Hunter: Brotherhood (musc)

Read previous part

“Morning, buddy.”

Burke bounded down the main staircase of the Blue home with his backpack only partially zipped. “Hey Dad!”

Hunter smiled as he watched his son, and gently placed his hand on the back of Burke’s head when it was within reach. “Did you have a good time last night?”


“What do you say to Uncle Neil?”

Burke looked to his host. “Thanks for having me over.”

Neil, who had his hands on Leighton’s shoulders, smiled. “My pleasure. Anytime.”

Hunter crouched down to Burke’s level and lowered his voice, although Neil and Leighton could both still hear it. “Burke, I was talking to your mother last night at midnight or so, and the funniest thing happened.”

There was a long enough pause for Burke to realize that he was supposed to ask. “...what happened?”

Hunter pressed a finger against his left temple. “I got a splitting pain right here.” The finger tapped twice. “Any idea why I’d get a headache that quickly, son?”

The boy’s mouth opened, then shut again. He said nothing.

“Did you do anything...unusual last night?”

The wheels were spinning furiously in Burke’s head, and his father could tell. Burke’s big, expressive green eyes got wider. He still didn’t say anything.

Hunter’s own green eyes moved up to meet Neil’s blue ones. “Leighton?,” Neil said to his son. “Got anything to say?”

Burke stared daggers into Leighton. “No,” Leighton said tentatively. “No, I don’t...I don’t have anything to say.”

“That’s pretty unusual,” Neil prodded, deadpan.

“What’s going on?” Lachlan’s voice cut through the tension and the group turned to see Lachlan and Houston standing in the archway to the kitchen. “Is everything okay, Dad?”

“Everything’s fine,” Hunter said before Neil could respond. “Everything’s fine.”

Burke could feel the heaviness of Hunter’s hand on his shoulder, and somehow the boy knew that that was not the last he would be hearing of his dad’s headache.

Leighton and Neil walked their friends out to the car and watched Burke and Hunter drive away. Leighton walked back inside the house and Neil stayed out front for a few minutes to get the mail and roll up a garden hose. He heard some raised voices in the main hallway, and as he walked closer to the front door, he heard what sounded like a scuffle, feet running across the floor and then a voice, clear as day: “What the FUCK, Leighton?!”


Neil sprinted through the front door and saw Lachlan standing with his hand over his nose and mouth. Crimson blood seeped through his fingers, and his eyes were wild with rage. “He punched me, little shit fuckin’ PUNCHED ME!”

It all moved so fast. Mel was there in a flash, Houston already had toilet paper from the main bathroom and was handing it to Neil, Neil was yelling at Lachlan to stop cursing and at Leighton to come back. A movement in the kitchen did not go unnoticed, and soon Neil had a vice-like grip around Leighton’s wriggling right arm, suddenly remembering that he knew about this event.

“Leighton punched me in the face, literally square in the face, once; I thought you were going to tear his arm right off his body. He gave me a bloody nose, the little bastard, I was bleeding everywhere and Mom was freaking out...”

“Why did you do that?!” Neil heard himself yelling as he shook Leighton’s arm. “WHY DID YOU DO THAT?”

Lachlan was sitting in the master bathroom, seething, as Mel and Houston tried to clean his gushing nose.

Neil had practically wrestled Leighton to the floor. “Why did you punch your brother?! Why would you...”

“He told me I always messed everything up!” Leighton finally raged, his voice cutting with fury. “He said I talk too much and always messed up everything, but I don’t!” Leighton turned and defiantly bellowed to the bathroom where he knew his brother was. “I DON’T! AND I DIDN’T! I DIDN’T SAY ANYTHING!”

What are you TALKING about?”

Leighton realized he had said too much this time. He stared at his father’s burning eyes and instantly clammed up.

“Tell me what you fought about, Leighton.”

Leighton shook his head. “Talk to Lachlan.”

Neil grimly stood, before stopping. “Don’t even think that you’re not getting a punishment. I’ll be back.”

He stuck his head in the bathroom. Houston sat on the edge of the tub, Mel was rinsing off her hands, shaking her head, and Lachlan sat on the toilet seat, still clearly furious. Neil looked at his son, briefly marveling at his size. His oldest boy had the body of a grown man now - when did that happen? Just a few more years and he’ll be that handsome married man I met...

But back to business. “What was that about?”

Lachlan’s response was quick. “I can’t tell you.”

Neil wasn’t used to that response. “Lachlan Hardy Blue, you need to tell me why your brother punched you.”

“No. Not now. I can’t.”

“I think it was about me,” Houston interjected glumly, feeling thoroughly depressed and afraid that, unwittingly, he had somehow screwed up the best friendship he’d ever had.

Lachlan’s head shot up. “No! No, Hou, it wasn’’s not anything you did. I promise. We’re cool. We all like you.”

Relief flooded his face, and Houston’s mouth turned into a small smile. “Really?”



After a few well-placed lies, Neil and Houston were placated. The story they got was different from the real one - Lachlan had quickly confronted Leighton, believing that his younger brother had spilled the beans about Houston’s change. Poor Houston had witnessed the whole thing, not knowing what they were mad about but all too aware that he had something to do with it.

There was a knock on Lachlan’s door. “Lucky?”

