The Bully and the Bullied

by Sean English

Part 9

To Never Be Alone Again

"Your friend was in pretty bad shape, kiddo."

Carolyn's words echoed, bouncing from one side of his head to the other while occupying his thoughts. Michael sat in the hospital room, watching the figure in the bed before him, and wondering about the implications of that statement. Jeremy Riddle looked almost lifeless, other than for the fact his chest rose and fell in a rhythmic pattern. Aside from the monitors, it was the only signal to the world that he was still alive. The bank of monitors methodically connected him with wires and tubes, keeping tally of his physical attributes in the background. Although Jeremy's face had regained much of its original color, it was still creased with taut lines of tension. Even in Jeremy's sedated state, Michael could see the flickering movement within the other's eyes, its movement conveying the teen was anything but truly resting. What dreams could he be living, no one knew - but Michael had to assume the worse, and for good reason.

Sighing deeply, Michael glanced at his watch repeatedly. He so wanted his mother to return, so they could go home. Both had spent the better part of the day thus far hanging around the hospital and sitting with Jeremy and keeping him company. Although the boy was heavily sedated, Carolyn knew there might be times when he could awaken briefly. Perhaps it was her motherly instincts that kicked in, but she did not like the idea of leaving to chance, that the teen might wake up alone. The two decided to attend as long as they could, but thus far there had been little to no reaction from the beaten boy.

As Michael sat silently, he began having second thoughts and questioned his rationale of bringing the teen over the field for help. That very afternoon, his mother had confided in him what the doctors had discovered. At first, Carolyn had been hesitant until Michael had finally pleaded with her, convincing her he was old enough and wanted to really know. Both exhausted and balancing her own judgment between what her son had a right to know, versus what he needed to know, she had given in. The sexually explicit details would never have been lost on him anyway, especially if he didn't already have some idea of how bad everything appeared to be. With a weary smile, she had filled him in, hiding nothing when he had asked questions, and finding a great deal of sympathy when he had understood. She was proud of her son always, but never more than she had been right then, in more ways than one.

Michael visibly shivered as he thought about that. His mother told him Jeremy had been repeatedly raped, describing it in ever-so-delicate terms exactly what that meant. She also told him it wasn't just the rape itself, but something worse: something hard had been deeply thrust up inside, damaging his rectum almost beyond repair, and tearing lesions along the intestinal wall. She told him the amount of blood the teen had lost, combined with his exposure and lack of nutrition, had almost cost him his life. She mentioned Jeremy had also been abused in other ways, too, and hearing those details was what made Michael finally gasp in shock.

Carolyn had observed him as he began to buckle from the stress, and quietly asked her son if he was okay. Just then, Michael had not been able to keep from breaking down in tears. He had told her of his fears, that bringing Jeremy across the field might have been too much on him. Then he told his mother how scared he was that, if the older teen had died, it would have been all his fault. Comprehension set in then, as Carolyn had suddenly recalled a similar remark Linda made earlier. Placing an arm around him, she had comforted her son in the only way a mother could. She had told him no, it would not have been anyone's fault. That trip might have been a little harsh, but in all fairness, she had reminded him that no one would have found Jeremy at all if it hadn't been for him. Most likely, the boy would have died that night.

Michael couldn't accept that right away, however. Feeling a huge weight still upon his chest, he stared at the boy in the bed just then. "Please, Jeremy..." he whispered, unable to finish the sentence, but secretly praying for the boy's recovery to be soon. Wrapped in his thoughts as he was, he was suddenly startled when a movement from the figure caught his eye. At first, he was uncertain, but then when it happened again he bolted from his chair and rushed to the side of the bed. The older boy, ever so slowly, brought his arm up and crossed it over his stomach. Although the eyes remained closed, gone were the constant movements within them, and the once erratic breathing was now replaced with a more relaxed gait.

"Jeremy?" Michael whispered. After a moment, the older boy slowly opened his eyes to see Michael standing next to him. It took him a moment though, to focus and realize who was there before he attempted a half-smile. Closing his eyes again, the older boy took a few deep breaths. Michael was readying to leave and find his mother when he heard the barest of whispers reach out to him. "Wh-where am I?"

"You're in the hospital," Michael replied. He hesitated, watching Jeremy flinch at that revelation.

Opening his eyes again, Jeremy gazed at the boy beside his bed. "How...?"

"How did you get here?" Michael offered when the older boy didn't finish. After seeing a slight nod, he hesitated before clearing his throat. When he answered, Michael guarded his words carefully. "I found you, and got you to Thomas's house, remember? Then we got you to my Mom, and she brought you here." He hesitated. "Do you remember any of that?"

Jeremy shook his head ever so slightly, so Michael went on. "I'm... I'm sorry man, I wish I had known," was all Michael could think to say. So many emotions were running through him just then that he didn't trust himself to speak more. He knew Jeremy was in no shape to deal with it anyway. "I need to go get the nurse, or my Mom, okay? Can you, like, try and hold on for a minute? I promise, I'll be right back!" After seeing the head nod again, albeit slowly, he took off, returning quickly with his mother and another nurse in tow. Both women began fussing over the boy, checking various vital signs and quietly talking with him to check his alertness. Both women were ecstatic, which made Michael's relief even more apparent. He looked up at the ceiling as a tear fell across his cheek, happy that at least this much had suddenly came about.

For the most part, Jeremy remained silent and still, almost listless as he was examined. Michael had taken a step back, watching with interest. He could not help but wonder if the teen was scared, or afraid of having so much attention just then. Did he even understand what was going on? Did he remember anything at all about the night they brought him in? Just then, Michael saw Jeremy turn his head slightly and focus his gaze on the younger teen, his expression revealing nothing. Did he even recognize him, or understand who was there?

