The Bully and the Bullied

by Sean English

Part 8

When They Finally Meet

"You can't be serious! There is no way!" Michael exclaimed, before lowering his face into his Thomas's' ear, bringing his voice almost to a whisper. "No fucking way did they do that! She's... I mean, she's like, -"

"I know, she's the exact opposite of someone you'd expect anyone to go for, right?" Thomas wrinkled his nose, then laughed. "Man, you've really got to get your ears cleaned out or something! You miss out on a whole lot of stuff sometimes!"

Michael's face saddened. "I know, man, I know..." He shook his head. "When did you hear all this?"

"Today. She was sitting behind me at the next table in the lunchroom, before you got there. You saw them, they were giggling and everything, her and Sherry what's-her-face," Thomas explained.

Michael hesitated. "Sherry Pendleton? So THATS's what you were so wrapped up in! Man! So... Derek and Christie, huh? I mean... Christie..."

Thomas laughed again, albeit softly. "Yeah, I know. What he saw in her, I wouldn't even want to guess, you know?" He made a face. "I mean, I don't mean to run her down, she is sort of pretty and all. But she's also, like - so religious and everything! She's the last person I expected would let someone feel her up and everything, and then… yeah, you know, go all the way!"

"Yeah, I know what you mean." Leaning in, he whispered into his friend's ear, "I'd rather do you than her, or rather, let you do me."

Thomas choked and gasped, then sputtered a series of giggles that caused him to cough. "Oh man, you wouldn't...!" He was barely able to get it out while gasping for air. He then saw a look of both sincerity and amusement and… something else. "You would?" he asked, awed by the thought. "You mean, really?" In the previous months, they had learned more about the particulars of boy sex. Thomas had a cousin who, during their Christmas excursion, gave up quite a few details to the teen. He and Michael had giggled hysterically about it, and both had agreed - at least at the time - it was just, well weird. But now that seemed to have changed.

Michael rolled his eyes before falling back into the seat. Eventually the bus began moving again, and he answered in a low voice. "Only if you wanted to. I mean, I wouldn't do anything you wouldn't want to. You know that. I still trust you, though. Remember?"

Thomas nodded, smiling. "Yeah, I know." Looking out the bus window again, he thought about it for a moment. "I don't know, I would. At least maybe – but only if we both would do it though."

It was Michael's turn to be astonished. "Really? Seriously?"

"Yeah, really... I think I'd try anything at least once," Thomas replied, grinning. "Just so long as, like I said, you and me, like in both of us."

"Yeah, I know. Holy crap!" Michael exclaimed, under his breath. They both looked at each other before bursting out in giggles and then bumping fists in mid-air. Neither said anything afterwards for a while, instead watching the scenery roll by outside. The weather had finally turned warmer as of late, even though there was still a week to go before the official beginning of Spring. That didn't stop the countryside from an early greening, though. The mixed days of warm sunshine and rain blanketing the region brought much of the outdoors to life again, as it always did this time of year. Barren, colorless fields turned green, and trees finally started sprouting new leaves for the upcoming season. Insects, birds and other wildlife were now more abundant, newly born or coming out of their winter hibernation.

Both boys watched in silence, until Thomas leaned in and whispered again. "Tell me something, what are you thinking about?"

Michael turned to him, raising an eyebrow in that cool, calculated way of his. "Do you really, REALLY want to know?" he whispered back, grinning wickedly.

Thomas giggled at first, but then nodded. "Of course! I wouldn't ask if I didn't want to know, would I?" he whispered slyly.

Michael then pulled on his jacket, already tied around his waist, looser so that it draped over his lap. Then casually glancing around, he saw no one really near enough to pay any attention, so he scooted closer to Thomas and subtly grasped Thomas's hand. Pulling it under the cover of his jacket, he placed it directly on his crotch and pressed down. At first Thomas was startled, but after assuring himself no one was paying attention, he settled in and very firmly gave the oblong shape a gentle probing and squeeze. He could feel Michael's dick underneath throb, and he would have sworn it was bigger than he remembered. Michael continued gazing out the window trying not to react, but as he lay his head back against the seat, he placed his own hand on top of Thomas's again and pressed it down hard. It gave him a momentary thrill as Thomas gently squeezed again. After a few seconds, however, the teen eventually pulled his hand back for fear of getting caught.

The two made eye contact and exchanged a knowing look. In a low voice, Thomas whispered "Shit man, you're crazy, you know that?" He laughed. "You're harder than a rock, too!"

"Well, you wanted to know, remember?" Michael replied slyly.

Thomas shook his head. "Man, what you won't do to get me to feel you up!" That caused both to laugh out loud, before they settled back into the seat again.

Michael blushed, but grinned. "Thomas, can I ask you something?" When the other boy nodded, he continued, in a hushed voice so that only the two of them could hear. "Do you, like, ever get as horny as I do? I mean, honest?"

Thomas grinned then leaned in again to whisper. "Hell yeah, sometimes probably worse!"

"Really?"

"Oh yeah, trust me. Let me ask you something," Thomas replied, hesitating only briefly. "Do you like, jack off a lot?"

Michael made a face. "Oh, only maybe, I don't know... twice, maybe three times a day."

Thomas sputtered. "You're kidding me, right?" When Michael grinned and shook his head, he whistled. "Man, that's about how much I do it, too! Except-" He hesitated, and a sudden change came over his composure. "You know, back after everything started happening, I didn't do it for a long time. But then..."

"Yeah, I know, and then things started changing again - for better," Michael replied, understanding. "Same for me Thomas, I didn't do it for a long time either. Now though, it's like I feel horny all the time. It's hard to hide it, especially in school sometimes."

"Same for me. I don't know about you, but I keep hoping we can get together again - you know, without our mom's around," Thomas mused. Both boys smiled, as they understood what that implied. In the last six weeks or more, they had been getting together a lot more, thanks to both their mothers becoming close friends. In the weeks since the Super Bowl game that night, their found other 'dates' happening with more frequency - some planned, while others more of a surprise. Initially the group seemed to magically meet up in various stores, and then wound up going for dinner afterwards. Then came one night they met at the movies, and still another where they got together and went bowling. The boys had a blast, which both women seem to enjoy with an immense level of satisfaction. The effect was to allow both Linda and Thomas to get away from their controlling in-laws, and at the same time lay the foundation for a lasting relationship between all four.

Michael finally sighed before swallowing hard. They were not far from home now, he noted, so they had only moments remaining. "I know, I really wish we could, too." He paused. "Right now, I just want to ... errggg!" He grabbed his own crotch, still covered by his jacket, to squeeze and push down.

Thomas grinned, knowing full well how his friend felt. "I know, you've said you wanted to 'F' me, so it's GOT to be bad!" he whispered. Turning again, he looked away before glancing back. "Stop it now, you're making ME horny, and I've got to get off the bus in a minute! I can't walk out in front of Grams with a boner!"

Michael sighed, and then relented. "I'm sorry, bro. I guess I shouldn't have started all this..."

Thomas kicked him with his free foot. "Shut up!" he hissed with a bemused look. "Besides, what do I have to do to get you to feel me up? I've gone after you two or three times now, and you still haven't even tried back!"

Michael grinned wickedly. "Nothing! Sorry man, just say the word is all!"

"Good, I'll remember that! So, right now, shut up and quit feeling sorry before we both get in trouble!"

Michael smirked, then sat back and watched as the bus pulled up stopped, letting another kid off. His mood changed. "Thomas?"

"Hmmm?"

"Mom is asking me a lot of questions again, about you-know-what..." When Thomas didn't respond, Michael sighed. "I mean, I promised you I would keep quiet, and I have - honest! I haven't told her anything. But, I don't like lying to her, you know? I- I can hide the stuff we do between us, you know that. Because that's us, nobody else's business. This other stuff between you and your Grandpa though, it's something a whole lot bigger. I don't like lying about something that's hurting you, not like this. You know? And... and..." He trailed off, unable to finish the sentence.

Thomas turned his gaze out the window and sat silently for a few moments. He understood what his best friend was saying, and he knew that inside it had to be tearing at him. "I know Mike, okay? Really, I do. Look, I promise, you can tell her soon. Just... Not now, okay?"

"But he's hurting you, Thomas! I mean, I saw your face this morning, and the other day when you bent over to tie your shoelace, I could… I saw…" Michael intoned, worriedly.

