred downstairs."
"Ma," Miko whined.
"It was one time, and we were four years old," Chay defended. "We're never going to live that down, are we?"
"When I don't have to hear that old harpie whining about the condition of her wallpaper and reminding me of the day she walked into her bathroom to find the ceiling in a puddle of water on the floor, maybe I will stop bringing it up myself," Mama said shaking her finger at her boys. "Cass, I hope you don't mind Lebanese food. Chay told me you have a restaurant, but he didn't say what sort of food you serve."
"LeVeau's on the Levee serves mostly French cuisine, with a New Orleans flair, of course," Cass informed her as he followed her into the kitchen. "If the food tastes half as good as it smells, I'll have to buy the boat, because the airline won't let a man as fat as I'm going to be fly back to the Big Easy."
"Well, as I said, I wasn't able to cook as much as I would have liked, so you should keep your figure a while longer anyway," Mama laughed.
"Well, I know you made hummus, because you told me about that at the airport. What other goodies do I get to sample today?" Cass asked, getting excited as he started talking food.
"I taught Sandy how to make Fattoush, that's a salad with bits of fried bread in it," she explained with a smile. "He's such a sweet young man. My Miko could have done a lot worse. But you wanted to hear about the food. So for the meats, I made kafta kebabs, but I do mine in the broiler since I don't have a fire pit on the fourth floor of an apartment building. They are made with lamb because that was always Chayton's favorite. You will love my tahini yoghurt sauce, but don't make crude comments about it like Miko did when he was a boy. You may be a guest, but I still have a wooden spoon where I can reach it. "
"Ma! I was twelve, and it was the first time I saw it after I…."
"Miko, I am ashamed of you talking like that in front of your Ma," Sandy snapped as he smacked his boyfriend on the back of the head.
"Boys can be such beasts," Mama said, rolling her eyes. "It's a white sauce, and I do not need to hear any more about that. Anyway, so I made kibbeh, of course, because you can't celebrate without kibbeh," the woman smiled once more. "Now, I don't want you to worry about that. I'm very careful with my kibbeh. The lamb was very fresh, and I had Sandy and Miko help me grind it this morning while you were still on the plane."
Cass looked over at Chay, who mouthed the words, "Tell you later."
"Now for the side dishes, I made Lebanese rice with vermicelli," Mama continued. "Don't look at me like that; you think those people in San Francisco invented the idea? No, they must have some good Lebanese mamas out there with all those nice gay boys. I also made one of my specialties, stuffed zucchini, but we had enough meat already, so this is just… what's that word, Sandy?"
"Vegetarian, Mama," the blond supplied as he dug into the hummus and pita bread with Miko and Chay.
"You children can't wait until we all sit down for the meal?" Mama scolded, but she was smiling, and her hand went nowhere near the dreaded spoon. "Here, take some of this to the table, you storm of locusts, you. Oh, not you, Cass. You're a guest."
"He's family, Mama," Chay corrected. "Not sure if he's another brother I didn't know I had, or a cousin or just what, but he is family."
"Officially, given the blessing Aunt Dixie gave you and High Prince Keagan, I am your cousin, well cousin in law in your case as the blessing focused mainly on him. He is as near to being her own child as she could make him without giving birth to him. But make no mistake, the blessing she gave you definitely means that you are a prince of the family in your own right."
"My son, a prince," Mama gushed proudly, and then she smacked said prince on his shoulder. "Sit up straight at the table."
"What did you make for dessert, Ma?" Miko asked eagerly as he took his seat beside Sandy across the table from Chay.
"What else would I make but yours and Chay's favorite Aish el Saraya?" the woman laughed softly with a loving smile at her boys.
"Think of it as Lebanese bread pudding," Chay whispered when Cass looked to him questioningly.
"Oh, I like me some bread pudding," Cass grinned. He sat beside Chay and began to eat one of the most interesting and delicious meals of his life. "Oh, I think I might have asked the wrong Anthony to join me in the restaurant on the boat," he groaned later as he rubbed his very full stomach. "We best go call our boys before I fall asleep from overeating," he joked.
"Dad might have been the best engineer on the Ohio River, but Mama is the best cook in the world," Chay bragged with a kiss on his mother's cheek. "But you're right; I did promise to call Chipper tonight and let him know we got here safely."
"And you didn't call him before now?" Mama scolded. "What kind of a son did I raise? You go call your loved one right this minute. Sandy and Miko can help me with the cleaning up."
"We can?" Miko asked in confusion.
"We can," Sandy agreed as he pulled his lover out of the chair. "You need to work off some of that dessert before we go home."
"I thought I'd work it off once we got there," Miko snorted, and then covered the back of his head with his hands. "Sorry, Ma. It just slipped out."
"If your Sandy can put up with your crude mouth, who am I to argue?" she said with a dismissive wave. "I told you he would still love you after the dinner," she added as she walked into the kitchen.
"Yes, ma'am, you did," both Miko and Sandy agreed before following her.