Hunter: An Education (musc)

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The sun blazed down during training. Hunter was, as always, in peak physical condition, his family’s bodybuilding background coming in very handy. His experience made him play better than he had as a rookie a decade ago, when he wasn’t even married let alone a father five times over. Many things about the team had changed over the years – the faces both on the field and on the sideline, the owners, some of the rules, and especially Hunter’s priorities. He was focused more on his family now, but he was still as dedicated to football as he ever had been. It was his job. Nobody quits their job when they have mouths to feed.

Hunter was working with the Jets QB coach when he was attacked by a throbbing sensation on the left side of his brain. He put his hand up to his head and winced – it didn’t hurt, but his ignorance of the situation made him terribly uncomfortable. For a second, the world bubbled, as if a rock had been tossed into the center of his vision and caused thousands of tiny vibrations in his mind.


It was Burke, he was feeling Burke, he suddenly knew like a lightning bolt. “Y’alright, Hardy?” a voice drawled from somewhere, but Hunter was too busy focusing on his son. Where are you, Burke…do you need me? Burke…

A jumble of voices came in from all sides, and he couldn’t place which was where.
“Stop! STOP!”
“Hardy? Anyone home in there?”

For a brief moment, Hunter was in two places at once, before he disappeared off the practice field and arrived, in full Under Armor, pads and cleats, at his son’s school.

Hunter was disoriented for a moment. He shook his head and cleared away the mental cobwebs. He looked down. To his left was Burke’s principal, scrambling backward on his hands and knees, his dark blue suit jacket bunched terribly around his neck and arms.

That’s weird.

Hunter turned his head to the right and saw Burke, in a school uniform that belied any notion that the wearer was an eight-year-old. He was a good-looking boy; his hair had been black as a younger child but was getting lighter as he got older, a wavy chestnut brown in its current form. He had the well-set shoulders and good stance of a young athlete, and a face that was already beginning to free itself from baby fat. His gold-and-navy tie was knotted in a half-Windsor around his small neck – Hunter remembered tying it for his son that very morning.

Burke looked horrified to see his father. “Da-Dad?” he stammered. Burke didn’t have to ask how Hunter got there. He knew how. What he wanted to know was why.

Hunter turned back at the principal, who was now sitting cross-legged on the ground, crying and looking at his hands. A stocky man in his mid-fifties, Principal Hartwood was a man of many emotions, as the leader of a private children’s school needed to be – but to see him crying like a child was unnerving.

Like a…child.

Hunter looked down at the heap on the ground. “Dr. Hartwood?”

The man’s head shot up, his eyes big as saucers, wet and afraid. Normally, Ed Hartwood was passably handsome, with a full head of hair and good teeth. He was not looking his best at the moment. Big red blotches were all over his face, discoloration from his torrid emotions. His mouth slowly stretched open, struggling to form words, and he bellowed, “Noooooo! I’m not!” His lips stuck out, quivering uncontrollably, and he collapsed into sobs.

Hunter’s jaw set. He turned back to his son, eyes blazing. “Burke, you didn’t,” he almost-snarled in his deep voice. Burke knew that tone of voice. He hated it.

“I…I just…” Burke took a step back. Then he took another.

“Don’t even think about-” Hunter tried to warn, but Burke spun and took off in an all-advised escape attempt.

He got about three paces before he was ripped off the ground and held, powerfully secured, in his Dad’s iron grip. Hunter wrapped one arm around a wriggling torso and the other around Burke’s legs, and the boy was held completely firm. “DADDDDDD.”

“Young man, who is that on the ground?”

Burke’s face was inches away from Hunter’s, providing a bystander with the chance to see just how much the son resembled the father. Their eyes were locked in the same icy stare, their jaws locked tightly.

Hunter saw a miniscule widening of Burke’s eyes, a change in expression that would go unnoticed by most. But fathers see things like that. This kid had something to hide. Burke was wildly searching to look anywhere that his father wasn’t, and Hunter dipped his head to intercept his son’s eyes. “Burke Neil, I’m not asking again.”

“It’s Principal Hartwood,” Burke said, in a small and entirely unconvincing voice.

