The first time Andy met Mike Webster, Andy kicked him in the shin, headbutted him in the stomach, and ran away as fast as he could, holding his brothers' hands to make them keep up, skidding round corners on the shiny, tiled floor. Unfortunately, just as he was within sight of freedom, their social worker appeared from nowhere and fielded them at the main door out to the parking lot, catching at Andy's collar and dragging him to an abrupt halt. He risked a look behind him and saw Mike come round the corner, his white coat flapping behind him as he ran. Andy continued to struggle, tugging as hard as he could, wanting to scream, but the social worker just pulled him up so that his feet barely touched the ground.
Mike stopped a few feet away. He was breathing hard. "God, I have to start running with Rudy again," he said, ruefully, rubbing at his stomach. "It's embarrassing when you get winded chasing eight year olds."
The social worker laughed, and swung the boys around to face Mike. Andy, exhausted, let himself be pushed around, but tightened his grip on his little brothers.
David sniffed and hiccupped, his sweaty hands clutching at Andy's right arm. Xavier was pressed hard into his left side, his face hidden in Andy's armpit.
Mike looked at them solemnly, squatting down to Andy's height to meet his eyes. "Want to tell me what that was about?" he asked.
"You can't take Xav," said Andy, angry when his voice sounded like he was crying. "You can't. I won't let you. I won't."
Mike blinked at him, and sat back on his heels. He glanced up at the social worker, who shrugged, and then back at Andy. "Okay," he said, calmly, "If Xavier doesn't mind, you can all come in to the exam room together. There aren't enough lollipops to go around though, I don't think."
Andy met Rudy Miller for the first time on the same day.
The front door banged shut suddenly, and Andy, startled, was half out of his chair in an instant.
"That'll be Rudy," Mike said, scooping another chocolate chip pancake onto Xavier's plate unconcernedly. "Sit down."
Rudy, when he walked in, proved to be another man about the same age as Mike. He was wearing athletic clothes, and carrying a pair of sneakers with a hole in the toe. His dark hair was ruffled. He paused at the door to the kitchen and looked at them.
"Mike." he said, his voice and face without expression, "We appear to have an infestation of small boys."
Mike flipped another pancake in a pan. "I brought them home with me."
Rudy looked at him blankly. "Really," he said, "I don't remember either of us putting 'instant family' on our shopping list this week."
Mike grinned, and dropped the pancake onto David's plate. He devoured it gratefully, oblivious to the tension in the room. Xavier's huge dark eyes were fixed on the newcomer, his own pancake untouched on his plate. Andy felt his stomach roll and sink into his shoes. He wished he hadn't eaten that fourth pancake.
"I found them at work," Mike said, cheerfully. "Do you want your eggs scrambled or fried?"
"Fried," said Rudy, "Well, it's certainly a novel way of bringing work home with you, Mike. Will you be taking them back tomorrow?"
Even David stopped eating at this and looked up, his forehead furrowed with concern. Andy blinked hard.
"Nope," said Mike, unconcernedly. "This is Andy," he said, pointing a spatula, "David and Xavier Heath. David and Xavier are fraternal twins."
"I see," said Rudy, and sat down. David went back to eating. Xav just stared at Rudy some more. Andy looked down at his plate. Silence descended. After a moment, Andy picked up his fork and ate another bite of pancake.
The first night that Andy spent at Mike and Rudy's house, he crept out of the bedroom he was sharing with his brothers and went to sit on the stairs. He could see Mike and Rudy in the kitchen below, and if he strained, he could just about make out their words as they talked.
"They want to stay together," Mike was saying, "Having seen Xavier's file, I can see why Andy is so protective."
Rudy said something, too quietly for Andy to hear.
"No, he doesn't say much. None of them do, really," said Mike, tiredly. Rudy stood up and moved around the table to stand next to him. To Andy's surprise, he tugged Mike closer, so that Mike was leaning against him, and started to rub Mike's shoulders. They exchanged a few more words, but Andy couldn't hear them, just the murmur of their voices. When they suddenly kissed, Andy gasped, too loudly, and they broke apart. In a moment, Rudy was up beside him on the stairs, then leading him down into the kitchen.