Carolyn finally paused and gazed down, studying Jeremy's listless state. Glancing about, she motioned for Michael to come closer, until they both stood beside the bed side-by-side. The other nurse excused herself, departing for some reason or other, and thus leaving the three of them alone. Carolyn lowered the side rail protecting the teenager, and then sat down beside him.

"Jeremy?" she called softly, threading her fingers through the boy´s unkempt, but now cleansed hair. "Can you hear me?" His turned and focused his eyes upon her in response, which was reassuring. "I want you to know, we understand you don't feel very well right now. To be honest, for someone who has been to hell and back, I can't imagine anyone feeling very good. But you listen to me, kiddo - you may not know us from Eve around here, but at least try to believe that we're going to take care of you. No one is going to hurt you any longer. You're safe here - you have my solemn promise of that as a nurse, and as a mother. If you believe nothing else, try and trust that, all right?"

Jeremy stared at her for almost a full minute while she continued to pat him and tussle his hair, attempting to reassure him of her sincerity. Even her words surprised Michael, making him admire his mother's ability to put someone at ease. It was then the older teen eventually took a deep breath, and in a voice barely above a whisper, he replied. "I-I know... him..." Through an extreme effort, he took another breath and finished. "I trust h-him... so I'll trust you, too." He closed his eyes, exhausted at the effort, sinking back even further into his pillow.

Carolyn nodded, checking his vitals before she stood up. Looking at her son, she smiled. "Okay kiddo, he needs rest now. In fact, he probably isn't going to feel like anything for the next few days, but he's definitely going to get better. So, come on, let's get out of here and go home for a while." She put her arm around him, as they both continued to watch the older boy, who had now fallen asleep and was once again breathing regularly.

Michael looked up at his mother just then. "Mom?"

"Hmmm?"

"I wish there was something I could do," he voiced aloud.

She could still sense a level of despair and frustration without even looking at him. "He'll be alright kiddo. He's going to have a long road in front of him, and it isn't going to be easy." She finally looked down into the deep blue eyes that met her. "You are doing something though, you know? Right now, he isn't feeling anything that much, but he knows you were here, and that someone actually cared. That will mean a lot to him later, trust me, and when later comes, he is going to need every bit of the support and friendship he can have to help him get through all of this." She hugged him to her tightly. "I know you want to do more, but honey there just isn't anything more to do right now. He needs time to heal, and he needs sleep and rest."

Michael's eyes were moist, but he understood. He nodded his head and hugged her back, and they both finally turned and made their way to the door.


Later that evening, in another part of the county, Linda entered her vehicle and sat wearily for several minutes. Closing her eyes, she emitted a deep sigh, venting the frustration accumulated in the last hour or more. It helped - enough so that she calmed down. It was then she heard a meek sound beside her and then remembered she was not alone. Thomas was seated with his knees pulled to his chest, watching her every move now. Even in the darkness of the night, she could distinguish enough of his features to know he was distraught. She felt heartbroken, which made her almost break into a fresh set of tears. Linda knew her son was feeling and living something inside that he should have no right to go through. She could feel his sorrow, and she wished it was in her power to take it all away.

"Mom?" croaked the tiny voice, heavy with despair. Linda tried to smile through her emotions, before reaching down between them. Clearing an odd assortment of articles in the seat, she placed her arm around his waist and pulled him close to her side. Wrapping her arms around the smaller body, she embraced him as warmly as she could.

They both ended up weeping softly for a moment, before Linda wiped at her eyes and pulled his chin up to meet her own. "SShhhhh... you have nothing to cry about kiddo," she said, invoking Carolyn's favorite phrase she used with Michael.

Thomas half-smiled, then wiped his eyes as well. "So, what are we gonna do, now?"

At those words, Linda paused and considered their options. For the past hour or more, she had been locked into a gruesome quarrel with her in-laws, a couple who had once welcomed them initially into their home. It was a bitter argument, one littered with admonishments over several things that, in the end, had escalated frightfully. Linda and Thomas's continued absence, for the better part of the weekend, had gone on record as being unacceptable. The elderly couple were now demanding, rather heatedly, information that she could or would not give up. They saw it as an act of defiance, but Linda saw it now as becoming a point of control. Although Linda was shocked initially, it opened her eyes to some of the things Carolyn had been telling her. It showed that she and Thomas were being suffocated and systematically manipulated more than ever. Although it had been building for some time, the last few hours had put them both into a position where there was now no compromise.

The weekend had been spent between Thomas's best friend's house and the hospital, guarding and watching the boy who had very nearly lost his life. Linda avoided the trip 'home', for lack of a better word, because she had feared the retaliation that would be swift and unavoidable. She had not expected, however, for it to become as abusive as it did. At one point in the argument, the adults had turned to shouting, and Thomas had started to side and take up for his mother. It had been a moment Linda was proud of - until he began to receive the brunt of a verbal lashing directed at him. Only seconds had passed, however, before they reached the ultimate point - a point which made Linda still gasp in horror even now: Gramps, in his attempt to silence the youngster, reared back and slapped him. Not just a regular, run-of-the-mill slap either, but a hard, jarring motion with a remarkable amount of force. It caused Thomas to run from the room, holding his face with both hands while she looked on, in shock at what she had just witnessed. Her slow disbelief turned into anger, followed by a deadly silence.

For most of his life, Thomas had been a good-natured kid, hardly ever needing punishment of any kind. To see him now slapped with such raw aggression, unleashed a fury within Linda as she turned and glared at the older man. By his own actions, it left no question that he lacked remorse. There was a fury behind his eyes she had yet to meet, and his first words were that she should be controlling her son better, and that he needed to be taught respect. It made her question now, more than ever, the fear that had already begun growing within her. What things had been going on that she did not know about?

