Once we got to the graduation ceremony, I was cornered by Janice. "Exactly what did I do to you this time?" she demanded.
"What are you talking about?"
"Piper has been in a royal snit all day, mumbling and smarting off at every male that came near him, and in general not getting half the normal work done that I have come to expect from him," she explained. "I never thought I would manage to not kill that little queen the first week he was working for me, and now I don't know how I managed without him. So you had better stop breaking my favorite office person."
"I'm your favorite in the office?" Piper bounced up to us grinning like a Cheshire cat. He literally was bouncing he was so happy and excited. "I knew it all along," he told her haughtily. He then turned to me, "Now, what is this I hear about abusive and derogatory comments about my favorite nephew?"
Once I had explained everything to him, he squealed and grinned. "Oh, Rimmie would look so FABULOUS in a white sequined gown with a tiara."
"Auntie Piper, you're supposed to be on my side," Ephraim pouted as he walked up to us. "I don't want to wear a dress," he whined. Then he looked at Piper and asked quietly, "You really think I would look, ok?"
"Ephraim, if you ever want to explore that, you and Piper have my permission to go shopping," I told him seriously. "You might want to talk it over with Peter first, however. In the end, it is your decision to make, though, because it is your life, and I will love you and support you in anything you want to try."
"I don't... Well, maybe I could just think about it for a while," Ephraim mumbled with a blush.
"Rimmie, sweetie, do you really think I would let you look anything less than gorgeous?" Piper asked pointedly. "Honey, besides my reputation being on the line, you are family, my little darling. If you decide you want to try it out, you and I will set up a time with Daddy Bigbucks so we can go shopping across the bay for a day. There are some fabulous shops in the district just off the circle that would be great for you. But all of this is only if you want to. Don't do it because you think anyone else wants you to, not even me. It's your life, cutie pie. Don't live it for anyone but you."
"Why don't we go shopping, anyway?" I suggested. "Piper can take all of us and be our tour guide for the day. We should all get some nice things for the summer, anyway. In fact, we'll take several days and get a hotel suite. We can do some shopping, do some sightseeing, and maybe learn a few things as well. It can be our vacation before our vacation. We'll go there while Derek and Brendan enjoy a few days on Cape Cod, and then we'll fly up to join them for the rest of the week."
"You're letting Brendan and Derek go to Cape Cod alone?" Ephraim asked me incredulously.
"It's time to let them start being the adults they have grown to be," I said as I wiped a tear from my cheek.
"Actually, it's time to go sit down so we can see them graduate, you ninja marshmallow, you," Janice told me with a laugh, but I caught her wiping a tear as well.
We joined up with the rest of the family and we hooted and yelled when Derek walked across the stage to get his diploma, and we did it again for Brendan a little bit later. I tuned out the super conservative politician that the principal had arranged for as the keynote speaker. I couldn't help but smile proudly, however, when nearly the entire graduating class stood up and booed the man when he began practically frothing at the mouth over the sanctity of marriage and traditional values. The principal jumped out of his seat and started yelling at the students, though.
"I will be withholding the diplomas of all those students who have shown such immaturity and poor social skills as to heckle this great leader of our community," the principal bellowed.
"OH NO, YOU WILL NOT!" My voice echoed through the auditorium. "These students have done nothing but exercise their right to free speech. They are entitled to express their opinions of the uneducated, self-serving drivel you chose to burden them with at their graduation service. I know for a fact that the senior class voted for a different community leader to speak at this ceremony. You overrode their choice and selected the person only two of the graduating class had voted for as a speaker. I will assume that you had the right to do that, although I am told that this school has allowed the graduating class to elect their choice for speaker for the last thirty years."
"You, sir are not recognized at this juncture," the principal sneered. "You're only trying to make trouble because you were the one these idiot children elected."
"My brother and my foster son had not told me that, Principal Lester," I corrected him and the audience. "I had no idea that I had even been nominated for the occasion until you just told me."
"Aren't you the Samurai guy that busted up that gang of delinquents downtown, and then just a little bit ago, you took down a bunch of bank robbers?" someone else in the crowd yelled out.
"Well, I had help from my son with the bank robbers, but yes," I confirmed.
"Rafe Lester, you moron!" the person yelled at the principal. "I've been sat here listening to this pompous idiot blow smoke up his own butt for nearly an hour, when I should have been hearing a real-life hero speak to my kids about their future?"
"Mr. Lester, it is my distinct pleasure to inform you that you are relieved of duty as principal of this high school as of this moment," the school board superintendent said coldly as he walked onto the stage. "Senator, I appreciate your time in coming to speak today, but it seems that you were lured here under false pretenses. I would like to ask the graduating class choice for speaker if he would join us on stage. My apologies to you as well, Mr. Ragland, but I must ask you to be brief as I think we have all had enough long speeches for the evening already. No offense intended, of course, Senator."