"I know Mike, but it wasn't THAT bad," Thomas replied quickly. Seeing the pleading look, however, he reached out and grasped his friend's hand, still underneath the edge of the jacket. "Just - not now, okay? I mean, I'm asking a lot of you, and I know I am. Just, not now." He looked out the window again. "I promise, you can tell her soon if you want to, or if it will make you feel better, I'll tell both of our moms, okay?"

Clearly unhappy, Michael relented as the bus approached Thomas' driveway, and he stood up, readying to move forward. "Okay, bro, you've got a deal." He half-smiled, which Thomas returned. As Michael watched his friend get off the bus, he saw his friend's grandmother in the doorway as usual. He had an uneasy feeling in his stomach, one which gripped him tightly. Thomas was getting on the bus more often now, with those tell-tale red faces, always along one side. Although his friend wouldn't admit it, Michael knew that wasn't the only place he was being roughed up. There had been a few times he caught Thomas grimacing while sitting down, or when shifting around in the bus seat. The teen tried to hide it more often than not, but with only limited success.

Most of the time, the reddened face would clear within minutes, but Michael knew what they really represented. His friend was being slapped and bullied by grandparents, who were still frustrated at their daughter-in-law's new attitude toward them. Since Linda had to leave most mornings just before the bus ran, Michael knew that was when Thomas was most vulnerable. When asked, Thomas denied saying anything and only shrugged - an action that only further bothered his best friend. Michael couldn't understand why he was holding back, especially when he knew it was wrong. There had to be a reason, right? Like it or not, however, Michael grudgingly kept his promise.

Although only thirteen, Michael had learned a lot recently about abuse. He saw the signs now and feared Thomas was in real trouble. With Linda asserting a new level of independence, their numerous outings were now met with a mixture of attitudes from their in-laws. Thomas admitted he was being queried at every chance his grandparents could corner him alone, and that was not good. They were constantly asking about where he and his mother disappeared to so much, who was she dating, and what were they doing. He told his mother once, at which she smirked and instructed him to ignore them completely. It was none of their business, she asserted.

Michael sighed as he stood up and moved forward. He knew Thomas was lying, and normally that might have hurt him. This time, however, Michael could forgive his friend – given the pressure they were living under. He couldn't shake the feeling though, that Thomas was hiding something more. With all the trust they had for one another, Michael figured if Thomas could not tell him about it, then well - he probably couldn't tell anyone else. Michael hoped that was the case anyway. He glanced back down the road in the direction of their house, wishing he could be sure everything was really okay. He couldn't though, and the feeling in his stomach dug even deeper. Only moments before, the two had been talking of things teenage boys do involving girls, other kids, and sex - and Michael was happy for that.

If just the uneasiness seeping over him would go away...

- + - + - + - + -

Jeremy Riddle had not attended school for almost a week, causing his grades to precariously reach the verge of failing for the semester. There were periods in the past where the teen had missed 2 or 3 days at a time, but he somehow miraculously side-stepped the guillotine and caught up with the work. It was not surprising, in most regards. Despite his bullish attitude and personality in school, the teen was quite bright when it came to most academics – when he wanted to apply himself. Although his teachers were at first resistant to the idea, they noted this year something was fundamentally changed about the teen. Instead of his usual lack of apathy, he was doing much better in school overall. Certainly not an A-student, but for one who once held mostly C- and D- averages, he had suddenly improved to mostly B's and C's.

That marked improvement caused the guidance counselor, and other school officials, to let some of the absences pass. Jeremy unknowingly helped his own case by providing notes, supposedly from home or from the doctor's office, making many of his absences excused. Those notes always provided varying reasons: death in the family, illness or the like, things that although questionable, were certainly legal and valid. What they didn't know, however, was that Jeremy provided the forged paperwork on his own. Once, while visiting a health clinic in town years before, the teen had quietly lifted one of the clinic's school excuse pads and brought it home. After a little practice, he was able to forge decent handwriting that looked different from his own.

This absence, however, was a little different than those prior. Jeremy had been out since Monday that week, without a word being heard by anybody. It caused a few people to initially be alert, but thus far it was not an alarming situation. Unbeknownst to them, however, Jeremy had spent the better part of the week in bed, practically unable to move. His father had been waiting for him that evening, in one of his blackest and most sinister moods ever, drunken as usual. Jeremy recognized it at once, having seen it now so many times before, and made a desperate attempt to run. The teen had almost succeeded, too, but the old man had been too quick. After being whipped and beaten repeatedly, for what the old man claimed was his insolence and lack of discipline, the man proceeded to do as he had done before.

Only this time, it had hurt far worse than ever. Jeremy screamed after the old man unloaded into the boy, but even more so with what followed. The man not only raped him, but afterwards brought out some unknown object. It was repeatedly rammed hard up and inside, the old man deriving some sadistic pleasure as he ignored the unanswered cries, begging him to stop. Jeremy, too weakened from the ordeal to fight back, lay there sobbing until the man became bored. Then as if the pain and injury weren't enough, the old man finished by rolling Jeremy over, and driving the object hard into his scrotum.

After a blood-curling scream, Jeremy passed out. For two whole days he remained there, almost lifeless, coming to at times and sensing the stillness in the empty house. When he was finally able to move, he found he was covered in sweat, and reeked from the stench of urine in the bed covers - a byproduct of his inability to go to the bathroom. The old man had disappeared without a care or word, something that typically happened after such beatings. When Jeremy finally collected his senses, he realized it was a blessing having the man away, so the teen could recover. He also knew that, though his father was probably out on another drinking binge somewhere, it would not last forever. Jeremy had to get out of there, and not knowing or realizing how much time had elapsed thus far, he knew he had to do it fast. If the man came back drunk, especially with Jeremy in his weakened state, there was no telling what would happen. Slowly and painfully, he climbed to his feet.

He looked down at the soiled sheets, drenched with the wetness he was leaving behind. Surprisingly, urine was the only thing he could see and smell, that and the blood that trickled between his legs. Steeling himself, he ignored the pain as he found some underwear. After a 10-minute struggle, was able to get them on, followed by a ragged pair of dirty jeans. His shirt, already ripped with a jagged hole along the belly, required another 5-minute effort to shed and replace. When he had completed it, he was already exhausted and weak, from lack of food. It was the best he could manage though, as he climbed to his feet and tried walking forward. The pain returned with each step, but he was determined, and slowly he made his way out of the bedroom.

Passing the bathroom door, he paused. He stank badly, and he knew it. He wanted to kick himself, for not thinking about stepping under the shower first before going through the ordeal of getting clothes on. Now, however, he was more afraid of the alternative. He had to get out of there as fast as he could and get away. Somewhere, there was an urgency driving him to move, and so he did. His stomach lurched with a sickness as he continued, leaving a foul ache within. When he reached the kitchen, he had to pause as a wave of nausea swept over him. When he could move again, he passed the table and saw an open box of stale cereal within reach. He grabbed it, delighted that it was not empty, and shoved his hand in it deep, before withdrawing a handful of the sugary-coated flakes. Munching them down dry, he was rewarded with a momentary clarity in vision, and a sudden surge in strength. Glancing down, he saw his tennis shoes and, better than he had expected, was able slip each foot inside without much resistance. Finally turning, he opened the door and stepped through to the outside world, clutching the cereal box in one hand, and picking up a makeshift walking stick in the other.

Jeremy started across the yard then, noticing the sun was still high in the late afternoon sky. His steps were slow, the pain between his legs searing at times. With a determination, however, he pushed on. He felt a warmness between his thighs, and he already had assessed it was from the sweat and blood that had seeped there. It did not stop him though. He knew where he had to go, where his only hope of refuge would be. It was a place the old man had yet to discover, thankfully, and Jeremy only hoped he could make it. With each step, it moved him farther away from the hellish nightmare of his home. Somehow, he was determined, it would no longer be called that to him.

He would rather die now, than ever return.

- + - + - + - + -

Michael cruised down the road, sliding through the wind at a relaxing speed. He sat upright on the old bicycle, letting the breeze flow and cut across him, flapping his lightweight jacket by his sides. It smelled good here, the air fresh and cool, but not so much that it kept anyone from enjoying the outdoors. It was only his third time this year he was able to get out on his bike like this, the days of March slowly reaching a level of warmth that foretold the coming Spring season. He had already met Thomas once, both of them happy they could get away from home on their own. They rode over the nearby countryside that day, exploring places and watching nature coming alive. Michael wished they could do it again this day, but a dental appointment or something prevented that from happening.

