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The First Principle

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"The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool." - Richard Feynman

++

It doesn’t take long for Chuckie to really and truly figure out how bad Will has it.

It’s early in November and Chuckie and Will have been best friends for just about two months.  Chuckie figures they became best friends on the first day they met, which also happened to be the first day of first grade. Will was new to the neighborhood and new to their class, scrawny and a little dirty, which made him the perfect target for teasing.  It only got worse when he seemed to not even notice.

Chuckie’s no hero but he’s not here for the kids in his class pushing around some spaced out new kid so when they start knocking Will around at recess, even though it’s five against one, he dives right in.  Of course he’s getting his butt whupped when that scrawny kid seems to just lose it and, in a fury, knocks Bobby Champa, the lumbering class bully, right off him.  Then the kid drives his head into Champa’s gut and he folds over. The other kids scatter immediately as Champa, that jerk, rolls into a ball, whimpering.

The new kid sticks his hand out.  “I’m Will,” he says.

Chuckie grabs on and pulls himself up.  “Chuckie,” he wheezes.

They walk away from Bobby Champa (they’re going to pay for that later, Chuckie knows, Champa’s the kind of bully who never forgets) and that’s the minute Chuckie decides they’re best friends.

Within a day or two, Chuckie realizes that Will seems spaced out because he is thinking about things much bigger than what they’re talking about in first grade. He can read and write and he not only knows all the numbers, he can do stuff with them. Chuckie keeps waiting for someone else, one of the nuns at least, to figure out how smart Will is but … no one seems to notice him at all.  And that’s the way Will likes it.

It’s right before Thanksgiving and Chuckie is, as usual, sharing some of his lunch with Will and talking non-stop.  He’s telling Will about how he doesn’t care if everyone is invited to Bobby’s birthday, the party will probably be stupid.

“My birthday ain’t until April, but I’ll have a better party and it’ll be just me and you.” Chuckie swears as he jams his sandwich in his mouth, nodding furiously.

“When is your birthday?” He asks Will.

Will shrugs casually. “Dunno.”

Will is the smartest person Chuckie has ever met and Chuckie suspects (this is a dumb thought, probably) that Will is the smartest person who ever lived. So how can he not know when his birthday is?  Will knows everything.  “How do you not know?”

Will’s face stays blank.  “Because I have been an orphan my whole life. And my foster dad says that only important people have birthdays. I'm a nobody that don't matter, so I don't need a birthday.  So I dunno when I was born.  I’ll find out someday.”

Chuckie feels something dark and cold inside of him.  Something wrong. Chuckie’s not smart like Will, but he knows grown-ups aren’t supposed to talk to kids that way.  There’s a long moment of silence.

“That’s dumb,” Chuckie says simply. 

Will shrugs again.

“Let’s make you a birthday.”

“OK,” Will says, his voice totally level.

“I chose …” Chuckie thinks hard.  Will deserves the best birthday.  Will deserves a totally amazing and special day for his birthday so he will know he does matter.  Chuckie tries to think of the best day of the year.

“Christmas Eve.  Your birthday should be Christmas Eve.” He nods.

Will leans over and snatches a cheese doodle from Chuckie’s lunch.  “Why?”

Chuckie loves when Will asks him WHY because he gets to tell stories and that’s the best. “Because you should have a good day.  And besides Christmas, the day before Christmas is the best day. Christmas Eve is so much fun. Everything feels exciting. You get to see all your presents and have a big dinner and usually your whole family is there, and you get to open one present, any one you want from the pile, and put out cookies for Santa and-“

Will frowns a little.  “Hey, Chuckie you know Santa –“ he pauses, as if he’s really thinking something over.  “Uh.  You know Santa needs milk too.”

“Duh,” Chuckie rolls his eyes and hands over another cheese doodle.  “So, that’s your birthday now.  The second best day of the year.”

“Sure Chuck,” Will says.

Chuckie thinks he sees Will smile.  And it feels … to make Will smile like that, it feels pretty good.

++

Turns out Will lives only a few blocks over from him, in some crappy little house that's barely hanging together that his foster parents have crammed seven kids in.  Will tries never to be in the house, so he’s over at Chuckie’s a lot or roaming around their neighborhood.  (He’s out and about more than any regular first grader should be, Chuckie hears his Dad mutter one night.) It don’t take a lot for Chuckie to convince his Ma to let Will come over on Christmas Eve.  He also tells her what, to him, is the gospel truth: it’s Will’s birthday. 