"I didn't mean to…" Andy started, shuffling his cold feet on the tiled floor. He broke off, not sure what he hadn't meant to do.
Rudy looked at him. "Hmm," he said, thoughtfully, and then pressed him gently into a chair, before sitting down himself.
Mike pulled up a chair too, and the three of them sat in silence for a moment.
"Xav wets the bed sometimes," Andy said, feeling foolish, "He doesn't mean to, I try to get him up in time, but sometimes I fall asleep and it's too late."
Mike nodded, seriously. "One of Rudy's nephews has the same problem. I put a plastic thing on Xavier's bed, and on David's, just in case. I'll take care of it, if one of them has an accident."
Andy shook his head. "Not David," he whispered. "David wakes up. Xav only has one pair of pyjamas left, though. They threw the others out at the last place."
Mike and Rudy exchanged looks. "I can take it off David's in the morning, if you like," he offered. "We can go shopping tomorrow for pyjamas."
Andy nodded. "He likes Batman. David doesn't like green food. Except green Jello," he offered next.
"No green food," said Rudy, as if he were taking notes. "Anything else?"
"We're all allergic to apricots," said Andy, keeping his eyes on his hands, clenched tightly together on the top of the table.
"No apricots for anyone," Mike recited, "No green food for David, take the plastic sheet off David's bed in the morning, Xavier needs more jammies, preferably Batman."
Andy nodded and stood up to go back to bed.
"What do you need, Andy?" asked Mike, in what Andy already thought of as his doctor voice, but Andy didn't answer. He just carried on walking up the stairs to bed.
Andy never really understood that Rudy was famous until they went to Disneyworld. He'd seen the Olympic medals, of course, all twelve of them, in Rudy's trophy cabinet in the basement next to the gym. He knew that Rudy still did sports stuff, and coached people, because sometimes other famous people came to their house, and he would get to ask them for an autograph, and once he and his friends played basketball with a really very famous guy who had come to see Rudy about sprinting sessions for the team he now coached. Mostly, though, in their town, people didn't seem all that interested in Rudy. If anything, they knew Mike better, and tended to say things like 'You're Doctor Webster's kid, aren't you?' to Andy and David, usually right after all hell had broken loose and they were looking for someone to blame.
So Disneyworld was a surprise. People kept coming up to Rudy and asking for his autograph, until he complained that he was more popular than the Mouse, and Disney should be paying him. In the end he bought a stupid baseball cap and told everyone to call him Marmalute, which made Mike snort with laughter.
Andy had never really understood how different home was, either, until he heard the people talking at the table next to theirs at dinner in the Disney hotel. 'Disgusting', he heard, and 'Men like that shouldn't be allowed to look after children'. He tried to remember what Mike and Rudy had been doing that would have upset people, because they did that sometimes, Rudy all smooth and mean, until Mike kicked him under the table, or Mike turning red and calling someone a twit. He couldn't think of anything. They had been making plans for the next day, about where they would go and what rides they would go on. Rudy didn't look like he had heard anything, but Andy could see the tops of Mike's ears were red, and Rudy's hand where it held Mike's was white around the knuckles.
After that, Andy refused to like Disneyworld, and in the end they didn't stay long. Rudy found them a house on a beach instead, and they swam four times a day, and Xav and David built sandcastles every afternoon and watched them melt into the surf every night.
[Long Live The Beaver]
"But I don't understand why we have to go to summer camp," David whined. Andy nodded. Xav just looked out of the car window.
"It's only fair that you suffer as much as we did," said Rudy, imperturbably, as he pulled into the parking lot. Andy looked at the boat moored at the dock. Large red letters painted along the side read CAMP ALGONKIAN ISLAND. "It's practically a requirement for being a member of this family."
"That we suffer?" said Andy, rolling his eyes.
"Yes," said Rudy, simply.
Mike was looking out the car window. "God, look at them all," he said, in a horrified voice, "I feel like I've stepped into a time warp."
