Small World

WARNINGS

This story in particular will contain underage drinking, violence, sexual situations, recklessness, general teenage stupidity to the max, and of course the site warning applies (ie this is a discipline fic) You have been warned. Enjoy!

The next morning, most of the kids were grumpy, and Liam kept glaring at him, but by some miracle, he got them all dressed and fed them cereal as he packed their lunches.

            “Is Cole going to school too?” Owen asked, barely eating from his bowl.

            “I don’t know,” Ethan said from the pantry. They had enough food in there that there wasn’t too much trouble to throw together something for Lion and Bear, the high school would take their money, and he knew Liam would probably sooner throw his lunch back at Ethan than take it, though perhaps not this morning. It was strange not having to do one for Cole.

Most mornings, Steph was right there, helping them along, wishing them a good morning and talking to them.

            “Is he coming home after?” Bear asked.

            “I don’t know,” he repeated.

            “Are we ever going to see him again!?” Lion griped.

            “Don’t be stupid,” Liam groaned.

            “Liam,” Ethan sighed. “Don’t call him stupid!”

            “It was stupid!” Liam yelled back.

It was not a good morning.

Their backpacks were mostly empty, brand new and ready by the door to the garage. Ethan left the pantry, placing the new lunchboxes into their owner’s bag and zipping them up.

            “Aren’t you eating?” Aaron questioned.

Ethan walked over to the coffee mug he had barely drank from. His appetite was nonexistent that morning, and he couldn’t blame the others for lacking theirs.

            “I’ll be fine, but you guys should really try some more. We’ve got to get out of here in like five minutes.”

            “We should stay home,” Liam groaned. He was at the end of the island, standing. Ethan wondered if he had maybe hit his brother too hard, but then he had a flash of his brother up on that chair and having to mad dash over to him.

Still, it was a lousy way to start off the school year. Not that any of them were exactly starting off the year great. Not today.

            “It’s the first day,” Ethan shook his head. “It’s a good idea to start off with everyone else.”

It was the best he could think up to say. The truth was more along the lines of him not wanting to risk running into James, and he had no clue how to deal with his siblings at the moment.

He could count it as a small blessing that the timing of the affair and the collapse of their family hadn’t happened midsummer. Then he really would be screwed.

            “But what if we really never see Cole again?” Bear sounded close to tears. “His mom could do that, couldn’t she?”

            “Oh for fuck’s sake!” Liam roughly grabbed his bowl and dumped the thing into the sink. “I’ll be in the car.”

            “Wait,” Ethan grabbed the back of Liam’s white shirt. “Guys, I don’t like that Cole’s not with us either, but that’s not going to be a good enough excuse for anyone to act up today, alright?” he glanced back at his current troublemaker, Liam, until the teen sighed and rolled his eyes.

            “But I feel miserable,” Lion insisted.

            “Me too,” Bear sighed. “Sad and miserable and I want to go back to bed.”

Aaron didn’t say anything, but he didn’t look much more pleased than his younger siblings.

            “I could sleep all day,” Liam added for good measure.

            “No, we can’t,” Ethan shook his head. “Until I know something, or say otherwise, we’re going to keep up our day to days. Bear’s right, Steph is Cole’s mother and she has to decide what’s best for him – but you guys know how much she loves you. She’s upset, we all are, and she needs some time.”

            “But she could take that time here,” Lion insisted.

            “Dad’s here,” Aaron said quietly.

That had been quite the topic the night before. Ethan hadn’t known what not to tell the kids, so he had told them what he knew – that their father had been unfaithful, and Steph wasn’t going to stay in the family home while she decided her next move. Ethan figured she would be asking for a divorce soon enough, he would be.

That seemed to be the next logical step, and Ethan had seen it played out often enough.

He was sick of it.

This time was worse, so much worse. This time, his mother wasn’t around to help him come to terms, to help him see his father as human and not just a selfish asshole.

How many times did the guy have to cheat? Why did he keep getting married in the first place?

Liam scoffed. “He’s passed out in his office. I doubt he’ll come out before Friday.”

            “Maybe Daddy can get Cole back?” Bear frowned.

            “Guys,” Ethan sighed. He glanced at his watch. They didn’t have the time to hash things out any better than they had the night before. “I know you hate to hear it, but it’s really beyond your control. We’ve got to –

            “You can talk to Steph, can’t you?” Aaron frowned at him.

It wasn’t often that the younger teen asked things like that. He sounded hopeful, but hurt and skeptical. It was the same tone of voice that he held whenever he braved asking a question about their mother.

            “I don’t know Aaron,” Ethan rubbed at his face. “Bowls in the sink, guys. Liam, full uniform today; go grab your blazer.”

Liam groaned and walked back towards the kitchen table where he had dumped his school jacket. It was new, bought just the week prior. Ethan made certain that they always donated the good quality uniforms at the end of the year. He would look through what they had around Christmas time too, since teenaged boys had a tendency to grow every few months, and sometimes donate then and buy more uniforms.

His own blazer felt like a strait jacket at the moment, bonding him to the act of education and Port Chester Preparatory High School, home of the Cheetahs. He glanced over at Aaron, and thought about the fact that this was the first his brother was wearing the full Prep uniform, other than when they had gone for a fitting.

He didn’t even remember to take pictures of their first day.

Ethan sighed.

The kids all moved to the sink, and Ethan grabbed them as they passed, giving them each a tight squeeze and kiss on their forehead. He wiped Bethany’s tears, allowed Owen’s lingered hold, and held Aaron’s chin for a second seeing the sadness mixed with determination in his eyes.

            “It’s going to be a good day,” he insisted to them, following along to his Escalade Hybrid.

 

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The first few hours of school had been dreadful. He had barely listened in on his classes, but since it was mostly just a review of the course’s syllable, Royal doubted he was missing much.

He could kill for a beer just then, and the irony wasn’t lost on his either.

Now, not only was James a heavy drinker, but little brother Liam had hit the bottle pretty heavy. It was rare for Royal to go beyond beers, since he found his father’s taste too expensive and the taste of most other alcohols unpleasant. Being the beer supplier and not caring who saw him drinking had always been more of a status symbol of who he was.