After Michael arrived home, he knew his mother would be another hour or more before arriving. After obtaining a quick snack, he left her a note saying he was just riding around the neighborhood and would be back soon. Then, pulling his bike upright again, he took off over the rise toward the road. His mother had warned him earlier that month, that although she would let him loose, he had to exhibit his utmost care in watching for traffic. It both surprised and thrilled the teen that she was giving that much freedom to him now. Carolyn told him that as long as he stayed on the back roads, in the open country, he would be safe. Her only caveat was to make him promise to always let someone know where he was. She knew she would worry regardless, but her son was growing up, and he had already proved beyond measure how responsible he was becoming. Still, she knew he needed to be with his friend, and that was the one message she gave plainly, with an intended smile. Michael knew this was another attempt by both ladies then, trying to find more ways the boys could get together. That night had naturally erupted into more hugs and whoops of laughter.

Michael reached the end of the driveway and turned down the road. Pumping first one, and then the other of the pedals, each leg pushed the bike to carry him faster across the blacktop. He topped a familiar rise before starting down the other side, all the while moving at a clip that gave his stomach a momentary tingle. There were no cars, no trucks nor other vehicles to interrupt his journey, and in the quiet surroundings, he felt a sudden thrill of victory. It was him and the world right now, with no one to judge or interrupt him. It was a freedom disturbed only by the sound of the air as it rushed by.

After some distance, he slowed down, hesitating and thinking about where he was. Although not a great distance from home, Michael had traveled farther than he had thought he would. He reached a curve in the road and stopped along the side, chastising himself for not paying better attention. With a huge sigh, he took one final look at the road ahead, before relenting to the idea that traversing its length would have to wait for another day, and with a friend. Balancing himself carefully, he turned the bike around and headed back in the direction from which he came.

Moving long closer toward home, Michael happened to glance to the right at that moment, where he noticed the old Stephenson place. It was a run-down dwelling, abandoned for years as most people in the area knew. He and Thomas had visited that very place on their outing together only the week before, turning up the gravel driveway that took them several feet from the main road. It had looked eerie to them both, even spooky-like in the distance. They had reached and rode around the yard a short distance, even walked up to the house, but then left without entry. Wondering, Thomas was determined to ask his grandparents about it later, to see if they knew anything about its history.

Today though, what made Michael pause was that even from this distance, he could distinctly see the front door was opened. 'That's odd,' he thought to himself, distinctly recalling that during their earlier visit, the door had been closed. Thomas had walked up and tried to open it, but then couldn't because of various wood planks securing it instead. The door, a stark-white in comparison to the rest of the house, was easily viewable from the road, but it's absence was what Michael to notice it first-hand.

Curiously, Michael turned into the driveway and rode along until he arrived at the yard. He was uncertain what drew him there, but he had an uneasy impression that he needed to check it out. He stopped and looked around for other signs of movement, but then found none. The rest of the house looked just as deserted as it had been before.

Dropping his bike in the yard, Michael moved to the steps leading onto the porch. A rustling sound emitted from a nearby bush just then, made him jump unexpectedly as a bird took flight. His heart began pounding in his ears as he stopped to catch his breath and calm down. Still watching, he listened for any sign of activity inside, but could hear nothing. It seemed nothing had changed, so he slowly made his way up and took his first step through the now opened door.

Peering inside, Michael saw a ramshackle room with old, mixed wallpaper peeling from the walls. A fireplace at the far end was covered in soot and filth, and the floor, like the porch, was comprised of bare planks that had seen better days. He could see an inner doorway just ahead, one that led into a hallway of some sort. As he started to contemplate walking across, he glanced down and froze: there, in the dust of the floor, were clear signs of human footsteps leading in the same direction. Again, straining his ears, he could hear no other sounds coming from within. Just as he was about to reconcile himself to the fact he was alone, and being jittery for no reason, he heard a very soft, low-pitched moan.

His stomach filled with butterflies immediately, instantly propelling an uneasy fear deeper into his gut. Michael was tempted to run away, while his imagination played all sorts of unpleasant scenarios before him. Still, hearing the moan made him pause; the foremost thought coming to him was wondering if someone was hurt. While a part of him silently screamed to get out of there, he couldn't do it. In that hesitation, he heard the sound came forth yet again, more distinct than the last. Somewhere, deeper in the old deserted house, it was definitely the sound of a human being. He cautiously crossed the floor then, surprised that the boards did not give him away. The dust scattered with each step he made, mixing amongst the other staggered footprints around him.

Michael reached the hallway and glanced left, seeing another barren room that had once obviously been a kitchen, though now empty and devoid except for a few cabinets left behind. Turning his head right, the teen saw the hallway was short and stopped at two doors on each side at the end. Tiptoeing forward, Michael passed another door not immediately visible, but he easily surmised it to originally belonged to the bathroom. A room which now looked even more desolate and empty than that of the kitchen. Finding nothing out of the ordinary, he slowly moved on, but stopped when he heard the sound of moaning once more. It was coming from the last doorway breaking off to his right. Once again, he considered turning and running, but he had already come this far. He told himself it would be prudent to at least investigate it to the end. His chest pounded loudly as he swallowed the lump in his throat hard, but stepping forward, he peered inside.

A single window from the outside world lit up its interior, and as Michael looked, a figure was revealed, curled on top of what looked to be an old coat. As it didn't immediately move, he stepped closer and suddenly realized who it was. All pretense of fear vanished immediately, as the teen hurriedly approached and knelt beside Jeremy Riddle. The older boy looked battered and bruised, contracted into a fetal position on his side and holding his knees tightly to his chest. His eyes were closed, his face gaunt and taut, and his teeth chattered unevenly. Michael watched him take a deep breath, and then let it go, moaning pitifully into the open space of the room. His face was pale, and his whole body reeked of an odd odor, one which Michael identified within seconds. Glancing down, mostly from a curiosity that needed confirmation, he saw the teen's jeans were soaked in front with dark stains. The deep discoloration, however, told Michael they were not just filled with piss, but also what had to be blood.

Michael tried to gently turn the boy onto his back, out of the fetal position. "Jeremy?" he intoned softly, after feeling resistance. Jeremy opened his eyes, a startled fear behind them as they cast wildly about before settling upon Michael's face. The bigger teen had to focus momentarily before realizing who was there, but then a look of comprehension and relief was seen. Michael again tried to get the boy to roll onto his back, and this time partially succeeded. From the better lighting of the window, he assessed instantly that the teen was in worse shape than he had suspected. Very carefully, he started to run his hands around Jeremy's torso, gently examining what he could. Pulling the loose shirt up, he saw Jeremy's belly and upper chest with a multitude of stains, but not anything he could tell of major consequence. Glancing first before he did it, Michael then felt around the teen's waistline, slipping a couple of fingers inside the waistband and pulling them up and outward. A fresh wave of foul stench was released, again from a mixture both dried urine and blood.

"W-what a-are y-you do-doing here? Wh-where did y-you come f-from?" The voice was cracked and strained, and the teeth still chattered. Michael let his hands hurriedly examine the rest of the body, before realizing there was an unmistakable fever. Shaking his head, he finally answered. "I'll tell you later. Right now, it doesn't matter. I'm here, and I'm going to help you." He quickly removed his jacket and used it to cover the older boy's mid-section, before running his hands up and down Jeremy's arms. The friction created some warmth, and the stimulation brought some feeling back into Jeremy's extremities. Michael assessed the situation, uncertain what to do. Other than the fact he knew that when one had a fever, it usually made them feel very cold. The way Jeremy's teeth chattered, and the slight shuddering he felt, he thought it was a good possibility the teen fitted that bill, if not also from mild shock.

With his jacket removed, it then dawned on Michael how chilly it was in the room. Looking the older teen over again, he knew he could not move the bigger kid on his own. "Jeremy, I have to get help," he said slowly. "Do you understand what I'm saying? I have to go get you some help! I'll go get your Dad, okay?"

At once, a vice-like grip flew out from under nowhere and gripped Michael's arm. With surprising strength, he observed the cold rage now clearly exhibited on the older teen's face. A single word escaped his lips, soft but firm. "No."

Michael hesitated. "Jeremy, I... we..." Seeing the other figure still shivering, he slowly nodded, acknowledging that perhaps 'home' was exactly what Jeremy needed to avoid. He wanted to ask why, but he knew there were more pressing matters at hand. "Listen, you're freezing, and you're probably not far from shock - that's if you're not already in it, okay? Do you understand me?" When Jeremy slowly nodded, letting go of his arm. "I- I don't know how to get you warmed up, man, unless I- unless I can get you outside. How bad are you hurt, can you walk any? Any at all?"