“Go away, Leighton.”

Leighton walked in anyway. “Lucky, I’m really sorry.”

“Do you ever listen? I said...”

“Please stop yelling at me,” Leighton whimpered. “Everyone’s always yelling at me.”

“What? That’s not true. Everyone’s always yelling at ME.”

“No they’re not,” Leighton disagreed. “You’re perfect.”

Lachlan almost laughed. “Nooo, I’m not.”

“You do all your modeling and acting stuff and Dad and Mom are always driving us to all your things, and knows you, you’re so cool, and I...I...I just try...I try really hard...” Leighton quickly became so frustrated, he ran out of words to say. His young mind simply didn’t have the vocabulary yet.

“Leighton, are you saying you’re jealous of me?”

Leighton nodded and began to cry. All of the Blue sons had larger-than-average eyes, and when those eyes were flooded with tears, it was heart-wrenching.

“Leighton...” Lachlan’s demeanor quickly changed from superiority to sympathy. Leighton was eleven years old now and hadn’t cried in front of his brothers for years. And here he was, shaking and quivering.

“I miss when we had fun,” Leighton said through his emotions, and Lachlan’s heart broke. “I miss you.”

“C’mere,” Lachlan motioned, and Leighton walked into his brother’s open arms and got a big hug that lasted for minutes while Lachlan talked. “I’m sorry I’m not around as much as I used to be. I’m growing up. But...but so are you. I mean, you just punched me in the face, my sweet little brother just clocked me one.”

He heard Leighton choke out a little laugh.

“I’m not perfect,” Lachlan continued. “You know, Mom and Dad yell at me too. But they’re good parents. You know how lucky we are, right?”


They sat down on the edge of Lachlan’s bed. “Wanna know a secret, Leighton?”

Sniffle. “What?”

“Sometimes, I’M really jealous of YOU.”

There was a long pause. “...really?”

“Yeah,” Lachlan spoke gently. “People are always saying to me, ‘your little brother looks just like your Dad! He’s so lucky! Your Dad is so handsome!’, and they’re right, you look just like Dad. Remember when Mom finally found a baby picture of Dad, and she was so excited, and then she realized it was actually a picture of you?”

Leighton smiled at the memory. He loved his mom, but he had always been proud of how much he had in common with his father. Leighton and Neil had an understanding that transcended words or actions. Just one look and they could guess what the other was thinking, almost like ESP. It was hard for Neil to discipline his middle son, because he so thoroughly understood Leighton’s thought processes - they were just like his own. That was why Neil had been so confounded by Leighton’s attack on Lachlan; it seemed entirely out of character.

“And you act like him too,” Lachlan continued. “You even talk kind of the same. And you swim. You’re a GREAT swimmer. You’re gonna go to the Olympics.”

Leighton was calming down. “Thanks, Lucky...”

“I mean, Dad doesn’t exactly know what to do with me. He loves me, of course Dad loves all of us, but there aren’t any people in our family who did what I’m doing. And I’ve got some of Mom and some of Dad in me, so it confuses both of them.” Lachlan smiled a kind smile. “And I think, man, Leighton and Landon have it so easy! You can just walk into a room and people love you guys immediately. You’ve got the blond hair and the big smile and you’re so outgoing. Y’know, I’m kind of shy.”

Leighton’s eyes widened. “You are?”

“Yeah, I am. Most performers are - even when we seem outgoing, there’s always a few insecurities underneath there. Before you were born, I barely talked to anyone. You can ask Mom and Dad, I was ridiculously quiet.” Lachlan was surprised at his own handling of the situation. I sound so grown up. “So, what I’m saying is, we can all admire each other. It’s okay to be a little jealous, but I shouldn’t yell at you, and you shouldn’t punch me.” There was a pause. “I love you a lot. It’s hard for you to watch me grow up, but it’s hard for me to watch you grow up too. Because you’re my little brother and I want you to stay little and be that tiny blond kid that always followed me around. I mean, I held you the day you were born! You’re taller than I was when I was eleven, so you’re probably gonna be bigger than me one day, and that’s stupid.”

Leighton finally had a grin on his sweet face.

“I love you, Leigh Leigh.”

“I love you too, Lucky.”

Lachlan put his arm around Leighton, and the younger Blue tightly hugged his older brother’s torso. They sat still, locked in the gesture, brothers once more.

And outside the closed door, Neil stood and smiled.


“Are you nervous?”

The question came from Lachlan and was directed at Houston, who sat on a plush living room chair, fidgeting. “I’m terrified.”

“I brought this to calm you down.” With a grin, Lachlan produced a piece of paper and handed it to Houston.

Houston looked at it and went speechless.

“Look familiar?”

Lachlan watched a smile spread across his friend’s face. “Where did you get this?”

“Friends on the yearbook staff.”

“I look awful.”

It was a picture of Houston, only a year previous. In it, his hair was an unruly mop on his head, and his body, well, looking at it made Houston gag. He wore a t-shirt that was loose in the shoulders and tight around his rotund stomach, and his face was as round as a full moon. It was a picture that had been taken for a Q&A section of the yearbook, sort of a man-on-the-street thing, but Houston’s answer had eventually not been used and he’d forgotten all about being asked.