Now, however, he was thinking it wouldn’t be the worst thing to be hindered by the alcohol and just let himself loose for a few hours. That was a luxury he just didn’t have.

It was probably for the best. Maybe.

            “What?” Ross was leaning against the wall, glaring at him. Royal had woken him from sleeping through their Political Science class, and best friend or not, he wasn’t pleased with him.

            “Nobody’s said anything?” Royal asked again.

They had been discussing the infamous photographs that they’d received the day before, James Kingston balls deep inside some brunette. As far as Royal had been informed, only him and his closest friends had been sent the damning image.

Brick had spread the words about trying to be discreet in trying to find if someone outside of the Royal Court had seen, trying to gauge how far the news of the affair had spread, but so far, nothing.

Ross shrugged.

The whole having to wake up in the early morning and make it to school thing was obviously getting to the other Senior.

Royal smacked his head with a folder.

            “Shit,” Ross groaned, glaring back at him. “Fuck you, I’m tired.”

            “What are you going to do?” Trent asked instead.

            “I don’t know,” Royal shook his head.

They were standing off to the side of the hall, in a bit of an alcove. Others passed them, rushing off to their next classes and the littlest, new students’ eyes widened as they saw who was standing there. Already, they knew who those three were.

            “I want to go make some seventh graders feel miserable,” Sean yawned. “It’s the only reason I’m even here today.”

            “You know you can’t do that,” Trent shook his head. “Not this week. All the staff is on alert for shit like that.”

            “I should find out who the hell sent that picture, and who the fuck that new bitch is,” Royal glared at the space in front of him, and at whoever happened to be passing them, looking his direction. They left awfully quick once they saw the hard look on his face.

            “How though?” Brick asked him.

            “Why bother?” Ross groaned.

            “I don’t want another stepmother,” Royal scoffed. “Or more kids.”

            “You can’t really control that, can you?” Brick scratched at his head.

That was the kicker. Royal, in all of his wisdom and money and power that the city granted him, he couldn’t do shit when it came to his father.

            “I’m eighteen now,” he reinstated to them.

            “So?” Ross jeered. “You planning on denouncing your pops or something? What good will that shit do?”

            “I don’t know,” Royal spread his arms out like he could encompass the vastness of how much shit he didn’t know just then. “But I’ve got to be able to do more now than I could back when he left Heather.”

            “But you like Steph,” Trent pointed out.

            “Now,” Royal shrugged. “And mostly for Cole’s sake. I wasn’t nice to her in the beginning.”

            “At least she didn’t marry James right off,” Ross shrugged. “She tried to be sensible.”

            “Nah,” Royal shook his head. “She played the part right, and she definitely deflated in the ego department through the years, matured and all, but she wasn’t being sensible. She was scared shitless of Heather.”

            “Your stepmom is one scary shit,” Sean laughed. “Black Coal still scares the shit out of me.”

            “A Walk through the Forest gives me fucking chills,” Trent grimaced.

Royal rolled his eyes. He hadn’t seen his stepmother’s acting creds, since a lot of the times they showed her at least partially naked, and the other times she ended up dead. Heather Collinson was a famous actress, her popularity rising the past ten years ten-fold. Her body did not look like she had had two kids, and she rarely acted the part either.

But, she was still more attentive to her kids than James. She sent them things, called them when she could, and visited between films. She surprisingly enough got along quite well with Liam, who loved the horror genre that Heather was favoring as of late, and she doted on Aaron after their mother’s passing. And she treated Ethan like an equal.

            “She’s barely scary,” Royal shook his head. “It’s just hard for people to disassociate her and her characters.”

            “She’s going to just love this,” he added with a slight disdain.

Honestly, Royal couldn’t blame Heather for disliking Steph. After all, it was Steph’s fault that Heather and James had divorced. But honestly, Heather was always more involved with her career than a family life. She had taken to James’ good looks and the potential that he could offer her. She hadn’t been a rising star then, still doing mostly second and tertiary roles in movies and any number of background roles in television. It was quiet entertaining to spot her in reruns of shows on occasion.

            “Not when Bear and Lion complain about it,” Brick reminded him.

That was true enough. Heather wouldn’t like how upset her kids were over the fact of Steph and Cole’s leaving. They had been infants when Heather had left, and they mostly didn’t have any recall to her living her day to days with them, only really enjoying her company in bursts of vacations and weeklong stayovers during the years.

It had been Ethan who had insisted that the kids stayed with them. Heather had been intent on taking them and getting a nanny, but Ethan hadn’t wanted to see his baby siblings go. Life would have been incredibly different without Bear and Lion around.

Perhaps easier. Perhaps less chaotic and more organized.

            “Maybe she’ll take off with them too,” Ross added, unnecessarily.

Royal again hit Ross with his folder.

            “You should probably tell her, before she hears it from the grapevine,” Trent advised.

            “What grapevine is going to reach her in California?”

            “She’s still got friends around here,” Brick reminded him. “She lived around here for almost seven years.”

Royal groaned. It would fall to him to have to be the town crier, or at least, the family one. He hated giving bad news. He hated not knowing how people would react to the news, how they would treat the kids. He especially hated how quickly his family was changing.

            “If I tell her, I’m going to have to tell my grandmother.”

That was a bit of news he didn’t want to share with the woman.

It was no small secret that Cordelia Kingston wasn’t a fan of James. She was well aware that her former son-in-law wasn’t a saint, and she detested the kind of example that he was setting for her grandsons. She had an old-fashioned way of looking at things, but she was always willing to hear Ethan out.

Cordelia was as rich and connected as people probably assumed rich people usually were. She knew politicians, artist, world leaders and royalty. Cordelia hadn’t thought much of James, and when he had taken the Kingston name as his own, she had been livid. Now, she was much more subtle, but she never shied away from expressing her feelings. Her words held much merit, and Ethan knew better than to try and think that she didn’t have local connections.

            “Maybe he’s got a new secretary?” Ross offered.

            “I can definitely look into if someone is new at the firm,” Royal sighed.

