The boys had never seen their grandpa so coldly furious with them. The ride home from the pizza parlor was spent in intense silence. Rocky gritted his teeth, itching to turn around and yell at Colt for instigating another fight yet again, and this time pulling their little brother into the fray. What was he thinking?
Grandpa parked the car and turned off the engine with sharp angry movements, jerking the keys out of the ignition. “You three, go sit on the bench.” He ordered tersely. “I am going to call the pizza parlor and try to salvage the situation.”
Glumly, they did as they were told. Colt managed to hold his silence until they sat down.
“They started it, Rocky!” The words burst out of him before the older boy could speak. “I’m not stupid, and I don’t have problems controlling my temper, no matter what dad says.” He scowled briefly. Sam Douglas Sr. had always been hard on his middle son, lecturing him about his temper and willingness to fight. “Dad still doesn’t get it, and neither does grandpa. I hate bullies, Rock – like Darren Jerkins and his goon squad at home, and those three hick cowboys today. Three grown men, harassing and putting hands on that girl, and no one did or said anything about it. They poured soda on her, and threw her down on the ground in front of a room full of adults.” Colt’s voice was filled with scorn. “And every single one of those adults sat back down quietly and looked away when the leader challenged them to say something.” He met his brother’s gaze, his own hazel green eyes dark with anger. “So I said and did something about it. That’s not being hotheaded, that’s just common sense!”
“He’s right, Rocky.” Tum spoke up, his tone somber and earnest. “Grandpa taught us to protect and stand up for those who can’t. That’s what we were doing. Besides, they threw the first punch, so it was self-defense, really. A bunch of goons vs two kids. So why are we getting punished for it?”
Rocky groaned, his anger subsiding. Colt’s frustration was understandable, since even Rocky had berated him multiple times for his temper and fighting at school. He had a point though.
“I get it, Colt.” He finally replied, meeting his brother’s gaze. “I really do, and I promise that I will try to at least listen to your reasons next time – before I yell at you.” That surprised a laugh out of the other boy. “As for Grandpa, yes, he’s wrong in his assumptions on why we were fighting, but I don’t think this lesson is gonna be about that itself. There’s something more. It’s Grandpa.”
His brothers rolled their eyes and groaned, knowing well their grandfather’s liking for obscure lessons. “True.”
“So Colt, you really have to – “
“-control my temper, yes I know.” Colt finished impatiently. “My control is just fine. If I see a situation like that, I’m not gonna just stand by like everyone else did!”
Rocky sighed. “Grandpa’s really mad this time though.” He pointed out.
All three boys involuntarily looked up to the kitchen windows, where they could see him pacing and gesturing as he talked to someone on the phone. “…Yes. That’s a good idea. The boys will be down there first thing in the morning.”
Rocky and Colt exchanged a look; that didn’t sound like good news. They both straightened up as their grandfather came outside, while Tum moved to sit between them. No matter the outcome, they would show a united front and take the punishment dictated.
As it turned out, Grandpa was more concerned and angry over the scene he had walked in on of the three boys in the center of an adoring crowd, praising them for fighting. The resulting lecture was a mix of warning – “You’re getting too cocky!”- mild threat – “maybe I should stop giving you ninja lessons…” – and obscure lesson – “listen to the sound of the flowers blooming. Only then will you be able to walk the correct path.” Overall though, they had gotten off fairly easy, though Colt was still a bit irritated at the overreactions.
Grandpa hadn’t even given him a chance to explain why he was fighting! He hadn’t been thinking about wanting to ‘play hero’, as the older man assumed; at least not for a bunch of strangers. They had actually gotten in the way of the teen’s original goal – to talk to the pretty Native American girl from the protests who had been the catalyst for this whole mess in the first place. What did he care about a bunch of adults who were intimidated by three lunkhead cowboys?
Colt sighed heavily, doling out a series of punches and kicks to the well worn practice dummy. Mori had set practice tasks for them to do, instead of allowing them to enjoy the rest of the day of freedom and starting their training in the morning. His brothers were at the target range, practicing with the throwing stars.
“Still thinking about earlier?” Rocky’s familiar voice sounded from behind him, as he and Tum walked over.
“It’s not fair, Rock!” The words burst out of him again, rife with frustration. “I wasn’t trying to be a hero, or doing it for attention! I was just doing the right thing, when no one else would!” Why didn’t anyone understand that?
