It hadn't taken him a long time for Michael to assign them chores. He had no clue how his mother kept the whole place tidy mostly by herself. Sure, she'd make them put their clothes in their hampers and take out the trash, but their mother had stayed at home. She did the papers for the business and cooked for them and did the washing and checked the homework and went to their games and was still smiling when they came home. Dad kept up the business and kept track of the bills and budgeted and took them to practices when he could and took then to the backyard to show them to toss a football or attempted to teach Gabriel soccer, though he himself had never played.

Michael was reminded every day how inferior he was to his parents. How he was letting them down not being able to fill their shoes with their sons. The boys didn't say it as often but they didn't have to. At the end of the day, when it was mostly quiet and he had managed to get them each to their own rooms if maybe not quite in bed, he had enough time to tell himself.

He could look around at their never-ending mess, the pile of dishes from breakfast beneath those from dinner. The pile of mail and business papers. A notice from school or from social services that they were following up on one thing or another. His own school work. The boys’ backpacks and their hopefully completed schoolwork. Failure.

He wanted a beer. He wasn't even twenty yet, but he was kind of looking forward to the buzz feeling that one or two beers provided.

Michael had found a small fridge hidden in the garage filled with beer. He had never thought his father drank, wondered even if his mother knew about the secret stash, or if it was just a way to keep it away from the boys. Still; it had opened Michael's eyes to his father. The secrets the two must have kept. It made him miss them more. Miss the people they had been, the people he probably wasn't supposed to meet until he himself had stopped being a kid. College bound. Maybe married. They would have entertained him with their whimsical tales of his youth, of their youth, of the changing times. Who knows. He would never know them as people, just parents, and they had been so much more. They had to have been. 

It was understood that if the boys didn't complete their chores, they would be grounded for the weekend. It was torture for everyone when Gabriel was grounded, but the other two boys usually kept to their chores just fine.

Michael couldn't ground himself. Though, honestly, as far as chores went, he probably was the one who forgot to do them the most. Each one of his brothers had pointed it out to him, but with the threat of adding to their own load, they usually didn't say much more.

He'd like to see them raise three kids and finish high school. As it was, he'd managed a pretty decent GPA, but even if he could still have gotten the baseball scholarship, Michael couldn't go to college. He should've just dropped out, but the routine of school had kept him semi sane (as insane as that sounded). And it wouldn't be a good example for the boys.

Now, over the summer, Michael was finding time to start up dads business again. They had contracts for the summers. Grass feedings, mowings, reflowering  the unkempt flowers from the richer homes. It was the kind of thing that Michael had helped his dad with before. Last summer, he had even been allowed to do a few himself. Before Emily died.

This summer, he needed both the distraction and the money. He trusted (ha!) his brothers to be home alone without killing each other (mainly Chris) and to do their chores. That was it. They weren't really all that helpful on most jobs, but he did bring them to a few. Usually following a new bruise on Chris or a broken anything. Or burnt as was sometimes the case. Burnt however meant that Gabriel would get his backside spanked, and the kid tried to avoid that. Still, Michael proved time and again(and again with that kid!) that he meant what he'd said. He didn't like doing it, but they had to learn control. The others already thought that Michael had killed Emily, had attacked Tyler. No one bothered or would bother to learn the truth from them.

The boys needed to learn control.

The first week of August, and Chris wasn't doing his chores. He was fed up with the twins and angry with Michael for not taking him along on trips. Forget that it wasn't even fun what he was doing. The twelve year old was just finding ways to be a brat.

On the second day that Michael came home to dirty dishes and he knew he had another grounding in his hands. Gabriel always tried to talk him out of it, and it never worked. The only time he had had to ground Chris had been near the end of the school year when he had refused to turn in his book report. Chris had done it, Michael had seen him do it and Nick had even helped him revise it. But for some reason the kid didn't want to turn it in. So Michael got a call, and Chris got grounded.

Michael wasn't looking forward to that again. Grounded Chris was like a Scrooge. He stomped around and he glared at his brothers and he kept asking to do things that made Michael have to remind him that no he couldn't go to the movies with the twins, he was grounded. Which started the cycle all over again. It was a dreadful two weeks.

"Christopher!" he called out. He could feel the boy upstairs. The twins were running around outside in the woods. He'd seen them as he pulled in. Nick had even stopped running and waved. Of course, that's when Gabriel had tackled him.

No response.

"Christopher! Come down here!"

It was just after seven and starting to get dark. Michael loved the longer daylight of the summer and usually the boys did too. It meant they were out more and wrecking some havoc outside instead of inside.

Still nothing.

"Christopher Merrick! Now!" He felt the anger start up. If he'd been outside, he likely would've caused a slight crack on the ground. He was getting better at stopping those, and even better still at fixing them up.

He was pulling off his dirty shirt, tossed (for now) on top of his discarded boots and work bag by the front door. He needed a shower and to start dinner. There were some frozen pizzas in the freezer that he could start up and call the twins in as he showered. They'd make certain it wouldn't burn; Nick because he was nice like that and Gabriel because he wouldn't want to eat burnt pizza.