As the halls started to die down, Royal thought he might have to actually continue with his day. He should head home, or just drive around. He had spotted Liam once, who glared at him. Royal merely punched his brother’s shoulder, greeted the group his brother had gathered around him, and walked on. He wanted to ask Liam how he was holding up, but it was never acceptable to bring up family business around other people. Ross and Trent were different, he’d known them his whole life practically and he knew that he could trust them. Others, with variations, but with his best friends, he knew he could unload all his worries.

            “Gentlemen,” an older voice peered around the corner at them.

Vice Principal in charge of Disciplinary Actions and Attendance George Callari. Perfect.

            “First day of school, and already we meet. Ross, Brick, and Royal Kingston – what have we to own this pleasure?”

            “You’ve missed us,” Ross straightened up, crossing his arms and smirking. “Admit it.”

            “Like a foot misses a splinter, Mr. Ross,” the elderly man glared. “You three have class now, because it’s the first day, I am obliged to let you off with a welcome and a warning.”

            “Ever so kind of you,” Ross took a slight bow.

Brick scoffed, following behind Ross as they left the alcove for their classes. Royal remained a moment longer, glaring at the man. He’d never liked Callari. He had barely seen the man blink.

            “Mr. Kingston,” the man moved his hands to his hips. It was such a childish tone, Royal almost felt inclined to point it out. Still, he glared a moment later and followed along with his friends, headed to another class to distract his thoughts.

He could hear Callari sighing behind him, but, like most things, he ignored it. The most that the man could try to do was maybe give him some kind of detention, but it would be unlikely. But VP or not, the school board wasn’t known for going against him. Any disciplinary actions would be contested, and between James’ legalese, the Kingston firm, and Royal’s rep, none of the staff was willing to risk that.

 

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By lunchtime, Royal had a plan. Well, he had an idea.

            “It’s not your best,” Brick said as they moved through the lunch line, grabbing two subs each and a container of salad.

            “It’s the most legal one,” scoffed Royal.

He didn’t want to say much, because he was Royal Kingston. As he walked through the all grades space, he could see a lot of the newest faces staring at him like they were face to face with their idol.

It was a tad much, to be honest. Last year, a kid had even walked over to him for an autograph. He hadn’t made up his mind whether or not to give it before Dan Parker had the kid half way out of the cafeteria.

Everywhere, people watched him and listened in, like he was there to entertain them. They looked from afar, but it was still too close for comfort for Royal.

Getting to the side room off of the cafeteria, a space that would usually be a staff room, for eating or stepping away from the crowd of kids, but Royal had claimed it as his own back when he was still Aaron’s grade, and no one had really bothered trying to get him out of it.

This was Inner Circle territory. It wasn’t the best of names; Royal was willing to admit, it felt elitist and downright childish. But he didn’t pick it. He hadn’t picked “Royal” either. Some things were better left unsaid.

Most of the seniors and the girls were already there. The Juniors weren’t much for the secluded space, and were kind of the Court’s connection outside. It was strange to be part of the eldest in the school, but there wasn’t much change in how Royal conducted himself. He had always had a few kids from the older groups in his Court, but now they were all gone too.

The space was more of a lounge than a cafeteria. There were couches, as well as a long conference table that served as their dining table. The chairs in there were straight-back mahogany. Royal wasn’t even certain who had gotten them or how, but he wasn’t complaining. The dining set was incredibly comfortable.

The side of the room that had the couches also had a small television and furnishing that made the space feel slightly less stifling than a school setting. He had been told it was nicer than some people’s homes. The rugs were even imported though Royal again had no idea who had been the one to get the items for the space.

This year, as they entered, he spotted a new edition immediately.

            “Is that a vending machine?” he frowned at the object.

Anthony Sorrentino turned towards them, grinning. “Royal! Man, how’s it going? Brick, Ross.” He greeted them each with a fist bump and bit into his burger.

            “Who brought the cash cow in?” Ross nudged Anthony with an elbow.

Anthony shrugged. “Mystery, man. But check it out!” Pulling out his ID card, he walked over to the machine and instead of putting in money, he slide the card into the machine. He put in his order and down dropped a packet of chips. Then Sorrentino took out his ID and turned towards the Trio.

            “Sweet, right?”

            “There’s a PlayStation!” Daniel yelled from over at the couches.

            “And like forty games!” Isaac James, added from beside Daniel.

            “Dude,” Anthony reached out, patting Royal’s shoulder. “You’re awesome!”

Royal shrugged. He wasn’t going to confirm his involvement, nor would he deny his awesomeness. If Sorrentino was suggesting that it had been he who had brought those things, that hadn’t been his statement.

            “This is so ridiculous!” Lyla Price, the “top” girl, Princess if you will, of Chester Prep – whenever one of the girls wasn’t claiming to be Royal’s that is, scoffed. She liked to look down at everything, and Royal found her annoying. He’d dated her way back in the eighth grade, and she had been trying to get back with him ever since. Probably because she was now one of the few girls he had dated and hadn’t had sex with.

Maybe if she wasn’t such a chore, Royal would consider it.

She was standing next to the yogurt cart that had been added the year before.

            “You’re always free to leave,” Ross stated as he moved through the girls to get himself a large chocolate frozen yogurt.

Princess Lyla rolled her eyes and said nothing else out loud. Instead, she turned towards her besties, Gwen Hutchinson – who had the same blue eyes and straight sandy blond hair like Lyla but lacked her confidence with her towering height = and Savannah Reid – a childhood friend of Royal’s that was biracial and easily hotter than Princess with her wit and big brown eyes. If she wasn’t kind of a bitch, that was.

Royal walked over to a seat at the dining table, Brick eying the video games as he took a seat beside him. Ross joined them a second later.

            “Isaac!”

His calling out grabbed most of everyone’s attention. The fact that he hadn’t gone to Isaac had him in a position of authority. Royal had learned before to be the best friend to those around him, but he had also given them all plenty to fear during the years. Most kids there he could recall all the way back to kindergarten. They had seen him through losing his mother and the hell he had put just about everyone through.

They knew he was prone to hitting first, pounding the shit out of people really, and then getting his answers.