The senator huffed and stormed out of the auditorium along with the former principal as I made my way to the podium amidst a standing ovation from the graduates and many of their families as well. When I got to where Brendan was seated, I got a hug from my brother. I got another one as I got to the point where Derek was sitting. Just as I got to the stage, the superintendent asked the graduates to raise their hand if they had voted for me as the key speaker that evening. Only seven of the students had not voted for me.
"As per my instructions, I will keep this as short as possible," I began once I was standing at the podium. "I have been called a hero a number of times in my life. I want you all to know that those of you who stood up to voice your disapproval of the rhetoric you were hearing a few moments ago, you are all my heroes. I have a few times in my life been forced to use lethal force to save innocent people from tyranny and evil. What you just did proves that someday, ninjas will not be needed to stop the bad guys, because you are a generation that will not tolerate evil leaders to happen in the first place. You will demand the truth and real facts from those in power. When I am old and ready to leave this plane of existence, I will do so with a light heart, knowing that young people like you are stepping up to make and keep the world a place where violence is no longer needed to combat tyranny. I am and always will be very proud of all of you, but I do hope you all understand if I'm just a little more proud of a particular pair of you." There were giggles and aww's heard from all over the auditorium at that last sentence. "You young people chose me to speak at your graduation as an honor to me. I honor you with my standing ovation at all that each of you has accomplished with your education, and your community awareness. Congratulations to you all."
I stepped out from behind the podium and clapped heartily for the students in their caps and gowns. The audience around and behind them joined me in standing to show their approval and pride in the young adults graduating that night. I laughed and cheered as many others did when the senior class threw their caps into the air in celebration.
After the ceremony was over and our entire family was gathered at the farm for the party, Janice cornered me once again. She was mad at me as seemed to be usual lately. Before I could ask, she launched into her tirade.
"I no more than get the words out that I can't function around the office without the princess, and you go scheduling Miss Thing to be the tour guide and personal shopper for your family in the capital for several days," she blustered. "When did you decide you hate me?"
"I don't hate you, loudmouth," I told her. "I just need a little expert help for this occasion. If Ephraim decides he wants to drag it up a little, I am not going to be able to handle that shopping trip."
"You can fight down armed robbers, entire gangs and even stop a bank robbery, but you can't face taking your son to buy his first dress?"
"Yes, I can, I just wouldn't know the first thing about how it should fit him, or what makeup he will need to go with it," I retorted honestly. "Somehow Master Koji skipped over buying dresses when he was teaching me how to stop a knife-wielding maniac with my bare hands," I added without too much sarcasm. Ok, there was still a lot there, but it wasn't too much. My family might worry if I didn't snark a little bit.
"What am I supposed to do for three days without my office assistant?"
"Oh, you'll be fine, Dragonlady," Piper piped up from beside her. "You knew I was just temporary, anyway. Louise is going to be back at work when I am shopping with Moneybags and the angels. I haven't quite figured out what my next job will be just yet, but I'm sure to find something soon."
"Oh no," Janice barked. "You are NOT getting away from me that easy. Louise has been waiting for a spot to open as a caseworker for two years now. With that backstabbing idiot out of the office, she will be starting back to work in his office which is now hers, not in mine again."
"Might I suggest you ask if she would be willing to cover her old job just long enough for Piper to take some time off with his favorite nephew?" I asked.
"Well, if she's willing to do that, I guess I can live with it," Janice grumped. "But you owe me cookies, mister," she growled at me.
"You get one dozen cookies for each day we're gone, I promise," I told her.
"Make it two dozen each day and you got a deal," she countered.
"I can agree to that, Ephraim and I will bake and deliver them personally to your office. You won't get all of them the same day, though. Kate would go all Dr. Mengele on me. I love you, sis, but she scares the bejesus out of me."
"Thank you, Cam," Katherine said with a smile. "Nice to know I haven't completely lost my touch, even if you all did totally ruin my reputation at the hospital."
"Yeah, turning a doctor into a human being... what were we thinking?" Scooter teased her. He then ran around and hid behind me when she growled at him.
I heard a sniffle and then the French doors out of the dining room closed. Looking quickly around the room, I noticed that Derek was missing and Brendan was signaling me to go after him. "I'm not sure if he needs his dad or his future brother-in-law right now," he whispered to me as I moved past him to follow Derek.
"Good thing I am both," I smiled. I followed my second oldest son out to the barn. I hadn't been here since.... Well, I just couldn't face all of Edan's tools and things knowing he wouldn't ever be around to pick them up and make beautiful fountains with them again. As I got closer, I could hear the torch flare-up I rushed inside not knowing what to expect, but I shouldn't have been surprised. Just as Ephraim had been my padawan in the dojo, Derek had been Edan's in here. What did stop me in my tracks and send tears down my face was what he was working on. Derek stood there in his welding mask and apron putting the finishing touches on a copper sculpture fountain of Edan. The likeness was unmistakable and incredible given that he had accomplished it in this medium.
