A/N: This is a birthday gift for Allison, two days late. I hope you like it. I love you to the moon.
They say a man's greatest hero is his father. For much of my life, I would have said that was true.
Up until I met Burt Hummel, that is.
When I was a kid, I was always a little starstruck by my dad. He seemed so tall, so strong. He wore impeccable suits with shiny leather shoes, and spoke with authority, even if it was to ask how my day was. The tone was unmistakeable; my day had better have been good, because he didn't want to hear anything less.
When a pipe leaked, or a stair squeaked, or the car engine rattled, my dad took out his toolbox and made short work of fixing the problem. I used to peek out from behind corners, watching him work. He probably would have let me sit beside him, if I'd asked, but I never found the nerve.
He took important telephone calls, barking orders into the phone, and I imitated his tone as I played with my G.I. Joes.
Mom used to laugh about my love of Disney movies.
"You really want to see Snow White again? Sweetheart, you must have it memorized by now." She took me to the theater anyway – the one that showed old movies on the weekend – and sat with me through yet another matinee.
The Prince woke Snow White with a kiss, and I hugged my knees, smiling.
The summer I turned ten, Max Winterstein moved in next door. He was my age, and he loved sports. I'd never been much of an athlete, but I wasn't about to turn down a new friend. And so I learned to share his love of baseball, and football, and basketball, and hockey.
We joined a Little League team together. I played left field, and Max was the catcher. That season we had fourteen wins, one loss, and one tie. Our record was mostly due to the pitching prowess of Brian Palder, but we all basked in the success anyway.
Mr. Winterstein came to all of our games, and cheered us on from the stands. He asked me once why my father didn't ever come. I answered loftily, "He's a really important businessman."
The truth was, I'd never told my dad about the games.
I'd been afraid he wouldn't come.
Dad was aloof, and Mom treated me like a toddler. So no, there was no sex talk for me. I knew I'd be marrying a girl one day, just like the Prince who ended up with Snow White (or Cinderella, or Sleeping Beauty... it depended on which prince we were talking about). But what I didn't know was the mechanics of it all.
Max, on the other hand, knew all about it.
We were both twelve, and his older brother Lawrence was eighteen. Max managed to sneak a dirty magazine out from under Lawrence's bed, and we examined it together, poring over the pages as we lay on the floor of his treehouse.
"Wow," he breathed, staring at a photo of a topless woman.
I nodded quickly. "Yeah, wow." I wasn't sure what we were wowing about, but I didn't want to be rude.
"I'm gonna think about her tonight in bed," he grinned.
"Oh, so that you'll dream about her?"
He rolled his eyes. "Come on, Anderson, don't tell me you've never..." He made a weird motion with his hand, like he was holding a martini shaker.
I guess my expression gave me away, and to his credit, Max didn't make fun of me. Instead, he patiently walked me through the basics of masturbation, until I was left blushing furiously and staring at the treehouse floor.
"Here," he said, tossing the magazine to me. "Look at this tonight while you try it. Pictures make it a lot easier. And spit in your hand, that helps too."
That night, I lay in bed and stared at the topless woman who had so entranced my friend. She had full, shiny lips, and enormous breasts. I reached down and gave myself a few squeezes, but nothing seemed to happen, so I gave up.
The next night, I tried again. I rubbed and squeezed and stroked, to no avail. I remembered what Max had said, about imagining the woman while he lay in bed. Maybe looking right at her was the problem. Maybe I needed to keep her in my imagination.
Closing my eyes, I leaned back and thought about the tips Max had given me. I remembered the intense look on his face as he explained the best ways to make it feel really good. I imagined him lying next to me, whispering the advice into my ear. It got harder in my hand, and I rubbed it faster. I pictured Max assessing my form, suggesting this or that, before he reached forward and took hold of me himself, to demonstrate.
There was a frightening-but-amazing moment, and then my stomach was covered with sticky stuff.
And then, I started to suspect that something was really wrong.
I gave Max the magazine back. He asked if it worked; I assured him it had. He laughed and gave me a high-five.
We were the best of friends. We rode our bikes for miles, camped out in his back yard, went fishing in the creek.
Just because I thought of him when I did that, it didn't mean anything.
I was a normal kid. Just like every other boy.
Junior high school changed all of that.