“Burke, do you think your Dad is stupid?”


The deep voice spoke clearly. “You are going to tell me who Principal Hartwood over there really is.”

They both looked down at the simpering figure, slouching low to the ground. The person in Ed Hartwood’s body kept staring at his hands in absolute horror, stealing glances to Hunter Hardy – he was so tall – and the son imprisoned in his arms.

“It’s Blake Willoughby,” Burke said with resignation. He had lost.

“Oh Burke,” Hunter drawled, speaking the words that are like a dagger to every child’s heart. “I’m so disappointed in you.”

Burke’s face contorted; for a second, he seemed like he might cry. But no tears came. Hunter set the boy down and pointed an index finger to the ground. “You will not MOVE from that spot until I come back, is that understood?”

Burke was already pouting. “Yes.”



Walking over, Hunter looked down at the pathetic figure on the ground. He extended his hand, but the poor principal recoiled from the gesture.

“I’m not going to hurt you, Blake.”

Unsure eyes rolled up to look at Hunter. “I didn’t do anything,” Hartwood’s voice said, and hearing its odd adult tones caused Blake to start crying all over again.

“Blake, you need to take my hand.”

Blake finally did and eased onto his feet. He was amazed at how tall he now was; still only coming up to Burke’s Dad’s shoulders, but even so, that was much a much higher vantage point than usual.

“Your name is Blake Willoughby?”

The principal’s head nodded.

“How old are you?”

“I’m nine, I’m nine years old,” was the heartsick response. “I really am, please believe me!”

“I believe you,” Hunter assured the poor terrified kid. “Blake, can you tell me if there’s anything you did that made Burke angry?”

The old eyes darted around the empty schoolyard. It was hard to believe that a child was encased in the fully-grown body. “I don’t know how to be a grown-up! Please…”

Jeez, kids and their non-sequiturs. “Calm down, Blake. Tell me what you did that made my son angry.”

“Nothin’,” the boyman shrugged.

“He’s LYING,” Burke spat from yards away.

“Blake, you need to be honest with me, just like you are with your parents,” Hunter said kindly.

“I, uh…” Blake looked down at Burke – heh, down, he was bigger than Burke Hardy – and then back at Burke’s Dad. “I ran into Tripp.”

“My son Tripp? Tripp Hardy?”


“You ran into him? By accident?”

“Well…” Grand pause. “Kind of.”

So it wasn’t an accident at all. “Kind of, huh. Blake, did you knock Tripp down?”

The shoulders slumped. “Yeahhhh.”

“And Burke saw you do it.”


Hunter looked back to Burke, whose eyes got so round and adorable that Hunter had trouble being mad at him. Burke Hardy could turn it on when need be, and he was hoping the fact that he was defending his little brother would make Dad ease up on the punishment a little.

“I didn’t know Burke was his brother! And I didn’t know that Burke was, like, a superhero or somethin’.”

“That doesn’t make it right, Blake.”

Blake started crying again. “I don’t WANNA be a grown up yet! I just wanted to get to the water fountain…”

“You’re right, what Burke did was wrong. But Blake, do you have any siblings?”

“I have a little sister.”

“Does she go here?”

“Yeah, she’s six, in first grade.”

“So she’s a year older than Tripp.”


“If you saw someone knock her down, would you do something?”

Blake continued to sob; in fact, Hunter’s last question made him almost hysterical, which surprised Hunter. Poor kid’s having trouble controlling himself, Hunter thought. Dr. Hartwood wiped his nose with his sleeve, just like the child inside did normally. It was comical to look at.

“Burke’s a big brother just like you, and he protects his little brothers and sister just like you would. Remember that.”

Blake’s hair had already turned blond, and he was soon six inches shorter, then a foot, then two feet. The adult body collapsed and dwindled into the svelte frame of a nine-year-old. No paunch, no crow’s feet, no skin imperfections of any kind. The suit got tighter, the shirt fit again, Hartwood’s clothes turning into a school uniform identical to the one Burke wore. It was over quickly – this was a change that needed to be swift. Blake Willoughby was a nice-looking kid. Strikingly blond, with pale freckles and icy blue eyes – rather Nordic-looking. Definitely on the skinny side, at least for now.