She’s got three kids besides Chuckie (those three older sisters of Chuckie’s who barely let him get a word in edgewise, that's why he talks to Will so much) and she’s plenty busy with the holidays, but she can’t resist the idea of Will’s birthday.  She promises Chuckie she’ll make Will some cupcakes and gives him $5 to go buy Will a present.

Chuckie figures Will probably likes books.  The only place he knows that has books is their local library and turns out they have a little store. He asks the nice old lady there for the smartest science book she has for a grown-up. She smiles and Chuckie walks home with two big books.  He can’t even read the names but one has a lot of stars and a guy in a wheelchair and the other one has a shiny red cover.

On Christmas Eve, Will gets the whole Sullivan family experience. His cousins are there, the sisters are fussing over their hair, Chuckie’s mom and aunts are in the kitchen cooking and gossiping. It’s total chaos and exactly the reason Chuckie loves Christmas Eve.  Will seems happier than Chuckie’s ever seen him and Chuckie tries not to notice that it’s a freezing December day and Will’s wearing a thin t-shirt.

Chuckie’s mom brings out the cupcakes and then Will is really smiling as he scarfs them down. He mutters a thanks as he spews out cupcake crumbs. Then Chuckie gives him the books. “Hawking and Feynman,” Will reads easily. “Chuck, this is great.”

“Happy birthday, Will,” Chuckie says with a grin.

++

The first time Chuckie actually sees the bruises is on Will’s Christmas Eve birthday in fifth grade.

As usual, Chuckie’s mom has gathered up a bag of clothes for Will (because if we don't dress that boy for Boston winters, no one will, Chuckie hears his mom sigh one night.) and Will is pulling off his ratty t-shirt to put on one of the new hoodies.  Chuckie sees Will’s whole lower back is covered in huge dark purple-yellow bruises.  Chuckie ain’t a fucking baby anymore, he knows what they’re from.  He’s always known, probably.  But his stomach still hurts.

If he were a grown-up – if he were an adult … he’d kill Will’s foster father and not even think twice.

“Hey –“ he starts. It’s time to tell.  Unless … they take Will away, away to somewhere worse where he doesn't even have Chuckie and Chuckie's house, unless they don’t do anything and Will just gets it even worse because sometimes it does get worse and it'd be because Chuckie was telling and -

Will pulls the hoodie down firmly. He turns to face Chuckie, an unreadable look on his face. “Don’t ruin my birthday,” he half-whispers.

Chuckie would never.

++

By the time they’re fourteen, they’ve met up with Billy and Morgan and they are running wild through their neighborhood.  They are a crew and it is fantastic.

He and Will – they aren’t friends.  There’s no words for what he and Will are.  He wants to say they’re family; they're brothers.  But sometimes, he looks over at Will’s mouth or the way his hair falls over his eyes when he leans forward with a rare smile and … what Chuckie feels isn’t brotherly.

Will sleeps over a lot, on Chuckie’s floor mostly, he has his own sleeping bag and set of blankets by now.  (this is one of the benefits of those three sisters – Chuckie gets his own room) Sometimes it’s when Will’s trying to dodge his foster father but other times it’s when he’s recovering from the latest beating.

Will gets beat. Chuckie knows it now.  He tried to tell his Dad about it once, but he’d seen panic in his old man’s eyes before he told him, “We mind our own business, Chuck.  That’s the way it’s done.” Chuckie hates the way it's done.

Will gets beat and Chuckie is genuinely worried someday he might kill that piece of shit foster father of Will’s.

On Will’s fifteenth Christmas Eve birthday, Billy and Morgan and Chuckie and Will steal them some six packs from the local convenience store three blocks over from Chuckie’s and toast Will. They laugh and tell dirty jokes.  Then they smash up some windows and scatter. Will and Chuckie run off together, laughing like maniacs the whole way. They collapse in an alley and Chuckie’s still trying to slow down his heart when Will pushes right up against him, pressing their bodies tightly together, chest to chest.