At first Jeremy just looked back, his expression changing to one of uncertainty. He finally, albeit slowly, nodded and whispered. "If... if y-you will h-help me... I- I'll t-try..."

Michael nodded, quickly climbing to his feet and carefully bending over the older boy. Jeremy slowly rolled onto his side before positioning himself on his knees with Michael's help. Drawing his feet up underneath, the teen painfully climbed to stand up. His face winced in pain, but the pressure from Michael's hands and body seemed to renew the strength within him. With a great deal of difficulty, they both worked until Jeremy could stand steady. Michael immediately saw the older boy's jeans slipping to the floor, so he promptly propped Jeremy against the wall. Removing his own belt, he easily worked it through Jeremy's loops and buckled it for him. Jeremy grunted, but understood, saying nothing as he watched. The task accomplished, both boys then worked their way into the hall, taking small steps at first, but eventually lengthening their stride to a better pace.

Michael watched as the bigger teen walked and swayed, realizing something was drastically wrong. As Jeremy shuffled through the doorway, his knees were closed together at times, and it wasn't hard to see the teen was struggling to remain silent. Crossing the living room though, the older boy began to do somewhat better, having shaken off the stiffness from which he had been suffering. When they reached the door to the outside, both paused as Jeremy stopped to catch his breath, before stepping forward and eventually out into the yard.

"D-do you h-have anything to e-eat?" Jeremy's voice was weak, halting as he spoke. It occurred to Michael he had not seen the teen since Monday, and as he glanced back toward the house, parts of the puzzle began forming an unpleasant picture in his mind. He silently assisted Jeremy over to a nearby post, and after leaning him against it, searched through the pockets of the jacket still draped over the boys' shoulders. Thankfully, the sun was still warm, and the breeze was relatively still for the moment. Jeremy stretched as tall as he could stand and faced it, closing his eyes and soaking in the rays.

Michael found what he was looking for. "Eat this, Jeremy," he told the teen, peeling the paper back on a candy bar he had been carrying, before shoving it into the other boy's hand. Remaining by his side, he kept his charge steady while watching the sugary nourishment get consumed. "What the hell happened to you, man?" Michael queried tentatively.

Riddle closed his eyes. "You d-don't w-want to know. T-trust me."

Michael sighed deeply. "You have to tell me at least one thing, okay?" Looking the other squarely in the eyes, he watched for any signs of deceptiveness as he voiced the strongest suspicion on his mind: "Did your Dad do this to you?"

Jeremy stared at the younger boy and hesitated. This was one question he did not want to answer. No matter what else existed in the world, this was his private hell and he knew it. Never had he dared open up to a single person about his home life, afraid if he did it would increase the torment and wrath he had already faced. Yet, something about this kid - something about him was different. He had no idea why, but he realized that all throughout the year he had been with him, Michael had not treated him as most did. Whereas most people either cowered away or kissed ass to get into his inner circle, this teen had remained neutral to the world around him. It was a good thing, for the most part - but what made it more profound was Michael treated him with a certain respect that was different. Why, he did not know, but it made him feel something inside. Only two years separated them both in age, but somehow Jeremy felt the two could have been on equal terms most of their lives.

Jeremy had only allowed himself to trust one other kid before. He thought of Austin Mathews, and how his friend had always stuck by his side, through the best and worst of life. If anyone came close to a true friend, it had been him - at least until things changed yet again. Jeremy had been afraid to let anyone inside of his world. It seemed everyone he knew that came close, ended up being destroyed or cut way. Not unlike his mother, many years before. The counselors, who ended up mocking him; the case handlers, who betrayed him and called him a liar. Even the teachers, and the school guidance counselor, most all of whom scoffed at him, accusing Jeremy of just stirring up trouble. Worst of all, the one person to whom he never wanted to tell his tale, turned out to be the one he was forced into it with. The ensuing years of mistreatment told the rest of that story all for itself.

Observing Michael now, something stirred deep inside. Jeremy was tired - tired of having to hide, and tired of living anymore. He wasn't suicidal, though, as that was something he could not bring himself to face - even if he was at the end of the game now. He was just tired of the game, and of having to face everything alone. Jeremy felt dead to the world, with his life around him having been altered so much in the last year. That was what stirred the feelings he started to experience most - and had ultimately caused him to try and change his life. Now, he had nowhere else to go.

"Jeremy?" The voice cut through his thoughts, bringing the teen back to the present. Michael was still waiting patiently, and as Jeremy focused on the younger teen once again, he heard the question followed softly by a simple phrase. "Trust me, man. Tell me..."

Jeremy smiled suddenly, feeling a level of relief. He did trust this teen, although he did not know why. He slowly nodded his head, his voice breaking barely above a whisper. "Yes. My Dad did this to me."

Michael had already expected the answer, but hearing it still caused him to audibly gasp. Thinking quickly, he looked around, before returning to meet the gaze that was observing him. "Jeremy, listen. You're hurt, man. I mean it, you're really, really hurt! We have to get you out of here, especially before the sun goes down. We've got to get you some help!" After glancing at his wristwatch, he came to a decision. "I can't leave you. Honestly, I would be too scared to attempt it, but I can't carry you either, not even on my bike. Your pants have blood soaked in them, and I know you can't sit very good." He looked the other in the eye. "The only thing I can think of isn't great man, but... do you think you can walk a little while?"

"Where?" Jeremy replied, his eyes closing and then opening again.

Michael pointed over a rise. "Um, that way I think. It's a little hill, but on the other side it goes down into Thomas's back yard. It'll cut the distance in half, rather than us having to go down to the road and up. I mean, the road wouldn't be good, especially if we're trying to avoid your Dad, right? Does that make sense?" He took a deep breath. "I know, it's not the best, believe me. I'm even scared to ask you to do it, but … but since you can at least walk some, I mean - you made it out here, right? Do you think we can make it that way? If I help you?"

In answer, Jeremy slowly righted himself and stepped away from the post, before surprisingly pulling Michael up close. He caught a whiff of odor from himself as the other teen propped him up, then wrinkled his nose. Slowly, they began walking. "Sorry I stink so bad, man. I know, it smells worse than shit," the older boy whispered.

Michael grunted. "If that's the worst I have to put up with, you've got nothing to worry about." He turned, looking serious. "Jeremy? Don't think I don't know this won't be easy, okay? Just... try. We'll go along a little way, and then take a break or something. Just lean on me. We've got to get you out of here, okay?"

Jeremy just nodded, conserving his strength for the journey ahead.

- + - + - + - + -

Thomas had been home all of only 15 minutes, when he heard a faint shout from somewhere. Initially annoyed, he thought it belonged to his grandfather, but then recalling both grandparents were in the living room, his curiosity was piqued. Listening closely, he heard the call again, except this time, it was coming from the outside. He finished pulling a fresh t-shirt over his head and then stepped to the window to look out. He saw two figures slowly entering their back yard, and within seconds he recognized one as being Michael. Thomas then broke into a run through his bedroom doorway, tearing through the house in his socked feet until he shot through the back door and out into the yard.

Rounding the corner, the teen ignored his grandmother, who began loudly calling after him. Arriving, he found Michael collapsed breathlessly by the house, but stopped in surprise as he saw the other teen with him, recognizing the bigger teen now lying in the grass was Jeremy Riddle. Thomas quickly glanced back at his best friend. The sun, already low over the horizon, cast a late afternoon eeriness around them in the quiet evening air. Approaching and dropping down on all fours beside his friend first. "Michael? Mike? What's going on? What's wrong?" He turned to inspect Jeremy briefly, and noted the exhausted demeanor combined with very pale features.

Michael still could not answer immediately. The walk had been excruciatingly slow and painful for them both. Jeremy was only able to move sluggishly in his weakened state, and that made it painful for Michael because he had to bear much the teen's weight to help get him this far. Between gasping breaths, he finally was able to force his words out. "Is- Is your mom h-here? We- we need your Mom, Thomas - please?"

Without hesitation, Thomas scrambled to his feet and took off back around the corner of the house. He almost collided headlong into Linda, who happened to be coming out to see what all the fuss was about. Realizing who she was, Thomas grabbed her hand and started pulling. "Mom! Come, quick!"

All thoughts of admonishment were immediately set aside, as Linda hurriedly followed her son. As they rounded the corner and approached, she saw the two visitors lying next to each other. Identifying Michael, Linda first knelt and gave the teen a cursory review. Michael opened his eyes and, recognizing her, tried to sit up. "Ma'am... Jeremy... He's hurt... He's hurt bad… We've got to get him help, and quick..."