But for Houston, looking at the picture stunned him. He hadn’t realized just how drastically he had changed. Now, his hair was cropped short, like sandpaper on his head. It was still brown at the roots but shimmered a burnt blond from all the workouts in the hot sun. His skin, pasty white in the picture, was now a deep golden brown from his hours, days and weeks outside with Lachlan. He had two days worth of whiskers lining his now-visible jawline. If there was any tightness in his shirt, it was in the shoulders and chest, which had grown large and strong and were still in the process of becoming even bigger. His pear shape adjusted into an apple as his waist shrank over time, leaving his hips narrow and stomach flat - his abs were even starting to show up; he had to flex pretty hard but they were definitely there. His shirt sleeves were wrapped around large arms that had lost nearly all of their fat to reveal large biceps and triceps.

And, although Houston didn’t notice, Lachlan had watched his friend’s face slowly adjust day by day. Houston justified his facial changes by observing how much fat had drained from his features. But Lachlan knew that losing a little facial chubbiness didn’t make one’s nose perfect, or change the shape of a mouth. And that’s what Houston had: a sexy lip and a perfect nose (just as Burke had been instructed, Houston now had the Blue nose that Neil and all his sons possessed). The one unchanged feature were his puppy-dog eyes, huge and moony and a little wounded; sparkling eyes that shimmered with care and love and that asked for the same things in return. Eyes that were perfect for their owner.

Houston Roberts had been a rather unspectacular, chubby boy. Now, he was an attractive young man who obviously knew his way around a weight room. Lachlan looked at his friend with nothing but admiration, knowing that Houston was working his ass off so that he could become bigger and buffer and better-looking, and that all three things were going to come to pass in a way even more incredible than Houston could imagine.

The front door opened and Lachlan saw Houston take a quick breath inward. A little boy, about three years old, sprinted through. Behind him walked Harrison Hardy, his father, astoundingly well-developed, nothing but muscle and bearded brawn. The man carried an Adidas athletic bag over his enormous shoulder.

Houston was overwhelmed. Today, they weren’t in Neil’s house - they were in Hunter’s, surrounded by the most beautiful objects, and people, that Houston had ever seen. Hunter Hardy was a man that Houston had idolized and looked at every day growing up, in the form of a poster on his bedroom wall. Now, that man, one of the penultimate American athletes, was mentoring Houston, and letting him hang out in his home. Houston had to pinch himself daily from the new social circle he had developed.

Hunter rounded the corner and embraced his brother, then scooped his nephew up in his arms and kissed his cheeks.

“Lachlan Blue, you’re huge, what are they feeding you over there?!” Harrison and Lachlan shook hands. “You’ve grown like five inches since I last saw you. And you must be Houston.”

It took Houston a second to realize that he was being addressed. A year ago, he would’ve panicked. But now, although this man still seemed enormous and a little intimidating, he wasn’t scary. Harrison extended his huge hand, and Houston could see it pulsing with power. He met the grip and smiled.

“That’s me, Houston Roberts.”

“Solid handshake, I like that,” Harrison grinned. “I brought my son, hope you don’t mind.”

“No, no, that’s cool. What’s his name?”

“Can you tell him your name, sport?” Hunter held the boy, who shook his head.

“C’mon, yes you can.” Harrison turned to Houston. “He’s never shy. I don’t know why he-”

“Dash,” Harrison’s son interrupted. “I’m Dash.”

“Dash? That’s a cool name, dude,” Houston said, raising his voice in pitch like most do when talking to children. “Is that short for anything?”

“Dashell,” Harrison said. “Dashell Steven Hardy. The Steven is after my father-in-law, but my wife and I just liked Dash. Dash Hardy, it’s just cool-sounding, right? Nice ring to it.”

Houston smiled. “And it’s pretty appropriate, the way he zoomed in here.”

“Yeahhhh, he’s mobile alright. He’s a total Dash.”

Houston laughed and nodded. There was a brief silence as Harrison plopped down his gym bag. “Well, Houston, this is probably the nicest I’m gonna be to ya all day. Ready to get your butt whooped?”

“I’m nervous.”

“Don’t be nervous,” Hunter chuckled. “Be petrified. Hare’s insane.”

“Nahhh, he can handle it,” Lachlan said with an agreeable slap on his friend’s back. “Hou here is an animal. That’s what they call him in the weight room at school, Houston the Animal.”

“Well, Animal,” Harrison said, “how much do you know about wrestling?”

“Nothing,” Houston admitted. “But I wanna learn. I think I’d be good at it.”

“Hou’s a fighter,” Lachlan said with a reassuring glance.

“Well, let’s hop to it, you ready to head downstairs?”

Houston nodded, already mentally preparing. “Ready.”


An hour passed before Harrison even started showing Houston some real wrestling moves. Still, the student hungrily sponged up every bit of knowledge. And before Houston had a chance to freak over what was happening, he was grappling with Harrison Hardy on the mats of Hunter’s personal gym.

Their shirts quickly came off, soaked in sweat. As a man in his prime, Harrison Hardy’s body was a masterpiece of anatomy, just like his brothers and father before him. Every muscle, tendon and ligament was flawlessly crafted to move with and support his massive, athletic frame. Houston was a work-in-progress but was surprised to see that he could hold his own against a world-class Hardy physique.