For the most part, Royal treated those in the Court with more courtesy. They weren’t his equals, but he held them above the others in the school. That special treatment followed the others in many other aspects of their lives. Even in things that Royal had no part in, like sports and activities and their getting jobs and internships and such. Everyone knew Royal Kingston, and most people could name his Court too. Of course, Ross and Trent came off the best, and his younger siblings were even often given free samplings of things – which Royal never understood, since they could easily afford everything.

In truth, Royal had power he had no idea what to do with. He tried not to take advantage of it, knew that many currently around him sometimes did. But if he acted like a jackass all of the time, no one would like or respect him.

Isaac tossed his controller to another of the guys and walked over to them without question.

            “Sup, Royal?” they fist bumped, and he greeted Brick too, but Ross was totally consumed by his froyo.

            “You saw that text last night?” Royal asked it like he was asking the weather. Other than the hardness in his eyes, that he couldn’t seem to calm on the subject, he was the picture of indifferent.

            “Uh,” Isaac rubbed at his head and glanced at Brick a moment.

Trent rolled his eyes. “Dude, he already knows.”

            “Yeah,” Isaac sighed. “Most of us saw it. Sorry man.”

Royal held up his hand. “You didn’t send that shit,” he said. He knew that all of the others were listening in, he hadn’t made the conversation more private than the Court, and he didn’t intend too. He had nothing to be embarrassed about. His father was a dick, and he was certainly mad about that, but Royal wasn’t to blame. And he wasn’t going to let his little brothers be seen as victims either.

Still, he wanted answers.

            “I know no one here would send that shit. Not without bringing it to me first,” he stressed. Whether there was a doubt in his mind about that, slightly true, but again, Royal was going to play the loyalty card.

He could just as easily ruin anyone there’s life as he could allow them the spoils.

            “This is childish and underhanded,” Royal continued. “And I’ll get to the bottom of it.” He shrugged. No big deal. James and his many mistresses, whatever.

            “It was a dick move man,” Isaac shook his head. “I heard kids all the way down to Freshman got it.”

Royal groaned. Just what he needed.

            “You want me to backtrack it?” Isaac wondered.

            “Nah,” Royal shook his head. “I’d rather you find a way to delete it from the grid, you know? I don’t need any little kids looking at that shit.”

            “I don’t think it’s gotten all the way to the seventh graders,” Savannah stated. She was smart enough to realize that Aaron was one of his concerns.

            “It wouldn’t take too long,” Daniel shrugged, joining in. “Many upperclassmen have younger sibs.”

            “Maybe we can spread like a virus,” Isaac thought aloud. “Programed to target the message?”

            “How can you target that?” Brick wondered.

            “None of us have any messages from this number other than this one pic,” Isaac shrugged.

            “We could just as easily find where it’s came from,” Anthony added giddily. “Hack that shit back to its origins!”

Anthony wasn’t the smartest kid, average enough, but he was a good friend and terribly optimistic. Not the kind of thing that Royal was in the mood for at the moment.

            “Sorrentino,” Ross glared at him. “No.”

Anthony could see he was being chilled and his happy demeanor stilled for a moment before he shrugged and decided to keep his mouth shut.

            “She looked legit familiar,” Paula Novak, a Junior who was itching to hook up with one of the Court guys added in, twirling her dark red hair in Daniel’s direction. Daniel’s attention, however, was on the game in front of him.

            “Really?” Royal turned to eye her.

Paula looked almost surprised that she had spoken. Other than the sounds of the gameplay and the cafeteria outside of the room, no one else was making a noise. They were interested in what Royal was talking about. He could have been asking them about homework, and he would’ve had all of their attentions.

They didn’t want to miss a thing. Royal couldn’t blame them. It wasn’t like they were a club and he set up meetings. Plenty of times he would think up a party or something at the spur of the moment. Or someone would suggest something and he would like it – sealing the event with his Royal approval or something. His calendar could get seriously insane if he went to everything he said he would try to go to, but at least someone from the Court always managed to go to the things.

Seriously, it was an insane amount of power he didn’t know how to deal with.

            “I mean, sure,” Paula shrugged.

            “Where Novak?” Ross dropped his empty cup onto the table.

            “Uh, salon I think?”

            “Shauna’s?” Lyla asked her.

            “Thorton?” Brick wondered.

            “Not, Shana’s,” Lyla rolled her eyes. “Shauna’s is a hair, nails and spas. It’s legit the best in town.”

            “Probably,” Paula shrugged again.

            “If she’s been at Shauna’s,” Princess turned again towards Royal. “I can find out.”

Royal didn’t want to ask anything of Princess Lyla. Soon enough, he would find himself with her all over him, trying to report back what he wanted to know and getting her hands all over him in the process.

It wouldn’t be the first time that Lyla offered to help Royal in one way or another.

            “Do you want to know?” Trent asked him instead.

A part of Ethan didn’t want to know. He didn’t like what his father was doing, and he knew things were only going to get worse. He couldn’t see how knowing who she was would help.

But another part of him hated not knowing.

Who was she was as important as what did she want. Did she know who James Kingston was? Did she go after him on purpose? Was she local? Was she a vacation fling?

If she had been at Shauna’s it meant that she was from around Port Chester, or at least had been there before. Which could mean that James had been seeing her for a while.

Which could mean that it was someone that was looking forward to getting rid of Steph. Someone that didn’t care about how things were for the younger Kingstons. Someone who had darker motives.

            “Knowledge is power,” he said instead.

            “I can go through the computer lab,” Isaac stated. “They’ve got faster processors this year. Probably help me track onto them before they notice me.”

            “And we can all be on a look out for whoever that was,” another added.

            “And stop the texts,” Gwen noted.

            “All fine and dandy,” Ross said standing up. “Protect the kids at all cost, compadres! That’s the Chester Prep way!”

Ross went and flopped down on the couch, taking the controller from the kid that Isaac had handed it to. It was a Junior, and Royal couldn’t remember his name for the moment, but he remembered him as a new kid the year before that had joined the football team.