“Hey –“ is all Chuckie gets out before Will is unbuttoning Chuckie’s pants. “Hey –“ he says again, this time half-dazed. By that time, Will’s hand is on Chuckie’s cock, working him fast and – and -

“It’s my birthday,” Will murmurs lowly against Chuckie’s neck, a husky laugh in his voice.

Chuckie gasps and tilts his hips forward.

Best god-damn day of the year.

++

After that, they never stop fooling around.  There are girls: girlfriends, dates to dances, chicks you fool around with at a party. Chuckie likes them just fine, the flirting and touching and how easy it is with girls.  Chuckie kisses plenty of girls and goes farther than that with a few.

But the thing with Will, the thin Chuckie can't even name – it’s different.  It feels like being on fire, the way he wants Will.  It ain't easy.  It's a little scary. They touch every part of each other, Chuckie’s mouth knows every whorl and curl of Will’s body.  He maps his mouth over Will’s bruises, he thinks about the day he’s going to smash Will’s foster dad’s face in.  Will kisses down Chuckie’s stomach, takes his cock in his mouth and sucks and Chuckie goes white around the edges, can't get enough, can't feel enough.

Chuckie doesn’t know what’s going on, not really, but he knows that it’s still him and Will against the world.  He knows that much.

And he knows Will never, ever kisses him on the mouth.  And he’s not brave enough to try to kiss Will.

++

Will moves out into a shitty one room efficiency that probably shouldn’t be legal housing in January of their senior year.  “I just turned 18,” he says to Chuckie the day he announces the move, said with the firm conviction of a person who has been celebrating his birth on the same made up day for over a decade. "It was just my birthday."

After about a month, he goes down to the Social Security Office to get his own card so he can start working.  He’s been a ward of the state since he was born and all he has to show for it is his high school ID card. He uses all those big words and that charming smile to get a card.  He tells them his birthday is Christmas Eve.

As soon as he has the card, as soon as he can start working legally instead of just construction pick up for off the books cash, he drops out. 

“C’mon,” Chuckie wheedles. “We’re so close to graduation. You need to finish. It's so easy for you, asshole. Will – what about … college?”

Chuckie now believes, with an unshakable intensity, that Will is the smartest person alive. The idea of him not going to Harvard, not getting an amazing job where he sits around and does math shit all day – it was out of the realm of possibility as far as Chuckie was concerned.  Will mattered.  And Will had to be something, Chuckie was sure of that.

When he'd asked Will about college, he'd guffawed. “Aw Chuck, I ain’t going to college!  I’ve gotta work.”

That … that would just never do.

++

He’s had sex with two girls (Catherine Dowell and Mary Beth Maguire) by the time Will fucks him in that little efficiency apartment on what they are calling Will’s 19th birthday.  Chuckie has brought over stolen beers and a little cake.  He went back to that old library bookstore and bought a big pile of math and science books too. (There are books everywhere in Will’s apartment, piles of them on every surface, sometimes Chuckie finds them in the bathtub.) 

He means to talk to Will about college again.  What’s the point of living in Boston if Will can’t go to one of those fancy fucking colleges?  If they knew how smart he was, they'd be begging him to come, poor orphan from Southie or not. But instead they end up fooling around on Will’s cheap mattress (that’s just flat on the floor, no bed frame) and for the first time in, well, forever they don’t have to worry about being caught or interrupted by anyone. They've been fooling around in this apartment for a year now - sloppy, hasty blowjobs, quick handjobs, maybe even a night or two of sleeping curled around each other. But something's different about tonight, Chuckie feels it burning under his skin. Tonight, Chuckie knows, they're gonna go slow. They're gonna mean it.

No fear of being interrupted or discovered slows them down, Chuckie finds.  They have all this time to explore each other’s bodies.  And it’s the first time he’s ever seen Will completely without bruises.  His body looks more beautiful than ever to Chuckie.  This is how it should be, always, Will being treated like something special. Now, Chuckie can listen to every noise Will makes, watch every muscle in his body move.  He feels that same enormous feeling he’s felt since that first time in the alley.

By the time Will is biting at the back of his neck with an urgency Chuckie has never experienced before and pushing inside him, a sweet, hot burn that's making Chuckie keen with pleasure, Chuckie has forgotten about everything except this second and Will's hands on him, so gentle even now; Will holding Chuckie steady for once.  

