The Bully and the Bullied

by Sean English

Part 3

Friendships and Trust

In America, between the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, schools tend to be filled with a different atmosphere, especially throughout the early weeks of December. While some students scramble, doing their work with the end of the semester in sight, the overall mood is considerably lighter because of the approaching holiday break. It was the winding down of this period, the tests, end-of-term finals and other events, that led up to the weekend when Michael invited his friend over yet again. Unlike their previous excursions together however, this visit was different, one where Thomas got to glimpse into the lives of his neighbors in a different manner. It had given him a hope, one building inside as of late, that perhaps he didn't have to be so alone in the world anymore. The "hug" had worked its way into a sealing thread of his relationship with Michael, and in the short space of time it took, both were set upon a path that would define what their friendship would mean to each other.

Monday morning, Michael boarded the bus with a certain anticipation. Thomas had not called the night before, and Michael's mother had been adamant that they leave him alone. Although amused by his eagerness, Carolyn asserted that waiting until the next morning to get his answer would be perfectly fine. With hope occupying his thoughts the whole evening as it did, Michael did not sleep well. He wasn't worried about the hug, as he had already reasoned that out for himself. He wasn't sure why Thomas took the steps that he did, but Michael had chosen to enjoy the closeness, rather than fear any other implication. Even if there were other reasons, he knew he wouldn't mind it. He LIKED what had happened between them! It was something he could not share with anyone else, but he had shared it with Thomas. Or rather, Thomas had shared it with him. HIM! Michael was elated, and did not feel so alone, as he usually did. He finally dozed off, somewhere in the early hours of the morning, sleeping lightly until he was awakened for school by his mother.

Sitting in their usual seat, Michael yawned and decided rather sleepily to prop his legs up and lay back. As he closed his eyes to the world, his mind was somewhere in between the moment and that listless desire to doze off. He was tired, but his mind had already started racing with eagerness again. Through closed eyes, he sensed the bus slowing down at the next stop and knew it could be none other than that of his new friend. Within seconds, he felt a familiar presence plop down beside him, and in like manner felt the seat in front give slightly as Thomas propped his knees up and lay back, too.

Michael did not want to seem overly anxious, so he did his best to remain calm and wait. When it appeared that Thomas was not going to speak, however, he couldn't stand it anymore. Reaching out, he tapped his friend from the side. "Sheesh, man! So? Are you going to tell me or not?"

Thomas suddenly grinned, his eyes still shut. "I'm coming - and yeah, Mom said I could spend the night."

Michael released a sigh of relief, as well as a very quiet "Whoop! Th-That's awesome!" Knowing no one else had boarded yet, he grabbed Thomas's leg and squeezed. "Seriously, that is so awesome!" he repeated, as the bus came to a stop again. Just then, Jeremy Riddle boarded and took his now customary place in front. The bigger teen proceeded to stare straight-ahead as always, but eventually decided to follow the other two boys lead by situating his knees up into the seat in front and leaning back, eyes closed.

For both boys, the morning crawled by. Never had it seemed to take so long. When lunch time arrived, Michael was disappointed because Thomas was nowhere to be found. Somehow, he recalled something about there being a party in Thomas's group that day. It mollified Michael at least, but he still felt alone suddenly as he sat down and began picking through his food. The lunchroom was not as full as usual, and he guessed other classes were also were having similar events.

As he ate in silence, he was startled when another kid eventually sat down at the table on the opposite side. Glancing up, Michael paused and inwardly gulped. The other student was none other than Jeremy Riddle himself, alone and without his usual circle of tag-along buddies. Feeling suddenly uneasy, Michael slowly finished what was left of his lunch, though keeping an eye on the other teen from his peripheral vision. Riddle, to his credit, mostly ignored the younger boy and ate in silence, his face masked in his usual expressionless display. That led to Michael finally relaxing.

As Michael finished, he started collecting his tray, thinking he would get up and leave. Their eyes unavoidably met, however, and Michael almost dropped his tray back to the table. The older teen simply nodded an acknowledgement, before returning to his food, as passive and unresponsive as before. That was strange, Michael thought. Recovering, however, he nodded back and then quietly left, taking his tray to the return bins.

On the way home that evening, Michael told Thomas about the encounter, and how strange it had been. He even brought up the fact that Jeremy seemed so different in recent weeks, which was weird and out of character for him. Thomas simply shrugged most of it off, however, and eventually changed the subject to the upcoming NFL playoffs. Michael, initially annoyed at having to evade the subject rather harshly, finally relented. He was looking forward to the playoffs with an equal anticipation.

The evening passed amicably, so much so Michael forgot about that conversation and Thomas's reaction. It wasn't until late, just as he had left to ready for bed, that he received another surprise. The phone rang downstairs, and seconds later, he heard his mother call up to him. "It's for you, honey. It's Thomas."

Anxiety suddenly hit full force, as Michael raced down the steps. A sudden fear gripped him, as he imagined all sorts of scenarios that could be the cause for the call, including something that was going to make them cancel their plans the next day. As he reached the kitchen doorway, he took the receiver from his mother and answered, though in a weak voice. "Hello?"

"Hey," came an equally quiet voice of his friend on the line.

"Hey," Michael replied, moving around the corner and into the living room, where he sat down on the sofa. His mouth turning dry, he tried to speak again as nonchalantly as possible. "What's up?"

"Well, umm, I got to thinking about something, and I kind of thought I should call you," Thomas explained, cryptically.

Puzzled, Michael replied. "Yeah? What about? You're still coming tomorrow, right?"

"Yeah, it's not about that Mike, I promise." There was a hesitation from the other end, before the voice grew more subdued. "Listen, I wanted to say I'm sorry about this afternoon. I didn't mean to just, you know, ignore you and everything. I know you were trying to talk to me about butt-head, and I kind of kept cutting you off and everything."

Michael laughed, his eyes closing in relief. "Forget it, man. We're cool, honest. I wasn't trying to psych you out or anything, I promise. I just... It was just weird, that's all. Somehow, I just think the creep has changed and everything, it's ... eerie, almost."

"Yeah, I know. Especially for someone like HIM. I know what you meant, but..." He paused, dropping his voice again. "It's just hard, Mike. It's hard for me to let go, you know? Maybe I'm not supposed to hate people and stuff, but I do him anyway - I hate that creep sssooooo bad. I mean, maybe he has changed and all, or maybe he hasn't. Maybe, I don't know, maybe I can let it go someday, but right now he's like this creepy vulture or something. I can't help but think he's just waiting to explode or something. That's just it, I don't know... It's hard for me to explain, that's all."

Michael dropped his voice, too. "Yeah, I understand." He paused. "Thomas? Seriously, it's okay, honest."

There was a sigh of relief on the other end. "Thanks, man. I just, I don't want there to be any stuff between us like this. I know you tried, but I just couldn't do it. It was more than me just not wanting to, it was like I just couldn't. And anyway, I got to thinking tonight that maybe I should call, you know? To make sure you knew, or at least understood why. Especially since I'm coming over tomorrow, you know?"

"Thomas, it's okay, I promise!" Michael repeated. He was smiling now for some reason, even though he knew the other teen couldn't see him.

Evidently it finally worked, as the tone on the other end of the connection changed to one considerably lighter. "Okay, okay. You ready for tomorrow?"

Michael laughed again. "Does an alligator have teeth? You bet I am! What time do you think you'll have to go home Wednesday?"

"Mom said I could stay most of the day if I wanted," Thomas replied quickly. "She has to work and won't get off until around 4:30 or so. So, I could probably stay as late as that, if your Mom says it's alright."