Royal got up and grabbed himself some food from the burger bar. Around him, the others went about getting back into their conversations and messing around.

It was enough, for now, to know that the others would be doing their part. He didn’t need the younger kids in on it. He didn’t need to hear about it from parents, teachers, or other adults.

They would defuse the situation, please him and essentially all tried to get further into his favor. Royal didn’t know why. No one would be closer to him than Sean and Trent, but he liked them thinking that they stood a chance. Or maybe they thought he could add them on? Who knew, but while the others worked to stay in his favor, Royal would use it to his advantage.

 

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It’s almost seven by the time Ethan Kingston, and the little Kingstons, get home. Sean, as usual, is with him.

Ethan had often joked that he co-parented with Sean. Even now, as he got Liam and Aaron out of his car, Sean had Bear and Owen in his.

Ethan had stayed behind to see Aaron’s first tryout practice. And since Royal had stayed, a lot of the Varsity Seniors had stayed too. Except for Sean, who had done him the huge favor of grabbing the little kids.

Cole still wasn’t home, and he hadn’t gone to school either.

Bear and Lion looked sad as they rushed over to hug Ethan. They didn’t exactly look like they had been crying, but it certainly looked like a possibility.

Ethan sighed. He crouched down, wrapping his arms around both as the others headed inside.

            “Today sucked ass,” Owen mumbled into his shoulder.

Ethan tapped his bottom, but couldn’t exactly chide him. The boy was right. Today had sucked ass.

Bear leaned back, staring at him with her big green eyes.

            “I miss Cole,” she sniffed. “He would have had fun today. They had cake and ice cream in the cafeteria.”

Unable to say anything to that, Ethan kissed her forehead. He turned, planting a kiss to Lion’s temple.

            “Come on, it’s getting late,” he stood up, leading them inside.

Sean, the domestic goddess that he was, had Liam and Aaron in the kitchen and was already pulling things together for dinner.

Liam had already ditched most of his uniform and Aaron had taken off the blazer. Sean himself was shirtless and his hair was sticking up. His friend looked tired and Ethan couldn’t blame him.

It had been three days since Sean had had any communications with his family. And it wasn’t even that he was mad of his parents, they just didn’t really care. Ethan wondered if they even knew that Sean was staying at King’s Landing, though Sean was actually pretty good at leaving his mother messages and such. He would stop by his house often enough too, change his clothes or his car, things like that.

Ethan walked up behind him, hugging him from behind, kissing his neck noisily.

            “You’re going to be a bitching wife someday.”

He heard Liam scoffed behind him, got a bit of a giggle from Aaron, and actual laughter from Bear and Owen. Sean rolled his eyes at him, actually blushing slightly – if you knew him and knew he just blushed at the very tip of his ears. Mission accomplished on all fronts for Ethan.

He turned, surveying his siblings.

Bear had her head down on her arms and was seated in Liam’s lap. Aaron had moved over so that Owen could be between him and them. All four kids looked absolutely wiped.

            “So, how was school?” Ethan leaned across the island towards them. He knew he had to get them to shower and check any papers that had been sent home. He could probably start off the family calendar too, but he didn’t want to do that without hearing about Cole.

What was he supposed to do about the COLE and STEPH rows in the calendar? He had already modified it so that only his mobile version had access to his father’s, he didn’t want to chop them off too. It felt like cutting off a limp from the family tree. Even Heather was in his calendar, and she wasn’t going to be able to be “home” for another month!

            “I thought it would be worse,” Aaron shrugged.

            “You’re just lucky we stopped anyone from dunking you in the trash,” Liam offered back.

            “No one was going to do that,” Ethan sighed.

            “Not yet,” Sean scoffed. “Everyone knows not to do things like that on the first day. Amateurs.”

            “So, it gets worse?” Owen frowned. “Is Aaron going to be in the bin?”

            “Nah,” Sean brought a tray of buttered, toasted hotdog buns, boiled hotdogs, and carrot sticks over to the island. “Not Aaron.”

            “Not unless they want my foot up their ass,” Ethan muttered.

            “You can’t do that,” Bear laughed. “How would you walk?”

Ethan rolled his eyes. Leave it to Bethany to one up him.

            “You could chop up Mentos, or some pop rocks,” Owen offered as they all started towards the food. “Stuff it down their throats!”

            “Chill guys,” Sean stopped them. “Go set the table. And wash your hands.”

Four sighs and groans and mumblings got the younger kids up and moving.

Ethan looked over his shoulder at his friend. He wasn’t a stickler for things like eating at the table, but he knew Sean liked that kind of stuff. It had been something Ethan’s mother had done too. Sean liked the idea of being a part of the family, and Karen Kingston had too. Karen had grown up with her own parents quite busy, and they weren’t always there to see her each night.

It made Ethan grateful for moments like that.

            “You too,” Sean smacked his head, taking him out of his thoughts.

Aaron grabbed some plates from the cabinet, handing three down to Owen, and three over to Bear. He went to grab some glasses as Liam got the water jug and juice jug over to the table. Cole usually grabbed the napkins, tossing them for some reason onto the seats. If she was there, Steph would show them how to make flowers or animals out of the napkins.

Ethan grabbed some ketchup, mustard and relish from the fridge and the salad bowl from the island while Sean grabbed the rest.

The kids got a bit more animated in this level of normalcy. Bear and Owen racing each other, Liam pouring out the drinks, Aaron heading back for serving utensils. It wasn’t until they were about to sit down that it hit them. No napkins to move aside. No little snickers as they reminded the seven year old, once again, where they belonged.

Ethan turned back, grabbing the dark green napkins from the drawer. He walked around the table, setting one by each before taking the last for himself. He tossed the extra one to the seat beside him.

He missed Cole too.

 

###################################

 

            “I think Sorrentino’s got something.”

It was midnight and Ethan, Liam and Sean were sitting upstairs in the common loft between all of the bedrooms. Owen and Bear had gone to sleep in Aaron’s room, leaving the door opened out to them.

Aaron and Liam shared a bathroom, Owen and Cole were the only ones to share a room, while Bethany had her own room, but shared the bathroom with her brothers. Ethan had his own bathroom. But all of the rooms came together at a common room.