"My God, that is incredible, son," I said as I sank to my knees on the floor of the barn.
"DAD!" Derek yelled and quickly cut off the welding torch. "You should never, EVER come in here when I'm working without proper eye and body protection." He then slipped to the floor himself, looking around sadly. "Of course, I won't be working here anymore, so I guess it doesn't matter."
"What do you mean by that?" I asked quickly.
" Well, I'm just the foster kid, and especially with me and Bren moving into our apartment in town, I won't be...."
"What did you just say?" I interrupted angrily. "I know I did not just hear you imply that Edan and I did not want to adopt you and make you our son every bit as legally as we did with Ephraim. You could not have just said that."
"But it's true, I am just the foster kid," he tried to protest.
"Derek, I don't understand why you are saying such things," I mumbled as I started wiping tears from my face. "I think I know something that you don't, though, and it's about time you did. I can't believe the whole family managed to keep this a secret this long." I grabbed Derek by the hand and dragged him back into the house still wearing all his welding gear. "Brendan!" I called out. The whole family came rushing into the dining room. I grabbed my brother by the shoulders and sat him down in a chair. "Exactly when do you plan to make an honest man out of my second oldest son, brother of mine?" I demanded.
"Derek is very honest," Brendan defended.
"I meant where is the ring that I should be seeing on his finger by now?"
"Cam! I was going to save that for our trip to Cape Cod," Brendan whined.
"Well, I apologize for spoiling your romantic plans, little brother, but my second oldest son just told me that he was, and I quote, 'just the foster kid.' I would appreciate it if you could maybe show him how wrong he is about that."
"OW!" Derek suddenly yelled. Everyone turned to see him rubbing his arm while Peter glared at him. "What did you hit me for, little dude?"
"Did you see the look on Ephraim's face when he just left?" Peter growled. "He has ALWAYS, from the first day he met you believed you were his brother. Not his foster brother, his brother. You couldn't have hurt him more if you had kicked him in the balls, you jerk." He turned and ran up the stairs to Ephraim's room.
"I didn't mean...." Derek whispered.
"Yeah, well, he's not the only one you just took a huge dump on, babe," Brendan said as he pulled a ring box out of his pocket. He opened it in front of Derek and everyone could see mine and Edan's rings inside. They had been resized by the same artists that had created them for us. "Your Dad gave me these rings for us to use as our wedding bands. Not your foster dad, not my brother, your Dad. He wanted to share the love that he and Edan had with us, and let their love continue to be a part of what keeps us together for the rest of our lives, just as it did when they found us that night in the park."
"I.... Dad, I didn't.... I can't..... Can you ever forgive me?" Derek wept with great sobs.
"I can and I will, but right now I think you had better go talk with your brother," I told him and nodded toward the stairs. "While you do that, I have to get something else you should know about, son."
He went upstairs, and I returned to the barn, going into the little office room that Edan had used to sketch out his designs and keep all his paperwork and things for the fountains he sold. I ran my fingers over his chair, but I didn't sit in it. "Let's see if I remember this, lover," I whispered as my hands moved to the desk. Edan had had one other passion besides Asian art and copper fountains. He loved puzzle boxes and secret compartments. I finally found and tripped the lever that popped open a hidden drawer on the side of the desk. In it was the plaque Edan had made to put on the barn. I took it back to the house with me and was relieved to see all of my sons sitting together on the sofa posing for a picture.
"Dumb butt knows he was being stupid, Dad," Ephraim piped up as he poked Derek in the ribs. Of course, the ticklish teen squealed like a girl and squirmed around making the little ones giggle and join the tickle attack as much as they were able.
"Big brother help me," Derek called out as he was mauled by a pile of little brothers as well as Todd Banks and Little Billy as well.
"Oh, so now I'm big brother, huh?" Daniel asked him. "You know, if there was anyone around here that qualified as 'just the foster kid' it would be me, Derek, not you. But seriously, dude, even I could tell that Dad don't play those kinds of tricks. When he says we are his sons, he means it with all his heart and soul and that is a powerful lot of meaning. We might not have been that close before, but I will have you know that I am, and always will be, very proud to be your big brother. I don't have any foster family members, bro. I have a real family that I love and am incredibly happy to be a part of every moment I'm around I'm all of you."
"I am so sorry that I insulted and hurt all of you," Derek cried as he hugged all of the boys around him. "I knew all along that Dad was keeping me a foster kid because he didn't want it to be awkward for me and Bren down the road someday. I guess I just kind of forgot about that reason when I got a little jealous about Frim and the little ones getting adopted."
"What would you have to be jealous of that for, Derek?" Ray asked. "Yeah, you're right that Cam never adopted you, but Edan did."
"WHAT?" several voices, including mine, all blurted out at once.