We joined the junior varsity soccer team together. I was small and quick, so I got to play right wing. Max's height and long arms made him an ideal goalie. At first it was fun, really fun. And then everything went to hell.
It was after a game that it first happened. I was getting changed out of my sweaty uniform, and Andrew Johnson walked by in the nude, heading for the showers. To my horror, I felt the telltale stiffening in my underwear.
"Whoa," Sammy Keller laughed. "Look who's popping wood."
Max laughed, too. "Must be thinking about the cheerleaders, huh?"
I smiled weakly, and nodded. They bought it at first, until the same thing happened after our next three practices. Practices which were decidedly girl-free.
"Quit watching me, faggot," Andrew said roughly, and I felt my heart sink.
I looked over, and Max was staring at me like I was a stranger.
The next day, he didn't meet me to walk to school together. He sat at another table at lunch, and after practice, he hopped on his bike wordlessly and rode off.
We never spoke again.
My mother noticed how much time I was suddenly spending alone.
"We never see Max around anymore," she said to me one day. "Why don't you invite him over for supper?" I don't know what expression crossed my face in response, but that was the last time my mom ever mentioned Max to me.
My dad, doubtlessly at my mother's urging, started taking more of an interest in me. One day he brought home a model airplane kit, the same type he'd built as a kid, and we worked on it together. Another day, we built a bench for my mom's garden. Then there was the old Chevy we rebuilt, and the hunting trip–
"So," he said, as we floated in a fishing boat on Alum Creek Lake. "Got yourself a girlfriend yet?"
"No, sir," I replied quietly.
He huffed out a sound of surprise. "You're fifteen years old. Why, by your age, I'd already gone steady with two different girls. And that was when I was attending an all-boys academy. You see girls every day."
I thought about Max, and the locker room. I thought about the taunts, and the purple bruises that my long sleeves were managing to hide. "Dad, I was thinking..."
"I know I told you I didn't want to go to Dalton like you did, but I think maybe it would be a good thing for me."
When I glanced up at him, he was beaming with something like pride. I couldn't figure out if it was relief I was feeling, or guilt.
I transferred to Dalton at the beginning of my sophomore year. I didn't tell anyone from my public school that I was leaving; no one there would miss me anyway.
My roommate was a Chinese-American boy named Wesley Leung. He was very nice, if a bit formal, and I liked him at once. We made ideal roommates. He was good at all the subjects I struggled in, and vice versa. We helped each other out with our homework, before relaxing and listening to music. For the first time since Max, I had a real friend.
One day in the cafeteria, he noticed me eying another boy – a tall, lean boy with blond hair and dimples.
"That's Christopher," he supplied.
"Yeah. He's got a girlfriend."
"Oh," I said nonchalantly, my cheeks burning. "So what? What do I care?"
Wes was kind enough to smile and continue eating without comment.
My crush on Christopher would continue unabated for nearly eight months, until I saw him making out with his girlfriend on the east lawn. After that, I guess I realized that he was a lost cause.
There were other boys who were... like me, at Dalton. They didn't flaunt it, necessarily, but we all knew. There was Stephen in my history class, and Mark in my chemistry class, and Dick (ironically) on my soccer team. Stephen was dating Dick, and Mark had a boyfriend at a public school nearby. As for me, I never confirmed anything to anyone. If they suspected, as Wes had, they didn't say anything to me about it.
It was in the fall of my junior year that I met him. He was walking down the great staircase, and the light hit his hair a certain way, and his eyes sparkled at me with interest, and I swear it felt like a moment out of a Disney movie.
He spoke softly, and sang beautifully. He wore stylish clothes and had lovely manners. We became fast friends, and then, suddenly, we were more than friends. I'd suspected I was... different, but I guess I never knew it for sure until I kissed him that afternoon. The slow swoop of my stomach, the sharp twist of my heart, it was all so perfect.
Kissing became our favorite pastime. Wes was kind – and discreet – about giving us time alone in the bedroom. Slowly we moved past kissing, and I felt a joy I'd never known existed.
One weekend, Wes went home. We had the whole weekend – two full days – alone in my bedroom. And while yes, there was sex – plenty of it, and great – there was also so much love. We spent hours talking quietly, and touching each other, and just sharing each other's space.
There was a moment, on that Sunday morning, when he was kissing my neck and his eyelashes fluttered against my jaw, that I thought: "This is it. This is the happiest I'll ever be."