“Thanks, Mr. Hardy,” Blake said with genuine gratitude.

“You’re welcome.”

There was a moment. Blake looked up at Hunter. “Can I go?”

Hunter laughed and crouched down. “Yup. Promise to never talk about this with anyone? Not even your parents?”

Blake was scared to even look at Burke. He knew if he told anyone, Burke would know. The secret would be very safe. “I promise. Why are you wearing football stuff?”

“Go back inside, Blake. School’s still going on.”

“Okay.” The boy turned around and headed inside without another word.

Hunter fixed his gaze in the other direction. A slight wind whipped through the yard, framing an almost cinematic scene as father stood looking at son. Burke stared back, looking wounded.

“Am I in trouble?”

Hunter raised his eyebrows. “Oh yeah.”

Burke started crying immediately. His small body shook with sobs and sparkling tears flowed down his face. The tantrum was beginning.

“You love Sean more than you love me,” he seethed.

Aaaaaand there it is. Hunter drew out a long sigh and rubbed his whiskers in frustration. “C’mon, Burke, do we have to do this now…”

“You play with Sean all day! And you and Mom are always talking about cute he is and how he looks just like you. But Dad, I look just like you too! And Sean and me both have your thing, but you play with him and yell at me!” Burke’s cheeks flushed scarlet and he trembled violently. “Everything I do is wrong. I hate it! I hate YOU!”

“You will not speak to me in that way.” Hunter took a step forward, advancing.

Burke took a step backward in response. “I’m sick of you and Mom yelling at me! It’s not my fault, this is just how I am!”

“I know.”

He was screaming now, making a full-on scene. “You don’t know! NOBODY KNOWS!

God, that sounds familiar.

Burke was trying to step away from his father, but when he took another step back he backed into Hunter, who was suddenly behind his son.


Burke sobbed and sobbed, trying to wrestle his way away. “NO!”

“BURKE,” Hunter said, growing impatient and trying to avoid being hit by Burke’s flailing arms. “Burke, listen to me. BURKE.” Hunter’s strong grip became too much to fight, and Burke stopped fighting. The tears, however, kept on coming. “Listen to me, son. I know how frustrated you are. I promise that I understand. I know you think I don’t, but I swear to you, I do. I was eight years old once, too, and I remember how scary it was. But you know why I ‘yell’ at you sometimes?”

“Because you’re mad at me.”

“No, Burke…well, sometimes I am mad at you, but it’s because I love you. And I know what you’re capable of, because I’m your father. Burke, if I trusted you as little as you say I do, do you think I’d even let you go to school with a bunch of people whose lives you could change?”

Burke didn’t respond.

“I have to be able to trust you, Burkey. You can do things that almost no one else on this earth can dream of doing. So you need to be smart. It was good of you to defend Tripp, that’s a great instinct, but you can’t go about it the way you did. Blake deserves a childhood. Everyone does. And I don’t love Sean any more than I love you, but Sean needs me in a different way right now, Burke. He’s three. I know you have good memories of being that age. You want Sean to have those good memories too.”

Burke, with his head bowed, was still mad. He sniffled loudly. He was a mature boy for his age, with a large capability of reason. He knew Dad was right, again, and it annoyed him.

Hunter opened his large arms. “C’mere,” he said, wrapping his arms tight around Burke’s tinier body, loving its smallness. Time moved so fast – he used to give bear hugs to his youngest brother, but Hudson was sixteen now, a broad-shouldered six-footer, embarking on a modeling career already. Hunter knew now why Neil joked about wanting his kids to stay kids. Even watching Lachlan begin his ascent to manhood was strange. Hunter thought seeing his brothers do it - like watching Henry change from a sweet curly-haired boy into a robust, handsome man - would make it somehow easier when his own kids began to grow. But it never got easier.

Dammit, who knew parenthood was so hard? How can something that billions of people do every day be so incredibly difficult?

“I gotta go back to practice, buddy.”

“Can I come with you? Please?”