They clawed and wrestled with each other, drenched in each other’s sweat. Harrison had a light sheen, as if he was getting a moderate workout, but Houston’s body was aching and screaming. Yet, he wouldn’t let up. He wouldn’t give in. Houston had never experienced such steely, intense determination before - it was like a dragon inside him, spewing raging fire. Harrison was impressed with his pupil’s lower-body strength - this kid might have a future...

“Give up,” Harrison whispered, almost locking Houston before the kid wriggled free.

“No,” Houston growled, defiant. Their arms wrapped around each other’s torso and each man felt the other’s considerable force.


“NO,” Houston repeated, like a lion roaring. On his shoulder, he felt the rubbing of Harrison’s closely-trimmed whiskers. It distracted him momentarily, but he quickly regained focus.

“I SAID DROP DOWN, MOTHERFUCKER,” Harrison bellowed, and Houston screamed another “NO!” as their animal urges took over.


Interrupted, both men lost their intensity immediately and crashed onto the ground. Harrison’s world spun for a moment as he turned around to see Dash standing in the doorway, sobbing. “Daddy?!” Dash choked out through sobs. “He’s hurting you!”

“Nononono sport,” Harrison quickly ran over, his voice now soft and soothing. “I’m fine. Daddy and Houston are just playing, we’re just playing, see? I’m fine, I’m not hurt...”

But Dash could not be swayed. He continued to cry, clutching onto Harrison’s thick neck as if it were a life raft. Harrison could feel his son’s tears hitting the hot skin of his bare shoulders.

“Let’s take a break,” Harrison mouthed, and Houston nodded, half-disappointed to stop and half-relieved for the same reason.

As they headed upstairs, Houston chugged from a water bottle and nearly collided with Lachlan. “Dash got away from me, sorry Harrison...”

“It happens,” Harrison replied. “He’s just a little freaked. He thought his dad was getting beat up, that’s terrifying for a kid.”

As Harrison walked away with Dash in his arms, Lachlan turned to Houston. “How was it?”

“Fuckin’ awesome. I love it. It, I, I...I just kinda left my body. It was all instinct. I felt like a gorilla or something.”

“You smell like one, too.”

They both laughed. “I think this is good for you,” Lachlan said, getting a little more serious, and Houston nodded. “Yeah, it is. Do you think it’s bad I was pretending he was my dad the whole time?”

“You mean, you wish Harrison was your Dad, or you wish you could beat your Dad up?”

“The second one. Well, kinda the first one too...I mean, if I did what Dash did, Dad would’ve told me to shut up.”

Lachlan almost winced and threw a thank you up to the heavens for his own father’s kindness. “It might be bad, it might be good. I don’t know.” For a brief moment, Lachlan looked at his friend with sympathy. But Houston looked so good now, so athletic, so normal, like a teenage boy should look, that the sympathy quickly switched back to respect. “You gonna go out for wrestling?”

Houston thought for a moment, then grinned. “I think I might. Two more sessions with Harrison and I definitely think I’d be ready.”


A year flew by. Houston joined the wrestling team, played football and got elected to Student Council. Lachlan made two movies, one of which was a teen slasher flick that got him in deep trouble with his father: he promised that he didn’t get killed in it, so Neil and Mel watched, only to discover at the end that Lachlan was actually the killer. “But I got away with it! You asked if I got killed, and I didn’t.”

The Blues and the Hardys watched with amazement as their children grew. With no babies left in their homes, life became more mobile as each kid took different directions and choices. Hunter and Katie found it nearly impossible to juggle five children, even with little Neil and Tripp doing nearly everything together. Sitting in his den, Hunter had many late night phone conversations with his father, asking for advice and picking Sean’s brain for any suggestions he might have.

“I’m so stressed, Dad. It feels like trying to give equal attention to all of them ends up with none of them getting any. Kate and I wanted three, five is just too many sometimes...”

And Hunter heard his Dad’s voice, deep and wise, intone: “So which two could you live without?”

There was a long pause. “Point taken, Dad.”

Lachlan filled out spectacularly thanks to genetics and rigorous training sessions, packing on twenty pounds of muscle to his 6’2” frame and pushing himself to a beefcake-worthy 190. The way he strutted around shirtless and let himself be photographed as such, Neil and Mel wondered if their oldest son even owned a t-shirt anymore. His voice dropped all the way to its adult pitch, his whiskers grew faster, his face continued to sharpen, and before Neil knew it, Lachlan had practically become the man that Neil had met in the future. The dimples, the hair, the cocky grin, the muscles, the tight jaw: Lachlan Blue was a grade-A stunner. With the movies and the modeling, Lachlan made more than enough money to support himself, but Neil wouldn’t let him drop out of high school or move out until he was 18. Lachlan seemed alright with the arrangement, mostly because he wanted to be accessible to his little brothers.

Leighton hit his first growth spurt earlier than Burke. The eldest Hardy was jealous of his friend for months as Leighton stood three inches taller, but seemingly overnight, Burke caught up. 5’4” was reached, then 5’5”, then 5’6”. Mel and Katie took monthly shopping trips together to keep their sons’ ankles covered, as each pair of pants was rapidly outgrown. Hunter and Neil tried to provide guidance as their sons hit the awkward stage, tripping over their too-large feet and beginning to feel awkward around girls. But there was no hiding the potential that Burke and Leighton held.

