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The two cars pulled up smoothly to adjoining parking places beside A Taste of Heaven, and their occupants emerged. Andy was more than slightly giggly at the 'dumb' jokes Gil had been telling him on the way there. He realized Gil had been doing it on purpose, to set him at ease, but the idea, that this man cared enough about his opinion, his feelings, to put forth that sort of effort, itself made him feel much more comfortable with Gil. "You don't have to try so hard, you know," he said to him.
Gil looked at him quizzically.
"I realize what you were doing," Andy said, "and I appreciate it. But, I guess, somewhere along the line I got over my paranoia about you, and realized what a good person you were. I like you, Mr. Christenson. You don't have to win me over � I came over on my own volition." He smiled and gave Gil a loose hug.
Gil drew him to himself and returned a tighter hug. "Thanks, Andy," he said. "When you're used to being in charge of things, sometimes you need the wake-up call of having to look at things from the perspective of someone that isn't, who can be hurt badly by things he has no control over." He frowned. "You gave me that wake-up call, and I'm grateful. And I genuinely like you; I like what you've brought to the mix of guys at Donny's place."
He smiled conspiratorily. "One thing I'm going to need your help on, though." Andy quirked an eyebrow in question, thoroughly curious now. "Your new boyfriend, Ray � I really want to get him back into a learning environment, and if I can persuade him, send him to college and law school. He's got the sort of sharp, insightful mind this job calls for, and he'd be great at it. And I think it interests him already."
"Um, I won't try to force him to be something he doesn't want to be," Andy said tentatively, not wanting to break the new closeness with Gil, but torn to defend his boyfriend's independence.
"Neither do I. I want to encourage him, not force him. Just the few sentences we've exchanged, I can see that it's something he likes and is good at. I don't want him to become a lawyer, exactly � I want to make sure he doesn't set his sights too low, and not realize that he could be a lawyer, and a good one, if that's what he decides to do with his life."
"Oh," Andy said. "Okay, put like that � you're on! I know just what you mean, now. He's still half believing the crap his parents fed him. And he's so much better than that!"
Gil just grinned, and stuck out his hand. Andy took it with a matching grin, and shook it firmly, sealing a bargain.
In the back seat, Randy and Billy had been looking nervously at each other � neither willing to break the ice.
As they got out, Billy turned to him. "I suppose you're going to hate me now," he said in a low voice. "And maybe I deserve it."
"No, I kind of got the picture, when you were talking about your uncle and stuff," Randy said. Inside, it made him miss his parents even more. He wondered what his dad would have told him to do. Getting a glimmer of an answer, he went on, "You were doing what your uncle told you to do. That doesn't make it right, but I sort of understand. But, um � they way you got people in a position to get their wallets � weren't you grossed out?"
"Not really," Billy said shyly. "Some guys were, uh, kind of gross down there. But mostly, I liked it." The last line was delivered almost defiantly.
Randy started to bone up at hearing that and thinking about what Billy had done earlier. Billy noticed. "I'll take care of that for you later, if you wanna. Um � no charge!" Billy said with a blush.
Randy was saved from having to answer that by Chay walking over, adjusting his pants. The most remarkable feature of the small Asian boy's anatomy was making its presence very well known. Both boys goggled at it.
Noticing their gaze, Chay giggled. "See something you like?" he asked leadingly.
"Um, uh..." Randy was speechless. "Is that for real?" Billy asked.
Chay laughed. "Yep, I'll introduce you later. Right now, c'mon, dinner's waiting."
As they entered the restaurant, Deanna, recognizing Gil and the judge, gave a warm smile and welcomed them. "We have your party set up at a table right over here, and Matt will be your server tonight." She escorted them over and seated them.
"You're not treating, Gil," Donny said rather nervously.
"Don't be ridiculous, Donny," was the response. "You can't afford to cover a dinner this size. But thank you for the offer."
"No, you misunderstand," Donny answered. "Tonight's meal is on the house. Rocco insisted, after Hugo decided to turn us away at the door."