Hunter smiled and shook his head. “No, champ, you still have school! Your mom would kill me if I took you out. And no flashing yourself home before math like you did last week. And no showing up in the team locker room, you almost gave Simmons a heart attack.” Took me a while to explain that one.

“Yes sir.”

Hunter brushed some locks of hair out of Burke’s eyes, then held his palm up to Burke’s soft cheek. The athletic tape around Hunter’s fingers tickled Burke’s skin. Look at my little man. Hunter sighed and Burke looked right at him, his eyes sparkling like jewels in the sunlight. I’m pretty rough on you, aren’t I, Burke? I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry you have to be like me. I wish you had a choice. “Tell you what. I’ll pick you up when you’re done for the day and we’ll go get ice cream, just the two of us. It’s been a while since it was just you and me, bud. That sound good?”

Burke looked back at the ground, pretending to be upset. “I guess I’d like that.”

“You guess, huh?”

Burke couldn’t suppress a grin any longer. “Yeah.”

“Thought so.” Hunter kissed Burke’s forehead. “You’re going to be a great man one day, Burke.”

Burke grinned, unable to conceal his pride. “That’s in a long time, Dad.”

“Yeah,” Hunter nodded. “A long time.” And it’ll be here in a blink. “Go inside, son, I need to see you go in with my own eyes.”

Burke disappeared – no puff of smoke, no wind, he was just gone - and Hunter looked toward the school to make sure his son had done as he was told. Finally, Burke stuck his head out of the side doors of the school and waved.

Hunter waved back and then vanished himself.


Burke Hardy pulled the sheets of his bed up to his chin and wriggled in happiness. It had been a good day after all. He liked ice cream. He liked spending time with Dad. Combined, they were pretty great.

He rolled over and looked at the time. It was 9:00 and he hated going to bed so early. Just because the triplets and Sean were younger, they had to go to bed, and Burke had to go to bed just because they did. It wasn’t fair. He should get to do cooler stuff, he was the oldest and he was always so good.

A thought formed in his mind. He grinned.

A small, sweet voice interrupted his plans. “Burke?”

Burke peered into the darkness. “Sean? Go away!”

“Burke, I’m scared. Can I sleep in here?”

“Not tonight, Sean,” Burke hissed with annoyance. “I’m busy.”

Sean pulled his blanket tightly around his small body and stuck his lip out. “Busy with whaaaaaaat?”

“I’m just doing…stuff.”

“I wanna sleep in here. I had a bad dream.”

“NO.” Little brothers are so annoying sometimes.

Sean didn’t push it any further and reappeared in his own dark scary room, deciding not to bother his parents. He curled up and began to sob.

Burke felt a little bad, but Sean would get over it. Stealing one more glance at the clock, he shut his eyes tightly. And then he was gone.

Burke was wearing a soft cotton t-shirt and athletic shorts, the same thing he’d always worn to bed, and would continue wearing until he was a man himself. He shivered slightly as he stood outside. His bare feet were cold on the wooden deck in the back of the house he had arrived at.

His wide eyes darted around the inside of the house, looking for a good place to hide until a chance to burst out arose. He spotted a small space between a tall bookshelf and the wall, just wide enough for him to fit in. Some fronds from a fern slightly covered the opening. It was a perfect hiding spot. He was there instantly.

Blake Willoughby walked into the room. Burke grinned, thinking how freaked out Blake would be when some kid from school was suddenly in his house. It’d be so cool. Burke had never liked Blake much. Blake wasn’t very nice, but he also followed Burke and Leighton around all the time, even when the two best friends had made it clear there was no room for Blake in their group. Burke Hardy and Leighton Blue were the unofficial leaders of their class, and they didn’t much care for competition.

There was a guy walking behind Blake, a big bald guy with a belly, presumably Mr. Willoughby. Burke remembered seeing him once at a school thing, but Blake’s parents didn’t usually go, which Burke found kind of weird. My Dad flies all over the country, but he still never misses anything I do. Mr. Willoughby was so…old. He was everything Hunter wasn’t – grey, paunchy, puffy - and he was carrying something in his left hand.