"Christopher!!" he calls again, giving himself a headache.

He heard a door slamming from upstairs.

Michael closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He counted to five. He could hear Chris' footsteps unnecessarily heavy on the steps.


Michael opened his eyes. Chris was standing on the last step of the stairs. Frowning. Arms crossed.

"Here," Michael pointed in front of him. "Now."

Chris rolled his eyes. He groaned and took the final step down. Stomped his way over.

"You need to learn to walk again?" Michael glared at him.

"Haha," he rolled his eyes again.

Michael poked him in the chest.

"Watch it with the attitude, pal."

Chris, unlike Gabriel (thankfully) seemed to take to the warning.

"Dishes," Michael pointed towards the kitchen. "Again."

"I did mine," he shrugged.

Michael sighed. "You're supposed to do them all!"

"Why?" Chris frowned. "Nick and Gabriel can do their own dishes."

"Nick does the laundry, Gabriel takes out the trash and mows the lawn. All you have to do are the dishes."

"And vacuum," Chris grit out.

"Like once a month," the older boy scoffed. "Would you rather the bathrooms? Gabriel probably wouldn't mind the trade." He'd given them monthly chores too since they had to keep things clean for the social worker's visit but it wasn't too bad. Nick just did the laundry since that was all month long. Michael had tried and had almost burned the dryer because he hadn't known to clean out the lint. Gabriel had almost destroyed their clothes with the wrong detergent or too much that left their clothes itchy and needing a rewash. Nicky was the only logical option, Chris lucking out since he was the youngest and didn't quite reach everything yet.

"It's stupid," Chris replied. "I'm not doing them anymore." And he turned to leave, like that would be the end of it.

Michael reached out, grabbing his arm and pulling him back.


"Your job is to do the dishes. All of them. I warned you yesterday. Now, you’re grounded for Friday."

Chris' eyes widened. Fridays were the only day Michael had to take them out anywhere. He made certain to schedule himself Fridays free. During the week he got Gabriel and Nick into an open gym that made Gabriel happy and Nick slightly tolerant. Chris would either go with them, with Michael, or stay home. He been staying home this week. Michael would drop the twins off half an hour early and they would usually be okay until the place opened. They'd stay there, have lunch, and got a bus ride back home around 1. (Nick usually got some food for Chris on the days he stayed home.) Michael would call them sometimes to make sure they were okay and he'd be home sometime between 2pm and 7pm. Tonight had been one of the later days.

He had planned on taking the boys to an arcade that had just opened a few towns over. It would've been a whole day affair. Now, he would still take the twins, but he would have to be back early because he didn't like leaving Chris alone too long.

"That's bull!" Chris replied.

"You know the rule." Michael released him.

"Bullshit rule," he gripped.

Michael's eyes widened at that. Chris rarely, if ever, cursed. Maybe he was spending too much time with the twins or alone. He was certainly getting into his teenage angst a bit early.

"Excuse me?"

"It's a stupid rule and you know it!" Chris spat back. "You just made it up! Mom never gave us chores and she never would've grounded us for them and it's stupid!"

At least he was smart enough not to curse again, but with the venom he was putting behind stupid it might as well have been.

"Of course I made it up," Michael shrugged. "That's what I do now. I make the rules. Not all of them are going to be Mom and Dad's. That doesn't mean you get to ignore them. I don't care how stupid you think they are!"

Chris glared at him. He had no idea what the boy was thinking, but it don't look like it favored him any. 

He was kind of getting used to that from Gabriel, but he found it still stung from Chris.

And then Chris kicked him.

Honestly, it didn't hurt. Chris might've hurt his toes against Michaels shins but Michael was fine. Except he was fuming. Not even Gabriel had tried to take a hit at him.

Michael grabbed Chris's arm again, this time tugging him closer and turning him enough to smack his butt hard three times. He hadn't yet spanked anyone but Gabriel, and he wasn't looking to either. Actually, if Gabriel could control his anger and tongue he probably wouldn't even have to do it at all!

Of course, now he was swatting Chris!

Michael had always defended Chris. Being born after the twins couldn't have been easy. They bothered him and picked on him just as much as they would play with him and help him out. Michael had had privileges that enabled him to get away from the trio through the years - when he'd gotten a license it had been heaven sent. But even then he knew he had to be a good big brother and he would take the twins out and let Chris have alone time with his parents. Or take Chris out to give themselves alone time. Chris was a great little kid. Up until last week at least.

He released Chris's arm and the boy took two steps back. His eyes were teary and he reached back with one hand against his bum.

"Huh, I thought I was the only one who could rile up Michael."

They both turned to see Gabriel and Nick standing at the back door. He hadn't heard them come in and he had no idea how long they'd been there.

Chris made to turn and run. Michael reached over and grabbed his arm again before he could. 

"Get off!" Chris yelled, smacking at his hand like it would release his grip.

"Come on," Nick grabbed his twin and they made their way to the stairs. Gabriel tossed Chris a sympathetic look. 