Gil raised his eyebrows, intrigued. "That pompous buffoon!" the judge remarked. "I've never understood why Rocco keeps him on."
"He hates to fire anyone," Donny began, but Pauly broke in with, "Well, he has him doing something different tonight." It was now the judge's turn to look intrigued, and Pauly amplified, "Pearl diving. Rocco told him if he wanted to stay working, he was doing bus boy and dishwasher work � gave him the choice of that or leaving."
"Sounds like we missed a bit of drama," Gil said.
"Oh, yeah!" Peewee interjected with giggles. "Mr. Rocco was ma-a-ad!"
The luck of the seating arrangement had put Billy next to the judge, and he was looking very much ill at ease. Judge Markham noticed. "Easy, boy," he said soothingly. "I don't bite."
"In public, anyway!" Chay put in with a grin. Turning serious, he addressed Billy. "From what you told Andy and me back at the diner, I'd venture to guess that you've been on the wrong side of the law all your life, right?"
Billy considered this. "Yeah, pretty much. Ma and Uncle Arnie, they were always scheming on how to avoid getting caught, and when I got old enough to � well, you know � I pretty well fell into the same way of thinkin'."
"Most of us were there at one time or another," Chay said, "as runaways if nothing else. So we've all got a clue how you're feeling. But what you had to say made it pretty clear to us that you're an essentially good person who got raised to live on the wrong side of the law. So if you give us a chance, you'll get one from us in return." He paused. "But what I started out to say is that you don't need to worry about Judge Markham. He's in the job he's in because he believes in giving kids a break whenever he can. He'll go to bat for you if you give him the slightest reason to. I mean, sometimes, he has to get tough, like locking up those four guys who were beating up Keith and Lucas...."
"Stop right there!" the judge said. "I can't hear any more about that, or it'll prejudice my decision when they appear before me."
"See what I mean?" Chay said. "He shut me up so he can be fair to them when they appear in his court."
"It sounds like they're headed for Rosenblatt," Gil put in. "When Stan Kowalski and I talked to the Assistant D.A. on duty, they were looking at major-felony charges with little chance of a reduction." He looked at Billy. "But on the other matter, Chay's right � you've got people willing to take a chance on you."
"Um, I don't want to look a gift horse in the mouth," Billy said, "but why? Nobody's ever been willing to before."
"I trust the boys," Gil said simply. The judge nodded agreement. "If they say you're worth it, you're worth it, as far as I'm concerned."
Billy blushed, and didn't say anything more.
Down the table, Peewee and Lucas were sitting together, talking in whispers and giggling. Every so often, Peewee would point to someone else at the table and whisper something to Lucas, something that invariably made his eyes widen and another round of giggling break out from both boys.
"Do I want to know what that's all about?" Ray asked Andy, who was sitting next to Randy across the table and down one from him.
"From past experience, no, we're better off not knowing," Andy replied with a big grin. Both of them, Randy and Mikey shared a laugh at that.
"Um, I think we need to be filled in on what happened," Donny interjected. "You two" � indicating Chay and Andy � "took off with Gil to try to help one guy. And now you've come back with two. What gives?"
"Yeah, we kind of need to have a house meeting when we get back home," Chay said. "There's pretty good reasons not to explain why they ended up with Officer Kowalski, who called Gil, here in public." Randy and Billy both blushed deeply and nodded emphatic agreement, noticed each other doing it, and exchanged smiles. Andy in turn observed that, and mentally crossed an item off his list of things to discuss � they were on the road to resolving the attempted theft that had precipitated Kowalski's intervention, and Andy was wise enough to let them work it out between them.
"Let's just say," Chay went on, "that both of them need what we have in their lives, for quite different reasons, and I think each of them has something special to contribute to the mix of who we are, too. I'll get into that at the house meeting, if you want. Andy?" Chay tossed the hot-potato question over to the younger boy nonchalantly.
"Huh? Yeah, I agree with Chay. Randy's been through a giant economy size box of crap in the last 24 hours, and the reason he ran says to me that he needs to be a part of us. Billy? Trying to explain why we invited him would embarrass the hell out of him, as well as taking until half past forever to explain. Let me sum it up by, he deserves a break, and we're the only chance he has for getting one. Right, judge?"