They were fighting, just like Burke had fought with Dad earlier in the day. It sounded like a bad fight, judging by the volume. Burke didn’t really pay attention to what was being said. He was too focused on waiting for Mr. Willoughby to go away so he could scare Blake.

Then, he heard a noise. It sounded like two pieces of wood being smacked together, or someone clapping their hands really loudly. The next thing Burke knew, Blake was sprawled inches away from where he was hidden.

Burke’s mind raced. Wh…why…wait, did Blake’s Dad just hit Blake?

Blake hadn’t spotted Burke, and Burke burrowed further back out of view, suddenly horrified. Oh no, oh no, Dad was right, I shouldn’t be here…help! Help!

As powerful as he was, Burke Hardy was still merely a child, a child who suddenly found himself in a horribly frightening situation. He froze in terror. Time seemed to move in slow motion.

Blake was screaming. “STOP! Dad, please, Daddy, I’m sorry!”

“I can’t have that bastard Hartwood calling me every day saying you fucked something else up! My reputation’s on the line here! No more pushing kids down!”

Blake was less than two feet away from Burke. Burke could see the tears streaming down Blake’s face. “I won’t! I wooon’t!”

Blake’s dad advanced on his son. “Good. I didn’t think so.” His voice was so scary. Burke suddenly wanted his own dad there to protect him.

Why do you always have to hit me?!,” Blake sobbed in stark desperation. “You scare me! I hate being scared of you!”

Burke saw Mr. Willoughby’s hand rise up again, and the gesture made Burke clamp his eyes shut.

No sound came. Instead, a clattering, as the bottle in Blake’s Dad’s hand dropped to the floor and rolled until it came to a stop by Burke’s feet.

“Dad?” Blake looked up at his father with hatred and fear. Mr. Willoughby’s mouth dropped open, and short breaths wafted in and out of it. His eyebrows slowly raised up, higher and higher, until his expression had changed from anger to confusion.


From Blake’s vantage point on the floor, he could see his father suddenly become a different man. Youth and vitality flooded into Mr. Willoughby’s form. His gut dwindled into nothingness as his chest and shoulders grew proud and strong. Legs grew longer within their pant legs, and his clothes adjusted to match, the stained Oxford becoming a crisp white shirt, the old khakis becoming classy tan trousers. Years melted off the mid-fifties man until he appeared to be closer to 35. His nose turned slightly upwards, a carbon copy of Blake’s nose. He grew a head full of thick, neatly combed blond hair, the same color as Blake’s. His sky-blue eyes sparkled periwinkle in the dimly lit room. All jowls and wrinkles vanished into tan, clear skin…skin just like his son had. A strong jaw etched its way across his neckline.


There stood a man in the prime of his life, stunningly handsome and very well-dressed, with a tie loose around his neck as if he’d just gotten home from work. He crouched down over the form of his quivering child; the child that he now bore an extremely close resemblance to, like some kind of older twin. “Blake?” Long fingers stretched out and reached for Blake’s face. The boy shot backwards in fear, the same way Burke had seen Blake do earlier in the day when Hunter had extended a hand. Mr. Willoughby flashed a sweet, white smile. “Why are you scared, Blake?”

“Please don’t hit me!”

The voice was now modified, from the hoarse rasp of a broken drunk into the kind tones of a well-trained businessman. “Why would I ever hit you, Blake? I love you.”

Burke saw Blake’s eyes fill with tears. “You…you love me?”

“Of course I love you. You’re my son.”

“You love me!” Blake shot up and threw his arms around his very surprised father. “Ouch, ooh, too tight Blake, there ya go, let Dad breathe.” Mr. Willoughby returned the hug and rubbed his hands up and down Blake’s back. “Why are you crying, Blake?”

“’cause I love you too! Please don’t go away,” Blake cried, so completely in love with this new father who made him feel safe and wanted. “Please don’t leave me, please don’t.” He was afraid he’d watch this kind, beautiful man become his scary Dad again.

“I’m not going anywhere,” Mr. Willoughby promised, standing and embracing his son in his arms. “Shhh, shh shh shh,” he calmed the crying boy. “Where would you get that idea? I’m not going anywhere, ever. I’m here for you.”