When he stayed over, Sean pretty much stayed in whatever room he wanted, either sharing with the occupant or taking over. Usually though, he stayed in Ethan’s, on his fold out couch, or on the rare occasion, he took over one of the couches in the common space. Usually, that would be the nights he had let himself in, and not wanting to surprise anyone unnecessarily in the morning.

But by the look of things, that night, they three would be staying on the couches.

            “Anthony?” Liam frowned. He didn’t really know the guy, but he knew that he was a “Royal Court” member on carte. He’d seen him around a lot, knew that the guy was in football, like most guys around Ethan.

            “He’s the first check-in?” Ethan was surprised.

            “Apparently by chance,” Sean shrugged.

He tossed up his cell towards Ethan, but Liam shot up from his couch, grabbing the mobile in midair.

Ethan stood up to get the phone from him, but not before Liam took a look at the screen. It was just words, and he read it quickly. Sean stood up, cringing.

Ethan, reaching Liam, gave the teen a sharp smack to his ass, grabbing the cell phone from his hand. Liam took a step back, instinctively reaching back to cover, but not apologizing.

            “Don’t read what’s not yours,” Ethan glared at him.

            “I know something’s been up,” countered Liam. “Who’s Rachel Martin?”

Ethan looked over at Sean, who held up his hands, and then back at Liam.

            “None of your business.”

Liam glared at him. “You don’t know either.”

All the message had said was the name and a question mark. It wasn’t much to go on, but Ethan was glad for that now. He didn’t want Liam, or any of his friends, involved.

            “Whether I do or don’t-

            “You don’t,” Liam added with a scoff.

Ethan tossed Sean his cell back, grabbing Liam’s arm before turning him and swatting him twice more.

Liam hissed and tried to pull away. He still wasn’t apologizing, because he wasn’t sorry, but instead glared at his brother. He hated getting swatted, especially when someone else saw. Sean had seen him get smacked before, had even smacked him a few times during the years, but it still didn’t exactly mean he wanted the guy to witness it!

            “Whether I do or don’t, you know better,” Ethan finished saying. “Don’t start acting up now, William.”

            “You guys have been strange the last few days. I’m not saying you have to tell Aaron or the others, but I’m old enough to know. Without getting smacked.”

Sean scoffed and Liam glared at him.

            “If you want to know something, you ask. And then, I decide what I tell you. You don’t just intercept Sean’s phone.” Ethan glanced down at his watch. He was one of the few people he knew that still used one, but he found it extremely convenient. “It’s already late, go get ready for bed.”

Liam’s face crumpled. He didn’t want to get sent to bed, he wanted to know what was going on. With three smacks already on his butt, and just the day before, Ethan hadn’t exactly handed out love taps for his drinking.

            “Eth,” he groaned.

            “Bed,” Ethan shook his head. “I don’t want you in on this, and you trying to force in is just more proof that you can’t be a part of this.”

            “That doesn’t make sense,” Liam frowned.

            “You can go to bed, or you can get spanked and go to bed,” Ethan offered back.

Liam’s eyes widened and he glanced over at Sean, who held his hands up.

            “Now, William,” Ethan sighed.

With a huff betraying his age and maturity, Liam turned towards his room. Then he stopped. Turning around, he glared at his brother.

            “I’m already ready for bed.”

            “Brush your teeth and piss then,” Ethan shook his head. He wasn’t going to be manipulated. The kid knew better.

Liam rolled his eyes and continued waking towards his room. Unfortunately, he seemed to think it was a good idea to slam the door shut behind him.

Ethan groaned. He moved towards his brother’s room, but Sean grabbed his arm stopping him.

            “Don’t,” his friend said. Instead, Sean walked over to the room, entering without even bothering to knock, and closing the door behind him.

Liam stood in the middle of his room, nervously biting at his lip as he stared, big-eyed, at the door. He had known that he shouldn’t have slammed the door as soon as he started to do it, but he couldn’t stop himself.

Shit, could he still claim drunken insanity?

As the door opened and it was Sean instead that appeared he was slightly relieved. Only slightly. He figured Sean was calmer than Ethan, but he was still going to get his butt smacked. He’d slammed the door shut, like a toddler; it was a given.

Sean walked over to him and tugged him into a hug. Liam wrapped his arms around him and sighed.

            “You both turn into idiots when you’re worried,” Sean said, patting his back.

No mincing words for Sean Ross.

            “I just keep making him mad.”

            “You have terrible timing,” Sean ruffled his hair and stepped back, keep his hold on Liam’s upper arms. “You know this is all super hard on Ethan too, right? You know he loves you guys more than anything.”

Liam nodded. There wasn’t ever a doubt in his mind that Ethan didn’t love them, love him. Heck, anyone who had heard of Ethan “Royal” Kingston knew that he was fiercely devoted to his family. He set the tone for what their family was, and they had always been together through everything. But now, without Cole – and even Steph – it felt like they were in a sinking ship.

He loved his brother. Through everything, he loved Ethan and he needed the guy around, but he also kind of hated him. Liam was aware it was in part with his teenage rebellion shit, but it still wasn’t enough to stop him from doing stupid shit.

            “Liam?”

            “I know,” he sighed. “But, he doesn’t have to control everything,” he complained. “I’m not a little kid.”

            “You’re sixteen,” Sean told him. “And, legally, we’re adults. SO, yeah you are a little kid. And your brother has always been looking out for you. You’re going to be thirty and your brother is still going to be looking out for you.”

            “But at least I’ll be too old for him to smack,” Liam muttered.

Sean scoffed and shook his head. “You better hope you’re good enough to not get smacked, you mean.” As Liam’s eyes widened at that particular threat, Sean turned him and swatted him twice, hard. “Brush your teeth and get to bed.”

            “Dude!” Liam hissed, turning as Sean released him and glaring at the larger teen.

            “Go,” Sean told him before he could talk.

 

###################################

 

Ethan was on his computer when Sean went to find him. He shook his head and walked over, closing the laptop as he stood beside the desk.

            “Sean!” Ethan groaned.