Linda then silently left the room, and went to check on Thomas, who she found conveniently locked away in the bathroom. Assuring her he was okay, she then entered her own room and began packing a rather large suitcase with her belongings. She entered Thomas's room just as he returned, opening his closet door and taking what few items hung there and placing them on the bed. She left briefly, but returned with several paper sacks, which she silently packed with his clothes. With another sack, she motioned for him to empty his drawers of socks and underclothes as well, with which he complied.

Linda began to realize suddenly how little actually belonged to them both. As she carried the bags outside, Thomas followed in his bare feet, anguished at what he was seeing. She took his hand and gently guided him into the passenger seat, before she closed the door gently and re-entered the house. Quietly walking to her bedroom, ignoring the renewed wave of rants and shouting around her, she hastily packed a few odd items from her dresser into another sack, then grabbed her bag and silently turned around, exiting back through the same door as before. At her back came the usual insults, the threats - but she resolved now that what was happening was no longer going to continue.

Linda looked down deep into her son's eyes and spoke very softly. "I don't know yet kiddo, but I do know this: tonight, you have to tell me something, though I know you don't want to. Understand, I'll respect you for it, no matter what answer you give me. But Thomas, you have to stop hiding it. You have to do that for me."

Linda saw him hesitate and then nod, so she continued. "Have Gramps and Grams been beating on you?" Seeing the look on his face, and feeling his retreat, she held him firmly in her arms and whispered. It all but confirmed her fears, but this was something she felt she needed him to voice aloud. He needed to confront this just as much as she did. "Listen to me - listen to me, okay? I know..." When he became motionless, she collected her thoughts. "I know you probably think you're protecting me, or protecting us, in some way. If that's it, I understand - I really do. I lived through some of that when I was your age honey, and I know how it feels sometimes. More than you think or know."

"But Thomas, we're beyond that, now. If you're bottling it up to protect us, then you can't do that anymore. I have to know, and I have to know it now, tonight. Okay?" She drew his chin up again to meet his eyes. "It's like, I know you trust Michael, and that he's your best friend and all. I've never doubted that, but honey, I'm trying to get you to trust me now, too. You and I, it's like we have this dark cloud that hangs over us sometimes, and I can't help but feel you're keeping something pent up inside. It's time to let it go, to quit hiding it anymore."

When Thomas still did not answer her, Linda tried another tack. "I have not been the best Mom to you, and I know that now. It's kind of hard sometimes for me to know things, you know? I didn't have a mother when I was growing up, so when it comes to being a mom to you, I know I fall short sometimes. I do try though, honey, I really do. I know I don't tell you enough just how much I love you, or show you how proud I am of you. Not like some people do – but you're my son, and I really am proud of you. You're my star, my little angel. You're the one that I look forward to seeing each night when I come home, and spending some time with when we can get to do it. And I trust you, too. But being a mom, it's not the easiest job in the world to figure everything out, you know? That's why you have to help me, Thomas. You have to help me learn the things you need and want from me. Otherwise, it's a big guessing game for me, and honey, sometimes I don't always make the best choices. It´s a lot different growing up as a boy than how I grew up as a girl. Even if it wasn't, no two boys or girls are identical. You know that as much as anyone."

"I do hit some things, though. I don't always miss in my guesses. You understand that, right? I've been around the block, and I want to do what is right and best for both of us, even though I still make mistakes sometimes." Linda hesitated. "And Thomas, believe me, this is a huge one for me. I should have gotten us out, on our own, long before tonight. But it doesn't matter now. Not one of us is perfect honey; we're all human, but I am trying."

Linda took a deeper breath as she made one last passionate plea. "That's why right now, I'm asking you to please trust me. I cannot make you tell me what you don't want me to know, but I'm pleading with you. I'll do whatever it takes to protect us both - especially now, going forward." She drew back to look him in the eyes again. "If you tell me that nothing has been going on, then I promise I'll believe you and I'll stop pushing. But Thomas-" She paused, her voice choking up. "I have to know."

Thomas's eyes watered as he sat there, his heart aching for the woman holding him. Listening, he began to see her in a whole new light. He came to a decision then, and when he did break his silence, his voice was heavy with emotion. "You're wrong." While Linda searched his face, he continued and choked the rest of it out. "You're a great Mom, you always have been to me, especially with Dad gone." He buried his face in her shoulder before letting out a deep breath. "And the answer is ... yes."

Linda closed her eyes and breathed deeply. "He's hit you, hasn't he? Gramps?" Thomas nodded. "More than slapping you?" she asked, afraid of his answer, but vindicated when he nodded yet again. Her own voice shook this time as she whispered into his ear. "How much more, Thomas? Sexually or-"

Thomas quickly shook his head no to that suggestion. "No Mom, not like that. But... He just, his belt..."

Linda gasped, holding her son tighter still. "How bad?" she whispered.

After an indeterminable pause, Thomas pulled free and turned his back to her, pulling his shirt up to his neck and exposing the skin underneath. Not even Michael had known about the welts and marks around and below his waist. In most cases, Thomas wore his shirts tucked in to hide the obvious from prying eyes. Many had disappeared by now, as they often did within a few days, but not all. Some had begun leaving bruises behind in their place, and as Linda turned on the overhead light, she gasped at the sight before her. No question remained in her mind now, as her eyes began to well up. She fought to restrain the anger growing inside her as she reached out and lightly ran her fingers across his skin. Surprisingly, it was not her father-in-law the anger was targeted at now, but rather with herself. She should have seen this, should have pushed more - she was his mother! She should have been there to protect him!

At last, she lightly tugged at the garment, and Thomas finally lowered his shirt. Turning back around, he faced his mother again. "Mom?"