Startled, Linda immediately turned her attention to the other boy. Noting the color was gone from both Jeremy's face and hands, she saw in an instant the seriousness of the situation. Biting her tongue, she turned to Thomas. "Get your shoes on, and then grab my purse and keys. Meet me at the car. Be quick about it, now - go!"

Thomas was gone in a flash, as Linda moved next to Jeremy and slid her arms underneath him. With a huge effort, she lifted the teen completely into her arms, staggering to gain her balance as she rose. Slowly, but deliberately, she carried the boy toward the front of the house, showing surprising strength and determination. Moments later, she returned to find Michael had regained his breath and was shakily climbing to his feet. Putting an arm underneath, she helped him make his way, until they were quickly joined by Thomas. With one on each side, the three headed for the front yard.

Upon their arrival, Michael saw Jeremy was already sitting lopsided inside in the back seat. He quickly joined the teen, moving close and pulling on him to so they that were side-by-side. Thomas and Linda hurriedly climbed into the front seat and shut the doors. Thomas's grandparents were heard shrieking in the distance, attempting to get them to stop, but Linda ignored them. She knew it would cost precious minutes to explain what was going on to their satisfaction. Instead, she hurriedly maneuvered the vehicle out onto the roadway and started heading toward town.

"Michael? Quickly - will Carolyn be home by now?" Linda called out, glancing at the teen in her rear-view mirror.

Checking his watch, he nodded. "Yes Ma'am, she should be." Nothing more was said, although Thomas continued to turn around and stare at both figures, his eyes full of questions. Michael smiled weakly before subtly shaking his head. He was begging his friend to wait, and Thomas understood. He nodded slightly in acknowledgement.

A moment later, the vehicle made a rough turn into Michael's driveway, and then bounced its way over the rise toward the house. When they topped the ridge, Michael saw his mother standing outside near their car, watching their approach. As they pulled up, Carolyn rushed to the window and looked in, before heaving a sigh of relief. "Michael! You scared me half to death, young man -"

"Mom! I'm okay, honest, but we need help!" Michael's plea met her with full force, and Carolyn immediately stopped. Realizing something more was going on, she noticed her son supporting and steadying another boy. The bigger teen looked half dead, and that caused her to run around and open the door on the opposite side. Without a word, she reached in and took hold of Jeremy's hand, feeling his wrist for a pulse, before reaching up and feeling his face. "He has a high fever, pulse is thread-y at best. He's been sweating profusely, too." Looking at the others briefly, she took charge. "All of you, wait here." Withdrawing, Carolyn ran into the house and returned in less than a minute, pulling the door closed. In her arms she carried her purse and a blanket, which upon returning, she entered the back seat as quickly as she could. Closing the door, she addressed Linda with a single word: "Drive!" Without hesitation, Thomas's mother put the vehicle in reverse and began working their way around, before heading toward the road.

Carolyn spread the heavy blanket over Jeremy, closing it and sandwiching the teen between herself and her son. "Sit closely Michael, he needs warmth now, no matter how bad he smells." With that, Michael moved as close as he could, taking hold of Jeremy's hand underneath the blanket and holding it in his own. In the past, Michael had encountered times when he felt cold, and he remembered the things his mother did that helped warm him up.

They drove quickly, rounding the various curves until they reached the main highway. Turning rapidly, Linda called out. "Everyone, make sure your seat belts are on!" She quickly accelerated as they sped rapidly toward town. From time to time, Carolyn rubbed Jeremy's arms, all the while speaking in low tones. "Stay with us now, kiddo - don't give in... stay with us..." For the first time, Michael was beginning to get really scared. Seeing his mother in the state of alert she was in, made it all the more imperative they get to the hospital as soon as they could.

As he mimicked the actions of his mother, Michael began getting a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach. Perhaps their trek across the field hadn't been the best of choices after all. He looked at Jeremy and saw what looked like lifelessness, the teen now literally unconscious. Fear gripped him. If something happened, Michael would never be able to forgive himself. The trek had been much farther than either anticipated, and the walk had been exhausting. Maybe he should have left and gone for help. The truth was he had been afraid to do so. Did that fear cause him to make a mistake? If so, was it going to be one that cost Jeremy more than he needed right now?

While Linda drove straight through to the other side of town, she did so at an alarming speed. Michael wanted to tell them all a part of what had happened, but found himself unable to do so. No one pushed him, however, as they swerved precariously in places to get around other vehicles, and maneuver through the early evening traffic. In no time, Linda finally slowed and pulled into the emergency wing of the hospital. She drove up behind an ambulance, already parked at the entrance, when Carolyn jumped out spying two paramedics standing nearby. Motioning quickly, they approached and suddenly all three adults were at Michael's door, opening it carefully. He extracted himself and stood just outside, watching as they gave Jeremy a cursory examination. One of the paramedics then rushed away, returning only seconds later with a gurney. With the help of his partner, they moved the teen onto the stretcher before whisking him away. Carolyn remained by Jeremy's side throughout the ordeal, and the group moved through the doors with a rush.

Linda sighed finally, as Thomas joined Michael at his side. Telling the boys to wait there, she climbed back behind the wheel, then backed the vehicle away. Finding a nearby open space, she parked the car before rejoining the boys. She placed an arm around each of their shoulders, and the three of them entered inside. The emergency ward had few people in attendance that day, with the waiting room nearly empty. Crossing to a set of vending machines, Linda procured what change she could scrap up, and then purchased each boy a soda, plus a bag of chips to share. Guiding them, they made their way to a remote corner of the room, where she eased them into empty chairs. Lastly, the woman pulled a chair up in front, and sat down facing them.

"Here, drink this," she said softly, first opening and then handing a soda to Michael. Waiting while he swallowed a few gulps of the liquid, she handed the other soda and chips to her son. Michael was grateful for the relief the cold liquid gave his parched throat. Linda patiently allowed the boy a brief respite, watching as her son moved in close to his friend in the silence. Both waited until Michael finally smiled at them both. It was then Linda finally spoke with a firmness, but also kindness. "Now, start from the beginning and tell me what happened. How did you find him? Where did you find him? Who is he?"

Taking a deep breath, Michael poured out everything he could think of. He spoke of riding his bike that afternoon, how he passed by and noticed the old house and its now opened door. He told of how he approached, heard a moan and then found Jeremy inside. He explained about the shape he was in, and how he had come to the decision he had to get the teen out of there. Linda interrupted, asking why he had not just simply gone for help, but Michael explained that he was partly afraid to leave the teen alone, but also because Jeremy had held him determinedly. Then he explained the remarks about Jeremy's father, and it was then Linda drew in a sharp breath. She waited patiently until Michael had finished, about how they had decided to try and make it across the field, and then finally getting to their backyard.

Linda sat back for a moment and considered. She asked a question or two, drawing minute details if she could, before finally nodding. Although the distance wasn't really as far as one might have thought, it would still be considerable for someone in as bad of shape as the boy was. Yes, that probably contributed to an already weakened state, she thought, but she understood what was happening much better now. She smiled as reassuringly as she could, and then rose to her feet. "Okay, boys, just rest here a bit. I'll be back in a few minutes," she informed them. Linda had to let the doctors know about this, and then afterwards, she knew what else had to be done.

She had to find her boss, and quickly.

- + - + - + - + -

Austin Mathews walked through the doors at the front of the hospital, entering no differently than he had each day for the past two weeks. Barely glancing left or right, he walked over to a set of elevator doors and pushed the button to go up. He had just gotten a fresh haircut, and he looked surprisingly respectable compared to his usual choice of clothes. Sporting a new pair of jeans, a bright yellow polo shirt and a new pair of tennis shoes, he looked entirely different. Gone were the rough edges and intimidating display, at least for the moment.

As he progressed, however, there was a heaviness that began weighing him down. It was a feeling Austin thought he would have been used to by now, but like some things in life, it followed him regardless. Sighing, he waited until the elevator doors opened before entering and pressing the appropriate button. Exiting onto the fourth floor, he then turned and traversed a fairly long, dimly lit hallway, meandering along until he approached two double doors at its end. Moving to the side, he pressed the call button that beaconed.

"Yes?" a faint, feminine voice announced, the intercom coming to life.

"Umm, this is Austin Mathews ma'am. I'd like to see my brother, please? Kevin Mathews?" he intoned, as he had done so many times in recent days.