            “I already smacked one Kingston tonight,” Sean placed his hand over the device. “You want two for two?”

Ethan rolled his eyes. “I’m looking her up.”

            “I figured as much,” Sean nodded. “But you’ve also been snippy and grumpy and I doubt you slept at all last night. I’m pulling rank here. Go to bed.”

            “What rank?” Ethan leaned back in his chair and raised an eyebrow.

            “The, Oldest and Dearest Friend rank,” Sean crossed his arms. “The, You Know I Just Swatted Your Brother and You Would Be Killing Anyone Else rank.”

Ethan rolled his eyes and sighed.

            “You didn’t have to,” he started.

            “Uh, I did. He’s getting snippy too. And you always swat the kids if they slam their doors. You’ve been consistent thus far, you can’t start giving leeway now. They’re all going to be looking at you to see how to move forward from this.

            “You know you’re going to have to talk to Liam, and probably Aaron. They’re going to hear things in school, maybe even see something. You can’t keep things from them forever.”

            “I want answers,” Ethan sighed. “I don’t want to give them more problems.”

            “Dude, they know you’re doing your best. But if you hold onto this, it’s not so much protecting them as it is lying.”

Ethan groaned. This was why it felt like co-parenting with Sean. Or maybe he was in step-parent territory? Sean didn’t always step in, but he was always willing to hear him, and the other kids, out. He was a great friend to them all, a brother really, and Ethan had no idea what he would have done through the years without him.

Trent was his best friend too. But Trent would never swat at one of the kids. He was a big brother too, but he had loving parents. Sean and Ethan did everything they could to make certain that Trent knew they had his back, but that he was first and foremost a Philbrick. Sean might put Ethan and the little Kingstons first, but that was because they were his family. Neither expected the same from Trent, who was still loyal and supportive and insightful.

Being Eighteen wasn’t supposed to be this hard.

            “I hate to say this,” Ethan groaned, getting to his feet.

            “But I’m right,” Sean grinned. “I know.”

            “And cocky,” Ethan scoffed. “Asshole.”

Sean shrugged.

            “You sleeping on the couch?”

Sean nodded.

            “I think I’ll join you out there.”

            “Alright,” Sean started to head out of the room. “But I’m not putting out. There’s kids here.”

Ethan scoffed and shook his head.

As they started to settle onto the couches, the doors to Aaron and Liam’s rooms remained opened. Ethan laid trying to think about Cole. Or rather, not to think about. He knew Cole would be fine with Steph. He knew that she was capable and loving, but it wasn’t easy having the little guy away from him.

And it wasn’t like Steph was usually with him 24/7. Ethan was used to driving him around, picking him up. He would make Cole’s lunch along with the others and loved having the little boy curl up beside him as he read him, and usually Bear and Lion, a story.

As he tried to settle down, his and Sean’s phones – as well as the ones in his brothers’ rooms – went off.

Sitting up, Ethan glanced over at Sean. The other teen grabbed his cell first.

            “Don’t,” he told Ethan. “Just in case.”

            “I saw the first one,” Ethan stated. But he didn’t grab for his phone. He didn’t want to know. He didn’t want things worse.

            “Yeah, but I kind of prepped you for it.”

Ethan watched as Sean’s eyes widened.

            “Another one?” he asked. Sean nodded. “Shit.”

            “Yeah.”

 

###################################

 

            “Where’s my phone?” Liam asked the next morning, looking all over the place.

            “Under your bed,” Bear said, shoving him aside to get her cereal.

Liam frowned and groaned at her.

            “Why’d you do that?”

            “I didn’t,” Bear rolled her eyes.

            “Then why would you say that?” Liam shoved at her shoulder as he turned to leave the kitchen I his search.

            “I have them,” Ethan groaned. He had barely slept the night before. Him and Sean had spent too much time trying to play clean up. The new picture had been closer up, and it had been obvious who had taken it, though she might not have been the one that had sent it.

Ethan had wanted to confront James right there and then, but – conveniently, and not surprisingly at all – James hadn’t been home. He still wasn’t. And it was a true wonder when the man would grace his children with his face.

Of course, then Ethan would promptly punch his face in.

Liam stopped walking, turning to stare at his big brother.

            “What’d you say?”

Ethan was finishing up Owen and Bethany’s lunches and just sighed.

            “Don’t bother looking for it, because I have your phone,” Ethan said, walking the lunch boxes towards the bookbags’ area. “And Aaron’s too.” And if the others had had cell phones, he’d had have those too.

Aaron looked up frowning. He wasn’t as attached to his cell like his older brothers, but he did use it pretty regularly. Ethan and Sean had been through the boys’ phones, making sure that they hadn’t received anything. This time, Liam’s had, but still nothing on Aaron’s.

Ethan was going to have to talk to Liam, because his friends would more than likely have gotten a similar message too. He didn’t want his brother unprepared, and he didn’t want him used either.

            “What? Why?” Aaron questioned.

            “Ethan! You can’t do that!” Liam stressed out instead, rubbing a hand through is face and hair and messing up the styled look he’d been going for.

            “There were reasons,” Sean said, sharing a seat with Owen, his chin on the boy’s shoulder. He had managed a full four hours, and hopped he wouldn’t be exhausted by the end of the day – especially with practice after school.

            “Like what?” Liam glared.

            “Reasons that if you keep whining like an eight year old, you’re never going to find out.”

            “Hey,” Bear looked up, glaring.

            “You’re nine,” Owen rolled his eyes.

            “Oh, yeah,” she nodded, going back to her meal.

            “When do we get them back?” Aaron asked instead.

Ethan shook his head. He didn’t know how to answer that because he really didn’t know what was at play now. He didn’t think his brothers needed the image of their father like that – good dad or not, it wasn’t he kind of thing that a child should see of their parent. He was sorry enough he had seen it.

            “I don’t know yet.”

            “Bullshit!” Liam kicked at his empty chair.

The youngest two looked up wide-eyed at their second-oldest brother. Cursing, and so early in the morning too! They glanced between the two eldest.