Andy looked out the window again. Outside, hordes of boys in Camp Algonkian t-shirts were milling around and yelling at one another. A group of men, probably counsellors, stood nearby with clipboards, smiling and joking with some of the campers.
"You really did that?" said David, "You were really a Clone?"
Mike groaned and smacked his head against the steering wheel. "I thought we weren't going to tell them anything that might prejudice their chances of enjoying the summer," he said, exasperatedly.
Rudy was looking at David with a mild expression of surprise and respect. "I didn't. I mean, I told him we were counsellors, because they saw the photos. I didn't say anything else."
Mike groaned again. "It's not safe to let us bring up kids," he said, despairingly, and got out of the car.
"Will you promise to come back?" Andy heard Xav whisper to Mike half an hour later, as they were exchanging hugs good-bye. Mike's arms tightened around Xav and Andy saw him share a worried glance with Rudy.
"I'll always come back," said Mike, and let Xav go. "We're not even going to be far away. Rudy has to do some work in Toronto, and I'm going to be at a conference, and then at my sister's house, and you have all our phone numbers, and you can call and email whenever you like. And you'll have your brothers, and Jeff's two boys got here this morning, and you like them."
Xav nodded seriously and with Mike's help hefted his backpack onto his shoulders. They all stood looking at one another for a moment. The boatman hooted the horn and the other boys started to pile on board.
"Long live the Beaver," said Rudy, solemnly, as he helped David into his own backpack.
"Long live the Beaver," chorused the three boys, and Andy led the way onto the boat.
"Miller?" Andy heard someone say, as the boat pulled away from the dock. "Was that Rudy Miller?"
Andy turned around to look at the older man asking the question. "Yeah, so?" he said, belligerently.
The man covered his face with his hands. "Please tell me you're not related."
Andy exchanged looks with his brothers. "Adopted sons, yes," he said, grinning as the man moaned, "Oh, and two of his nephews are here this year too."
"Holy shit," whispered the boy next to Xav a couple of minutes later, "You guys made the camp manager cry."
[Children, not Feet]
The story of the doping scandal broke the summer when Andy was seventeen. Seven of the star athletes in the program that Rudy directed failed a random drug test. It had happened before, and would happen again, Mike told them, but Andy read a different story in the harsh lines that bracketed Rudy's mouth, the dark circles around Mike's eyes. He took Xav to the library the next day and used a computer there to look on the Internet. He didn't print any of the articles he found to show his brothers.
Every night for two weeks, Andy found himself sitting in his accustomed place on the stairs, listening to Mike and Rudy's voices rising and falling in the kitchen below, not really trying to make sense of the words. Twice he came downstairs in the morning to find Mike asleep on the couch in the living room and Rudy, already dressed, silently making their breakfast in the kitchen. Xav watched it all with bewilderment and alarm, then hid in his room with a pile of books for nearly a week, refusing to come out even for Andy. David got into two separate fights at soccer camp, declined to tell anyone who had started them or what they were about, and almost got thrown out.
The storm broke on a Saturday morning, as they sat around the kitchen table. Mike suddenly snorted into the heavy silence. "'Dr. Mitchell Webber'," he said, reading aloud from the paper, "'Miller's life partner and a podiatrist in the suburban town in the north of Vancouver where they make their home with their three sons, was not available for comment.'"
He snorted again. "I don't know what I am more irritated by – the fact that they got my name wrong again, that now everyone thinks you live with a foot doctor, or being called your life partner, which is a term I've always hated."
Rudy pushed his chair away from the table violently. "Mike," he started, his voice bitter and uneven.
"Well, I suppose with us having three kids and all, it's too much to ask that they call me your boyfriend," Mike continued conversationally, ignoring Rudy's outburst. "Plus, that would probably be worse because it would sort of make me sound like I'm only Andy's age."
"Mike! Yuck!" said Andy, semi-hysterically, one eye on Rudy's hands, clenched so hard on the edge of the table.