"Wonder what he did," Michael heard Gabriel as they went up the stairs.

"He kicked Michael!" Nick replied like it was obvious. Clearly they'd seen enough.

Chris was still trying to twist out of his grasp. Michael had no intention of smacking Chris any more than he already had. Sure, the kid was twelve but he was still the baby. It was hard for Michael not to think of him like that. He wanted to protect him, even from Michael’s own discipline. Why couldn't the brat understand that?

"Stop it," he shook Chris's arm, though it caused a bit of a whole body shake.

Breath, he told himself. Calm down. He's just a little kid.

"Lemme go!" Chris stopped twisting but he was still trying to pry Michael’s fingers off.

"Stop it, Christopher."

"I'm telling Mom!"

It had happened a few times before. Gabriel had hissed that he'd tell Dad the second time Michael made a move to spank him. Chris had screamed out for their mother when Gabriel was chasing him. Nick still cried for them at night.

But the stillness and utter devastation on Chris face now almost brought Michael to tears. If Chris hadn't started bawling first.

Michael gathered him in his arms, easily carrying him. Chris began to trash about but Michael still held him against his chest.

This time he did apologize.

"I'm sorry. I'm so sorry," he muttered against Chris's neck. Chris finally slumped and cried against him. Michael held him for almost ten minutes, wiping his own silent tears. Working landscaping had always been quite the workout. Dad used to joke that it was their own little personal gym and he wasn't kidding. Now, working it all alone, he could see his arms and chest developing quite the build. Even his legs and hips were more defined. He remembered his mom commenting back when he as almost seventeen, about how much like a man he looked. He blushed then and he blushed every time he remembered.

He could hold this kid forever. 

But Chris pulled away. He straightened up and wiped his snotty nose on his long sleeve. Michael cringed. He walked them over to the napkins and grabbed one, sitting Chris on the counter.

Chris hissed and squirmed. He made to jump off.

"Stay," Michael gave him a look, he'd mastered that in the last year. Chris squirmed on his tingling bottom but he stayed. Michael handed him the napkin.

"What's going on, Chris?" he crossed his arms. He probably looked more like Dad now than ever.  His hair was slightly lighter from the sun. He had an overall tan and his arms were crazy built.

But Chris didn't comment.

"Christopher," he sighed.

"Don't wanna talk about it," Chris wiped at his nose.

"You haven't done your one chore and you've been giving me attitude all week. I deserve an explanation."

Chris still had enough spunk to glare at him. Michael glared back. With Chris sitting up there, they were eye to eye. But Michael won this stare down. (Chris had nothing on Gabriel. That kid made Michael glad the teen couldn't start his own fires or Michael might be sporting a few second and third degree burns.)

"Did you like your spanking, Christopher?" he asked instead.

Chris looked at him like he was actually insane.

"Wh what? No!"

"Then why do you keep testing me?"

"I'm not!" he muttered tears still gripping at his throat.

"I asked you a question."

Chris bit his lip. Another trait he probably got from Gabriel. Granted, it could be all Chris; but Chris would always be compared to one of his brothers. He was the youngest. It was his burden as theirs was to set the better examples.

"Don't wanna talk about it," he repeated rubbing at his eyes and looking so much younger and smaller and tired.

"I think you threw that option out the window when you decided it would be a good idea to kick me!"

Chris look down and squirmed. "Sorry."

Michael sighed. "If I have to ask you again, you're going to be grounded all weekend."

Chris looked up at him with hurt in his eyes. It was Michael’s job to be tough. To discipline and guide and provide for. It was a hell of a lot and he felt he was lacking in things all of the time, but he tried to be consistent. It gave him less time to second guess himself.

"That's not fair!"

"Christopher," he narrowed his eyes. "You're bringing this all down on yourself. Do you think I came home today intent on hashing things out with you?"

"I'm sorry," the boy muttered again.

"Answer the question," Michael stressed.

Chris lip trembled and he started tearing up again.

"I don't know!"

"Don't know what?"

"I Don't Know!" Chris repeated harder. "Just leave me alone. Please Michael. I just didn't feel like it. It's stupid!"

His breath was hitching and he was about to full out cry again. Michael placed his hands on Chris's neck.

"Easy," he said softly.

"Don't wanna talk," Chris repeated.

Michael sighed. Every day a battle.

"I'm gonna shower," he said taking Chris up and off of the counter. "I'm putting the pizza in the oven and I'll tell the twins to check it. I expect the dishes done before I come down, understood?"

Chris pouted but nodded.

"And I expect you to not forget again. Clear?"

"Yes, Michael."

He crouched down to glare into the kid's eyes.

"And you damn well better never kick me again."

Chris's eyes went wide at that but he nodded slowly.

"I'm sorry."

"Never again."

Chris nodded.

Michael nodded back. He straightened back up and ruffled his hair shoving him out of the way with a sharp smack to the butt that should tell him exactly what Michael intended to do if he was ever so stupid. Chris jumped a few feet away as Michael went to the freezer for the pizza.