            “Liam,” Sean’s voice conveyed how tired he was, and how just done he was too. “Don’t start shit. I’m telling you right now; if I’m fed up, Ethan’s beyond breeched. He’s barely had three hours, if that, of sleep. And if you honestly think that your brother doesn’t have a legitimate reason to do something like that, you’re seriously mistaken.”

Liam, unfortunately, did not heed the warning.

            “Well Ethan can’t just take my things from me! How am I supposed to talk with my friends? How the hell am I supposed to call home when I’m out, like you insist on, if I don’t have my phone?”

            “Well, you’re going to school,” Ethan frowned. “And then you have practice and then you’re coming home. So, not only will you see all of your friends, but you’re not going anywhere to have to worry about those things. And I’d downgrade my attitude if I were you!”

Liam scoffed. “That’s bullshit!” he spat back. “You keep bossing me around, and you have no right to do shit like that, Ethan! You’re not the one who bought it! You’re not my father! You’re only two years older than me, and you’ve done a lot worse crap than I have!”

Ethan had all intents of talking things out with his brother. He tried to view Liam as an equal, but it seemed that the more he tried, the less the kid was willing to give. He seemed to think that Ethan liked being the one in charge. Or that he liked having to punish them and such.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Ethan moved towards him quickly, and Liam’s eyes widened. But Liam’s skills were no match for Ethan’s Varsity first-string skills. He was on his brother in two seconds. He was losing his patience with Liam a lot faster than normal, but seriously the boy was going for some kind of record. He had to be. Sean even warned him that Ethan had barely slept. What was he expecting?

It was rare for Ethan to hit any of the kids, rarer still to do so outside of the privacy of their bedroom or the library or something out of the way from the rest. And it was nonexistent until that very moment that Ethan hit Liam in front of his little brothers. Of course, Aaron had seen Liam swatted just a few days back, but the teen had been drunk then.

This time, Ethan wasn’t even sure how many smacks he landed. Probably five, but he made them really count. Sean was on his feet and at their side in an instant – almost as fast as Ethan himself moved – and definitely saved the teen from a lot more.

Ethan was glaring at Liam. The words that Liam had said had hurt. Fuck, of course he knew that he wasn’t the kid’s father. Heck, he knew better than anyone how close the kid was to him, but it certainly didn’t help matters any if the moment Liam had started Chester Prep, he had started to turn into a douche. And Ethan wasn’t going to stand for it.

Who the fuck did the kid think he was, trying to call him out like that? Ethan knew exactly when he and his brothers had gotten their latest phones. In fact, Owen, Bear, and Cole had gotten one too. But Ethan had taken those away as soon as they got it.

Their father had missed Christmas. It was Aaron’s first phone and Ethan and Liam had been upgraded. Didn’t matter that Ethan much had rather have kept his old phone. He had it working perfectly, had bought it on his own dime, and it wasn’t even two years old.

Not only had James missed Christmas, he hadn’t called. He didn’t show up for New Year’s either, and it wasn’t until the fourth day of the new year that the man got home, loaded with presents for the kids he so claimed to love and cherish.

Steph had convinced Ethan for them to keep the phones, but had agreed that the three youngest were too little to have them.

The horrible thought of what the current situation would be if they had had their own cells terrified him.

            “Alright, enough,” Sean growled at them.

Liam wiped at his face, glared at his brother from the relative safety of Sean’s presence.

            “We don’t have time for this,” Sean shook his head. “I’m taking Liam to school,” he insisted. “And I’ll talk to him.”

            “No,” Ethan groaned.

            “Dude, not asking,” Sean shoved at Ethan’s shoulder. “I’ll take him, you take the others.”

With that, Sean turned and grabbed Liam by the elbow. He walked them towards the garage, grabbing his and Liam’s brazers and bags as he waved to the younger Kingstons.

The trio remaining stared back wide eyed at their eldest brother. It was usually Owen or Bear that were in trouble, but they had been well behaved lately. Maybe seeing Liam getting smacked would keep those two in line a bit longer. Ethan certainly didn’t need any calls from school about posters made of teachers with “Most Likely to Pick His Nose” or such on them. Or the time that his sweet little sister managed to slip into the guidance counselors and let drawers full of lizards after she’d been called disruptive and troubled.

Which hadn’t helped her in the slightest.

Ethan sighed.

            “I don’t want to hear that kind of talk from any of you, understood?” he stated instead.

Three heads nodded, though Aaron had a slight frown to his boyish face. He wanted so badly to keep the kid young forever, just like that with his intelligence and innocence and his drive; but Aaron too soon would grow. Like Liam, Ethan would soon see sides of Aaron that didn’t belong on the sweet kid.

            “Is Liam in trouble forever?” Bear asked, playing her spoon around the empty bowl.

            “Not forever,” sighed Ethan.

            “For today, and tomorrow, and this weekend?” Owen asked.

Ethan groaned. “You guys know I don’t talk about your being punished with anyone.”

            “But you don’t go around spanking Liam either,” the little boy countered.

            “And how are you going to know what he’s doing if you’re not going to be able to call him?” Bear added.

Ethan groaned again. Why did the kids all decide to start asking questions now? And why ask questions that only made him madder?

            “Come on,” Aaron said, getting to his feet and grabbing his dishes. “We better get going.”

The other two, noticing that they were likely not going to be receiving any answers, sighed and moved along.

Ethan watched them as they moved about their routines at a slightly slower than should be pace.

            “A?”

Aaron looked up as they were grabbing their things to head out.

            “You’ll get your phone back soon,” he told him.

Aaron nodded. He looked like he was holding himself back from asking any questions, and Ethan really did appreciate it.

            “I trust you,” the teen finally said with a shrug.

Ethan reached out and pulled the teen into a hug. This kid, that’s why he needed to get ahead of this stupid prank, or whatever they thought it was. This sweet, lovely kid that still had his eyes light up when his father entered the room, and who clung to each and every word of any and all tales of their mother.

He needed worthy of that trust. Not just his brother’s, or of his family, or even just his friends. Ethan needed to know he could handle it, trust himself to not crumble under the pressure. He wasn’t going to succumb to his father’s whims any more.


 

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