“Shh!” Rocky warned, glancing towards the cabin. “It’s okay, Colt. I told you I get it. Grandpa’s wrong about this one.” That surprised Colt into silence; Rocky usually believed that their grandpa could do no wrong. “But this isn’t a battle that we can win. So we go clean up our mess, because if the manager was too scared to say anything to those guys about harassing that girl in the first place, then they sure as heck aren’t going to blame them for destroying the parlor or dare to ask them to clean up their mess and pay for the damages.” He pointed out logically. “And we’ll just try to keep any other confrontations under the radar. Okay?”
His brothers exchanged a considering look. Rocky knew full well that they had heard what he didn’t say – he was on their side, come any future dust ups with those goons or anyone else, which they knew was a near certainty. The small town of Azureheart was populated by under 5,000 people, and bracketed by the Indian reservation and land fill on one side, and a two lane high way that was a meandering hour and a half to the next major city on the other. Doty’s Pizza Parlor was a popular hangout for adults and kids alike, especially since they served beer during the day. Now that the boys were older, Mori had relented enough to allow them to ride their bikes into town after training, so it was inevitable that there would be another confrontation. Plus, trouble just managed to find them, especially when a cute girl was involved.
Tum nodded silently, agreeing with everything they had and hadn’t said. Colt, however, had something else on his mind now that his primary issue had been resolved.
“I just realized something.”
“What?” Rocky said absently, doing a couple of knee bends before reaching up to stretch. It was nearly lunch time; maybe he could get inside and nab the last of the roast beef before his voracious brothers (Tum Tum) got to it.
“You agreed with me.”
“Yes. That happened. DOn’t get used to it.” He retorted dryly.
“No. I mean you actually agreed and said that Grandpa was wrong.” Colt moved to face him, his eyes sparkling with mischief. “You, Rocky, Mister Self-Control and Discipline, sensei is always right, I am stone and occasionally a Rock-bot, actually said that our wise and honorable Grandfather was wrong.” His voice was full of awe. “Tum, I think he was officially hit in the head too many times.”
“Either that, or he was abducted by aliens.” Tum said thoughtfully, striking a defensive stance. “Who are you and what’d you do with Rocky?” He demanded, before snickering and relaxing. “And whatever you did, you can keep him. We like this one better already.”
“Oh yeah? We’ll see about that!” Rocky cried, lunging.
Tum yelped, and took off, with both of his brothers hot on his heels. In the kitchen, their grandpa shook his head, watching their antics. As smart and as keenly observent as his boys were, they were still kids who often missed the obvious – like the wide open window, through which he had heard the entire conversation. Despite Colt’s assumptions, he knew that they had not fought with the intention of becoming heroes, or wanting attention. Still, the sound of the flowers lesson was timely, and a good one to have, so he would let the impulsive teen keep his misconceptions for now. He resolved to do a bit of research on this Jack Harding and his lackeys, just in case. After the trouble with Synder and the alarming tendency of corrupt men to use children in order to control the adults, one could never be too careful. He’d give his son in law a call at the FBI tomorrow.
Rocky, Colt, and Tum Tum burst into the house, dishelved and dirty. Tum Tum leapt over the couch, putting it between him and his brothers. “C’mon guys!” he whined. “I was only joking!”
“Uh huh.” Rocky agreed.
“Sure you were.” Colt added.
They bracketed the couch, each stalking from a different direction. Tum split his gaze between them and the couch, gauging the distance to go back.
“Ahhh!” He bolted, but they moved faster, pinning him to the couch and tickling unmercifully as he laughed and squirmed. Colt sat on his chest, and Rocky his legs as Mori cleared his throat loudly. They shot him identically innocent smiles.
The man stifled a smile. “Rocky. Colt. Have you seen your brother? It is lunch time.”
“Nope, haven’t seen him. Rocky?”
“Not in the last few minutes, but Grandpa, you should really get your couch replaced. It’s all lumpy. Especially right here.” he sat down hard, eliciting a muffled grunt. “Oh, hey Tum. Didn’t see you there.”
“I’m gonna kill you–”
“Boys. Cease fire and wash up for lunch.” Mori interjected, amused.
Rocky and Colt leapt up, but Tum’s foot still connected solidly with Rocky’s thigh, and his fist with Colt’s hip as he twisted, blocking most of the blow.
“Cease fire, Tum Tum.” he repeated. “You may resume battle after lunch, if you have the energy.”
“We were just goofing around, Grandpa.” Tum glared at his brothers and stuck his tongue out at them as they smirked.
“Mm-hm. Go wash.” He waved them away, knowing that the tasks he had set for the afternoon training would tire them out enough to minimize the horseplay and rough housing for the rest of the day.