"No," said Mike, musingly, looking down at the paper again, "I think if I'm going to do the whole 'stand by your man' routine, I should get the title to go with it. Don't you think 'husband' sounds better, Rudy?"
Xavier and David, who had been watching this exchange with their mouths open, their eyes swinging back and forth like spectators at a tennis game, jumped when Rudy stood up suddenly, his chair falling on the ground with a clatter. Only Andy seemed to notice that Mike jumped too, and that the newspaper he was holding was rattling as Mike's hands shook.
Rudy came round the table to Mike's side. "Andy," he said quietly, pulling his wallet and keys out of his pocket, "Take Mike's car, and some money, and take your brothers out for a while, okay?"
Blindly, not taking his eyes off Mike, who was still sitting at the table, Rudy shoved a small pile of bills in Andy's direction and dropped a set of car keys on top.
"Okay," Andy said, grabbing the money before Rudy could change his mind, "What time do you want us to be back?" he said, pulling at Xav and David, who were still watching the drama open-mouthed.
Rudy finally tore his eyes away from Mike, and to Andy's amazement, grinned widely at him, "Just. Later. Lots later," he said.
Andy grinned back, and started shoving his brothers out of the room. He looked back once, as he closed the front door, then looked away quickly and turned to face the other two boys.
"What the fuck?" said David, owl-eyed.
"Are they getting divorced?" asked Xavier, looking worried. "I don't want to be a child of divorce. I have enough problems."
"No, dumbass," said Andy, grinning even more widely, "They're going to get married."
"Oh," David said. "How much money did he give you?"
The scandal blew over a week later when it was discovered someone had tampered with the test results in a bizarre plot to discredit Rudy. Rudy and Mike had a barbeque-cum-marriage-ceremony on Labour Day weekend and invited their families and friends. Mike spent a lot of time fending off Rudy's brother Jeff, who claimed he wanted Mike to look at his ingrown toenail. Rudy promised him a sign that said CHILDREN, NOT FEET, for their first wedding anniversary.
The Easter of his senior year at McGill, Andy decided at the last minute to come home for a long weekend. Nothing went to plan: the flight was delayed, his luggage went astray, the friend who was supposed to pick him up from Vancouver airport didn't show up and Xav and David, who were both studying at UBC, weren't answering their cellphones. In the end, he had to call home at midnight so someone could come get him. Exhausted from the trip and, he admitted silently, the party his room-mate in Montreal threw the night before he left, he slept through most of the car ride home, dropping off in the middle of Mike's laughing description of Rudy's latest business scheme.
He woke up to the smell of chocolate chip pancakes.
"Whose car is that?" he asked, handing Mike some mugs as they cleaned up the kitchen later. Rudy had disappeared to make a phone call to the airline about Andy's bags, and to let David know that Andy was home. Mike looked up from the sink and glanced out the window at the beat-up Jeep parked up near the garage. "Don't tell me Rudy bought another 'classic'!"
Mike laughed. "Can you really see Rudy driving a Jeep?" he asked, chuckling, "He's thinking about getting a new car though, so if you don't want to spend three hours looking at brochures, don't ask."
Andy handed him a spatula. "Do I want to know?"
Mike wrestled a pan into the dishwasher, then looked up. "All I know is that it goes fast and does about ten miles to the gallon," he said, spreading his hands in resignation, "As usual."
"Rudy's having the world's longest mid-life crisis," said Andy, grinning.
"More like the world's longest adolescence. We've been in the fast car phase since he was sixteen," said Mike, rolling his eyes.
Andy glanced out the window again. The door to Xav's apartment over the garage opened, and Xav came out, wearing what looked like his pyjamas and a sweater. Andy was about to tap on the window and wave at his brother, when another man, this time wearing a coat and jeans, emerged from the door as well and closed it behind him, talking animatedly to Xav the whole time. He had messy blond hair, and glasses, and he was smiling at Xav in a way that Andy instinctively did not like.
"Who…?" he started, his hand dropping away from the window.
Mike looked up. "That's Daniel. It's his Jeep."