Linda took a deep breath and smiled. "A-Are you hurt, right now, anywhere?" Thomas shook his head, so she pushed again. "D-Do you promise me that's all then, honey? Nothing else?"

Thomas returned her smile. "Yeah Mom, I promise. Cross my heart," he added, making a crossing motion on his chest with his finger.

Linda embraced her son yet again, with a tenderness he had not felt in quite some time. She was beginning to understand the warmth of that connection now. Seeing Thomas give a hug to Carolyn before Christmas had been so strange to her. What could drive a boy to want to do something only girls seemed to be more socially accepted with doing? It had baffled her, enough she had discussed it with her in-laws that night. Instead of understanding, however, everything had shot to hell from then on, and history now reflected the results. As she held him, she felt the love inside, and she made a vow that from now on, she was going to nurture it every chance she got. They both stared out of the window toward the house. Though it was dark, they could still see two silhouetted figures standing side-by-side in the doorway. Linda lightly kissed the top of Thomas's head. "I believe you. Thank you, kiddo. I love you."

"I love you, too," Thomas whispered back.

With a renewed determination, Linda slowly started the vehicle and backed out onto the road. It was a late Monday evening, and she knew now they could not return here together again. As they pulled away, Linda surprisingly kept her temper in check as she drove a short distance, rounding the curve until her headlights lit up an old rusted mailbox that was now quite familiar to them both. Turning into the driveway, she proceeded to top the rise and descend to the house below, slowing to stop behind another vehicle already there. Turning off the engine and lights, she took Thomas by the hand and smiled encouragingly. "Umm, how about seeing if these two will put up with us for a night or two? At least until we can get our heads screwed on straight again." Seeing her son smile caused her to relax. Right now, his happiness and care were all she thought about.

As they approached the porch, both Carolyn and Michael were standing at the entrance waiting for them. When Carolyn opened the door to greet them, she welcomed them warmly. "Long time no see, you two!" she teased, until she saw their faces and swollen eyes. "What on Earth? Are you two okay?"

Linda shook her head. Standing on the porch, she lowered her eyes. These two had done so much for her and Thomas over the last several months, far more than she felt could ever be repaid. She had no right to ask for more, but she knew she really had no choice. "Carolyn, d-do you and Michael t-think you could put up with a couple of refugees, for a couple of days? At least, until I can figure o-out s-something else to do?" Her voice choked up then, and Carolyn was already stepping onto the porch, closing the distance between them. She embraced them both in her arms and hugged warmly. Michael tentatively joined them, where Thomas broke free from both women and hugged him. When he spoke, his voice was hushed. "It's all right now, bro. I told her. I told her everything about Gramps."

Michael smiled, a sigh of relief escaping him. "About bloody time, don't you think?"

Linda overheard the remark, and then breaking from Carolyn, she moved to Michael's side and squatted down. "I owe you, Michael. I probably ought to be upset or something, with you keeping this a secret and all, but I'm not. I put a lot of pressure on you to find out if anything was happening, and I'm sorry. It had to have taken a lot of courage for you to keep quiet, and I respect that - I really do. But honey, please listen to me for a minute. No matter how much it may hurt you or your friends sometimes, when you know something like this is going on and don't tell anyone, it's dangerous. It's dangerous for everyone, because by not telling, you could be hurting them even worse. No one-" and she looked sternly at her son before returning her gaze to his friend, "NO ONE should have to be physically abused, for any reason. Sure, if a child misbehaves, sometimes parents resort to spanking their kids. I understand, and I respect that, as long as it's not a beating. But honey - what was happening to Thomas was way worse than that."

Thomas interrupted her. "But, Mom, he didn't know. I swear! I – I never told him everything, either."

Linda stared at her son for a moment, and then took a deep breath to release some of her frustrations. She smiled wanly as she spoke again. "Listen then, both of you. I understand you two have a very close and deep friendship. Believe me - you don't know how grateful I am for that. Sometimes though, you might have to put friendships aside for someone, even if it hurts. You never know, it might mean the difference between life and death. Do you understand that? Look at the kid you guys brought in this weekend. If someone had spoken up about him before, if anyone knew what was happening to him and could have done something, he wouldn't be where he is right now, would he? I know-" she quickly hushed Michael as he started to protest. "I know, you guys had no idea, and I believe you both, honestly. I think Jeremy got very lucky. But do you see? Do you understand what I'm trying to tell you? Being silent about something this serious, it could cost someone years of heartache and pent up anger and hatred at the least. If it isn't caught and stopped, it could cost them their life at the worst. Do you understand?"

Michael's eyes teared up. "I-I d-didn't know ma'am... honestly, I didn't know."

"It's true Mom, he didn't. I never told him everything..." Thomas chimed in, his voice thick with emotion. "I mean, he knew a little of it, but I was afraid if I told him all of it, he would tell you guys. I just- I was scared." He turned to his best friend. "I'm sorry, Mike. I didn't mean to lie to you, I just - I couldn't." Michael, whose arm was still around Thomas's waist, hugged him in reassurance.

Linda reached out and embraced them both. "It's okay, honest. I believe you, both of you."

Carolyn, standing behind them, cleared her throat. "Okay, you band of mushy warts, what say we get inside before we freeze to death." The wind was creating a chill that evening as a cold front moved through the area, so she ushered the group inside before speaking again. "Michael and I were about to have some spaghetti, have you guys eaten yet?" Seeing their heads shake no, she addressed both boys. "Then give me about 15 minutes to add some extra pasta to the pan. Did you bring any clothes with you?" she asked her counterpart.

Linda nodded sheepishly. "Yes, we have a few things out in the car."

Carolyn turned to her son. "Michael, get your shoes on, and find Thomas some socks and shoes, too! Then you two go out and bring everything in."