“Hunter, can you grab me that strainer? I can’t set this pot down.”

“It’s Burke, Mom.”

Katie would laugh. “Did I say Hunter?”

“Yeah,” her son would grin, proudly.

“You look just like your Dad did at that age. Spitting image.” She’d smile, he’d smile, then she’d remind him: “Strainer.”

Moments like that were common in the Hardy household. With four sons to keep track of, Katie and Hunter were always calling them all by each other’s names. And as Burke began to enter puberty, his brothers became more of a focus of attention, especially Sean, who was every inch the youngest. Mischievous and unceasingly outgoing, little Sean Hardy was the life of the party. Despite being two years younger, he had already outgrown his sister Lily - to her great frustration - and was nearly the size of the two male triplets. And he still longed to be as big as his father, continuing to beg for weights so that he could look like “Dad, or the Incredible Hulk. Or Popeye.”

The five Hardy siblings adored each other. They would certainly - fight like crazy, in fact - but even then, matters were quickly resolved. Hunter would be at training or practice, and all the motivation he ever needed was the five grinning faces in the stands, waiting for him to take a break so they could give him a hug. Katie would do a photo shoot and go check on the kids in the break room, and they’d be playing video games or cards or hide and seek, usually letting Sean win so that he felt included. Burke was the hero, the triplets were the steadfast rocks, and Sean was the golden child.

In the future, Lachlan had told Neil, “You’ll never see Landon coming, the look of surprise on your face when he first starts…” Neil had often wondered what the end of that sentence was. He didn’t even know when the answer would come, if Landon would be a boy or a young man.

It came - or at least, Neil was pretty sure it did - when Landon was nine. For his entire childhood, Landon Blue’s parents had been trying to find an outlet for his endless energy. The way he catapulted himself around the house, it was like he had no bones, and certainly no fear. It scared the hell out of Neil, who was always expecting to get a call that Landon had broken his arm doing, say, a backflip off the third shelf of the pantry.

Neil was driving home with Leighton, from one of the boy’s meets at his swimming club. Lachlan was sleeping in the back seat. At any age, Leighton’s larger-than-average feet, unusually broad shoulders and impressive height would be a huge advantage, but as a tween, they really set him over the top. He was in a really great place in training. They were comparing coaching notes when Neil’s cell phone started going off.

“Answer that, please. Who is it?”

“Mom.” Leighton took the call. “Hi, Mom. It’s Leighton. He’s driving. Yeah. Really? Landon is? Okay. I’ll tell Dad. Okay. Yeah, it went great. I won three events. Yeah, I’m really tired. Uh-huh. Coach says I’ll be ready for the Olympics when I’m 17. Yeah, seriously. So far away. Well, it is to me!”

“What was that about?”

“Mom says I’ll be 17 before she knows it.”

“Well yeah, you’re growing up too fast, bud, but I mean about Landon.”

“Oh, she says to go to her gym. There’s something Landon’s doing that you’ll want to see, or something like that.”

Neil’s forehead scrunched. “Her gym? Now?”

“Guess so.”

By the time they reached Mel’s gym, she had called them twice more. “Come look at this, it’s amazing.”

Neil walked up to the glass that Mel pointed to. Leighton stood next to him, and the three of them watched the youngest Blue working one-on-one with a hip-hop dance coach in one of the wood-floored studios.

“He watched through the glass while I was in it, didn’t even touch his Nintendo. And it was over, and he walked up to me and asked if he could do the dance we’d learned. So we restarted the music and I swear, he did the whole thing perfectly the first time. Didn’t miss a step, Neil! He was better than me. So now, she’s just teaching him moves in there. Look at him.”

Landon had turned his baseball cap backward, a look that was brought out by his white t-shirt and baggy athletic shorts - he resembled a little b-boy. He spun one way, popped his shoulders, did some quick footwork and threw himself into a perfect back tuck, then dropped to do the worm across the floor. The teacher applauded him.

Mel had her hands clasped in front of her, a big smile on her face. Her two other sons and their father stood, mouths agape, stunned at what they were viewing. Landon was an incredible dancer? Who saw THAT coming?

It made sense when they thought about it. The boundless energy, the legs that had springs in them, the gymnast mother, the swimming father. Landon turned around and saw his entire family watching through the glass. He waved, and they all waved back, still shellshocked.

Landon emerged, panting a little, beads of perspiration rolling down his young face. “Hi Dad! Hey guys! Why’re you here?”

“To watch you, man,” Lachlan finally stammered after a few moments of pause. “You’re good.”

“Eh,” Landon shrugged. “Just dancin’. Hey Mom, can I come back tomorrow?”

“Uh, uh, sure, we can...we can talk about it with Dad.”

Landon looked up at Neil. “Dad?”

“Your mother and I will talk about it,” Neil said with a smile. “You might need to go somewhere bigger than Mom’s gym.”

They knew they were on to something when Landon went home and calmly went about his day, mellow and carefree instead of tearing around the house like a bat out of hell. The next day, Neil took his little boy to the best dance studio in town and enrolled him in beginner classes. The lobby had televisions with video feeds of all the classes, so Neil could sit and watch Landon dance the best hip-hop a nine-year-old could do. He crossed his leg, resting his right ankle over his left knee, and put his hands behind his head. The pride he felt was indescribable, watching his son flourish at something that he, Neil, would never even think of doing. This is why fatherhood rocks.