"Who's Daniel?" Andy asked, confused.
"Xav's friend," said Mike, turning away to continue stacking the dishwasher, "He stays over sometimes. I guess he doesn't have time for breakfast today."
Xav and the blond guy were smiling at one another. Xav ducked his head and said something that made his friend laugh, then reach out to tuck a stray curl behind Xav's ear. Xav caught his hand and pulled him into a hug.
Mike looked up questioningly when Andy made some kind of inarticulate noise, then glanced out the window himself. His lips curved into a smile.
"It's not polite to stare," said Rudy, appearing in the doorway behind them. "I thought we broke you of that when you were eight."
Andy turned dazed eyes on him. "Xav has a boyfriend? Since when is Xav even gay?"
Rudy raised an eyebrow at him. "Is there something wrong with that?"
"No," said Andy said, hastily, "No, of course not. But…"
The other eyebrow shot up to join the first in Rudy's hairline. "But?" he prompted, leaning against the doorjamb. Mike, Andy could see from his shaking shoulders, was laughing and hiding it badly as he continued to stack the dishwasher.
"Uh. But, nothing." Andy said. "Just…?"
He trailed off and looked helplessly between his adoptive parents. They looked back at him.
The Jeep engine roared to life outside and the car crunched away over the driveway. Moments later, Andy was being fervently embraced by his brother, Mike had suddenly noticed the time and was being hindered by Rudy as he tried to get ready for work, and the opportunity to say anything more was lost.
Later, he found Mike alone and half-asleep in the family room after his Saturday morning clinic, and took the opportunity to interrogate him. "This guy," he started, "This guy that Xavier's involved with..."
He stumbled to a halt, unable to think of a way to phrase the jumbled questions in his mind, all of which seemed to be, when it came down to it, thinly veiled ways to ask whether he should go kick the guy's ass.
"Daniel," said Mike, encouragingly, "His name is Daniel. They met at school."
"Is he…" Andy said, and then stopped again. "Is he nice?" he said, lamely, after a pause.
"He's very nice." Mike said, smiling reassuringly, if rather sleepily, at him, "He's quiet, smart. He wants to be a vet. He's survived meeting Rudy before he's had his morning coffee on several occasions. I like him."
Mike closed his eyes again. "I hate Saturday clinic. Someone always throws up on my shoes," he said, yawning.
"Since when does Xav like guys, anyway?" Andy heard himself say, humiliated by the little catch in his voice. "Why wouldn't he tell me that? I wouldn't have minded. Why didn't he say anything?"
"Oh, Andy." sighed Mike, and reached up to pull Andy down beside him on the sofa, wrapping an arm over Andy's shoulder. Andy leaned against him, feeling the rough wool of Mike's sweater against his cheek, inhaling the faint smell of antiseptic soap and lollipops that he associated with Mike's clinic. "I don't think he knew how."
He lost track of time, breathing in the familiar peace of home until Mike's arm loosened. A slight noise in the doorway made him look up to where Rudy was standing, watching them. Silently he crossed the room and offered Andy his hand. Scooting away from Mike, who had fallen asleep, Andy allowed himself to be heaved off the sofa. Mike murmured something, and Rudy, his face as inscrutable as always, leaned forward to press his lips against Mike's forehead, then shepherded Andy from the room.
"He's been on the run all week," Rudy said, briefly, as Andy followed him into his study. "I think every kid in the fourth grade came down with chicken pox at the same time. Come look at the new car I've ordered."
Andy laughed as Rudy closed the door behind him. "Ordered? I thought Mike said you were thinking about it!"
Rudy shrugged. "Chicken pox," he said, waving a dismissive hand, as if that explained everything. "It arrives tomorrow."
Andy dropped into the leather armchair next to Rudy's desk. "Show me the brochure then," he said, grinning when Rudy immediately deposited a stack of glossy images in front of him.
Daniel joined them for dinner that night, and was there again the next morning, emerging from Xav's apartment to join the rest of the family watching Rudy's new sports car being deposited reverently onto their driveway.