Both youngsters whooped and skidded away Carolyn turned to once again to Linda. They each stared momentarily, before Linda finally sighed. "I know, you were right. I guess I finally have realized it now. I'm - I'm sorry." Linda was on the verge of tears again, so Carolyn stepped closer and placed an arm around the woman's shoulders.

"Honey, you have nothing to be sorry for. You two can stay here as long as you need to, until we get things sorted out at least. Right now, what say we get in the kitchen and get those two boys some food in their guts."

Linda grinned and then nodded, wiping her tears away before allowing the woman to guide her into the kitchen. The woman that was, very rapidly, becoming her best friend.

- + - + - + - + -

That night, as both boys were preparing for bed, they finally managed some time to themselves once again. Throughout dinner, all four had talked extensively about what happened earlier that evening, Linda and Thomas giving details of their confrontation. It had been mostly focused on their repeated absences, the appearance of a strange boy in their yard, and then the disrespect and insolence of Linda and Thomas in dealing with it. Carolyn only clicked her tongue, shaking her head while they listened, and reassured them both that she believed they had done the right thing. After some time, both women steered the conversation onto other topics, wanting to avoid the harsh realities of the moment for the sake of the boys.

It was late now, and Michael sat on the edge of the bed, looking out over the back yard through the window while Thomas went to the bathroom. Internally, he emotions were mixed, partially ecstatic at having his friend here yet again but equally worried about their future. In the mix, he also worried about the future of Jeremy Riddle, lying alone in the hospital ward. Although he had no doubt he and his mother would help Thomas and his mother in every possible way, he began to see other outcomes for the more distant future that were not the greatest.

Thomas returned and sat down next to his friend, removing his shirt. Seeing his best friend's mind was elsewhere, he commented. "Earth to Michael, are you in here somewhere?"

Michael grinned, turning his attention to his now shirtless friend. "Yeah, I'm here, I promise." He began peeling his own shirt off, tossing it by the bed, when he noted Thomas' back. He stopped, reaching out and touching the telltale marks that showed up there. "Oh my God, Thomas! No wonder your Mom was so upset!" he whispered. Thomas sat still, then rose and shucked his jeans to the floor. Their door was closed, but the window was raised about an inch at the bottom, letting a light breeze drift inside and keep the room cool. In the light from the lamp, Michael had to bite his lip as Thomas turned his back to him completely and lowering his briefs off the hips, letting his friend finally see everything. It was upsetting, and Michael didn't hide it. "You know, I ought to hate you for hiding this from me!"

Thomas turned around and pulled his underwear back up before sitting down again. "Don't, okay? It's… it's never been this bad before, I promise. It's just the last few days and all, and it – it looks worse than it really is, I think."

Michael nodded in acceptance. "At least you're out of there now, so that's a good thing. He can't do that to you anymore. Look, I won't get on your case about it, but… no more, okay? Don't hide stuff like this from me again, not like that." Thomas nodded, so Michael leaned back, propped on his arms as he stared into Thomas's eyes. The night having brought a new change, Michael figured having the door closed shouldn't be unexpected, as the two mothers could not expect anything less now than the boys wanting a little privacy. This was their first night they were spending together in a different way, and although Michael was not overly self-conscious around his own Mom, he could not say the same for Linda. He assumed it would be the same for Thomas. Things were changing, and it was striking just how much that fact was hitting home. "Thomas? Do you realize what this is tonight?"

Thomas wrinkled his nose. "Um, yeah, Monday night, and I'm sleeping with you - again." He grinned, a coy look crossing his face. "Think you can keep your hands off me this time?"

Scoffing, Michael replied. "You dope! I haven't touched you all weekend, have I? Well, not THAT way at least..."

"Yeah, I know, I was just teasing. Although I wondered if maybe you were getting tired of me and all." Thomas ducked the pillow thrown at him, and then looked out the window, frowning slightly. "So, give it up. What night is this?"

"It's the first night we're spending together - as a family, not as friends," Michael said softly.

"Huh? I thought we WERE friends..." Thomas replied, mock confusion in his tone.

"No, no - dufus!" Michael scoffed, clearly annoyed - until he saw his friend was teasing him. He playfully tackled him back onto the bed and threatened to attack the bare ribs beneath him.

"Ow! Okay, okay, I give!" Thomas hissed, before grabbing Michael into a warm embrace, pulling the teen down on top of him. Michael relented, hugging back before stretching out on top. "I'm so glad you're here, man. I mean it, too. I'm really glad you're here."

Thomas held him, squeezing gently. "I am, too, Mike. I really am." He looked into the eyes that met him. "You okay?"

Michael grunted. "I don't know, it's just - it's like it's real now, like we really are brothers or something. That's what I was trying to say, you know? Not just friends, but more." He sighed. "It's awesome, I think." He stood up then and started pulling his belt out of his jeans. Thomas reached out, however, and took over the task, gently unbuttoning and pushing them down from the hips. He guided his friend back to the bed and sat him down, raising his feet and pulling each leg out, before dropping the garment to the floor. Hesitating, he first turned out the light, plunging the room into darkness, before inserting his thumbs into the waistband of his briefs. Michael watched in the glowing moonlight as Thomas pushed them down and dropped them to the floor. He then reached out and pulled Michael's underwear off, until they were both as bare as the day they were born. Climbing into the bed, both made their way under the cover.

As he settled, Thomas whispered into Michaels ear, "Is this okay? Just you and me?"

"Are you kidding? It's awesome!" Michael replied. Thomas snuggled in then, laying his head into the crook of his friend's shoulder.

"Mike?"

"Yeah?"

"It's awesome to me, too." He stretched his free arm over Michaels chest. "And I'm sorry about the sex joke."