Michael was so happy that initially he didn't speak. It took Thomas prompting him from the other end of the phone ("Hey, you still there?") before he could finally answer. "Yeah, I'm here Thomas. That is so awesome, man! I can't wait!" He didn't know what else to say.

Thomas giggled. "I can't wait, either. Honest." There was a noise in the background. "Listen, I've got to go. Grams wants to use the phone. Tomorrow - right?"

"Yeah, see you!" He was smiling as he put the phone back into the hook, and as his mother met him at the doorway she saw it. Turning off the kitchen light, she remarked, "Well, what did he say about Wednesday?" She looked amused at Michael's embarrassment, but interrupted before he could reply. "No, I wasn't listening in. But I did hear you ask him about when he would have to leave."

Michael nodded, accepting her explanation. "Umm, till his Mom gets off work I think, if it's alright with you. Probably between 4:30 and 5:00." His eyes were pleading with his mother, as he once again held his breath. Tuesday nights and Wednesday mornings were her longest shifts, and he knew he was taking a chance here. He had never had a friend spend the night with him before, and not only that - to have one stay as long as this visit was shaping up to be. He silently pleaded that it would all right.

He need not have worried, though. Carolyn turned back toward the sink and tossed the dish towel she was holding. "As long as you two behave, I have no problem with it," she remarked with a smile. Turning, she found herself on the receiving end of a long and tight hug, right to the point where she ended up gasping. "Okay now, you don't have to break me into pieces!"

Michael looked up into her face. "I love you, Mom. You know that, right?"

Surprised, Carolyn caressed his face. "I kind of get that idea, yeah. I love you too, kiddo." Expressions as such came few and far between from her son, so she appreciated them whenever she could get them. She waited until he broke the embrace, then remarked. "Thomas is a good kid. I like him, too, you know." They both smiled, and then he turned, heading back to the staircase and up his room again.

Michael flopped onto his bed still fully dressed, before kicking his shoes off into the floor. Surprisingly, he fell into a deep, peaceful sleep within minutes. Sometime later while passing the foot of the stairs below, Carolyn looked up and saw that his light was still on. Climbing the stairs, she entered his room to find him with a contented expression, and with his glasses lying beside him. She carefully removed them to the nightstand, and finding a fleece blanket nearby, she pulled it over him. Not once did he stir in her presence, as she silently bent over and kissed his cheek, before turning off the lamp and making her way back down the stairs.

The next morning, Michael was awake and alert when the bus picked up Thomas from his driveway. Whereas he doubted many kids would be carrying books this last, half-day of classes, his friend boarded and came up the aisle with his usual gym bag. Sitting down, he slid the bag underneath them and, seeing the look of curiosity, whispered a single word: "clothes". Michael grinned and nodded in understanding, as they made their way to school in silence, each lost in their own thoughts. They did however, sit closer together, side-by-side, as nonchalantly as possible - but with a renewed feeling while sharing their personal space together.

The morning passed agreeably for most students. Being the last day before Christmas break, the school took a break from the usual routine and presented instead a morning full of activities. All classes together enjoyed a variety of events, ranging from more parties, to movies, or other games oriented toward the holiday season. As they neared the lunch hour, many started getting eager for the end of the day to arrive. Having been swamped by sugary treats and snacks already, few had a desire to participate and eat lunch. Yet that was the requirement, to credit the day as a full day of classes. Many thus hurriedly passed through the cafeteria lines, selecting little to eat, knowing they would be going home in short order. Subsequently, all were sent back to their original homeroom for last minute organization, before finally the announcement came over the loudspeaker: board the buses for home and have a safe holiday break! The halls buzzed loudly, and everyone made their way out to the parking lot, whooping and yelling in their excitement.

Michael made his way onboard as usual, grabbing a seat and anxiously awaiting the arrival of his friend. Before long, however, an older husky, heavy-set teen plopped down beside him, his back drastically leaning in as he fell. The movement shoved Michael roughly in the process, slamming him into the side of the bus. "Ouch! Hey, watch it, you big oaf!" he exclaimed, rubbing the pain in his shoulder, after it was rammed backwards.

"Awwwww, shut up you little shit!" was the reply, followed by laughter from all around. That attitude angered Michael, as he looked up with narrowed eyes. Peering to see who the hell he was dealing with, he didn't recognize the teen. Righting himself in the seat, he voiced quite loudly, "What's the big idea, dipshit? Is your ass bigger than your brain?"

The larger kid turned, the laughter now gone as a new chorus of giggling went up around them. As he looked down into Michaels face, you could tell he was getting ready to let loose with his own profanity. He stopped, however, when a hand suddenly reached in and grab his collar. As the teen was pulled to his feet, Michael's jaw dropped when he realized it was none other than Jeremy Riddle intervening. Although the offending teen was sizeable, the bigger Riddle glared at him, despite the fact that the boy outclassed even him in sheer weight, if not in size. It did not deter him, however, as Riddle spoke in a voice that was as cold and deadly as the sky was cloudy. "Watch who you fuck with, Terrance!"

Their eyes locked briefly, the burly Terrance drawing his eyebrows closer as he observed guardedly. By now, several people had stopped to watch the exchange, while the rest of the bus suddenly went silent. Neither of the older boys broke their gaze. Michael watched Jeremy flex his right hand slightly, and thought the teen was going to make use of it. Terrance growled, not backing down, but at an apparent loss for words. The burly youth was not sure if he wanted to take this confrontation to a new level or not.

The bus driver, Stan, finally caught on that something was happening. He looked up from his seat and yelled back into the crowded aisle. "Get a move on, we ain't got all day!" Slowly the students started taking seats, but not without keeping their eyes glued to the two standing in the middle of the aisle. Anticipating all hell was about to break loose, for yet a second time that year, they waited with abated breath.

At the last moment, however, Terrance obviously became aware of where he was and what he was doing. Although disgruntled by the exchange, he finally scoffed and moved to another seat without a word. His glare clearly said this was not going to be the end of the matter, but for the time being Riddle ignored him. Relaxing, the older boy continued moving toward the back, taking a seat two rows behind Michael before turning to stare out the window. As far as anyone was concerned, he was returning to his usual, emotionless self with only one exception: he no longer was sitting at the front of the bus.

Michael was totally stunned by the unexpected turn of events. As he turned back to watch for his friend, and within minutes Thomas was onboard and making his way to join him. He started to say something, but then noted the expression not only by Michael, but other people around them. "What? Did something just happen?" he whispered. Hurriedly, several people whispered and filled him in, while Michael continued to stare out the window. He could not help but turn at one point and glance back at Riddle in amazement. The latter ignored him, however, and practically everybody else around.

The rest of the ride home was uneventful. When they neared Thomas's house, he walked up and gave Stan a note that stated he had permission to ride home with Michael. The man nodded, ignoring the usual driveway and moments later, the bus stopped and deposited them both at his last stop. Michael wished the man a Merry Christmas as they exited, to which Stan grinned and returned as he pulled away, but not without first handing each a sack of candy and fruit. It was a gesture the man did similarly every year, distributing a little treat to everyone. It was his way of giving the kids a gift and wishing them the best of the holidays, one they all welcomed.