Turns out, I was right.
"You have to tell him."
We were sitting in my car, outside my house. Staring at the front door.
"Are you ashamed of me?" he asked tremulously.
"Never," I said quickly, grabbing his hand and squeezing it.
"Then tell him."
"Then you're going to lose me."
"I can't do that either."
We sat there for nearly an hour. I cried and pleaded with him, and he cried and pleaded with me. Then I pulled the stick into reverse, and we drove back to Dalton in silence.
We never spoke again.
I met Alice during my sophomore year at Columbia. She was a bright-eyed freshman wearing a red Buckeyes sweatshirt, so of course I struck up a conversation with her. Her family was from Worthington, not fifteen minutes away from where I'd grown up. She was sweet, and looked a little like Sleeping Beauty.
We went to the movies often. She liked any film, old or new. We watched Casablanca and Adam's Rib and Grapes of Wrath, and we saw Pretty in Pink twice. She teasingly accused me of having a crush on Molly Ringwald, but in truth, it was Andrew McCarthy who had set my pulse racing.
She was a nice girl.
And my dad kept asking when I was going to settle down with a nice girl.
We were married the summer after Alice's senior year. We'd waited till then to consummate our marriage, and I could say that I didn't picture... his face while we...
Three years later, Alice gave birth to a son.
He had thick, black hair, and kept looking at me steadily. For some reason, it made me nervous.
"We could name him after your father," Alice suggested. "Or mine. Or he could be a junior."
I hummed noncommittally.
"What name do you like?" she asked.
And suddenly, I thought of Andrew McCarthy.
Blaine was everything I hadn't been as a child. He was a natural athlete, and a gifted musician, and he charmed everyone he met with an easy social grace. He smiled widely and laughed often.
The only person he didn't win over, oddly, was me.
He persisted in watching me all the time; when I left for work, when I read the newspaper during breakfast, when I helped Alice out by doing simple home repairs. Blaine's gaze was a constant, suffocating presence in the house.
I felt sure that he knew, somehow. Knew my Deep, Dark Secret.
My own son was judging me, and I was coming up short.
Alice kept telling me that we were more alike than I thought. She pushed me into taking Blaine on camping trips, or teaching him woodworking. Every six months or so, I'd make another failed attempt at bonding, before I came back to the inevitable conclusion that he and I had nothing in common.
Then, the summer before his fourteenth birthday, he came out to us.
I attended my twenty-fifth reunion at Dalton. It was my first time back to campus since graduation. The buildings and grounds looked exactly the same. I couldn't say the same for my fellow alumni. We were all grayer, stockier, more lined.
I ran into Wes Leung by the hors d'oeuvres station, and he gave me a hearty handshake.
"I never thought I'd see you again," he admitted. "How've you been?"
"Been great," I replied. I looked around the room surreptitiously, and Wes caught the glance.
"He's not here," he said quietly, and I let out a harsh breath. "So things are going well, then?"
"They are. Business is good, family's good."
"You've got kids?" he asked.
"Just one. Blaine. He's fifteen. My wife and I decided one was enough."
Wes beamed and pulled out his wallet, showing me a few photos that were stashed inside. "This is my daughter Jennifer – she's a freshman at Duke. Wesley Jr., he's a sophomore here at Dalton. And our youngest, Walter, he's ten."
I looked up in surprise. "You named your son Walter?"
Wes looked a little bashful. "I think you always underestimated what our friendship meant to me, Walt. Let's not lose touch again, okay?"
He was a good man, Wesley Leung. We exchanged our contact information, and later, when things got bad and Blaine had to transfer mid-year, a well-placed phone call from Wes allowed Blaine to bypass the waiting list completely.
At my wife's prodding, the bonding efforts continued, much to Blaine's and my mutual dismay. We restored an old Chevy in the driveway, and Blaine blasted a Top 40 radio station the whole time, dancing around and singing along. I rolled my eyes and looked away, my foot tapping traitorously along with the beat.
I didn't know how to relate to my own son. With every glossy poster of a male heartthrob he tacked up on his bedroom wall, every passing reference to Robert Pattinson's dreamy eyes or Zac Efron's killer abs, every sidelong glance he gave an attractive young man who walked by, I remembered that gray afternoon that I sat in front of my parents' house and fought for the strength to tell my father who I was.