"Right on the money, Andy," the judge answered smoothly. "If we didn't handle his case through Gil and you boys, I would be obliged by the law to order him locked up and eventually sent to a reformatory, where they can train him how to be a much more effective criminal." He grimaced. "You may gather why I don't like to order a kid sentenced to the reformatory if there's any chance to salvage him. And we found out in just a short time that Billy does have a code of honor he lives up to.."
Matt began bringing their orders at that point, and serious conversation was tabled by common consent while they focused on the serious business of enjoying Rocco's meals.
As the dinner crowd thinned out, a young man of Japanese descent, slender and of average height, apparently in his early 20s, dressed in the white shirt and gray slacks that were the 'uniform' for A Taste of Heaven employees, spotted them and came over. He zeroed in on the judge, who broke into a delighted smile at seeing him, and they exchanged a warm hug.
"What in the world are you doing working here?" the judge asked with some concern. "Do you need your stipend increased?"
"No, you've been more than generous, Jonah," the young man said. "I thought some real-life experience would be good, and give me a little extra pocket money a well. And Rocco has been good enough to show me how he makes business decisions. You can learn all the theory you want in a classroom, but nothing prepares you for how it gets applied in the everyday real world like living through it. I almost feel like I should be paying him, not the other way around."
At the puzzled looks around the table, the judge said, "Gil, boys, this is Trevor Ichikaru. He's going for his M.B.A. um..."
"Next June," Trevor said. "And I owe it all to the judge. He arranged to get me in the program, and on a full-ride scholarship to boot."
Gil introduced the boys, going around the table. As he came to Chay, he and Trevor looked each other in the eyes, smiling, and a wealth of information passed between them in that look. Trevor blushed. "It's okay; you're with family," Chay said to him.
Matt's alert, that one of his tables wanted something, saved Trevor from having to answer that. Excusing himself hurriedly, he walked briskly over to wait on his customers.
Randy spoke up. "So, um, judge?" he said hesitantly.
"I'm a bit confused by what went on back to the diner. Is it really okay with you if I go home with these guys?" Randy was hesitant, nervous, but knew he had better find out. As he spoke up, Keith looked over at him � and his gaze lingered. Mikey noticed and filed the thought away for later.
"Yes, yes, of course. Assuming you want to, that is. I approved Gil taking emergency custody of you back there. That reminds me, Gil � I'll expect to see final paperwork on these two sometime soon, but you can take a day or two."
Randy looked confused. "Okay, thanks, sir. But, um...."
Mikey took pity on him. "I know what you're confused about � before today there were only three of us guys, plus Gil and the judge, that understood how things worked. Let me explain."
"Billy, Keith, Lucas, listen up; this goes for you too. The deal is this: Donny figured out, a little over a year ago, what was wrong with the programs for runaways and street kids � they were all run by adults either trying to shape kids to their programs, or outreach that doesn't get involved in their lives, just gives them a place to go. He saw what was needed was something for kids by kids, where kids help other kids. So with Chay's and my help, and Gil's, he set out to start one. Until today nobody knew that it was a legal project, with Gil in nominal charge and Donny officially his on-site manager. That's the way we planned it � because any of us, and any of you, would have run from something like that. We've all been burned by the system, and none of us trust it."
"So the deal was that we'd make like it was an illegal crash pad, where the guys that stay there make the rules for themselves, and help each other out. Because that, guys like us can trust, as much as we can trust anything. Gil and the judge would do the paperwork to make it legal in the eyes of the law, where we have to be in somebody's custody, but they wouldn't interfere."
"And it worked," Mikey concluded, "right up until a nosey old biddy called the cops on us. Then we had to call Gil in to cover our asses from being sent to juvy or something."
"That explains a lot," Jack said. "I was wondering why Gil was hanging around all of a sudden. I hadn't seen him since we were staying at the warehouse, and he took Donny away."