Michael and Thomas each found a lollipop in their sacks, from which they immediately peeled the wrapper before sticking them in their mouths. As they trekked over the hill, they hurried down to the house to avoid the bitter cold as much as they could. Entering the front door, Michael found a note left by his mother, stating she had had to leave sooner than expected, and thus warned him to see to the old wood stove before anything else, and keep it going throughout the day. He knew if he didn't obey, they would end up having a cold evening, so he made the mental note and set the note aside. From ever since he could remember, both he and his mother had relied on wood heat to stay warm in the winter. She taught him, from an early age, both the dangers and care one had to take when working with the stove, so she had little fear of letting him help her keep it up. She also had instructed them not to bother with supper, which caught him by surprise. Instead, when she took her break that evening, she was going to grab a pizza and bring it home. It was another rare treat, and he knew he and Thomas both would be happy to have it!

The first thing both boys noted was how cool it had gotten in the house. Not cold, but cool enough. Michael figured his Mom must have been gone for several hours. Quickly opening the door to the wood stove, he found the fire had died down considerably. Knowing what had to be done, he quickly left his friend standing and stepped out to the back porch, where he collected and brought in some fresh wood and bounded paper rolls. The rolls were used to rekindle the fire when needed, and being of paper, they burned swiftly and quickly, heating the wood to the point the fire could catch hold. Thomas stood nearby, watching curiously, unsure of what to do or how to help. As they both watched the fire begin to burn, before long they could both feel the heat beginning to build. Michael closed the stove up and dusted off his jeans. "Mission accomplished!" he exclaimed, and to his friend's bemused look, he rolled his eyes. Pulling off his coat, he hung it on a rack near the front door. "You can put your coat here, too," he motioned, and Thomas complied.

Grabbing their sacks of candy and Thomas's gym bag, both zipped up the steps to Michaels bedroom. It was a room Thomas had been in many times by now, somewhat bigger than his own room, with a window on both the front and

side of the house. Painted in a dark blue trim, it was accented with patterned curtains and a thick, shaggy carpet. A pair of floor-based ducts opened into the rooms below, allowing heat to rise through and warm the room as desired. Michael tended to like his room cool, so most of the time one of his two ducts were shut off, obviously dampening the temperature.

For furniture, a single full-size bed angled out the room's corner farthest from the door. It was now, as often was the case, littered with various bean bags, pillows and stuffed animals. The latter was not often found in a typical boys' room, nor was the quantity, but they existed here because Michael loved having them around. A single entertainment stand held a combined TV table and writing desk, not that different from Thomas' own. Both a chest and nightstand finished out the furnishings. Nearest to the head of the bed was a closet, but unlike his own, this closet was recessed into the wall. When it opened, one could see a deep partition in the back, receding into the attic.

The first thing Michael did was to open the other duct. "It'll get warmed up in here pretty soon." Kicking his shoes off into the corner, he then half threw himself onto the bed with a flying leap. "We're out for two - whole - friggin - weeks!" he exclaimed, a grin splitting his face.

Thomas laughed, mimicking his friend and kicking off his shoes, before jumping onto the bed with him. Immediately, however, he grabbed a pillow and threw it at Michael. "Yeah, I know!" he exclaimed. They laughed as Michael took the hint, grabbed the other pillow, and then started a new pillow fight. That, in turn, erupted into another wrestling match for the second time in as many as three days. Without fear of being overly loud or rambunctious, both went all out, holding nothing back. One or the other screamed at times as each pinned, tickled, pinched and prodded the other boy all over the bed, on the floor and in between. Both were having the time of their lives, releasing pent up energy that came from the build-up of anticipation. The sweets and treats they had already been munching on throughout the day contributed as well.

During one of their interludes, Michael ended up being pinned by his friend into a fetal position, with Thomas threatening to start a new prescription of antics. He could barely contain himself as he finally cried out, "Stop! Stop... I gotta pee! Yeeoooowww!! Wait..." Laughing uncontrollably, he had to blurt out in between attacks, "I-I'm se-serious, I've got to ... to pee! I'm gonna....pee.... in... my.... pants!!!... NNooo.... WWAAIIITTT!!! I gggoottt too... I've got to peeeeeeee!!!!!!!!!!"

Finally, Thomas backed off and let his friend up, who then hurriedly jumped from the bed and rushed to the bathroom. They were lucky to have one upstairs with them, a rarity in older houses such as this. It seemed Michael had just disappeared through the door when Thomas heard the familiar sound of a stream hitting the bowl in the room across the hall. When it continued to keep going, without seeming to stop, Thomas laughed out loud. "Damn Michael, how much have you been holding?" he called out. Without waiting for an answer, however, he suddenly decided he needed to do the same.

As he began walking from the room, Michael replied. "I'm holding juice from breakfast, 2 sodas from the classroom party, two milks from lunch and 2 to 3 trips to the water fountain in between all that. So yeah, I told you, I had to pppeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee, thank you very much!"

Thomas laughed again, and when he reached the door to the bathroom, the other's stream had stopped. He paused at the open doorway, as it had not been shut. When he heard the toilet flush, however, he peeked inside by accident without really meaning to. He caught just the barest glimpse of his friend as he was putting himself away, zipping up afterwards. At first it had made him curious, but when Michael looked up and saw the other standing in the doorway, Thomas turned a shade of red. "Umm... sorry..."

Michael grinned, rinsed his hands and walked out as his friend entered. Giggling, he replied in a low undertone, "Umm, don't stare too hard with that open mouth though..."

Thomas started to blush, but when Michael punched him playfully, they both laughed. Thomas finally walked over to the commode and relieved himself. He did not see the head that peeked around the still open doorway. While still in mid-stream, he was unaware he was being spied upon. As he finished, Michael disappeared back to his room waiting, for his friend's return. He had thought to tease the boy, but decided against it.

Both ended up stretched out across the bed, the TV now turned on. The room was getting warmer by now, something that did not go unnoticed. "So, when you're comfortable enough, I'll close the register again." As Thomas nodded, he went on. "Got anything in particular you want to do today, or tonight?"

Thomas shrugged. "Anything you want, I guess." He didn't really care, he was just glad to be there.

"Are you sure?" When Thomas nodded, Michael thought for a second before speaking again. "Um, are you hungry any? Do you want a snack?"

"Sure!" Thomas replied.

Michael then rolled off the bed and pulled his friend up with him. Walking over to one of the bigger ducts, he went ahead and closed it, before retuning and grabbing Thomas' hand. They quickly went downstairs and into the kitchen. Thomas was amused at their grasp, but still pleased all the same. Again, he was just glad to be here, if nothing else. For him, the best present of all was to be away from the usual, everyday life at home he had to put up with.

Michael immediately started rummaging through the refrigerator. He pulled out two sodas and, after a sudden exclamation, extracted a pair of wrapped sandwiches already made up for them, complete with name tags. "Way to go Mom!!!!" he exclaimed. They also found chips nearby, so, then laden with their food, they retreated upstairs again. Plopping again onto the bed, they got comfortable on the bean bags, lying close to the each other, and then proceeded for the next few hours to watch afternoon cartoons.

By early evening, they had already pulled out a board game and were engrossed playing Risk, with the TV still on in the background. At one point, they suddenly heard a noise that sounded like a car approaching from outside. "Mom's home!" Michael grinned, and he and Thomas suspended their game to hurry downstairs and greet her. As she came through the door, she was carrying a large pizza and more sodas.

Thomas took the pizza box from her, and then wrapped a single arm around her as she closed the door. Giving her a little squeeze, Michael smiled as he quickly joined in from the other side, effectively sandwiching her between them. "Hi, Mom!" he exclaimed.