Lachlan walked into the family room, grabbed the keys to his Jeep off the coffee table and walked out of the room. “I’m going to get Houston,” he said over his shoulder as he ran out.

The urgency of Lachlan’s movements clued in his parents immediately: something was wrong.

Twenty minutes later, Lachlan and Houston walked in.

Over the past year, the Blues had watched - and aided in - Houston’s transformation into a jock. He’d grown taller and bigger, finally capitalizing on what nature had in mind for him. He began supplementing, and he started following Lachlan’s diet, and before he or anyone else knew it, Houston had become a bodybuilder. At the Blues’ urgings, he had actually started prepping for a teen competition that was three months away. His enormous, cut arms strained his shirt sleeves. He had a rippling six-pack and two solid rocks for pectorals, and his back was so wide, it blocked out light sometimes. That’s what everyone always commented on: Houston’s back. His lats responded to training better than any muscle in his body, and it made him look even more looming and massive than he actually was. Girls would jump on him without warning for piggyback rides down the halls at school. A few guys on the football team called him “Jet,” because he had wings like an airplane.

Houston’s beard was neatly cropped, the same length as the buzz on his head. His skin was a deep tan, even darker than Lachlan’s, and he stood two inches taller than his best friend. But tonight, he was hunched and shivering, with crocodile tears rolling down his cheeks.

“Dad, Mom, please, help...” Lachlan stammered as he held Houston up and struggled under the bulk. Neil ran over and supported Houston’s other side. “Melly, he’s soaking wet, he’s freezing, turn on the hot water...”

Houston shook and shook, unable to stop. They splashed some hot water on his face and covered him with big blankets, and Houston curled up in a ball, still sobbing and shaking. That’s when they realized that he had a shiner on his left eye. Blood ran down the side of his face, leaking from an open wound on his temple.

“Hospital,” Neil said tersely, in papa-bear mode. “We’re taking this boy to the hospital, now. Get your brothers, we’re going.” Lachlan bolted out of the room, and Neil could hear his son’s deep voice, calling for Leighton and Landon. Mel ran out of the room to find the car keys, and Neil crouched down next to Houston.

“I’m sorry,” the young man whispered, over and over. “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry, I’m sorry I’m sorry...”

“It’s alright,” Neil said, not even sure what Houston was apologizing for. “I’m going to take care of you, we’re going to take care of you, okay? I’m here, I’m not leaving, I promise I won’t leave.”

“Thank you,” Houston cried, his swollen, tear-coated face barely identifiable as his own. “Don’t leave.”

“I won’t. I promise.”

“Lachlan came. He came for me.”

“Yes he did, and he brought you here and it’s all going to be alright, okay?”


Neil’s voice was a whisper, completely confidential. “What happened, Houston?”

“He...he...” Houston couldn’t squeak it out. “Sorry,” he said once more, and Neil began to realize that Houston was in shock.

“Let’s go,” Lachlan said from the doorway. “Everyone’s in the X6.”

“He can’t stand up,” Neil said, and as he crouched down to pick up Houston, his son came and helped with the load. Neil looked over at Lachlan, his face red with exertion and concern, arms supporting his friend’s strong upper body.

And something told Neil that at that moment, Lachlan had left his childhood behind.


Hunter was waiting at the hospital when they got there, having become somewhat of a friend of Houston’s over the past year. Harrison, the mentor, was out of town at a wrestling tournament, but got alerted via text message. Houston was admitted and Lachlan stayed at his friend’s side, refusing to leave, sometimes even holding his hand.

“The boys are hungry,” Mel said to Lachlan. “They didn’t get dinner, I’m going to take them somewhere to eat. Do you want anything?”

Lachlan turned to face his Mom and she saw his eyes, red-rimmed from crying. “Oh, Lucky,” she said with surprise. “It’ll be alright.”

Lachlan stood up and walked over to Mel and hugged her tightly, dwarfing her and yet still feeling so small.

“Houston’s Mom took his Dad back, after Houston begged her not to,” Lachlan said slowly. “I think his Dad was drunk or something, and they got in a fight, and I think maybe his Dad said something about his Mom, I don’t know, but somehow they started fighting. I think his Dad’s jealous of how good Houston looks now, he can’t keep him down anymore. But his Dad, his Dad said...” Lachlan began to cry once more. “His Dad said that Houston was the biggest mistake he ever made.”

“Shhh shh shh shh,” Mel said softly as Lachlan cried into her shoulder. “Oh, that’s so horrible.” She knew that Lachlan was getting introduced to the darker side of life, and her first instinct was to protect him from it. It hurt him. It made him made him cry.

“I just...for a parent to say that to their kid, it’s’s so...I can’t even understand it. I don’t want to.” Lachlan shook his head and dried his tears. “I’m just really appreciating our family right now.”

“You are the greatest thing that ever happened to me,” she whispered. “And to your father, too.”

Lachlan nodded. “I know. I’m s-so grateful for you guys. Especially tonight.”