Hunter felt a poking in his ribs and he pushed it away. “Kate, stop, not now,” he mumbled unintelligibly, his mouth and eyelids heavy with sleep. He wasn’t even technically awake.

“Dad?” A small whisper was in the pitch-dark room. “Wake up, Dad, please. Daddy, wake up.”

“Burke?” Hunter’s hand groped for the light and finally found it. It was blinding. He groaned. “Mmmmg, Burke?”

Hunter’s vision slowly came into focus and saw Burke standing at his bedside, big tears rolling down his beautiful face and hitting his white t-shirt. “What’s wrong, buddy?”

“I don’t…” Burke’s voice failed for a moment, and he tried a second time. “I don’t hate you,” he sobbed. “I’m sorry I said that.”

Hunter smiled, his ‘Dad’ smile. It was the smile that every good father develops. “I know you don’t, buddy. It’s okay. I forgive you. But you can’t say things like that to people, it hurts their feelings.”

“I know,” Burke said through tears. “I’m really sorry.” Burke scaled the bed and fell into Hunter’s arms, which closed around him and enveloped him and made him feel so safe and warm and loved. Dad’s really strong. Dad loves me.

“Did you have a bad dream, sport?”

Burke wished it had been a bad dream. He nodded his head nonetheless, in a necessary lie. I fixed it. It was so scary, but I fixed it. “I love you. You’re the best Dad in the world and, and you’d never scare me or, or, or hit me.”

He felt a vibration in his dad’s chest – Hunter’s kind laughter. “You’re right, Burke, I would never hit you. You know I love you kids more than anything in the universe, right?”

Burke nodded. He got lightly spanked sometimes, but that wasn’t what had happened to Blake. Witnessing it had rocked poor little Burke to his core. Burke clung to Hunter’s t-shirt and buried his head in it, shaking.

“You’re not usually the one who gets freaked out, guy, I’m surprised. C’mon, let’s go back to bed,” Hunter said, standing up without ever letting go of Burke. He carried his oldest back to his bedroom and tenderly placed him under the covers, giving him a kiss. “Thank you, Burke. What you said just made my night. I’ve said this before, but y’know, son, I’ve won two Super Bowls, I’ve been MVP of the Super Bowl and the Pro Bowl…but you, Tripp, Lily, Neil and Sean are my biggest accomplishments. My favorite gifts.”

Burke smiled. “You’re real cool, Dad.”

“Thanks,” Hunter chuckled. “But you’re cooler, son.”


“Yeah, champ?”

“Will you tell me a story to help me forget my dream?”

Hunter got a great big smile on his face. This was the first time Burke had ever asked for a story. “I’d love to, champ.” He thought for a second. “Hmmmm…” Think of a story! Your son wants a story! “Okay, uh, this one’s kind of like that story The Ugly Duckling that I had you read to Lily last week. Have I told you about the guy I knew in high school who grew up to become an Olympian?”

“No,” Burke shook his head. “What’s his name?”

“Oh, now, I can’t tell you his name until you’re older,” Hunter said as he sat down at the foot of Burke’s bed. A large hand massaged his son’s ankles underneath the sheets. “It’s a good story, but it’s long. You might fall asleep.”

“I wanna hear it! At least the start.”

“Well, sure. My friend was an only child, that means he didn’t have any brothers or sisters like you’re so lucky to-”

Burke’s eyes got huge. “Wait! Dad, can you stay here for a second? I hafta go say goodnight to Sean.”

Hunter was surprised but agreed. “Of course, bud. Don’t wake him up if he’s already--”

Burke’s bedsheets crumpled downward as the boy vanished out of his bed.

“-asleep,” Hunter finished. Kid’s always in such a rush. I swear, if he wakes up Sean, we’ll all be awake for the rest of the night.

Burke popped up in his little brother’s room. “Sean?”

Sean lay in the darkness, crying. Burke could hear the sniffles through the pitch-black room and it made him sad. “Sean, I’m sorry. Hey, uh, you can sleep in my room.”