Michael scoffed. "Don't be, I kind of liked it."

They both giggled, before Thomas became thoughtful. Wrapping a leg across Michael's, he apologized. "I- I know I'm not horny Mike, and I'm sorry, but… it's just, I feel kind of weird right now, that's all. Not about us, but… Gramps and… and… just everything. I'm just, like, really tired, you know? It's been a long night."

Michaels pulled Thomas closer. "Yeah, I know, bro. With everything going on, I haven't been in much of a mood for messing around either." Michael leaned into his friends' ear. "I'll get naked with you anytime though, even if it's just like this. You're still my bro, remember? I trust you with my heart. You know that, right?"

Thomas smiled. "Never doubted it, Mike. Why do you think I took your pants and underwear off?" They both giggled again, before Thomas hugged his friend, holding him for a long time before letting go. It was moments like these that reflected the peace he felt inside. They each lay still, basking in the warmth of their bare skin with one other.

When Thomas held his breath, he could sense the heartbeat within Michael's chest ever so lightly, and he knew that moment was a gift to him. They had come a long way since that day on the bus, and each had come even farther still since that eventful sleepover at Christmas. They were intertwined with each other now, their feelings deepening as each day passed. Thomas closed his eyes for a moment, breathing everything in, letting it sweep away the worries of the night. He did not know what was going to happen to him and his Mom, but he was happy for the moment, and he felt safe. For some reason, he always felt safe where he was right now, and it created a feeling of content unmatched in few other places.

Thomas was about to fall asleep when his friend stirred beneath him. Looking up, he saw Michael was awake and staring at the darkened ceiling. "You want me to stop?" Thomas asked.

Michael turned slightly, surprise evident as he whispered back, "Hell no!" He brought his own arm up and lightly rubbed Thomas's back, falling silent again.

This prompted Thomas to probe further. "What's wrong? What are you thinking about?"

Michael grunted. "I don't know, lots of things I guess. Like, what's going to happen to us now. I mean, you guys are going to probably move out now, and you won't be near us anymore. I don't want to lose you, you know? And then there's Jeremy and everything with him. Just, lots of things, bro." He paused. "Thomas?"

"Yeah?"

"You do know about Jeremy, don't you? I mean, how bad he was," Michael asked.

"He was beat up pretty bad, yeah," came the soft reply.

Michael nodded. "Yeah, that and the other stuff, too. I mean... You do know he was fucked over, right? Whatever his Dad did, it really messed him up inside. That's why he had so much blood, you know, down there between his legs."

Thomas stared at his friend. "How do you mean? I thought he was just beaten really bad. Was there more?"

"According to what my Mom told me, and what I saw that day, it was worse than that. He was really fucked. I mean hard, by his Dad or someone. They found stuff torn up inside his butt and everything, and she said he was all ripped and bloody everywhere down there." Michael sighed. "He got hurt really, really bad."

"Holy shit! For real?" Thomas whisper, incredulously.

Michael nodded again. "Yeah, for real. Mom told me he almost didn't make it, mostly because he lost so much blood."

Thomas stared at his friend. "Oh, shit… I didn't know it was that bad. I mean, I knew he was hurt when we took him to the hospital and everything, but..." He paused. "What you're saying, you mean … he could have died? No wonder my Mom gave us that lecture tonight! I- whoa, crap!"

"You know, I'm really sorry about what I said and did to you last Friday," Michael offered after they fell silent.

"Huh?" Thomas asked. "What are you talking about?"

Michael hesitated before whispering, this time so softly Thomas had to strain to hear. "About wanting to, you know, do it sometime, all the way. You know, about wanting to ... screw and all ..." Feeling comprehension dawn, he went on. "I mean, I didn't know it could be like that. You know, mess people up and stuff. And, and... I was just horny and... I don't know, Thomas, I was just being stupid, I guess..."

"Mike, you worry too much sometimes. Seriously, you've got nothing to worry about," Thomas admonished. "Listen to me, remember when my cousin told me about some of this stuff after Christmas? Well, I didn't tell you everything. He did tell me it can be bad, but only if you make it bad. When I asked him what he meant, he said something like it's bad when people rape or force someone, or like when bigger people rape kids and all. But not with teens and all. If it isn't rape or anything, it can actually be really cool and nice."

Thomas lay his head back down into Michaels shoulder again. "He told me other stuff, too. I don't remember all of it, but I do remember him saying it was pretty cool if use lube an take your time and everything, don't rush it. I asked if he had ever done 'it', and he wouldn't answer me at first. Instead he started asking me why I wanted to know and all. But – we sorted that out, and he finally told me he had done it a few times. That was when he went on to explain all that stuff. He made me swear to not tell anyone, but-" He let out a low sigh. "Anyway, you understand, right?"

"Yeah, I do," Michael replied just as softly. "So, he's had sex then? With guys?"

"Yeah, guys and girls, from what he told me. He said there was a lot of difference, but that it was all good," Thomas revealed. Thinking, he added, "That must be what happened to Jeremy, huh? Someone really, like…" He left the thought unfinished.

Michael understood, however. "Yeah. I don't get it, though. I mean, I don't see how anyone, especially his father, could do that to someone and hurt them like that, you know?" He released a frustrated sigh. "I... I could never hurt you like that, not ever."

Thomas turned and softly kissed his friend in the darkness, on his lips, before pulling back. "I know that, Mike. Is that what you think you'd do? Hurt me, like Jeremy's dad hurt him? Is that what you think we'd end up doing to each other?" When Michael didn't reply, he continued, his voice a bare whisper. "Mike, I don't think we could ever hurt each other like that, you know? Honest, we both care too much. Don't worry about it, okay?"

Michael smiled. "I would do anything for you. You know that by now."