++

And then they see Bobby Champa one day on the street and before Chuckie knows it, they're beating his ass, just like back in first grade.  That seemingly simple beatdown changes everything.  Because of Bobby Champa, Will meets the Professor.  And because of the Professor, Will meets Sean.

Somewhere in there, Will meets Skylar. And everything changes.

It changes for the better, in a lot of ways, Chuckie knows that.  Will is going to have a chance to use that big brain of his, the way Chuckie always wanted.  He’s met people that he can just sit around and do math with and he pretends he doesn’t care but who the fuck is he kidding?  Will's been looking for people who engage that brain of his since forever.  Sean does it too, Chuckie knows, he gets Will talking and thinking about more than math.  It ain't like Chuckie just met Will yesterday. Chuckie sees the way Will's face lights up, can practically hear the wheels in his head spinning.  And damn it, he’s happy for Will. He is.

He just knows it’s going to make it so one day, one day Will just won’t be there. And that's OK.  That's the thing Chuckie always wanted for Will, wasn't it? 

That’s when he starts scrounging parts and recruiting Billy and Morgan into work for the car he’s gonna build Will for his 21st birthday.

++

Will is surprised they remember his birthday.  Turns out Christmas Eve is not the easiest day to have a birthday, which Chuckie didn’t understand at six.  But it’s a busy time of year and after the year they all had, well. But Chuckie will never forget.  He made Will a way out, see.  He’s given Will the best present he can think of – a way to go.

When Will walks outside the bar and sees that beater Nova, he meets Chuckie’s eyes and Chuckie feels suddenly like the moment he looked up all those years ago and saw Will on the playground with his hand out.

Will is gone in this single second and Chuckie is the only one who knows it.

++

Will calls from California on New Year’s Day. He found Skylar he says, he’s going to try.  The Nova made it the whole fucking way there, can you believe it?

++

When you been best friends with someone for fifteen years and they’ve been around you almost every god-damn day, there’s not really a way to describe what happens when you wake up one day and they’re gone.  Chuckie feels, at first, an almost unspeakable lightness.  Knowing that Will's not gonna have bruises and split knuckles from bar fights he can’t stop himself from having, knowing that Will won’t die at 47 after a life of hard manual labor – it frees Chuckie.

Even if he thinks maybe it breaks his heart a little too.

++

They talk on the phone every couple of weeks.  It’s hard for Will to make friends.  It always was, to be honest, because when he’s not zoned out, lost in his own head, he often slides into the habit of using his intellect to tease people. And when you're as smart as Will and grew up getting beat in Southie, sometimes that teasing ain't so nice. It don’t exactly make him the most popular guy at parties.

He tells Chuckie all this without hesitation.  And he tells Chuckie about how Skylar makes friends so easily, how all of her friends are high class folks who look at him with a less than kind fascination – Skylar's rough around the edges Southie genius, isn’t that charming

Will and Chuckie don't talk on the phone regularly, but when they do, the convos go on for hours, Will recounting every detail of his life and Chuckie, well, he can always talk.

One night, in the middle of a story about another awkward party with Skylar's friends, Will sighs. “Sometimes they act like I'm a dog who can talk.  Skylar, she tries to stop 'em but - but sometimes she looks at me like she doesn't know where I came from either.  But I’m trying, Chuck.  That’s what Sean helped me understand.  Ya gotta try. Ya gotta take the chance.”

Chuckie wonders, not for the first time, if he told Sean about them.  If he told Sean how they’d spent five years fucking around but never once kissed on the mouth. He wonders what Sean would have said about those chances.

For the first time maybe in forever, Chuckie lets himself think about those chances too.

++

In October,  Skylar moves out of the apartment she and Will were sharing. They say maybe they'll still date.  But, like, casually.  Will seems pretty neutral about it on the phone, he brings it up almost in passing.  “She, uh.  She just realized that we weren’t working the way she wanted, the way we deserved. And that’s Skylar – so damn realistic and so damn sure.  She said we didn’t fit anymore, no blame.  She said it wasn’t her or me it was her and me, the two of us together not being a match.  She said – she said she loved me but that wasn’t enough.”

Chuckie doesn’t know what to say to that other than, “I’m fucking sorry, man.”  Because he genuinely is.

“I appreciated the honesty,” Will says calmly.  “And besides, I tried.  That was the point.”

It doesn’t feel like the point to Chuckie.