Carolyn's surprised look gave way to one of laughter. "Hello boys! Now what brought this on?" When they both giggled and didn't reply, she just laughed again and shook her head. "You two know how to make a bright spot in my long day, that's for sure!" She pulled them both into her own hug before separating. "I can't stay long, though. I have to get back. Is everything going okay in here? Is the fire still burning good?"

They nodded as she walked over and checked the wood stove out herself. "Did you two hear they're giving a chance of snow for tonight? I think it's a Winter Storm watch, but I'm not sure..." she mused, as she reached to the nearby stack and added more wood to the burning inside.

"Really??!!" both boys chorused, surprised.

"Yep, after midnight, they're calling for around 2 to 4 inches, I think." She smiled, and then closed the door on the stove. "Well, at least you two aren't freezing to death," she muttered, before turning to face them. "Michael, be sure you watch after this, okay? Oh... just so you know, I have to pull a couple of extra hours tonight and tomorrow, all so I can be off Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. That means I probably won't be in until around midnight, and then I'll probably have to leave about 8:30 or so in the morning. Will you two be alright with that?" She turned to Thomas. "I don't really like leaving Michael alone for such a long time like that, but since he has someone keeping him company..." Her voice trailed off, watching their reaction with a smile.

Michael shrugged. "We'll be fine Mom, honest. I promise, we won't burn the house down."

"Yes ma'am, it's okay," Thomas added, his own grin on display.

Carolyn smiled. "I know you boys will be alright." She glanced at her watch, then down at the pizza sitting on the couch. "Let me grab a couple of slices of this and get going, before you two demolish it." Both grinned at her as she walked into the kitchen and returned with a disposable plate and paper towels. Extracting two slices and grabbing one of the sodas, she turned to the door. They walked with her out to the car, where she gave each a last, brief hug before ushering them back inside, admonishing them for being outside in their socked feet. They then watched from the porch landing, as she turned the car around and drove away, before running back inside and warming up by the stove. Afterwards, they grabbed the pizza and sodas before heading back upstairs yet again.

Once again, they climbed onto the bed, setting their drinks on the nightstand and situating themselves close to each other, the pizza box straddled between them in their laps. Each pushed his feet under the comforter, now bunched at the foot of the bed, before attacking the pizza in unison. At one point, Thomas opened one of the cans of soda and took a long drink, before handing it to Michael. Surprised at the gesture, Michael once again thought about how much their camaraderie had deepened. Still, he had never drunk after anyone else, even his mom - although she had finished eating things after him on numerous occasions. Michael looked at it briefly and decided he didn't want to seem squeamish on a night like this, of all nights. He took the offered drink tentatively and downed a few small sips. Thomas watched him and then laughed. "I'm not going to poison you, you know!"

Michael blushed, embarrassed. "Sorry Thomas, I know you're not." He then took another longer, more satisfying drink before handing the contents back to him. "I- I guess, I don't know, I just never drank after anyone before, that's all," he offered weakly.

Thomas giggled before taking another long drink himself, finishing off the can. Setting it down, he burped. "That makes two of us, then." Again, Michael grinned in surprise, feeling better. He leaned in closer to the other and was happy Thomas didn't pull away. In fact, he felt Thomas's foot move over and start rubbing up against his own. Something was growing between the two of them, and whether Thomas recognized it or not, Michael was beginning to feel content and free inside. He was so glad to have the teen there, with him.

Eventually Thomas broke the silence. "Did you hear Jessica this morning? On the bus?"

"No, why?" Michael asked.

Thomas giggled. "She was telling Melanie and that other girl back there, that she got her Christmas present last night."

Michael was confused. "Oh? Umm, okay..."

Thomas looked at him and grinned. "You really didn't hear them, did you?"

"Nope, afraid not. Other than it not being Christmas yet, what's the big deal? Did she say what she got?" From his friend's expression, Michael felt he was missing something here.

"She got her present from Brad Bullock, I think." Thomas waited to see if any recognition crossed his friend's face. When it didn't, he continued. "Umm, she and Brad, are like... you know..."

Michael looked blank. "Like... a couple or something? Yeah, so what? They go kissy-kissy, or snogging, or something?"

"Uh huh... and more..." When Michael still didn't react, Thomas rolled his eyes. "Come on man, you've noticed how they are! They can't keep their hands off each other! Remember the pep rally a few weeks ago? I swear I could see him putting his hand down her underwear, remember?"

Michael nodded. "Yeah, I remember you telling me about that."

Thomas grunted. "Well, last night, or maybe she said Sunday night, I don't remember, but heck... they ... did... IT!"

Comprehension dawned as Michael realized where his friend was heading. "What?! Holy cow, you mean... she... they... like, did 'IT'?" He followed with a whisper, "They fucked?"

Thomas snickered, nodding his head. "That's what she was telling Melanie, and from the way she was telling it, you know, the details and stuff..." He screwed up his face at first, and then began laughing out loud. "They seemed to really screw, or as she put it, she lost her 'cherry', whatever that means, but yeah, they did IT!"

Michael whistled. "Man, I miss all the good stuff! What else did she say?"

Thomas laughed, lowering his voice. "Umm, she said she took his 'fucking hard 5-inches up inside', and well, she said something about going for a wild ride. That pretty much says to me they must have done it, you know? Oh, and she also said he had a fat boner, with lots of hair and everything."

Michael was awestruck. "Shit! Are you serious??? MMMaaaannnnnn...."

Thomas laughed. "You should clean out your ears. you know. She told a lot more too!"

Good naturedly, Michael cuffed him on the arm, and then got quiet before replying. "I can't."

"What do you mean?" Thomas asked, curiously.

Michael shrugged. "Clean out my ears. I mean, I know I don't hear that great, man. I can hear enough to get by in school and stuff, but I've always had problems. It's like I only hear about 70% or so what everyone else hears. Mom's boss tested me once." He said it as a matter of fact, but Thomas detected a trace of embarrassment in his voice.

"Sorry man, I honestly didn't know..."

Michael shrugged again. "It's okay, I'm not deaf or anything." He paused, then turned and grinned at his friend. "So, what else have I missed out on?"

Thomas thought about it. "I don't know, Melanie wanted to know ALL the details, and they didn't talk as loud for a little bit, but I heard her describing little stuff here and there. I mean, really detailed stuff, you know? Hell, you should have heard her. Melanie acted like she had never seen a guys' dick before, from what I could tell." He scrunched his nose briefly. "I guess you know about the stuff in the locker rooms mostly, and I hear stuff every once in a while, about Jennifer and Todd in our math class. But I don't know, I sort of think they make some of that stuff up."

Michael nodded. "Yeah, they're the kind that would, I guess. Sometimes, anyway."

"Yeah, but I wouldn't be surprised if they did do 'it'. They're just crazy enough to, and they practically live next door to each other, you know?" They both giggled at the thought. They were silent for a minute, and then Thomas looked over at his friend. "Mike?"

"Yeah?"

"Umm, I want to show you something, but..." He hesitated. "I want to show you, but it's kind of personal, and uh, well..."

Michael's almost giggled, thinking it was going to be something naughty, but he put the thought out of his mind. Thomas had never confided in him about any of the stuff short of what he had just now revealed, and although he thought it was cool - as well as it gave him some new daydream material - it just didn't fit into their friendship yet. Or so he thought, anyway. "Yeah?"

Thomas got up, taking the pizza box and setting it aside on the desk, before reaching down into his bag and withdrawing an oversized, spiral-bound notebook from inside. As he rejoined his friend, Michael could see from the cover it was a sketchbook, the type of book containing unlined paper and used for drawing sketches or similar items. As Thomas settled in, physically up close once again, he held the book in his lap at first. He looked at its cover, not raising his eyes, before breaking the silence. "Umm, you remember the fight, right?"