“Te iubesc,” she said as she kissed him. Romanian. I love you. She had said it to him ever since he was a baby in her arms.

“Te iubesc, Mama,” he replied, using the Romanian variant of “mother.”

“Mom, can we go?” Leighton popped his head into the hospital room. “Lucky, are you okay?”

Lachlan turned his head, embarrassed to be caught crying by his younger brother. “I’m just...I have allergies.”

“It’s okay to cry. Dad says so.” Leighton walked up to his brother and hugged him tightly. “But don’t do it in front of me, ‘cause I’ll cry too.”

Lachlan laughed and crouched to return the hug. The brothers’ faces pressed against each other. “Go get some food,” Lachlan whispered to his brother. “I’ll be here.”

“Do you want anything?,” his mother asked once again.

“Chicken sandwich. Please. Oh, could you get Hou a bacon cheeseburger, no tomato or mayo? That’s his favorite. He might not be able to eat it but it’ll be good to have.”

She smiled. “Of course, honey. Do you want a drink?”

“Water.” He paused, thinking of forbidden soda. Gotta keep the abs. But he didn’t care about the abs tonight - he needed to stay up with his friend. “Actually, no, I need caffeine. Dr. Pepper.”

As Mel and Leighton walked out, Hunter and Neil walked in. Lachlan saw his parents exchange a serious look, and he knew something was up.

“I need the full story, bud.” Neil crouched next to his son, and Hunter took a seat on the other side of the room, calling his home so that he could say goodnight to the kids.

Lachlan relayed the fight between Houston and his father. Neil listened intently. “Why the chills?”

“His parents threw him out, and he called me. He was pretty hysterical. When I finally got there, I think he’d been walking in the rain for fifteen or twenty minutes, in shorts and a t-shirt. He just kept saying he had nowhere to go, over and over, and then he started apologizing for dragging me into it, and I said he didn’t need to apologize, but he wouldn’t stop.” Lachlan breathed. “I kind of panicked, because he wasn’t acting normal at all. I knew you would know what to do, so I drove home.”

Neil smiled. “Thank you for trusting me.”

“Lachlan?” Houston awoke in the hospital bed, barely able to open his swollen and tired eyes. “That you?”

“Hey, hi,” Lachlan grabbed Houston’s hand tightly. “It’s me. Dad and Uncle Hunter are here too. You’re in the hospital. They’ve cleaned you up, you have an IV.”

“I think I felt that,” the boy murmured.

“You’re going to be fine. I’m not going to leave here until you do.”

“Thank you,” Houston said with as much force as he could muster. Lachlan felt Houston squeeze his hand tightly.

“Do you feel normal?” Neil asked.

“A lot...more...yeah. I don’t know what happened,” Houston coughed and tried to regain his breath. Talking was hard. “I got so mad, I kind of...blacked out...and then I was scared, really scared. I remember crying. Did I go to your house?”

“For a few minutes, yeah, before we realized how bad it was.”

They sat still, in the silence. Houston let his eyes rest, and tried to clear his throat of gunk. “Neil?”

“Yeah, Hou?”

“Why does my dad hate me so much?”

Neil heard Lachlan suck in a gulp of air, stifling a sob.

The response was slow and careful. “I don’t know, Houston. I think he’s angry. He’s angry at everyone and everything and he takes it out on you, because you’re the closest thing at that moment.”

“I wish he didn’t. I try so hard.”

“I know you do. We don’t have to talk about this. You need rest.”

“He told me never to come back...he told me to stay away...” Houston’s voice was barely audible.

“Then you’ll live with us,” Neil responded simply, and Lachlan was sent reeling.

Houston’s condition immediately began to dissipate. The color started to return to his face, and Lachlan felt warmth in Houston’s hands. Houston got a big, genuine grin on his face. “You would do that? For me?”

Neil nodded. “Without a second thought, yes, I would. You’re more than welcome to live with us. Mel and I have already talked it over.”

Although the prospect of his friend living with him was thrilling, Lachlan’s focus was trained on the man he called uncle. As Houston rapidly recovered in the hospital bed, Lachlan could see Hunter’s eyes twinkling with activity. He mouthed, “Did you?” and Hunter nodded with a smirk, before gesturing his head toward the door.

Lachlan understood the request, and walked out in the hall to confer with his father’s best friend.

“You’ve grown up, Lachlan,” Hunter said as he looked at the young man. “You’re making your dad proud in there.”

Lachlan smiled. “I don’t feel grown up.”

“Sometimes, I don’t either. And you still have a lot to learn, of course. But the way you’re acting, the words you choose when you talk...” Hunter trailed off. “I know them very well. You’re more like your dad than you think.”

“Thanks, Hunter.”

“What I just started for Houston in there, making him feel better faster-”

“Thanks for doing that, by the way.”

“You’re welcome,” Hunter said. “But that’s not the first time Houston’s been affected, is it?”

The green eyes flashed knowingly, and Lachlan knew he was busted.

“Did Burke tell?”

“He tried not to, but I’d already figured it out. I’ve been around a little longer than you boys have. Process of elimination. Burke can’t change anything about himself, and you Blue boys certainly don’t need any improvements, huh?”

Lachlan chuckled. “Well...”

“I know the focus is on the aesthetic at that age. I knew Burke did it. But I know that a boy that age wouldn’t think to do that on his own. He was told.”