++

At the beginning of November, on a crisp fall day, Chuckie sees Will’s foster dad out at the grocery store.  He hasn’t seen the old bastard in ages, but there he is, shopping for ordinary shit like milk and eggs.  Chuckie casual-like follows him around the store and then out to the parking lot.

He waits until the guy is putting his bags in the back of the car and checks to make sure there's no one around who's going to pay attention.  But hey, this is Southie and Chuckie's dad taught him that people here mind their own business.  

So right as Will's foster dad  has his back turned, Chuckie comes from behind and punches him as hard as he can in the back of the neck.  The old fucker crumples instantly to the ground with a large grunt of pain. Chuckie doesn’t waste a second.  He gets in five swift, hard kicks, including two right to the face.  He's pretty sure he broke the guy’s nose if the blood running down his face is any indication.  His last kick is in his stomach and he can hear the guy retching.  It's the only sound he makes, not a single protestation of innocent. It must hurt like hell, Chuckie realizes.  And he feels all the righteous anger of his childhood, of everything this fucker cost Will. 

He doesn’t look back as he runs away.

++

He flies out to California on Christmas Eve.

It's a simple decision, really.  He has to get a credit card for the damn flight.  He packs one small bag and makes Billy take him to the airport.  Billy stops too long in the “drop off only” zone.

Billy stares at him with eyes free of judgment.  He fumbles for the words. “Chuckie is this because ... the two of you ... are you … “ he trails off.

“I am.  I always have been,” Chuckie finishes the unsaid.

Billy nods firmly. “All right then. Bring him back to M.I.T. so he can show those hoity-toity jag-offs how we do it in Southie.”

++

Will has bags under his eyes and his hair is shaved close to the scalp.  Thank God he got rid of that ridiculous swoop of hair that made him look like a boy-band singer.  He’s whittled down and lost at least 15 pounds since Chuckie saw him last - he looks haggard. 

Chuckie ain’t smart enough to know the big words and metaphors for what Will’s face looks like when he opens his door and finds it was Chuckie who’d been pounding on it. But he knows how it feels: to have another person put all their faith and trust into one look at you.

Chuckie leans forward and before Will can say anything, he wraps his arm around Will's neck and pulls him close for their very first kiss.

All these years, Chuckie's been afraid Will is going to push him away, say "C'mon man, we don't do that." He's been so afraid of Will's rejection. He never wanted to get too close.   But now - here - after months apart, after all they've been through - Will kisses back eagerly.  Soft, warm, and pliant – Will opens his mouth and kisses Chuckie back, pulling him even closer by winding his arms around Chuckie’s waist yanking him forward so they are pressed together, chest to chest. It somehow reminds Chuckie of their first night together in the apartment, of something intimate and yet vast happening as they let each other in. 

They kiss and kiss and kiss, lazy and sweet, until finally Will pulls away just an inch or two.  “Happy birthday,” Chuckie whispers and Will laughs, an unguarded sound that fills up something in Chuckie he didn't even know had been empty.

++

Later that night, as they settle into Will’s fancy bed, Chuckie notices an old red book on Will’s nightstand.

“Holy shit,” he says, the memory hitting him like a freight train.  “This is – this is the book I bought you when we were in first grade.”

Will grins.  “It’s Feynman's lectures,” he says.  “It was my introduction to his work, so …” he pauses.  “Those were the first presents I ever got, Chuck.  Those two books.  You know that right?”

Chuckie shrugs like Will did all those years ago. 

Now, though, Will slides next to him in bed and kisses him, kisses him like he’s always been doing it, like it’s the most natural thing in the world, like it's not scary at all and he doesn't care who sees. Kisses him like everyone is gonna see. Kisses him like this is just the beginning, like this is the start of their story. 

Eventually Will pulls away. “You didn’t just give me presents,” Will says. “You gave me a birthday. It was everything. You gave me ... ” he pauses.  "Chuckie, you know I've always ... I  -"

Chuckie cuts him off with a firm nod of his head.  "Me too. Always." As if that settles everything.

++

To Chuckie, without the crunch of Boston snow, it doesn’t feel at all like Christmas here in Stanford.  The air is warm and the sky is so blue it almost hurts to look at. 

But it’s the holiday season and Chuckie can’t help but think Christmas Eve is still the most special day of the year.