"Duh - I mean, yeah, I don't think I could forget that!" Michael smirked.

Thomas laughed. "Yeah, I know what you mean." He paused. "Do you remember what started it?"

Michael had to think for a minute. "I think you said something about Jeremy got hold of one of your books and started going through it or something."

Thomas nodded, finally looking up at his friend. "Yeah, he did. It was this book, Mike. It's kind of like my journal I guess, you know? It's just a book I do sketches and stuff in, or write things down I'm thinking about or feeling. You know, just goofy stuff." He paused. "It's not meant to be something I want other people to see, you know? It's just stuff I do..."

Michael nodded. "Okay, I can understand that, I guess. But what does that have to do with, you know, now?"

Thomas didn't reply immediately, as if he were battling some inner decision. However, he decided he wasn't going to back down, so he placed the book in their laps between them. "I want you to see this, I really do. There's some stuff in here, I don't know, just stuff I think I want you to see and understand. It's stuff that will tell you, maybe answer some things for you, about me, and why I feel and see the things I do." Thomas then looked up intensely into Michael's eyes. "Some of this is g-going to be hard, but I trust you. I really do. I hope you know that by now."

Michael was moved, but curious at the same time. The undertone was not lost on him - this was serious to his friend, so he used care, knowing that what he was about to see could be anything, or nothing - but at least it was something very personal. Opening it, he turned through the first few pages. Many were filled with all sorts of drawings and sketches, most of them dated as much as two years before. The cover had held up well, he thought, and so had the pages for the most part. What made him gasp, however, was when he proceeded deeper, and found some of the drawings were scenes that were very intricately detailed. You could easily tell that as he progressed, Thomas's skills improved substantially by practice. There were spaceships and space battles, landscapes with castles, sometimes people or animals that represented cartoons or imitations of everyday life. Michael stared in awe, whistling. "Wow! Did you do all this?"

Thomas blushed. "Mm hmm... Yeah, they're all mine."

Michael continued turning through more pages. The context of the drawings changed, some representing scenes from TV shows or movies he recognized, while others were more sports oriented, including football. They were all exquisitely detailed, down to the team emblems and symbols on the players uniforms. Again, the latter ones showed the experience and practice Thomas exhibited as time progressed.

Thomas was pleased watching his friends' response. "There's a lot of diff stuff in there, too. There's like poems, short stories, more drawings and stuff, but different and all. I mean, you know me Mike - I'm a geek, I like science fiction, okay? It's all j-just stuff, though. I mean, none of it was really that bad or anything. But some of it, I didn't want Jeremy to find. It was, umm... kind of personal. Even kind of private." He took a deep breath. "You'll understand when you get to it."

Michael noted the apprehension and looked up. He also noted the reference to something being 'personal' yet again. "I can understand that, especially if it's anything he could use to make your life miserable. And you know, he would." He wrinkled his nose. "When we get to the private stuff though, you can tell me, and I'll stop."

Thomas, however, shook his head. "No, I want you to see it, too. You'll understand, especially when you get to the stuff in the back."

Michael's curiosity aroused, he turned his attention to progressing through the pages quicker. Toward the rear of the journal, he reached the last few pages and slowed down. There he found more drawings yet again, but he also found poems and short paragraphs scattered about. Michael figured those were the 'feelings' Thomas must have been referring to, so he purposefully skipped those, trying not to invade his privacy. He found some drawings of their favorite NFL teams though, and then had to smile at the uncanny likeness in some of the players. In fact, he giggled suddenly when he realized because Thomas had stuck their faces onto the players in uniform! The depictions were sharply realistic, too. "Man, these are fantastic! Why didn't you ever tell me you did this stuff? I didn't know you could draw!"

Thomas just shrugged. Michael turned another page and suddenly paused. It contained a poem that caught his attention just then, titled "Alone". Thomas placed his hand on the page to keep his friend from passing it by. Pointing to the poem, he whispered. "Read it, Mike..."

Michael glanced at the boy beside him and whispered, "You sure? I mean, this is your private stuff, right?"

Thomas visibly swallowed, then nodded. "I want you to, I want you to understand what I had to hide, what I had to protect..." Michael nodded, and then began reading aloud.

"Sometimes I am alone"

"And I cannot wonder but why"

"This thing, this part and piece of me"

"That knows nothing but how to sigh"

"It's like a part of me torn"

"My soul feels like my life is floating by"

"And all I feel is nothing, no one"

"And I cannot help but question why"

"I wonder what it's like"

"To kiss, to feel, to hold someone, to hug"

"To do the things girls and boys do"

"But without feeling so smug"

"It only makes my sorrow worse"

"Because I have no emotion, nothing but fear"

"Because all I have is one soul, somebody"

"Who I thank God is at least now really near"

"I wonder if he knows? If he even knows I'm here"

"If he can even feel how I wish I had someone to see"

"This friend of mine today, won't even look at me"

"And what it would mean to me to be able to just be me"

"I wonder if he feels any kind of emptiness, too"

"Something, anything that yet needs to fill a void"

"Will he ever someday see me, make me feel real again"

"And not like some stupid, stuffed toy"

"But me for who and what I am, just a boy"

Michael was stunned when he finished. Looking back up, he saw his friend carefully watching for his reaction. A tear starting to fall down Michael's cheek. "You wrote this?" he asked in a low whisper, to which Thomas nodded. He whistled and read it again, this time silently. "This is really cool," he continued after a moment. "I-I don't know what to say, I mean... This someone, is it me?" He looked at the date on the page. It was only a few months old.

Thomas cleared his throat and nodded. "Umm... kind of. Yeah, it's you, Mike. I was writing about you."

Overwhelmed and at a loss for words, Michael sat there for a moment. When he did speak, he tried to keep his voice as even as possible. "If Jeremy had seen this and put that together, then yeah. You would have really been screwed."

Again, Thomas nodded. "There is some other stuff too, but that's the only one I ever wrote about you." There, he had admitted it; it was now out in the open now.

Michael had already guessed as much. He was surprised, however, when something else occurred to him. "Wait a minute, y-you wrote this *before* the fight, right?"

"Yeah," Thomas blushed. "I know, it was stupid, b-but..."

Michael shook his head. "No, it's not stupid at all, but... I never knew! I mean, I never knew you even liked me, or, or anything!" He looked at his friend in awe. "Why? Why didn't you ever say something to me? Or talk, or do SOMETHING?"

Surprisingly, Thomas grinned sheepishly. "Umm, remember what you asked me, that first day you came over to my house? About why haven't we ever, like, done it before? Got together, talked and stuff?" Michael nodded, so he continued. "I was scared. I mean, I don't know. I'm kind of backward, at least that's what my Gramps says all the time. That day of the fight, well, I needed something to keep me together, you know? And when you scooted over and made room for me, I was just praying Stan would let me sit there. And then he did, and that's when, well..."

When Michael put an arm around his shoulder and gave him a half-hug, Thomas began feeling a little more at ease. "I know Mike, I know. I mean, even now, I wish we had become friends a long time ago but, it was just hard. I've always been shy, and you know what my home life is like. We just don't get mushy around each other and stuff. Even at church, we mostly just go in and leave, and then we stay home and all - that sort of thing."