Lachlan bowed his head. “I’ve been dodging this for a year,” he muttered, and Hunter laughed.

“Your secret’s safe with me. Your intentions were good, but I understand why you want it to be secret. I don’t think your dad would like it much.”

“You can tell him. I almost have a couple times. But please, don’t tell Houston, please. He’s mostly doing it on his own, and he needs it.”

Hunter shook his head. “I wouldn’t think of it. Y’know, I was listening to Houston’s story back there, and you’re just a 180 from it. You were always wanted. I was remembering when your Dad bought me a cigar and a beer the day you were born. That was a great day. He was so...”


“More than that. Obsessed. He was just obsessed with you. You were the most perfect thing in the world to him. I didn’t even understand what he was talking about until Burke was born, and then I got it all. You were the gamechanger, kiddo. You’ve always been the best kid. He’d plop you in between us on the couch while we watched baseball, and you’d barely blink because you were so enthralled.” Hunter stopped for a second. “Where am I going with this?”

Lachlan laughed. “I’m not sure.”

“Oh, right, I remember. Can I tell you a secret that you have to keep?”

Lachlan’s large eyes became even larger. What could Hunter possibly want to share with him? “Yeah, definitely.”

“I remember when you were only a few months old, and your Mom and Dad had us over for dinner at their first apartment. Do you remember that place?”

“Yeah. I loved it. I loved my room, it was so cool. The walls were painted to look like water, ‘cause of my name.”

“It was great. Yeah, they had us over, because they couldn’t even stand being away from you for a few hours - that’s how much they loved you. You were always such a good sleeper, but you were fussy that night. Lots of screaming and crying. You woke up again in the middle of dinner and you just weren’t having it. I didn’t have any kids of my own yet and I was curious about the whole baby thing - I was just a kid myself, really - and since your parents said I could, I went in your room and calmed you down a little.”

Lachlan smiled, thinking of being rocked to sleep. It made him feel so comfortable.

“And...” Hunter’s eyes twinkled. “I grew you.”


“I wanted to see how you’d grow up, so I just set you on the floor and let you age right up to...well...older than you are now, actually.”

“Really? Holy...” Lachlan pushed out some air. “Why?”

“Curiosity got the best of me. I really just wanted to see how you’d look. And you looked gooood, bud. Your face has been burned into my brain ever since. And watching you grow up in real time, I was so excited for you. So excited about your...potential, I guess.” Neil emerged, and the conversation ended quickly. Hunter clamped his hands on Lachlan’s shoulders. “We’ll talk more later. You’ve made us all proud. Way to go.”

They hugged. “Thanks, Hunter.”

“Houston wants to talk to you,” Neil said. “He’s getting sleepy again.”

Lachlan headed in, and Neil stood with Hunter, their adult frames filling the entire hallway. Two men getting close to their forties - when did that happen? They still could both pass for thirty, maybe even younger than that. Spectacular, unearthly genetics had many advantages.

“I have to head home next weekend, first time in a while. Wondering if you wanted to come and show Lachlan around where we grew up.”

Neil smiled. “That sounds great, but I don’t think we can get away. Lachlan’s got school, I’ve got a speaking gig...we should do that soon, though. I’d love it. What’s the occasion?”

Hunter didn’t answer directly at first. He’d barely heard the question. “It’s amazing, but Hailey’s the only one left at home. Can you believe that?”

Neil whistled. “That makes me...sad, in a way.”

“Me too. Anyway, all of my brothers are coming back into town, because Hailey’s doing this beauty pageant thing. She just randomly told Mom one day that she wanted to do it, and go figure, she won the qualifying contest, so now she’s going for state. Never done a pageant in her life. We’re all going to go and support her, it’s becoming kind of a family reunion thing. Katie can’t go but I’m taking Sean with me, Hudson’s probably dragging along whoever he’s dating this week, Harrison’s bringing Natalie and Dash, Henry’s taking his wife and the girls, Hank and Hugh are going with their fiancees-”

“They’re even engaged at the same time, huh?”

“Go figure. Hank was always the monogamist and Hugh was the player, but when Hank got engaged, Hugh suddenly decided it was time to settle down.” They both laughed. “Henry’s gonna be a Dad again, they’re having a little boy this time, did you hear that?”

“No, that’s great. Now he won’t feel so left out, huh?!”

“I know, what kind of Hardy starts out a family with two daughters? He got it all wrong. Anyway, yeah, a little boy. He’s so excited. He’s asking Harrison and me for pointers.”

Neil was thinking of eight-year-old Henry waving goodbye to him in Target - was that little boy really a pro football player now, nearly thirty and a married father-of-three? Married...father...

Suddenly, Neil had another thought.

“Wait...Hailey’s doing beauty pageants?”

“Yeahhh, that’s what I just said.”

“Are they Miss America or Miss USA?”

“USA. Why?”

Neil kept his composure but flipped on the inside. “No reason.” As his stomach fluttered with curious butterflies, Neil walked over and looked into the hospital room. Lachlan was curled up in a chair, asleep, and Houston was out like a light. Neil fixated on Lachlan’s perfect, calm face, deep in slumber.

You’re just full of surprises, aren’t you, son?

To be continued