Thomas nodded. "Yeah, I know. You're doing plenty for me right now. Tonight, both you and your mother, for both me and my Mom. I love you guys, with my heart - don't doubt it, okay? As for us hurting each other, it's not going to happen, not that way. If we ever do it, when we do it, it'll be because we both want to, okay? And … and we'll take our time, and we'll be careful and everything. We'll have some fun, and we'll… you know…"

"You mean, you'd still want to? I thought I was just being, I don't know..." Michael said, hesitantly.

"Yeah, you were kind of being a horny asshole, but a good one, though! Remember what I told you afterwards? Ever since you told me, I kind of think I want to do it sometime, you know?" He giggled. "As long as it's just us. I'll do anything you want - so long as we still trust each other."

Michael whispered, "I think I'll always trust you, bro. You're too much like me, for me not to. Does that make sense?"

Thomas smiled back, finally letting his hand fall from his friends' chest down onto his belly. "Yeah, you bet it does, Mike." He briefly reached down and cupped Michael's groin, finding the soft member underneath and molding it perfectly into his palm. "I don't think just anyone would do this with you, you know? I only do it because I trust you, and it means something to us both. I love you, too. Remember?" he said, then lay back down again.

Michael closed his eyes, sensitive to the touch, but understanding Thomas completely, too, as he hugged his best friend again. Neither sported erections, however, in their nakedness, but neither needed to just then, finding contentment in simply being together. Before long, both fell into a peaceful sleep.


The week passed slowly for both Michael and Thomas and their families. The arrival of spring changed the imperatives winter had placed on their lives for so many months prior. The warmer weather invited lawns to turn greener, and also allowed many people to begin establishing various gardens and flower beds for the oncoming weather. The atmosphere in the household was much lighter, as the four interacted and laughed, worked and relaxed together.

Although the Wilsons had arrived as guests, Carolyn made no pretense they were welcome to stay indefinitely if needed. A small room downstairs was quickly converted into a temporary space for Linda. It had been initially filled with various boxes and items, and the boys removed them to the attic, allowing enough space afterwards to squeeze in a small bed and mattress. She and Carolyn had already discussed other arrangements, of which Carolyn informed them, in no uncertain terms, they would not be "allowed" to leave until they were on their feet again. Carolyn even alluded to the fact that, if need be, they would all find bigger quarters sooner rather than later.

Linda was beside herself with relief. Each evening, she arrived home to a bright, cheery household full of life and energy. Of her regards for Carolyn, Linda couldn't decide if the woman was a saint, or just her guardian angel. Their friendship continued to deepen with one another, not unlike that of their sons. A lot of their change in destiny was due to their new hosts and their open acceptance of them. So profound was the happiness she and Thomas now felt, Linda wondered how they had ever survived the last few years.

Thomas, on the other hand, did worry. He couldn't understand why his grandparents were treating them the way they did. Linda had met them one afternoon while in the grocery, and reportedly the three got into an argument again. He just wished his grandparents would leave his mother alone. He knew the mind games his grandfather could play, and he had seen first-hand the guilt and anguish they could both cause. He had been on the receiving end of it himself many times, some in the harshest of terms. Here, however, he had no power to help her, to step out and intercede, and that just made him sad.

For the most part, Carolyn continued working her shifts as usual, breaking when she could to check in on Jeremy from time to time as she promised. Each afternoon, Thomas and Michael both arrived to visit the teenager as well, using an alternate bus route from school. At first, their visits were stoic and uneventful; each day they found Jeremy in a deep sleep, brought on by his various medications. Carolyn assured them, however, that physically their friend was improving substantially, and that it would not be long before he was awake and alert. Sure enough, their arrival on Friday afternoon found a considerable change in Jeremy's condition. As Michael stuck his head into the doorway, his eyebrows shot up quickly. "Hey! He's up!" he muttered, and then after opening the door wider, both he and Thomas entered the room and quickly approached the bed.

Jeremy lay at an incline, his head elevated so that he could look out of the window. Not that there was anything to see - its view opened only to that of a brick wall, obviously belonging to another section of the hospital. Upon hearing the two arrive, however, he turned and watched them enter. Both boys saw that, despite the days of rest and sleep, the older teen still had darkened circles under deep, expressionless eyes. His hair had been combed earlier that day, but it was parted in an odd way that made his features appear strangely out of place.

He said nothing as they reached his side, his eyes lost for a moment. Thomas hung slightly behind his friend, who had stepped ahead clearly. "Hey, Jermz."

At first the older teen said nothing, but eventually sighed. "Hey," he replied, his voice soft but weary.

"How's it going, man?" Michael continued.

Jeremy looked thoughtful before shrugging. "It's going." After another awkward pause, he continued. "What are you two doing here?"

It was Thomas who then stepped in and answered. "We came to see you, and see how you were doing, man," he stated boldly, but with an equally gentle tone.

"Yeah," Michael added. "You've been sleeping so much this week, we never got to really see you, other than just checking in and stuff."

Jeremy furrowed his brow. "You've been here all week?"

"Yeah, every day, after school. Mike's mom works downstairs in the care center," Thomas answered.

Jeremy hesitated. "H-How do you get here?"

"There's a bus that comes by here from school," Michael replied. "I think you've been on it, too. It's the same bus Austin and Kevin ride home on. Anyway, I used to catch it every once in a while, when I knew Mom was working late. She would have me get off here, instead of going home, and we'd go shopping, or get something to eat, or … you know, stuff like that."

"Oh," was the sullen reply. Another awkward silence filled the room, before the older boy turned to Thomas. "I'm sorry."

"Huh?" Thomas asked, confused.

Jeremy looked at him closely before taking a deep breath. "I'm sorry about that afternoon, on the bus. I lost it, and you didn't deserve it. I was a dick head, and I know it. I'm just saying, I- I'm sorry."