When he saw Michael nod, understanding at least some of what he was trying to convey, Thomas reached out and turned a few pages further in the book. "There's more you should see, too." Arriving in one place, Michael saw a huge landscape sprawled over both pages that faced them, showing a football stadium and its field. Again, the level of detail made Michael grin and shake his head in disbelief. "Wow! How long did it take you to do this one?" he asked, whispering.

"Umm, I think 2 nights altogether," came an equally whispered reply.

As Michael studied the drawing closer, he once again made out a likeness of him and Thomas on the field, their facial likenesses imposed into the players. "This is so awesome, Thomas. It's great! I- I wish I had something like this!" He looked down in the lower right corner just then, and then was startled to find lettering written in a scroll. "Merry Christmas, Michael!" It was signed and dated underneath just the day before. He looked up into the others face, surprised. "Are you serious?"

Thomas grinned. "I'm sorry. I couldn't buy a Christmas present for you, but I thought maybe, you know, if you wanted this one, maybe it would be okay." He paused. "But before I gave it to you, I kind of had to, you know, be sure it was okay."

Michael looked puzzled. "What are you talking about? Why wouldn't it be okay, Thomas?"

"Well," Thomas started, hesitating. "I mean, I needed to be sure you understood the stuff before. I didn't want to like, freak you out or anything."

Michael shook his head and grinned. "I don't think you could ever freak me out, bro." With that, he put the book aside before turning and leaning in. He gave his best friend a better hug, this time with both arms. He felt Thomas return the embrace and sigh, relaxing in his arms. Michael held him for a few seconds before breaking away, pulling the book back up into his lap. "You shouldn't tear this out or anything, though. I mean, this is something you should keep. It's - it's really cool!"

Thomas, however, shook his head. "No, I did this for you - I want you to have it. Besides, I've got others in there, as you saw," he explained, while quickly showing him pages both before and after. "See? They're blank, so you can take them out and, sorry, but umm, tape the center together and everything." With that, the teen took hold of the book and carefully removed what Michael now recognized were perforated sheets. Handing the artwork to his friend, Michael rose from the bed and rummaged through his desk drawer. Finding some tape, he afterwards carefully applied it to the back of the sheets, and then hung the picture over his nightstand. Looking at his friend with a new-found respect, he returned to the bed. "Thanks, Thomas," to which the other only smiled.

They sat in silence for a minute, until Michael picked up the book again. "Can I look some more?" The artwork had been at the end, so he started to work backwards.

Thomas nodded, so he began looking through the remaining pages, finding more poems about being alone, about his feelings and other stuff. He didn't read many, again trying to respect his friends' privacy, but he couldn't help but catch little phrases here and there. In one section toward the back, he came across more drawings, but this time they were made of people. He eventually turned to a page and found one that bore another striking resemblance to them both. It was here Thomas put his hand down on the page, preventing Michael from turning any further.

"Umm, don't. I mean... I should warn you, the next page has got naked guys and stuff." His voice was hesitant, almost fearful, and Michael looked up in surprise.

"Really? Are you serious?"

Thomas nodded. "I just, I don't know, Mike. I just wanted to try it some, you know? Just to see if I could do it and... and..." He left the sentence unfinished.

Michael grinned. "So, can I see? I don't really care, unless you really want me to stop?"

Thomas giggled, then blushed. "I don't care, if you really want to see. Just... don't get mad at me, okay? Don't weird out on me..."

Michael wondered why his friend was being so cryptic as he turned the page, then stopped and stared. The scene was a river bank or pond, overhung with trees along one side. Swinging out over the water was a boy - it was him! - ready to drop into the water from a rope or vine. As he was at the apogee of the swing, he had his legs fully spread, exposing his genitalia in full view, which made him blush. Looking up from the bank was another kid, who he made out to be Thomas himself from the likeness. The drawing depicted the youth watching him as he was readying to climb the tree, presumably to take his turn swinging out over the water. He, too, was in the buff, with a full view in front.

Michael laughed. "So, it's not just boys, it IS us, huh?" The other blushed and had to look away, which made Michael giggle even more. "Umm, I think I'm a little bigger than that down there, though!" He grinned as he pointed to his groin in the picture. He also noticed it looked a little funny, and glancing at Thomas standing on the bank, he thought the same for him. He didn't want to comment on that aspect of it, not now anyway, in case it hurt his friend's feelings. Leaning back, he studied it. "Man, if Jeremy or any of those guys saw this, you would be dead within a week, I bet!" He looked up. "This is what you were hiding from them, wasn't it?" he asked quietly.

Thomas scoffed, finally turning back and nodding. "Yeah. Probably less than a week, though!" he replied, uncharacteristically. "I mean, I didn't have this drawn when we had the fight, but still..." He looked up at his friend. "Y-you... I mean, are you o-okay w-with it?" he asked, his voice suddenly nervous.

Michael giggled. "Other than I still think you got me wrong, I think it's fucking fantastic! But uh... maybe you ought to get it out of here in case someone else DOES see it. You know, someone that shouldn't!" He sat back. "You've got to tell me something, though. How the heck did you learn how to draw and all this stuff? I mean, these things, EVERYTHING in here, they're really, really good!"

Thomas shrugged. "Mom, mostly. I mean, she taught me a lot of stuff about drawing and well, I don't know. I guess I don't have a lot to do with some of my time, so I mostly read, and umm... yeah... this stuff..."

Michael nodded and then giggled, looking at himself again in the picture. "Next time your gramps says you're backward, tell him to shut the hell up! This is just, un-real!"

Thomas face turned red. "Umm, I didn't mean to be dirty or anything, I just..."

Michael laughed out loud again. "Thomas? Seriously, just shut up man. This is not dirty, it's cool! I mean, at least you didn't try and give me a boner or something!" He thought about it for a second before adding, "I might have to show you sometime though, just so you can get me right if you ever do this again." There was a twinkle in his eye when he said it, one that Thomas did not miss. It didn't stop him, however, from turning an even deeper shade of red, which Michael couldn't help but notice. "Aw, c'mon man, I told you, I think it's cool. It's not THAT embarrassing! I'm not mad or anything, honest!"

"You're really not weirded out by it any? Promise?" The question came as a whisper.

"Nah... I promise." Michael was smiling as he climbed to his feet then and walked over to his closet. Opening the door, he pulled something out from inside. When he turned around, Thomas saw it was a wrapped package. Michael handed it to him as he reclaimed his previous spot on the bed, up close with his friend. "This is for you, from me, bro."

Thomas just sat there dumbfounded. "B-but..."

"No buts - just open it already," Michael commanded.

When Thomas removed the paper, he found inside a new Scrabble board game, to replace the one he had already but which was missing some of the tiles. For a moment, he just held the box, looking at the sealed cover. Taking a deep breath, he spoke again and stuttered. "I d-don't know what to say, M-Mike." It seemed that in the last few days, he was making a habit of becoming truly emotional, and it was beginning to embarrass him.

"Do you like it?" Michael asked. "I mean, I didn't have a lot of money either, but Mom helped me out, and I picked it out knowing yours was pretty beat up and everything."

Thomas at first said nothing, thinking instead about how weak his gift must have seemed compared to this. "I'm sorry, I just..."

"You don't like it?" Michael interjected again, his tone changed.

Thomas shook his head. "It's great, really! I just..." He saw the question in Michael's eyes, so he sighed. "I'm just being stupid, that's all. These last few days, it's like I'm getting all mushy inside. It's just not like me, you know?" He smiled before adding, "I do wish I could have gotten you something better though..."