"That's right," Donny said. "I'd forgotten you were in the hospital when everything came out. Well, now you know the real deal. Any problems?"
"Heck, no!" Jack was vehement. "It's good to know my ass is covered, that my parents can't drag me back home."
"You guys got the story up front," Donny said to the four new boys, "'cause Gil had to be involved in keeping your behinds from Child Services's clutches from the word go. But our new policy is that we'll bring guys in on the same pretext as before, then let them know the truth after they've got a feel for how we do things. Andy was pretty firm that we needed to tell the truth, not con people, and I see his point." He smiled at the younger boy.
"So that's what happened to you when you left school the year before last, training to run one of these things?" Matt asked. The server had been waiting to see if anyone needed anything, and listening in. "The rumor was you'd run away. And then your parents...." He trailed off, realizing he'd committed a faux pas.
"Um, no," Donny said. "I did run, and lived on the streets for three months. But then Gil found me, and we put this idea together and made it work."
"Speaking of which," the judge said, "I'm legally obliged to make sure you boys are getting a good education." Groans and panicky expressions met that sally; he held up a hand. "Wait! I am not talking about forcing any of you to go back to school. I am very well aware of how you wouldn't fit into a high school environment � and you younger ones definitely would be square pegs in a middle school."
"Do they have round holes?" Ray quipped.
"You should check with your boyfriend if you're looking for a round hole!" Chay piped up, causing a round of laughter from the others and Ray to blush beet red.
"What I'm thinking," the judge went on, "is to get the school district to provide you with a couple of tutors and a few computers for online study, with you boys calling the shots, so long as you master what's required for a high school diploma. They certainly have the money to send out tutors for kids with much poorer reasons not to go to school; they can afford to give you one or two. And Gil, I'll look to you to set this up with them, with me backing you if they get bureaucratic on you � make sure it's understood it's the boys' decision, not some egotist behind a desk's, what they get taught."
"So what you're saying is, we can finish high school and learn stuff, but don't have to go to school to do it?" Pauly asked hesitantly.
"Exactly," the judge answered.
"I think I could handle that," he replied; there were nods from most of the other boys.
Billy looked up. "What about me?" he asked. The judge cocked an eyebrow at him.
"Well, Uncle Arnie didn't make me go. He, um, taught me the tricks of the trade instead. I'd be in, like, sixth grade if I went back."
"You've got to pick a pocket or two," caroled Andy, who had seen and loved "Oliver." Chay, who had seen the porn take-off on it "Oliver Twink," echoed him with "You've got to suck a penis or two" � and the way the two lyrics fit together to describe Billy's modus operandi made Andy and Randy burst into laughter. Getting into the spirit of things, Mikey turned to Matt and held up his plate. "Please sir, can I have some more?" he said, causing everyone to burst into laughter.
Chay topped them all, though, by looking each of the four new boys in the eye, then beginning to sing, "Consider yourself at home, consider yourself one of the family." The other boys who had seen "Oliver" joined in, and there was a sense of bonding, of connection being made among them.
Rocco came over, smiling broadly. "Good to see you're enjoying yourselves," he said. "The old couple over there," and he pointed across the room, "said to tell you that it's wonderful to see a group of young people having a good time and not causing a commotion. They loved 'Oliver' and wanted to let you know they liked the impromptu musical entertainment."
Gil looked up at him. "Tonight was supposed to be my treat," he said.
"It's comped," Rocco said. "Don't argue; I owe it to Donny, after what he had to put up with. And it's a way for me to say thank you to longtime customers. Donny's first adult restaurant meal was, let me think, an alfredo dish; he was seven at the time."
Donny gestured at his plate. "Yep, and I've loved it ever since."
"I'm not going to fight too hard," Gil said. "But let me ask this: if you're determined on comping the meals, let me have a copy of the meal check when it's figured. I'll make a contribution to the boys' drawing fund in that amount, since with four new boys, they'll need the extra money."
"I'll match that," said the judge.
"You don't have to do that," Donny began to say. Both men wheeled on him.