"Sure thing, just a second," came the almost mechanical reply, but with an element of warmth behind it. Within seconds, a familiar buzzer sounded, so he reached for the handle and pulled the door back as the lock released. Entering the hallway beyond, he heard the door automatically closing behind him as he began bearing to his right. The walls here were just as featureless as the others, other than here at least there were doors that opened into patient rooms. A passing nurse smiled at him in recognition, nodding and causing him to smile in return. It did nothing to ease the tension in his stomach, though, as he stopped before a familiar door that was presently closed. Taking a deep breath, Austin steeled himself before partially opening the door, and peering inside.

"It's open," came a smaller voice from inside. Austin pushed the door the rest of the way and entered, before purposefully closing it behind him. Turning, he suddenly smiled as he approached the bed. His brother Kevin was actually sitting up for a change, though with his knees drawn to his chest and his arms encircling them. The windowed room was dimly lit, given the late hour, but the features revealed did not escape the visitor. Austin saw the restraints had finally been removed - the first of many positive signs that showed things were changing. Nearby, a tray containing a cup and pitcher of water sat at the ready, as well as a box of tissues. Immediately beneath it was a small trash bin, and Austin noticed it already contained several of tissues wadded from use. Upon closer inspection, he noticed his brother's eyes were puffed and red. He had been crying for a while now, despite his efforts to appear otherwise.

"How's it going Kev?" Austin asked quietly, sitting on the edge of the bed and facing his brother.

Kevin shrugged at first, before turning to gaze into the eyes that met his own. "Why do you even come here?" he asked abruptly, with no pretense of greeting or other acknowledgement.

Austin smiled in surprise. "Because you're my brother, that's why."

"So? What's that got to do with it?" There was a level of frustration, even defiance in the younger boy's voice. "I'm just a reject, a pot-head now. You don't need to be around me anymore."

"Who says?" Austin replied. He sighed, but kept the smile on his face sincere. "You want to disown me or something?"

Kevin scoffed. "I figured you would rather disown me."

Austin giggled. "Nope, you're stuck with me for life."

Kevin, however, wasn't buying the lighter mood. He stared, observing the sunset just beyond distant hills. "You really should, though. Disown me, I mean." Then in an almost whisper, he added, "I'm sorry, man. I'm really sorry." Tears appeared again, uncontrollably trailing down his cheeks.

Austin was deeply moved. Scooting in, he closed the distance between them, before reaching out and embracing his sibling. Kevin lost it at that point and could not avoid letting a series of the heart-wrenching sobs surface. The two never had the best of track records insofar as brothers went, each living in his own world, apart from the other. Although their parents had tried countless times to get them to make amends, the boys' relationship had been mediocre at best. It wasn't for lack of effort, however. Austin had tried to bury the seemingly invisible hatchet between them several times, but the effort was met with little success. Between his hanging within Riddle's circle, and Kevin building and hanging out with his own gang, it was hard for the two to find any common ground. That is, until Austin discovered what his little brother, and his gang, was doing.

On that fateful day in the school hallway, Austin had been ready to beat up Riddle once and for all. That is, until he heard Jeremy's voice hiss at him, and felt something shoved into his pocket. Riddle had warned him, told him cryptically, that what he had done was to save the younger boy, because Austin's little brother was about to get caught. For some reason, Riddle disappeared before Austin could put together the facts and demand more detail. When he actually reached into his pocket and discovered what was in the bag, reality took a drastic turn. The bag was full of weed, and suddenly the signs all connected up.

Things changed dramatically then, but it was not that event that drove Austin right now. Instead, Austin had slowly boarded their bus and found his brother absent, having instead went home after lunch. The waiting had tested Austin's patience ten-fold, as he struggled to keep his temper in check. For all their rugged exterior, this family did not deal in drugs - period. It was a pact the two made early in life, one worth staking their lives on. On top of that, it was a basic rule constantly reinforced by their parents. Kevin was already in enough trouble at school as it was - discovery of that bag would have not only suspended him, but also could have expelled him for the rest of the school year. Austin wanted badly to get home and kick some sense into the little guy, especially before things developed any worse. It wasn't until near the end of his journey that he paused, wondering how his brother had initially managed to leave early. They didn't live that far from the school, but yet it would take a considerable effort to get away early like that. And there was also the break from routine: usually when one departed early, so did the other, together. That puzzled the bigger brother, thinking now there would be more than one question to answer for.

When Austin eventually stepped off the bus and entered their house, he called out Kevin's name aloud. Hearing no answer, he turned up the hallway to the little bugger's room, annoyed. Finding the door closed, he opened it and peered inside, before catching his breath. There on the bed, the brat was stretched out and shirtless, murmuring to himself with eyes closed, and with his whole body convulsing uncontrollably.

"Kevin!" Austin exclaimed, rushing to his side. He immediately saw a needle lying by his side, and his heart sickened. Not only did it seem that pot was in the picture, but now there were drugs of some sort. Setting it aside for safety, he then attempted to revive his brother by shaking him and calling out loudly. When there seemed to be no response, he immediately rushed to the phone and called 911. That fateful call had changed all their lives completely. Since that day, Austin could not help but feel an incredible burden on his shoulders. The drugs his brother had acquired appeared to be very bad stuff, enough so he had come to within an inch of losing his life. Had Austin not arrived when he did, the results would have been more devastating.

When he thought back about that day, Austin could only really thank one person for it all. If Jeremy had not set him onto the path, making him realize what was happening, it would have been different. If Austin had not opened his eyes in astonishment, he may have never even bothered to check on his brother. Neither brother typically went home on most Friday afternoons, choosing instead to run around with their friends for a few hours celebrating the coming of the weekend. If Austin had not been upset, had not been needing to find his brother just then, it was very likely it would have been too late.

The whole episode had caused Austin to take a hard look at his life lately. It was one thing to personify their attitudes within the crowds they ran with, but the drugs were a whole different story. Both boys had seen the effects, walked among clinics and observed firsthand the effects of drug abuse and its single-minded destruction. It had built a natural disgust within Austin, with the deepest of desires to stay free of the stuff. Austin thought it had done the same for his brother, but it obviously had not. Austin blamed himself really, seeing it as a failure on his part. The counselors and social workers that grilled him and his parents, all had asked a multitude of questions. The signs were there, and they were things the older brother felt he should have picked up on. He had ignored them however, passing them off as just talk, until the last couple of weeks.

That ignorance, he realized, had almost cost his brother his life.

Austin shivered, a tear dropping from his own eyes onto the thin hospital gown wrapped around his little brother. They both sobbed quietly now, something Austin was so unused to doing. Initially the embrace felt awkward, especially compared to the girls he had held and even groped before. Here was his own flesh and blood, but they had hugged so rarely that holding his brother now felt ... strange. As he engulfed him now, however, Austin found he needed it. For the better part of two weeks, he had spent most of his time trying to convince his parents, and everyone else involved, he was clean, and had never touched any of the pot or drugs that laced their conversations. He remembered the look on his mother's face just days before, when he finally saw the relief and belief. That day, she hugged him so tightly afterwards and even cried. He had taken the tests to exonerate himself, more than once, but that day something changed, where she finally believed him. It meant so much more to the teen knowing, or better yet feeling he had re-earned his parents trust.

Austin needed that hug for another reason too, though. He had failed his brother, and it was hard for him to believe he could ever live up to the standards of being that again: a big brother. The first few days, Kevin had fought them all, displaying an unconventional rage especially when Austin was around. The younger teen had shouted obscenities and curses that had struck deep, but Austin wrote them off as the after-effects of becoming clean. Part of it was the treatment, the "drying out" as some called it; but part of it was also the rage of denial and contempt. Kevin had taken out the more brutal actions on his older brother though. Actions and words that cut a swath of guilt across Austin in so many ways, making him leave the room each night feeling more miserable. Austin had never imagined life being so hard or unsympathetic, as to drive Kevin to do drugs to begin with. Yet, here was living proof of the nightmare his brother had dealt with, and the bitterness at having felt betrayed.

Austin never gave up, however. Only two days before, Kevin had finally quieted when the family walked through the door. As he had done each day prior, Austin continued to visit, even if only briefly, to try and show his brother why he was there. More than anything, the teen had wanted to apologize for not being the kind of brother he should have been. Now, he only hesitated because Kevin had become so impassive, sitting and ignoring everyone who came to visit.

Before then, Austin had wanted to give up visiting, partially because of how it was wrenching his heart apart, but also for Kevin's sake, so it wouldn't be so hard on their parents. The counselors convinced him otherwise though; even just a brief appearance, as often as he could, would go a long way in helping restore the emotional bond his brother was going to have to recreate with the family. How true it had proven to be. Right now, Austin was holding his brother tight and feeling some of his own emotional tension begin to seep away. They remained there, doing the thing boys just didn't do, each melting into the other. Austin was learning though, that sometimes it didn't matter; sometimes, you just had to do it. You had to be free and true.