While Xav and Rudy stood and gazed silently at the engine, Andy found himself standing with Daniel. "Will Mr. Miller let Xavier drive it?" asked Daniel, his tone vaguely alarmed.
Andy snorted. "After the incident with the peanut butter and the stuffed monkey, Xav was banned for life from even sitting in any of Rudy's cars."
Daniel blinked. "Uh. Okay. Good."
The car transporter drove away and Mike, relieved of the burden of an audience to their family dispute, began to yell and wave his arms at Rudy.
Andy turned to look at Daniel. "I'll kill you if you hurt him, you know," he said, pleasantly, under the cover of all the shouting.
Daniel blinked again, then smiled uncertainly. "You'll have to find the pieces after your fathers and David get through with me first," he said, more calmly than Andy expected. His glasses glinted as he turned to look Andy over. "You know, for someone who was adopted at the age of ten, you're really very like them."
Andy bared his teeth in a grin, and sauntered away to join in the family argument taking place over the hood of the car.
There was nothing more terrifying, Andy reflected, than bringing your prospective wife home to meet your family. It wasn't that she hadn't met them before, but presumably last time she hadn't been contemplating putting up with them for the rest of her life. Andy had found himself begging Rudy and Mike, the night before, to at least try to be normal while Emily was visiting. Mike, listening in on the extension, had been laughing so hard by that point in the conversation that he had to hang up and go find a way to deal with his hiccups. Rudy, unhelpfully, had told Andy that he was always normal, but he would see what he could do with everyone else.
So far, everything was going well, which should have been reassuring but just filled Andy with nameless dread of what was to come. No-one else had arrived yet and Rudy, Mike explained, had been called away for a half an hour. He had shown them up to Andy's old room, welcomed Emily to the family and then disappeared while they settled in.
To his surprise, Andy felt quite uneasy, watching the two parts of his life collide, his fiancée looking around his childhood home with interest. She walked over to the window, and looked out onto the quiet garden, a tyre swing still hanging from the old tree in one corner. Turning, she began to look at the photos hanging from his wall. He lay back on the bed to watch her.
"These must be your parents, " she said at last, reaching out to touch the large-framed photo gently, her diamond ring glinting in the sunlight. "You all look happy."
Andy swallowed. "It was taken two months before they died," he said, coming over to stand beside her. "That's me," he said, pointing to himself, gap-toothed and grinning in his father's arms, "And Xav, and David, with my mother." Xav, as always, was gazing, his lips curved into a small smile, past the camera into the distance. David was laughing up at their mother.
Emily smiled. "You look very like your father now," she said, and moved on to look at the other photos, mostly of his brothers and adopted cousins.
Andy followed behind, wondering what she saw. Finally, he stopped in front of a photo of just Mike, Rudy, Xav and David, which he had taken himself, somewhat inexpertly, with his first camera. Mike was obviously laughing, the younger boys turning to look up at Rudy, captured with his mouth half-open. "They were so young when we came to live with them," he said, wonderingly, "God, not much older than I am now."
Emily slipped her arms around his waist. They stood for a few moments and then she yawned. "Oh, I'm sorry. Do you think they would mind if I took a nap? Your brothers aren't due until later, are they?"
Despite her laughing protests, he insisted on 'helping' her into bed. She fell asleep quickly, though, and he lay beside her and listened to the sound of her breath, to the familiar half-forgotten creaking noises the house made. After a while, he went downstairs for a glass of water, and then followed a gentle murmur of sound to the family room. Rudy slouched in the sofa, one hand tapping idly on the remote control of the TV as he watched a sports program. Mike dozed gently, his legs stretched out away from Rudy, leaning against him, Rudy's free arm looped around his chest. For a minute, Andy just watched from the shadowed doorway as they relaxed in this most familiar of poses. Outside, he could hear laughter, his brothers' voices and the slam of car doors. He knew, with terrible calm certainty, that between them they would embarrass him to death tonight in front of his fiancée.
Home, Andy thought, his lips turning up, God, it's good to be home.