"We want to," the judge said. "You're doing the work; this is how we can help out." He looked over at Chay. "By the way, young man, you realized who Trevor is, right?" Chay nodded. "I put him through college and grad school; I'll be expecting to do the same for you, when the time comes. You work with that tutor, and when he's satisfied you're ready, come see me. I've got plenty of strings to pull over at the university, to get you any help you need."
Chay smiled happily. "I will, Jonah. Thank you."
"Why's he call the judge by his first name?" Lucas asked Peewee in a whisper. Peewee explained back, also in a whisper. Lucas's jaw dropped.
After Matt took dessert orders, Gil spoke up. "A couple of urgent issues you probably haven't thought of. First, we probably need cabs to get you home.
The judge interrupted. "There's twelve of them, right? If I drop four of them at the apartment, and you take four, if you make a second trip for the last four, we can get them all without need for a taxi. But you should get your license, Donny."
"I couldn't drive after dark," Donny said.
"You can if a judge certifies your need to owing to minors in your custody or depending on you," the judge said dryly. "Know any judges who might do that for you?" He grinned.
"Thank you, sir," Donny said with a heartfelt smile.
"The other thing," Gil said, "is sleeping arrangements. Do I need to arrange a motel room or two for some of these guys?"
"Let's see," Chay said. "We can put Jack in my bed."
"Where are you going to sleep?" Jack asked. Chay just looked at Donny and smiled. "Oh," said Jack.
"We're going to camp out in the living room, with blankets," Peewee announced, holding up Lucas's hand. Lucas grinned and nodded agreement shyly.
"Which means that one of the guys, say Keith, can take Peewee's bed in our room," Pauly said.
Ray met Andy's eyes. "Randy can have my bed," he offered.
"I couldn't take your bed," Randy said. "Where are you going to sleep?"
"In the other bed across the room from you," Ray said.
Andy smirked. "Now will you guys stop telling me to slow down and take my time?" The original group laughed.
"So if Billy doesn't mind the couch, we've got it solved," Donny said. He looked at Billy.
"A couch'll be a lot better than what I've been sleeping on the last month," he said.
"Billy, I'll send the conditions of your release over with the other paperwork tomorrow or the next day," the judge said. "I think you'll find they're not too onerous, just the sort of thing you should have been doing anyway � getting an education, no more criminal acts, that sort of thing."
"Okay, judge," Billy said. "Um, thanks."
"My pleasure," the judge said. "You've got a chance to turn things around in your life, and from what Chay said, you're the sort of kid who deserves that kind of chance. Just don't blow it!"
"Or if you do, leave the guy's billfold alone!" Randy quipped, making everyone laugh, including Billy.
Desserts finished, eight of them piled into the two cars. Donny, Chay, Andy, and Ray stayed behind.
"Hey, guys, thanks," Donny said. They looked at him quizzically. "Between you, you pulled a rabbit out of a hat today, and kept things going when I thought it was all falling apart. I really owe you."
"You gave me a place to stay, and you made it possible for me to find Ray," Andy said. "Any thanks goes the other way." He grabbed Ray's hand and held it tight.
"I'm collecting my thanks later, when we go to bed," Chay said. "But actually having you, for real and not where you may be in my room but your heart's with Gil, is more than I could have ever hoped for." He snuggled up to the much taller boy and looked up with love.
"What a day!" Andy said after a few moments' silence. "I wonder if tomorrow will be as interesting."
"God, I hope not!" Donny said with a big grin.
Editor's Notes: Thanks, D and B, for another wonderful chapter of this heartwarming story. Please keep them coming. (No pun intended.)
I don't have much more to say about this chapter, other than to say that I am so glad that the boys now have everything, or most everything, out in the open. In my opinion, it is never a good idea to base any kind of continuing relationship on lies and half truths. I mean, how can you trust someone or a group of people, if everything they have told you is a lie? The answer is that there had better be a damn good explanation, one that covers ALL the bases, and leaves no room for doubt, because if you can't trust someone to tell you the truth, you will have a hard time ever trusting them, in the future.
I am ready for another chapter, any time you have one ready.
Darryl AKA The Radio Rancher