“Can I really?!” The baby of the family rolled over and dried his eyes with his blanket. Burke leaned down and picked up his baby brother. Even though Burke was five years older, Sean was a big load, and the older boy groaned. “You’re too big, Sean. But I’m sorry I was mean to you.” Burke set Sean down and the younger child hugged his brother tightly.

“It’s okay,” the little boy mumbled in his tiny, high voice. “I love you, Burke.”

“I love you too, Sean.” Burke took his little brother’s tiny hand and grasped it as they walked back into Burke’s room. “Can Sean sleep in here tonight, Dad?”

A huge smile spread across Hunter’s face as he saw his oldest and youngest children standing in the doorway holding hands. Sean’s eyes had never looked bigger as he stood slightly behind his brother. It was such a great picture for a father to see.

Hunter tilted his head toward the bed. “Climb in.”

Both sets of eyes lit up and the boys quickly hopped into the warm bed.

“Okay, well then. Listen up but close your eyes, try to sleep, there you go, guys, try to sleep. It all started when I was in high school. I was 18 and already dating your Mom…”


Hunter’s head snapped back to the doorway and saw two figures, in a dead sprint, racing to get to the bed. They squealed, screamed and laughed as they rocketed across the room and crawled underneath Burke’s covers. Lily, with her golden pigtails, was easily identified; Tripp took a split second longer because he looked so much like his brothers and the faces blended together when they were cheek-to-cheek. But little Neil was missing.


Hunter was interrupted by a tug on his shorts. He looked down to see his beautiful son, the only blond one, just like his namesake – Neil. “Am I allowed on the bed, Daddy?”

Hunter smiled. That was such a Neil thing, to ask permission instead of simply going for it. Neil was Hunter and Katie’s most thoughtful child. The wheels were always turning in his tiny head. They had certainly put the right names on the right boys – Tripp was such a Hunter, with his five-year-old swagger and unending confidence, while his triplet, fiercely intelligent and kind but with an impish twinkle in his dreamy eyes, was a perfect Neil. Little Neil even had the blond hair and big blue eyes.

“Oooooooh, I’ve got you,” Hunter said as he swept Neil up in his arms. “I got you! I got you! I’m gonna eat you!”

“Nooooooo! No don’t eat meeeeeeeeauhuhuh…” Neil screamed with laughter and tried to get away before dissolving into giggling fits. His siblings laughed as they watched. Neil was sprawled on his back and Hunter pretended to nibble on his son’s kicking feet. The kicks got slower as Neil tired himself out. Hunter hugged his son tightly and let him wriggle underneath the sheets with the rest of his siblings. It was a tight fit, and it was the best sight Hunter had seen all week: all five of his children nestled in one bed. Burke was bigger than the rest, while Sean was the smallest. Hunter couldn’t help but smile every time he saw Neil and Tripp right next to each other – they were the exact same size and shape, two identical bodies with slightly different heads, but still certainly more than just brothers. Lily was smaller than her triplet brothers, but still bigger than Sean, although that would definitely not last.

Hunter looked at Burke, and Burke smiled back at his father. They were both big brothers, and they both recognized the mindset in the other. Burke was calm now, surrounded by his brothers and the little sister he adored, and the knowledge that he had just changed Blake’s life for the better gave him a peace rarely found in an eight-year-old.

Hunter just sat on the end of the bed, grinning, looking at the five small bodies that he had helped produce. I have a wonderful, wonderful life. I love all five of you. Look at how perfect they are…mixes of Katie and me. Beautiful. I love being your dad.

“What’s the story, Dad?”

Five pairs of eyes were wide and waiting. Hunter soaked in the splendor of the view before him. “Alright, for real, guys, you need to try to sleep. Close your eyes and rest. Hey, hey, Lil, I see you squinting. Shut your eyes all the way. Theeeeere ya go. Okay, like I said, I was already dating your Mama. I was 18. That seems old to you guys now but it’ll be here before you know it.” Hunter paused and looked down. “Before I know it.” Aw, shit, I’ve become my father. And Neil, too. Jeez. “Well, my friend was 18 at the time, too. We met during lunch one day…”

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