Blaine played the soundtrack to Mulan one morning, and sang along with "I'll Make a Man Out of You." His voice was getting quite good, I thought.
"What do you think makes a man?" he asked me.
I pondered that for a moment, before replying, "Courage."
He nodded, and handed me a carburetor.
"Don't tell Blaine I told you," Alice murmured to me one night, as we got ready for bed. "But he went out on a date tonight."
"Oh?" I went through the obligatory sigh and eye-roll routine. "Who's the guy?"
"It's not a boy. He went out with a girl from McKinley High."
I managed to let out a hum of interest, finish changing into my pajamas, and stroll down to the guest bathroom before vomiting into the toilet.
I couldn't let Blaine do this. I couldn't let him do what I'd done; suppress who he was in order to be what the world wanted him to be. I couldn't let him grow old knowing that his entire marriage, his entire life was nothing but a sham.
For three full weeks, I agonized over what to do, what to say. I couldn't tell him the truth, so how could I convince him that I knew what I was talking about? I popped antacids during the days and slept fitfully during the nights. Something was building, something was coming. I had to do this, for my son.
In the end, I walked in on him and his friend Kurt kissing in his bed, and it turned out I didn't have to do anything at all.
My parents came to visit for Easter. Mom cooed over Blaine as she always did, and Dad thumped him on the back soundly.
"How are you doing, boy?"
"I'm doing just fine, sir."
"How are you liking Dalton?"
"I like it very much."
"You're doing well in your classes?"
"Yes, sir, I have a 4.0."
"Good, good. Do you have a girlfriend yet?"
"No, sir, I have a boyfriend."
I held my breath. Alice froze, and my mom stared at my dad.
"Well, whatever makes you happy," Dad said. "Alice, please tell me you've made that wonderful stew again this year."
I excused myself politely and walked upstairs, shutting myself in my bedroom closet and punching the wall until my knuckles bled. I clutched my hand to my chest and slid down to the floor, sobs overtaking me. The tears ran down my cheeks and tickled my jaw like the flutter of phantom eyelashes.
The August before Blaine's senior year, Alice invited the Hummels over for a barbecue. After months of knowing Kurt, I was surprised to meet his father. I guess I'd expected someone more refined; someone who didn't have motor oil embedded under his fingernails.
"Burt Hummel," he said, shaking my hand firmly.
"Walter Anderson," I replied. "It's nice to meet you."
He gave a tight smile in response, and I wondered what, exactly, Blaine had told him about me.
His wife and stepson filed in behind him, and our two families sat down together in the living room. Finn seemed uncomfortable initially until I brought up football, and then he chattered excitedly about the upcoming season. Burt talked about the team's prospects, and Carole joined in on the conversation too. Blaine and Kurt hung back, watching us from the doorway.
"Would you like some iced tea?" Alice asked. "I have the most wonderful recipe. It only takes a few minutes to make, and it tastes like it's been brewed all day."
"You'll have to give me that recipe," Carole replied. "We all love iced tea."
Alice stood. "Why don't you come with me? I'll show you how to make it."
"That would be great." Carole stood, too, and motioned to Finn. "Why don't you come help us," she said.
"Because I asked," she replied. He huffed out a breath and followed the women out of the room.
I was left with Burt, and our two sons in the doorway, and I had the sneaking suspicion this had been planned.
"So," Burt said. "Blaine's a good kid."
"He is," I agreed.
"You two have a good relationship?" he asked.
I spared a glance over at the doorway, and saw Blaine's neck begin to flush. "We do all right, yes."
"A boy needs a father to look up to," Burt said, his gaze intense. "Needs to know his father loves and accepts him."
I thought about camping trips, and old Chevy cars, and closets. "Yeah."
"They say a man's greatest hero is his father," Burt pressed.
"My greatest hero is my son," I said without thinking.
Burt blinked at me in surprise, and when I looked back to the doorway, Blaine and Kurt were gone.
The next morning, Blaine knocked on my bedroom door at five o'clock. It was still dark out, and I looked at him blearily. "Blaine? What is it?"
"I thought maybe we could go fishing," he said. He had two rods in one hand, a tackle box in the other, and a gleam of hope in his eyes.
We took a boat out on Alum Creek Lake. Didn't talk much, and didn't catch anything.
Still, it was a start.