As he had intended, dinner was a quiet affair. They would be fine in the morning, Mori knew, but the first day of training was always the hardest, especially after a school year of mild conditioning and light sparring.
“Good night boys.” He called up the stairs to the loft.
“Night, grandpa.” Came the subdued replay. Satisfied, Mori sought out his own bed.
“Hey wait a minute.You just said that Grandpa was wrong.”
“Go to sleep, Colt.”
“You never do that. Mister always-follow-the-rules, I-am-stone and never react to anything, Rock-bot just admitted that our all-knowing wise sensei grandfather was wrong.” Colt pretended to wipe a tear from his eyes. “I’m so proud.”
Rocky thumped him in the face with his pillow. “Shut up and go to sleep, jerk.” He pointedly closed his eyes, willing himself to take his own advice, but sleep wouldn’t come. Stone. Rock. Cool. Composed. Steady. Rocky had always been an observer, a thinker. An ‘old soul’, his mom had called him once. He liked those descriptions, and was proud of his ability to observe, think, and assess a situation instead of charging straight into the chaos, as Colt often did. It was annoying and exasperating, but that was just who his younger brother was; full of life and energy, inherently confident in his own abilities, the same way his wild namesake was. Rocky had learned the hard way a long time ago that it was easier to suggest rather than outright order when it came to his impulsive younger brother. Orders and lectures just made him dig his heels in and more determined to do things his way just to prove you wrong. Unfortunately, the wilder Colt got over the years, the more Rocky had to be like the stone he was named for; unmovable, unyielding force to stand against the wind.
Sometimes it was boring though, always being the voice of reason. What if Rocky wanted to be the wild one, with the crazy ideas and impulsive decisions? His eyes shot open. What if he started acting more like Colt? The main reason his younger brother got away with some of his antics was because Rocky was there to pull him back. But what if Rocky turned the tables on him? Made him actually be the logical, thoughtful one for once. The teen smirked into the dark. He didn’t know if he would actually go through with his secret plan, but it was amusing to think about. Grandpa always reminded them that a ninja was equal parts mind, body, spirit, and heart, but somehow he had been designated as ‘mind’ only, while Colt embodied the spirit aspect. But his brother was intelligent and observant, while Rocky could be passionate and instinctual. Maybe they just needed the right opportunities to show it.
Rocky quickly forgot about his hazy what-if plan to be more impulsive and instinctive in an effort to get his brother to act more responsible, yet somehow Colt managed to do it all on his own. Maybe it was age, maybe something had just ‘clicked’ in the inexplicable ways of adolescence, but the two boys worked more smoothly than they ever had as a team over the next few days, planning and executing a rescue mission for Jo’s father (and later Jo herself) almost flawlessly, and being a big part of the obstacles that eventually foiled Jack Harding’s evil scheme of dumping illegal waste in the landfill.
The Indian reservation had been exceedingly grateful, and had ultimately shown that appreciation in the best way possible. Someone – Rocky suspected at Jo’s suggestion – had struck a deal with Doty’s Pizza Parlor on their behalf. Free pizza and unlimited game tokens for every visit for the rest of their lives. Even Tum had declared he was full – after consuming three medium pan pizzas loaded with anchovies, all by himself. Rocky and Colt had made him sleep downstairs on the couch that night, declaring that they couldn’t stand the smell. They had also chased him around with water balloons, as part of a ‘moving target exercise’, and to ‘help’ him rid himself of the last lingering remnants of the fishy smell. Grandpa had even the odds and given Tum a Super Soaker to return fire. The fight was eventually called a draw, and the older boys had let their younger sibling back into the loft.
The rest of the summer had flown by, between ninja training and Colt’s budding romance with Jo. For all of their teasing, Rocky and Tum actually liked her, mainly because she made a conscious effort to not interrupt their dynamic or relationship with their brother. She was also just as willing to team up with Tum for a baking day (and flour fight), or teach Rocky about the different types of birds and critters that habituated the reservation. She also taught Colt how to ride a horse, which he was terrified of at first but quickly took a liking to.
All in all, it was one of the best summers that the boys could remember having.
“Rocky. Phone for you.” Grandpa called, causing the teen to look up from where he was fiercely battling Tum in Mortal Kombat.
“Okay. Be there in a sec.” He replied, tossing the controller to Colt, who immediately took over with the ease of long practice. “I get my full turn when I get back!” he said, leaping over the back of the couch and going to the phone. “Hello?”