Michael laughed. "Shut up! What you gave me is perfect - absolutely PERFECT!" He playfully bumped their shoulders together and added, "Honest, this wasn't that much, and Mom and I wanted to do it, you know? I don't have anyone else to really buy Christmas presents for, anyway. Well, except her, and that's... you know..."

Thomas smiled and then accepted the gift, giving the other a whispered "Thanks, Mike."

Michael whispered back "You're welcome," then continued to thumb through the rest of the journal in his hands. They continued to watch TV for a little while, neither really getting into the movie that was on, both lost in their thoughts. Finally, Michael set the book aside and rolled over onto his back. "Are you getting as bored as I am?"

Thomas started and then grinned sheepishly. "Umm, maybe not bored, but yeah... antsy I guess."

Michael laughed. "Don't be so certain there, Mr. Uncertainty!"

Thomas laughed with him, then got up and tackled his friend, pushing him back into the bean bag further before tickling him again. Michael immediately began squirming. "Hey, no fair! I wasn't ready!"

"Good!" came the quick reply, as Thomas started tickling harder. The two began wrestling again for the second time that day, each twisting and tying the other up at times, with their bodies bending and blocking in every which way. It lasted a good half-hour, the movie, playing in the background, long forgotten. They each were having the time of their lives. At one point, Michael was once again wrapped into a fetal position and barely able to squirm out. In that moment, he resorted to other defenses.

"EEwwwwww!" Thomas exclaimed, as a certain odor started reaching him. "Did you HAVE to fart???!!!" He lessened his grip while the other laughed, then brought his hands out into the classic T-formation.

"Time out for a sec, okay?"

Thomas wrinkled his nose as if holding his breath while he replied, "Why, what's wrong? Gonna pee your pants again?"

"Heck no! Not this time anyway... Just, let me up a sec, okay?"

Thomas rolled back and let go, muttering "Okay, but you still stink!" Michael laughed as he unrolled himself and sat up. He grabbed the bottom of his long-sleeve pullover and peeled it up over his head, revealing a black t-shirt underneath. "Sorry, I was just getting hot, that's all," he explained. Thomas thought it was a good idea, given they had worked up a light sweat by then. He followed suit, peeling his own shirt off in like manner, although underneath the teen had no t-shirt. Instead, only a smooth, firm chest and tummy were revealed.

Michael froze midway as he gazed at him, then smiled and shrugged before peeling his t-shirt off to match his friend. The two topless boys then stood staring at each other for a moment, grinning in the now cooler room, preparing to pick up the battle again. "Come and get me," taunted Michael, a goofy grin on his face as he climbed back into the corner of the bed. "No pinching my tits, though!"

Thomas laughed, raising both eyebrows and launched himself, both boys locking and picking up pretty much where they had left off. This time however, both boys discovered for themselves how different it felt between them. After a few minutes, Michael allowed himself to once again get pinned underneath his friend. Thomas rolled him up from the backside and then paused, holding them both still. It had startled him suddenly, as once again he was soaking in new feelings. Thomas relaxed his arms and settled, becoming more comfortable by just snuggling close. Michael, still wrapped in the embrace, could have worked himself loose, but he was also mesmerized by their touch. He decided to enjoy the moment, too.

After a moment, Thomas realized neither had spoken. "Is something wrong?" His voice was low and partially hoarse, with as much horseplay and laughing they had already been doing.

Michael only shook his head, lying still underneath. With a sigh, Thomas did not want to do so, but figured he'd better let go. When he moved to separate, however, Michael grabbed his arms and secured them in place, whispering "Don't... You don't have to let go."

As if his heart skipped a beat, Thomas was taken aback, but then he relaxed and submitted himself. "Are you sure?" he asked, before seeing his friend nod. Just then, he melted into the other, spooning him snuggly from the back. Mixed emotions ran high, but at that moment he was happy. There was a calmness washing over him as he held Michael, enough so that momentarily he closed his eyes. He barely heard Michael when he spoke again, in a hushed voice. "Do you like this as much as I do?"

When Thomas didn't immediately answer, Michael stretched out and rolled over underneath, forcing Thomas to stretch out on top of him. This time their chests and bellies connected, as well as the other parts of their body in such proximity to the other. Each radiated a heat and comfort for the other to feel, which was soaked up by the other. Michael saw surprise and nervousness in Thomas's eyes, but he also saw an enjoyment in more ways than one. When he smiled, Thomas finally replied just above a whisper. "You know I do." It was true; he loved every inch of contact between them they were sharing.

"Then, don't be afraid of me, okay?" Michael whispered. He grabbed his friend loosely, and then pulled so that he lay directly on top just then, foot to foot, groin to groin, chest to chest. Michael stared deep into his eyes and figured this was as good a time as any, if he was going to pry. "Can I ask you something?" When Thomas nodded, he continued. "What is it with you? I mean, okay, I understand some of it now, but why are you still so afraid you're going to weird me out? It doesn't bother me to hug you, or us holding each other, or lying here with you and stuff like this. You should know that by now, right?"

Thomas returned the gaze, a mixture of emotions coursing through him, before lowering his eyes in embarrassment. "You're my best friend Mike, I - " He paused, unsure at first before he spoke again. "I don't know why, I just - In a way I feel close to you, you know? And... I just, like the other day, I wanted, I mean, I needed to hold you. I wanted to do that, but I was scared. I was so fucking afraid you would push me away, or worse. I was afraid you would hate me, and we would stop being friends anymore." He stopped, knowing that his raw feelings were on display. He was embarrassed, and started to roll away, but Michael wrapped his legs around him quickly, and suddenly his arms were holding Thomas in place.

"Hey, don't go. It's okay, honest," Michael said quietly. When Thomas returned his gaze, he saw the smile meeting him. He sighed, relaxing again, allowing Michael to release some of the pressure holding him. He made it plain, however, he didn't want Thomas going anywhere. "Ok, I understand that, I really do. But why would a hug weird me out? It's like I'm seeing something, but not understanding you. Or..." As he saw his friend start to get nervous again, he hurried on. "Don't be afraid, just tell me... I promise, it'll be okay."

Thomas stared back. "I'm - I AM afraid Mike, I'm afraid you'll hate me and stuff if I..." He didn't finish.

Michael scoffed. "How can I hate you? What's the worst I've seen out of you, a naked pic of me or something? Ok, so you drew a pic of me with a weird looking dick, big deal. If that's it, then I've already told you, it's cool." He grinned. "Heck, I figure you get horny and get boners just like me, right? I just can't draw it in pictures like you can." He paused, then finished. "Umm, you do get boners... right?

Thomas giggled and nodded and whispered, "Yeah, like right now..."

'Ah!' Michael thought as he grinned back, thinking it wasn't just his imagination! Still, he didn't want to go there just yet. He wanted - no, he needed Thomas to trust him. "Come on man, you're hiding something, I know it, I can feel it. Tell me... please?"

Thomas looked up out the window and saw it was dark outside. They had cooled off by now, but the warmth he felt here left nothing to be concerned with. The only light came from both the TV and the lamp on the nightstand. He thought about it, wondering if he could really tell his best friend what he was feeling. "You know how we are at home? I mean - me and Mom live with Grams and Gramps and all... and he is always telling me stuff, always annoyed or irritated about things."

Michael nodded, not totally sure where this was going, but being patient. "Like...?"