It was some time before both quieted, and Austin could finally pull his head back. Whispering into his brother's ear, he offered again. "I meant it, Kev. You're stuck with me, no matter what. As long as you'll forgive me for doing what I had to do."

That brought a fresh round of sobs from the smaller of the two, so Austin responded by holding his brother a little tighter. Nothing more was said between them, as the sun began to disappear. When nightfall settled in, Kevin lay back on the bed finally, falling asleep in his brothers' arms. The hospital gown had crept up, exposing the nakedness underneath, but instead of smirking at the sight, Austin just faced the reality that his brother was still young, and thankfully he still had a life ahead of him. He reached down and gently fixed the gown, hiding the exposed groin and belly, before pulling the sheet and blanket up to keep him warm. Kicking off his shoes, Austin stretched out beside him. Knowing their parents would be along in a little while, he thought he would stay and keep his little brother company for a change. His last thoughts, however, before he closed his eyes, were not of the younger Mathews.

Instead, they were of another boy, someone he knew he was going to have to thank in a big way. Not only for saving his brother's life, but perhaps for saving his own life, too.

- + - + - + - + -

From elsewhere in the hospital, Stan appeared in the waiting room unexpectedly. As he walked over to the desk, he turned in his visitor's badge before glancing about the still near-empty waiting room. He stopped, however, as his eyes fell upon two familiar faces sitting in the corner. Crossing the distance, he walked up. "Well, hello thar! What brings you two boys into a gloomy place like dis tonight?"

Both Thomas and Michael looked at each other before they jumped to their feet. As Stan took a seat with the two by his side, they took turns filling the man in on what had transpired thus far that afternoon. As he listened, the man shook his head, but not without a concerned expression coming to the surface. "I should of known..." He sat silently, listening without interruption until they finished. It was then he became thoughtful before letting out a low whistle. "You mean to tell me, you got him all the way over from the old Stephenson place, across THAT field, to … to your house?"

"To Thomas's house, yeah," Michael replied.

Stan grunted, obviously impressed. "Yeah, I bet that was a journey all right! That's a long way there, young man. And that Riddle kid - he ain't no small critter at that!"

Michael cringed, sitting back again, feeling dejected. "I know, but... I just didn't know what else to do, you know? He wouldn't let me go get help." He felt his words, however, were just an excuse. Michael was no longer convinced it was the right thing to do, now that he looked back. "I just hope I didn't do the wrong thing. I mean, he was bad - he was really bad, especially when I finally got him to Thomas's house."

Stan gazed down with kindness in his eyes. "Now, you listen to me. You probably did just fine. I don't think a lot of kids would have had the nerve to enter that house to start with, and if what you say is true, he may have ended up much worse off. It may have been hard for the two of you, but Riddle, he's a tough kid. One of the toughest I ever known, that's for sure." He placed his hand on Michael's knee. "You did good, son. Don't fret it."

Michael hesitated before finally nodding. Thomas, who had been silent most of the evening, had no idea what he could say to his friend. Instead he sat back and leaned into him, a small gesture for sure, but one enough that provided both support and comfort. Michael finally smiled, probably for the first time that evening. So far, he alone had carried this feeling of helplessness on his own shoulders, and now it began to ease up.

Regardless of Jeremy's past actions and reputation, Thomas had to acknowledge what Michael had been telling him all along: something had changed. He only wished now that he had listened sooner. "Why does it take so long?" he voiced aloud, to no one in particular as he stared out the window.

Stan grunted. "It's a hospital young'en. They ain't known for speed, but sometimes, sometimes..." His voice trailed off for a second before continuing. "Heh, sometimes it just takes a body time to heal, too." The man came to a decision then, and then settled back before making himself comfortable. He had nothing to do that night, so keeping the boys company for a while might be the neighborly thing for him to do.

And help them wait...

- + - + - + - + -

When the Mathews' parents arrived that evening, they opened the door to a startling site. There, stretched upon the bed was not just one son, but both. Each had a serene expression, and at once they understood the two had finally been able to sit and talk without fighting. As they entered, Kevin was the first to hear them and open his eyes. Seeing his mother, he smiled at her sheepishly. Mr. Mathews appeared behind her, first glancing at Austin with a smile of his own. It was then the older brother opened his eyes and yawned, before realizing their family was together yet once again.

The four visited as a family for a short while, with Kevin almost breaking down yet again when he told his parents repeatedly how sorry he was. Unlike other evenings, Austin watched and stayed this time, providing support for his little brother. All three could feel a sincerity in the young teen's voice, as his pleas for forgiveness seemingly came from his heart above all else. Before all was said and done, they experienced a tearful, happy reunion that had not been seen in years.

When Austin finally rose from the bed, the three made their preparations to go. Kevin looked better, more alert than he had in days. Not only was he smiling, but he was perking up and teasing in a positive light. Austin promised to be back if Kevin wanted, to which the younger brother grasped Austin's arm promptly. "If it's a maybe, then you're not leaving. But if you promise, I'll wait for you." Confused by the words at first, Austin smiled as their meaning sank in. His little brother was not the strongest at finding the words to express his feelings, but most of the time the two of them understood the other with little trouble. It made him feel good that his brother wanted him there, especially after everything that had transpired. He thought he might ask the nurses about it on the way out, then if his parents approved maybe he would come back for the night as a surprise.

At last they departed, walking down the hallway in silence. Mrs. Mathews arm draped around Austin's shoulder. "He loves you. You know that, right?"

Austin grunted. "I know Mom, I know," he responded in the way most boys do when it came to expressions such as this. He offered nothing more, thinking that what happened between him and Kevin was theirs to keep. As they started toward the elevators, Mr. Mathews kept walking, guiding Austin further down the hallway.

"We parked near the emergency room tonight," the man explained, and then laughed at the raised eyebrow he got in return. He wondered where each of his kids got that from, because neither he nor his wife could replicate that simple gesture.

"Oh," Austin replied as they continued down to another set of elevators. Stepping inside upon its arrival, the trio headed to the ground floor. Upon exiting, they saw the two boys and the bus driver immediately, one of whom seemed familiar to Austin. Stopping, and causing his parents to halt as well, and called out to the group. "Hey, aren't you that kid, from the bus...?"

Thomas looked up and upon recognizing the source of the voice, rolled his eyes. Since there were obviously adults present, however, he answered respectfully. "Yes, it's me." He was surprised to see the teen with the new haircut and clothes, but then nodded approvingly.

Reading body language had always been one of Austin's specialties, and if ever there was a clear sign of annoyance, it was in front of him now. He mustered the best disarming smile he could, holding up a hand. "It's cool man, don't sweat it. I just thought I recognized you, that's all. I've seen you around school a few times." He walked over and stuck out his hand. "I'm Austin, Austin Mathews."

Thomas accepted the handshake, awkward as it seemed. "I'm Thomas, and this is Michael. That's our bus driver over there, Stan."

"Oh yeah, I remember seeing you, too," Austin acknowledged, extending his hand to the driver as well.

Stan blinked at the formality, but then grinned all the same. "You got off the bus with Riddle one time, didn't you? Did you know he's in here?"

Austin blinked. "Huh? What do you mean, 'in here'? Who, Jeremy?" Seeing the man nod, his eyes opened widely in surprise. "You mean, here in the emergency room?" Looking at the three of them, he added. "Is that why you three are all here? Did something happen?"

As the driver and boys nodded their heads, Austin's parents joined the conversation. "Riddle? You mean Jeremy Riddle is in here? What happened?" Mr. Mathew's asked.

At this point, Stan and the younger boys hesitated, feeling they should be careful about how much was said, especially until more was discovered and understood. Stan cleared his throat, finally answering in a measured tone. "Well, it seems the boy was roughed up in some way. They've got him back there now, checking him out."

Austin's eyes narrowed. "But, Jeremy hasn't been in any fights. I mean, nothing more than a scuffle since...."

Stan agreed. "I know what you mean. Honestly though, we don't know a whole lot right now. Probably won't fer a little while."

Michael watched the teen closely and saw a look of both confusion and concern develop, so he spoke up. "He was, Austin, and we brought him here as quick as we could."

"He was hurt? Then… it must have been bad, right?" Austin studied Stan briefly before glancing at the other two. There was something else there, and he instantly suspected that more existed behind the story. Turning to his parents, Austin spoke up. "Mom, Dad, can I please stay here a while? In fact, maybe even let me spend the night? I'll go up to Kev's room later, if they'll let me in."