“Hey, Rock. Didn’t know if I would catch you before you guys came back.” The familiar voice of his friend Ethan filled his ear, making the teen grin.
“Oh, hey E. We’ll be back tomorrow. What’s up?” he said cheerfully, only half listening as he watched as Colt finally killed Tum’s character. “Yes! My title stands undefeated!” “Rocky, have you talked to Emily at all this summer?” Ethan said, regaining his attention.
“No, but I never do while we’re here. Reception is pretty bad, so we’re only supposed to give this number to close friends and family. No girls.” He answered dryly. “Why?”
Ethan sighed. “You may want to make an exception to that rule, my man…”
“I can’t believe I’m gonna be in sixth grade!” Tum Tum bounced excitedly in his seat the next day, his words as always slightly garbled by the piece of candy in his mouth.
“Yeah. One more year and you might even be considered a real boy, instead of a human candy disposal.” Colt teased.
“Shut up, spaz,” Tum retorted. “I’m a growing boy.”
“You’re a bottomless pit.”
Rocky ignored their playful bickering, instead turning his gaze to stare at the passing scenery as they drove ever closer to home. He missed the questioning look his siblings exchanged, even as they continued their back and forth banter.
The reason for his uncharacteristic moodiness became apparent when they pulled onto the street where they lived. As always, Colt was keeping an eye out for the bright blonde hair of Emily Anderson, Rocky’s on again off again girlfriend, and their neighbor. He started to cat call, expecting her to look up and smile as she did every year when they drove by coming home from their Grandpa’s, but the sound died on his lips when he saw who she was with. Rocky shot him a warning look, having seen the same thing, and shook his head, a silent order. Colt glared back, an equally warning retort that the brothers would be talking about this later. Tum Tum, however, missed their exchange, and frowned. “Hey, isn’t that Emily? What’s she doing with Darren Jerkins little brother? And – ew! They’re kiss-” He grunted as Colt elbowed him hard. “Oh! Um, hey! Dad’s car isn’t in the driveway. Grandpa, are you gonna stay for dinner?” He said quickly, trying to cover his mistake.
“I will stay, as long as it is not pizza.” Mori readily answered, which led to playful protests from his youngest grandsons.
They finally pulled into their driveway, and the boys jumped out, grabbing their duffel bags. Rocky headed for the garage instead of the front door, Colt hot on his heels.
“Colt, let it go.” He said tiredly, huffing as his brother blocked his path.
“No. What happened?” Colt said evenly. “Does this have to do with that phone call you got from E?” His brother had returned to the video game only a few moments after speaking to Ethan, but something had been off for the rest of the night.
“He was calling me to give me a heads up about…that.” Rocky shrugged nonchalantly. “Whatever. I made my choice, and she made hers. It’s done.”
They faced off, nearly identical in stance, body, and build, despite the ten month age difference. Colt’s perpetually messy, slightly long sandy brown hair and tanned skin brought out the hints of green in his hazel brown eyes, whereas Rocky was of a slightly paler complexion, with lighter hair and more blue than green in his eyes.
“Rocky.” Colt warned, his voice hard. “Either you tell me, or I go over there and find out for myself.”
The older boy sighed heavily, because he knew that his hot-headed younger brother wasn’t bluffing.
“Colt-” “What. Did. She. Say?”
“Why are you pushing this so hard?” Rocky demanded, shoving him away.
Colt let him do it, then shoved right back. “Because, jerkass, I know you almost better than anyone. You’re gonna internalize whatever she said and let it eat at you, because you are stone and invincible and a perfectionist and a control freak. But not even stone can stand forever against the wind, so just tell me so we can go inside and laugh at Grandpa grumbling about being out numbered on deciding on pizza for dinner.”
Rocky narrowed his eyes, but Colt merely raised his brows and waited.
“Wind? You’re full of hot air, more like.”
“At least I don’t have rocks in my head.”
The familiar retorts relaxed them both enough to ease out of their stances and stand more normally. Rocky’s shoulders slumped slightly, as he ran a hand through his hair. “We got into a fight before we left for the summer. She was mad because I chose to go to Grandpa’s instead of staying here with her.”
Colt’s jaw dropped. “But…we’ve been going to Grandpa’s every summer since we were five!”