"Like - " Thomas paused again, searching for the right way to phrase it. "Like I should be a man, and do this or do that, or get out hunting or fishing, things like that. He's all the time trying to get me to do weird stuff, 'man stuff' he calls it. While I was growing up there, if I ever did anything that wasn't 'manly' enough, or if I ever cried or anything, he was always on my case about it, yelling or some such crap, you know? He's always yelling about how I should be down at the pond, or getting into girls, or cars, sports... At least he leaves me alone about football, but hell, Mike. I don't have a body for that kind of stuff. Like I would ever play football anyway, you know? But he's always giving me crap, telling me how backward I am. Like, I don't live up to 'normal' standards and shit, I guess."

Thomas shook his head. "I see a lot of families and people, on TV or at church, or whatever. They aren't afraid to like, be with their brothers or sisters or stuff. You know, hugging them or telling them they love them or anything. I mean, not like sissies would, but you know, just show stuff, and show how much they appreciate and care, things like that. Gramps, he tells me over and over I shouldn't show emotions, or do stuff like that. That I shouldn't show anyone if I'm hurt, or crying, or anything like that. 'Boys are supposed to be tough and keep their feelings to themselves,' is one of his favorite lines and everything. You know, they're not supposed to have feelings and crap, but I know better than that. 'Take everything like a man, be a man!' - all that crap, you know?"

He hesitated after his mock imitation, thinking it through before finishing. "I guess more than anything, he's always telling me boys don't do things that are touchy-feely kind of stuff, unless I'm with a girl. He's always telling me I should be out finding a girl, and even making out or whatever. Things he says will make me feel like a man."

Michael was shocked. "Wait a minute... You said this is what it's been like growing up. You mean ever since you've been there? So, it's still happening and everything?"

Thomas nodded. "I'm sorry Mike, I don't mean to be, you know... I just couldn't help it the other day. It's like something inside of me just sprung open, just ... this... feeling, when I was with you and all, and... and..."

Michael was confused. "That's fine, Thomas, trust me. B-but, why? What is your grandfather expecting out of you? I mean, why does he ride you so hard? Is he afraid you're gay or something?"

Thomas shrugged, but the hurt in his eyes was evident. "I don't know, Mike. He's just weird like that sometimes, and it's... it's confusing, and... it makes me scared, and... and..."

Michael considered. "What about your Grams, and your Mom? What do they have to say about it all?"

Thomas snorted. "Grams is, well - she does what she's told. You know, a kind of no-questions-asked sort of person." He stared out the window again. "Mom, I don't know. I don't understand her sometimes, really. When I was little, she held me and stuff, and we played, but... now all I get out of her is things like 'did you do your homework?' and stuff. The only thing she does, is sometimes she will sit with me on the couch and draw. You know, show me how to draw things - but even that hasn't happened for a long time now. She goes to work and then she comes home, and once we do our basic chores and everything, she sleeps all the time mostly. It's like she sees me, but then doesn't really know I'm there." He turned his gaze back to Michael again. "It's like Gramps doesn't 'like' me or something, you know? I never can do anything right for him, I'm always being picked on, no matter whether I do stuff right or not. And Grams and Mom, they just let him do it. And if I try to say anything back, I usually just get slapped or shouted at. I told Mom a couple times, but she wouldn't listen to me. She just says, 'Defend yourself', and then she slams the door on me if I say I do. Gramps always calls it 'back-talking'."

Michael could plainly see a lot of hurt in Thomas's eyes. "I'm sorry man, I really am." It was all he could think of to say.

Thomas grimaced. "I don't want you to be sorry, Mike. I just want to thank you for giving me this, you know? You have no idea - "

Michael didn't let him finish. "Yes, I do. At least, I can imagine it. You've lived your life almost like you're alienated or something, right? I mean... Me and Mom, we're close, we hug and kid around all the time. What you're telling me though, is that you get none of that. Right?" He whistled as he thought about it, bringing his hands up to caress Thomas's back and sides. "It explains a lot Thomas - it really does - things I've wondered about sometimes, but I was always afraid to ask. It's like some of the stuff you wrote in that book, about being alone. I mean, really being alone." He shook his head. "I always thought I was alone here, but what you just told me makes it feel like nothing compared to what you go through."

Thomas nodded. "Don't get me wrong, Mike. They love me, I guess. It's just weird, that's all. And, I have all these things inside of me that are so confusing sometimes. And, and..."

Michael whispered, nodding his head again. "Yeah, I know, it's okay. Thomas?" The teen raised his eyebrows. "Thanks, honest. Thanks for telling me. I know that couldn't have been easy. I mean, I really had no idea." Thomas only nodded, but Michael was now seeing his friend for the first time in a whole new way. His heart went out to him, and he wrapped his arms around him again and embraced him fully, holding for a long time. Just two days before, all three of them had put up the Christmas tree, sung carols, shared hot chocolate, played games - things that were a whole different definition of family than what Thomas was used to. The little gestures made sense to him now, and he smiled.

"What?" Thomas asked sheepishly.

"I'm just glad, honest. You know you're my best friend, right?"

Thomas smiled and nodded, hesitating. "Mike? You ARE my best friend. You're the best friend I've ever had. I just - I just wanted to get away, to come here..." He looked around. "And tonight, I just wanted to somehow get you to understand. You know, what you and your Mom mean to me. I didn't want to be sissy or mushy or stuff, but I had to, like, let you know. I couldn't help it. Does that make any sense at all?"

"You're not being a sissy bro, trust me." Michael saw his friend half-smile, so he wiggled and pulled himself out, flipping Thomas over gently, so that this time he was the one on top. Neither was pinning the other, though Thomas nervously put his hands on Michael's back, feeling the smooth skin that was there. Michael grinned, a mischievous look crossing his face again. He decided it was time to change the mood, and maybe have some fun. "Okay, so boys don't do mushy stuff, huh? That's what your Gramps tells you a lot, right?" When Thomas nodded, Michael wrinkled his nose. "Well, maybe not, but you know something? I'm not just any boy." When Thomas smiled, he continued. "So, that poem I read, it was about me then - really about me?" Thomas blushed and nodded. "So, then you're like me, you wonder what it's like to do stuff, too." It was a statement, not a question.

"Yeah... You wonder too?" Thomas asked.

"Oh yeah, definitely," Michael replied. It was then he decided something, and he just hoped it wouldn't be the wrong one. Whispering, he leaned in a little closer to the other. "Will you swear YOU won't weird out on ME? At least, not tonight?" When his friend nodded, Michael leaned in closer, nervous and trembling, but very lightly, very gently, kissed Thomas on the lips. When he pulled back, he saw the surprise that met him, making him whisper even more, "Bet you didn't know I was gonna do that, did you?"

Thomas grinned and shook his head in awe. When their lips had touched, he felt something flash through him instantly, something tingly and magical. Michael watched closely. "So, fess up. Did you like it?"

Thomas didn't have to think before he answered. "Yeah, I did." They stared at each other for a few seconds, each assessing the other, and then Michael slowly leaned in again. This time, however, Thomas met him half-way, and they kissed, holding their lips together. It was like a moment of silence enveloped them suddenly, as both tentatively began feeling the other, experiencing what a true kiss was like. When they didn't separate, Thomas very cautiously parted his lips, taking more of his friend inside, making their connection develop into a more sensual kiss.

Michael felt the change and pushed more firmly, parting his lips in a similar manner. Initially they both just circled around each other, sampling their new experience together. The tingle it gave each was one thing, but then very slowly both boys brought their tongues to the front and touched at the same time. It was so surprising that, at first, they pulled back. Each had felt a jolt of electricity rush throughout their bodies, stirring something even more. Thomas looked up and saw his friend's eyes were closed, so he shut his own and pushed his tongue up yet again. This time, neither withdrew.

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