Gregory was getting too old for this.
Looking at his son made him feel his age like he rarely did when alone with his wife. Mentally, he still considered himself his son’s age; sharp of wits, brimming with youthful energy. But his son never had the stiffness he’d get in the cold winter mornings when climbing out of bed. His son floated easily through a world that no longer seemed simple and straightforward to Gregory. His son had half as many memories to wade through, half as many associations to every object; his son had twice as much energy left to fight this battle.
And a battle it would be. Lance had always been a fighter, since the day he was born, screaming defiance into the world with newborn lungs. Gregory had done his best to instill a sense of honor into the boy, a sense of fair play; despite his admonishment that violence was not the answer, that being sweet to the other children would get him further in life, six-year-old Lance still was sent home early at least once a week for fighting with the other children on the playground. Gregory had assumed at first that this was boyish mischeif – pigtail-pulling and taunting, the sort of childish games he remembered well from his own playground days. Not that he had ever participated as a child; he was more likely to be bullied than to be the bully, but every boy was different, and surely it wasn’t too late to turn his son from the violent path into a way of peace and good will. A parent-teacher conference shattered that illusion, however: he hadn’t merely yanked Lucy’s pigtails, he had punched her clear in the face, knocking her down into the mud. Gregory’s son was a bully, and worse, one that picked on the weak and helpless.
Gregory had never in his life hit a girl. When he was six, his mother had already establishedc roles for him and his twin. He was the kind one – a phrase he suspected later in life of secretly meaning “homosexual”, given that he took pride in his long hair and had no interest in the rough-and-tumble games the other boys played. At six, he had embraced the distinction; he put more of his allowance into the collection plate than his mother asked, made sure to give coins to beggers, and always had a smile ready on his lips for a crying girl. He rarely talked back to his elders, and readily basked in the glow of a simple pat on the head or a compliment from an adult on how well-behaved he was. He opened doors for his mother’s friends, primarily to hear them coo over what a nice young man he was becoming; he did his best to bring home top marks in his classes, delighted to hear his mother insist that he was “so smart!”.
His twin brother, on the other hand, was not told to be kind. He was told to be strong. “You have to protect your brother,” their mother had admonished him. “He’s too kind to stick up for himself.” Obsidian had taken that to heart; when they changed schools in the third grade, Gregory was teased for only a week before Obsidian took on four bullies himself, striking fear into their hearts. He, like Lance, was often suspended for fighting; each time, however, it was to protect himself and his brother from their classmates, and soon he gained a reputation that earned him, if not friendship, at least respect. Gregory had hoped that his twin would mellow with age, but as teenagers, while he was in his room studying, Obsidian was working after school to save up for a motercycle. It wasn’t that his brother was lazy or unmotivated; Obsidian had always worked as hard as Gregory did. But while Gregory had worked at his schoolwork, Obsidian had taken up martial arts, perfecting his body rather than his mind; while Gregory had worked at being kind and sweet and gentle, earning praise for his efforts, Obsidian had worked at perfecting his image, earning fear from their peers.
The births of their sons, four years apart, had had opposite effects on each brother. Like everything else in Obsidan’s life, his son Kumo was hard-won after a long battle; against medical advice, they had decided to try “one more time”, winning for their efforts an underweight, premature, yet otherwise healthy baby boy. Holding his newborn son, however, Obsidian’s face was more tender and fierce than Gregory had ever seen him before. Like much in Gregory’s life, Lance had come easily; he and his wife had barely begun trying to get pregnant when Lance arrived, strong and healthy and a little past due. That, of course, was the last thing that came easily about Lance. Six years later, just as Kumo was putting on weight and starting to catch up to his development plan, Gregory found himself completely overwhelmed with his own son.
He had tried to explain to him why knocking Lucy down was wrong. “They don’t fight back the way boys do,” he had explained. “They’re weaker than you. You shouldn’t hit people who can’t fight back.”
To his amazement, his son had simply smiled at him. “That’s all right then,” he had replied, casually. “Lucy hits harder than I do.”
The world had changed, reflected Gregory, looking his son in the eye. When he was a child, he’d never have talked back like that. As an adult, he’d never have considered leaving his wife. Aldrea needed him, and he needed her; when they had married, they had made a commitment he never intended to break. He took his vows seriously; it wasn’t as though they’d never had problems, never fought. They’d fought plenty – and often over Lance. Aldrea had insisted that there was nothing wrong with her son, that he was merely high-spirited, but Gregory knew that wasn’t true. He had failed his son, failed to instill the most important values in him; his son was defective, lacking in morals, and it was his responsibility to correct that. He had tried calmly explaining the situation and been ignored. He had put the child over his knee and spanked him, though it wounded his heart to raise his hand to another human being, and yet still Lance persisted in fighting, in bullying the weak.
Finally, Aldrea had managed to convince him that it wasn’t a failure in parenting so much as a failure to understand. She had insisted that he had to understand the boy before he could properly correct his behavior. Gregory had to make allowances, she had insisted – not every boy was as well-behaved as he was as a child. Desperate, he had turned to the one man he knew who might have a chance at understanding the problem: his twin brother. Looking back, he regretted this decision; he had run from his responsibility, forced his brother to take care of his responsibility yet again. His son was no more understandable now than when he was a child – except to his brother, who insisted that the boy “wasn’t that bad” and “had a good heart” despite a lifetime of troublemaking and fighting.
Boy… Gregory mentally corrected himself, shying away from that word. His son was a man now, grown and wedded and with a son of his own. And yet, the eyes that looked into Gregory’s now were the same eyes that had defied him at six: determined, fully convinced of their own correctness, ready to challenge him, to fight him however long it took. Heart heavy, Gregory lifted his tea mug to his lips, drawing out the awkward silence as he groped for something to say to his son.
Come to think of it, why was his brother sitting next to the boy, a hand on his knee? Obsidian should be by Gregory’s side, he thought bitterly. He had never had a soft spot for Gregory the way he did for his son; remembering their boyhood fights, Gregory could almost feel once more the bruises he had received for “being stupid” and “sucking up”. When push came to shove, his twin was the fiercest friend he could have, but he did not hesitate to try to protect Gregory from himself, misguided though the effort might be. Gregory couldn’t bother counting the number of times he’d been shoved, smacked, or yelled at; a few incidents stood out in his mind, blurring into a continuum denoting his childhood. The time Obsidian had shoved him for telling when Mark had stolen an eraser: “Mark’s twice your size and he knows it was you, you gonna fight him yourself? Stop making things harder!”. The time Gregory had been seen comforting Justin’s girlfriend: “Everyone knows that’s JJ’s girl, you leave her be!”. The time he’d considered joining the army: “You’ll break mom’s heart, and you can’t fight worth shit.” The time he’d almost backed out of proposing to Aldrea. Every time, Obsidian had been trying to protect him from consequences the best way he knew how: by preventing him from making the mistake. Once or twice, he’d even been right.
At first it seemed he was doing the same for Lance, but as the years went by, Gregory noticed more and more frequently that his twin was nudging his opinion of his son away from what it was, convincing him to punish the boy less, to give him more freedom. Eventually, Gregory hardly recognized either of them; they were a pair, always together, as though they were father and son rather than uncle and nephew.
Meanwhile, the boy hadn’t gentled a bit.