"I don't know..." started Mrs. Mathews, uncertain of the proposal. "They may not want you sticking around upstairs, son. You know what they've told us before."

"I know Mom, but it'll be okay. If I can't stay, I'll get a ride home, or I'll call you or something. Please? I don't really feel like going out to eat anyway, and I've got nothing else going on tonight. Jermz was my friend, and… and… Please, Dad?"

The elder Mathews hesitated, and then reached for his wallet. Taking out a ten-dollar bill, he handed it over. "Eat something soon, anyway. If you need me to come and get you, just call. I'll be up for a while, anyway." He exchanged a smile with his son, relenting on the fact that there seemed to be something different driving him, a side they seldom witnessed. He gave Austin a clap on the shoulder while his mother imparted a brief hug before whispering her best wishes for his friend. Both then turned and proceeded out the door, leaving Austin behind.

Stan stretched as the other boys began to sit down. "Tell you boys what, I got to call the better half." He paused and chuckled, seeing their confused expressions. "The better half of the family, in this case - is my wife! Ain't you boys ever heard that before?" They all laughed before he continued. "I'll go do that and see if we can find anything out afterwards, over there with the nurse, okay?" After enthusiastic nods, he walked off.

Austin turned to the other boys. "Okay, you two. I, uh, know you guys don't know me, but..."

Michael shook his head. "He's bad, really bad. Stan told the truth, though. We really don't know all of what happened, or how he is right now, other than -" He stopped to take a deep breath. "Other than he wouldn't let us, let me I mean, take him home. He was really scared to go back there."

"Wait, what do you mean 'home'? He wouldn't go home?" The incredulity in Austin's voice was apparent.

"I- I found him in an abandoned house down the road," Michael explained, and as Austin listened, a knowing look crossed his face. He already had suspected this before now, and hearing this solidified his fear.

"It was his Dad again, huh?" Austin shook his head. "I know they used to fight a lot. He never admitted it to me, but I know some of those got pretty ugly."

Michael nodded, and then decided to fill him in on some of the details. Austin listened, thunderstruck as the tale unfolded. It made him think of something, from a time long before, about a mysterious quip Jeremy had made. Something about parents being nothing more than - what was it he said? Austin couldn't remember the exact words, but somehow it had to do with an illusion. There was no question, no hint of doubt in his mind at that time, that his friend's home life must have been terrible.

When Michael fell silent, he and Thomas became thoughtful. When Austin offered nothing more, Michael changed the subject. "So, how come you're out here tonight?"

Austin grimaced. "My brother, actually. He's here, upstairs."

"Really? Kevin, isn't it? What for?" Thomas inquired.

Austin hesitated, but decided there was nothing really to hide. "He's here because, in a way, I put him here." He sighed. "Kevin got messed up with some drugs guys, and I caught him right after he got hold of some bad stuff. Actually, it was Jeremy who caught him and told me about it. That's how I come to find Kevin when I did. He's been in here trying to recover for a couple of weeks now."

"Upstairs? You mean, fourth floor, east wing?" Michael asked quietly.

Austin nodded. "You know about it?" When the other boy nodded, an understanding crossed between them. Austin cleared his throat. "Do you guys know Kevin?" When the boys exchanged glances before nodding, Austin immediately caught the implied silence. "Was he..." He was afraid to ask, already knowing the answer just by their looks.

Michael sighed. "I don't know a lot, okay? Honest, but... I have seen him in the bathroom a few times, with some other guys. They didn't seem to be in there for usual bathroom business, if you know what I mean."

Austin sighed, gazing out the window into the blackness. "Okay, I get the idea." Nothing more was said, as each turned sat lost in thought, again.

- + - + - + - + -

Linda returned to the waiting-room a short while later, finding all three boys sitting quietly where she had left them. Glancing at her watch, she discovered it was much later than she anticipated. "You guys must be starving," she called out by way of announcement, crossing the floor to them. She noted the third boy and smiled before introducing herself.

"How is he? How's Jeremy?" Michael asked, just as he saw Stan coming up from behind.

Taking a deep breath, Linda spoke quietly. "The doctor thinks he is going to be okay, at least physically. Right now, he is hooked up to all kinds of intra-venous drips and monitors. Evidently, he has been without food and water for several days. So, aside from being beaten, he was dehydrated and weak. They're monitoring his recovery though, so that they can build that back up." She glanced at the third boy and hesitated, unsure of his role or relationship. Michael saved her the trouble, introducing him and explaining that Austin had been a close friend of Jeremy's for a long time.

Linda sized the teenager up, but then nodded approvingly. "Well, he's in a pretty rough shape right now, so they have him sedated. He's resting, and his vital signs are showing some slow improvement. Your mother," she said, addressing Michael, "is going to stay with him through the night, just to keep an eye on him and the medications."

"C-can we s-see him?" Michael asked, almost a whisper.

Linda shook her head. "Not tonight, Michael. He's not in a very pretty shape to see anyone."

"What do you mean?" Thomas asked.

Linda looked at each boy carefully before answering. "He has a lot of bruises and welts and... other things, right now."

A look of understanding crossed Austin's face. "He's been abused. That's what you mean, isn't it?"

Surprised, Linda nodded. "Do you know anything about it?"

Austin slowly nodded. "I never really knew, no. After hearing all this tonight though, then yeah. I've heard other things about the old man in the past, too. I wouldn't put it past him. They didn't get along at all."

Linda nodded. "Well, he's lost a lot of blood, a LOT of it." Michael knew what she was implying, as he recalled the dark stains between Jeremy's legs and crotch. Clearing her throat, she continued. "I've been talking to Sherriff Glen for the last half-hour or so. Right now, they have an all-points bulletin out for Jeremy's father, wanting to bring him in for questioning." She placed a hand upon Michael's shoulder. "He's going to want to talk to you, probably in the morning, just to make sure we all have our facts straight. Don't be afraid of him, though. He's just trying to figure out the best thing to do right now, and that means foremost he has to find the man and bring him in for questioning."

When Michael nodded, Linda sighed. "It'll be sometime tomorrow before they will even THINK about letting you guys in to see him, so there is no use in you waiting around here. Come on guys, Stan and I are going to get you boys some real food. Do you want to join us -" she turned to Austin, trying to recall his name again.

Austin thought about it for a moment and then smiled. "Can I come back here afterwards? I mean, I've got-" He hesitated only slightly. "I've got family upstairs, my little brother."

Linda nodded her head. "Stan knows of a place just down the street here a little way, so we won't be going far. And yes, I'm sure one of us will be glad to bring you back and drop you off," she added, with Stan nodding behind her. She looked at the two younger boys. "I'm going to take the two of you home afterwards, so you can get some sleep before coming back up here in the morning, too."

They began heading off toward the exit, chatting in much lighter tones...

- + - + - + - + -

Later that night, both Thomas and Michael were lying in bed next to each other, staring at the ceiling. The moon was high and bright outside, but it cast eerie shadows about the room. Linda had dropped them both off at Michael's house, telling Thomas to behave, and warning them both not to stay up late. He was surprised at the gesture, looking at her curiously until she explained. "I don't think you really want to be around while I explain all of this to your grandparents, if you catch my drift." Grinning, he nodded and bade her goodnight.

Both boys were ecstatic at the turn of events. As they undressed to their briefs, Michael pulled a t-shirt from a nearby drawer and handed it to his friend. They climbed into the bed with Michael turning his back and spooning in snugly to his best friend. Thomas obliged, remembering how it had all been so great months before. Both boys were exhausted, the adrenaline finally having seeped away their strength. As Thomas draped an arm around and held him, he nuzzled the back of Michael's neck.

"Mike?"

"Yeah?" returned the whispered reply.

"I'm sorry, man. I wish I had listened to you before now, about Jeremy," Thomas said softly.

Michael shrugged. "Not your fault, Thomas. Heck, I didn't really know either. I just felt something was different today, that's all."

"Yeah but, you're good at that, you know? Good at reading people, figuring them out and stuff." Thomas giggled. "I mean, look what you did for me?"

Michael smiled, turning back and staring into the eyes that met him. "Yeah, but you're my bro now, you know?" He wiggled in yet tighter, making Thomas giggle as he ground his crotch up firmer.

"Careful Mike, I might get horny," he whispered mischievously.

"I don't care, Thomas. I trust you, remember?"

"Yeah, I know." He was just thankful, at that moment, to be holding him again. Neither said anything more, as they both quietly slipped off to sleep.

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