“Well, we’re fifteen now, and about to be freshmen, even though we’re still in junior high. This is year that makes or breaks our reputations, apparently.” Rocky said dryly. “And since I chose my brothers this year over supporting her trying out for cheer and drill team, she decided that she would find someone ‘willing to invest physically and emotionally’ in a relationship.” He shook his head as his brother rolled his eyes. “Also, dating Darren Jenkin’s little brother means that he and his goon squad won’t steal your bike or try to bully you out of your lunch money.” He grimaced. “Ethan called last night before we left to give me a heads up, otherwise it would’ve been news to me too when we drove by.” He had been watching for the couple as they drove up the street, knowing his ex-girlfriend couldn’t resist being out there to gauge his reaction. For that reason alone, he had made a point of not reacting, and enjoyed the scowl that marred her face as she glared at their retreating figures.
“That conniving, two faced, scheming little – ”
“Colt!” Rocky snapped, grabbing his arm, but couldn’t help the reluctant grin. “It’s done. Let it go.”
His brother glared down the street. “Aw, c’mon. Can I go short sheet her bed? I can get in and out, easy. Her parents are never home anyway. What about TP’ing her house? Or I know! I can go let all the air out of her bike tires. Let’s see her get to school on time after that!”
“C’mon, idiot. Let’s go.” Rocky rolled his eyes, turning away to grab his duffel bag. Colt watched him for a second before darting by him, jabbing him in the side on the way.
“Still too slow! Guess you’ve got rocks in your head and your feet!” he teased, taking off with his brother in hot pursuit.
Later that night, after the last ‘mom’ bed check, Rocky’s quiet voice sounded out of the dark.
Nothing else needed to be said. For all of their bickering and competing over the years, they both knew that they would always watch out for and protect each other, physically and emotionally – even when their sibling insisted that he didn’t need it. Of all the many lessons they had learned from their grandfather, this one was ingrained in them almost from birth, and had never needed to be vocalized.
The boys were up early the next morning out of habit, not eagerness to get to school. Well, Rocky and Colt weren’t eager; Tum was still bouncing and excited, literally riding circles around his older brothers as they got their bikes out of the garage. His enthusiasm was contagious, and within a few minutes the older boys had shaken off their pensive mood. Colt whooped and raced past his brother, darting into the fenced off construction area. Spurred on by the challenge, Rocky laughed and tore past him to the first improvised bike jump, catching a nice bit of air and enjoying the shock that ran through him as he landed. Tum was old enough to take the jumps on his own now, but he was still more cautious, bypassing some of them to come out ahead of his brothers as they went through the last set. It was a thrilling feeling, being free to do whatever they wanted, just the three of them.
Breathless and joking now, the older boys dropped their sibling off at Brookdale Elementary, with strong admonitions to be waiting out front for them when school got out. The three schools: Brookdale, Kentwood Junior High, and Emerald Ridge High School, were next door to each other in a loose horseshoe shape. The elementary was in the middle, with the high school on the left and the junior high on the right. The three schools had made use of the large fields in the back, boasting a shared baseball field, football stadium and track, a soccer field, and plenty of grassy areas for sports teams of all levels. Rocky and Colt continued to the junior high, locking their bikes up among the jumble of others already taking up space at the racks, and moved to the front steps.
“I think that this is the first time that I’ve been nervous about going back to school.” Rocky said quietly, looking up at the building.
“Why? Because of Emily?” Colt scoffed. “C’mon, man. She’s just some chick. Honestly, she’s not even cute. Everyone says that you’re supposed to lose the baby fat when you hit high school.” He grimaced. “Maybe she’s just slow…to mature.”
“Did you just call my ex girlfriend fat?” Rocky said, incredulous, finding the words surprisingly easy to say out loud for the first time.
Colt shrugged innocently, though his eyes were sparkling mischievously. “Fat and slow, if we’re going for accuracy.”
The brothers stared at each other for about three seconds, waiting. Rocky broke first, throwing his head back and as he laughed until he cried. “You’re an idiot.” he said affectionately. “But thanks. Again.”
Colt rolled his eyes, leading the way inside. “In the spirit of this weird and incredibly awkward truce that we seem to have, I will even offer this one time, take it or leave it, yes there’s fine print but no you can’t negotiate or read it, extremely generous offer. I, Colt Daniels, promise not to get into a fight with anyone today.”
Rocky stopped dead in his tracks to stare. “Wait, what?”
“You heard me. For this one school day only, 7:45am to 2:30pm, I will not instigate a fight.” Colt said blandly. “Even though it’s practically a family tradition. Subject to change, via the aformentioned fine print. I suggest, however, that you accept the deal in the spirit in which it was offered, because this will never happen again.”
“This is very true.”