The apology came out of nowhere and was so abrupt, both Michael and Thomas were stunned. The Jeremy Riddle they knew never apologized to anyone - for anything. That included kids, students, teachers or ordinary adults. His reputation precluded him from stooping down to that level, or so everyone thought. Until now. The shock registered on both their faces actually made the older teen grunt. "Don't let your jaws mop the floor around here. From what I'm told, they aren't very clean."

Michael finally burst out laughing and then abruptly stopped. Turning, he watched Thomas grin with embarrassment as he hung his head and spoke up. "Forget it. I'm sorry I called you a faggot. You didn't deserve that, either."

"Yeah, I did," Jeremy replied. It was another surprising turn for the conversation. Both younger teens were left speechless, unsure of what to say. Jeremy took another deep breath, then went on. "I was a dick head to let it get to me, and I tore into everyone that I could take it out on. That included you. At least…" Jeremy paused, glancing between them both. "At least you two came out okay, so that much is good I guess."

Michael furrowed his brow. "What do you mean?"

"You two have a good friendship, that's all," Jeremy reasoned.

Michael snorted. "You have friends, too."

Jeremy shook his head. "No, I don't. All I ever had was dip-shits who were scared of me, or afraid I'd rip their balls off if they didn't play along. I never had any real friends. Well, except for maybe one..."

"You mean, Austin Mathews," Michael offered.

Jeremy nodded, turning to look out the window again. "He was the only one, maybe, although I think at times he wasn't all that different from the rest."

"He was, Jeremy." Michael cleared his throat. "Believe me on that one, he was." He hesitated. "What's wrong, Jeremy? I mean, you're... You shouldn't..."

Jeremy suddenly laughed. "What? Shouldn't be like this? Shouldn't be reliving the past, seeing how my life is all shitty and shot to hell? How it's all been so fucked up?" His tone changed, almost challenging. "Listen jerk, odds are I'm gonna be stuck in here a long fucking time, and by the time they finish screwing with my head, it will probably be just as bad as what my old man put me through. So, while I've got some sense knocked into me, just take it. Take my fucking apology and do whatever you want with it. At least I'm trying to be sincere about it." His tone softened toward the end, catching himself as he realized what he was saying. Suddenly his face began to screw up. "Please," he whispered, "just... I'm sorry, I shouldn't have called you a jerk either, I just... Right now, I'm just really screwed up, okay?" Tears began leaking from the teens eyes, down the side of his cheek. He turned away from them, but fully knew he couldn't hide.

With surprising courage, Thomas quietly walked behind Michael and around to the other side of the bed. Approaching closer, he reached out and placed his hand on the teen's shoulder. He held it there until Jeremy finally met his gaze. "It's okay man, honest. What's done is done, it's over." Jeremy began trembling. Thomas felt not only the emotion, but also that the whole body was shaking uncontrollably underneath. He slowly withdrew from the touch, unsure if it was welcomed or not.

Michael saw what was happening as well. "Forget it man. Oh, and that thing about friends? Sometimes it's all overrated anyway." Glancing at Thomas, he grinned before turning back to the older teen. "I know this much – you've got two friends here, if you want us. Real friends, too. And we're not scared of you beating the shit out of us, believe me." He giggled, "But umm, our Moms might not like the idea too much, if you know what I mean."

That made Thomas giggle, and suddenly Jeremy calmed down and joined them. He slowly shook his head. "You jerk, but… yeah, a good jerk at least."

Michael took it good naturedly. "Um, there's something else you should know, Jeremy. It's about Austin."

The smile left the older boy's face. "You know him?"

Michael nodded. "Yeah. His brother's in here, just down the hall." Seeing the questioning look, he explained. "Nobody knows exactly how it happened, but somehow Kevin got hold of some bad drugs."

Jeremy stared blankly for a moment. "Drugs or weed?" he asked simply.

Thomas spoke up. "We know you found the bag on him, the weed and all, and stopped it. But that's not what he got hold of."

Michael nodded. "Austin told us what you did, but somehow Kevin got hold of some other really powerful crap, you know, the injection stuff, and according to him it was way worse."

"Shit!" Jeremy swore under his breath. His head sank back into the pillow even further, and both boys had the impression the older boy was struggling to stay with them. When he spoke again, his voice was but a whisper. "What happened?"

"Austin went home that afternoon, and he found his brother convulsing and everything in his room. We don't know exactly what happened afterwards, but somehow Austin got him here, and they've been treating him for like, the last three weeks or so," Michael explained. "Mom told me he almost died. If his brother hadn't shown up and found him when he did, he probably would have."

Jeremy lay motionless for a full minute, another tear escaping, before heaving a big sigh. "How? I mean, how could that little dipshit fucker get hold of drugs in the first place? He's only what, 12 or 13? Isn't he the same age as you guys? And how the fuck... Shit man..."

"Nobody knows, Jeremy. He won't talk about it. I mean, he is getting better now, that's the good thing. Austin says he is doing tons better, but Kevin won't tell them anything about where, or who, or even how." Michael glanced at Thomas before lowering his voice further. "We think it has to be through some of the guys he hangs with. You know, maybe an older brother or something, but..."

"Yeah, but we really don't know. We've never messed with anything like that," Thomas filled in.

Jeremy could have smirked at them, given the absurdness these two boy scouts displayed. He kept those thoughts to himself, however, and instead contemplated the news. "You said down the hall... He's here?"

Michael nodded. "Don't you realize where you're at?"

"The hospital, yeah, but..."

"You're on the fourth floor Jeremy, on the east end." When the teen showed no recognition of the fact, Michael continued. "This is the security wing, where they put long term patients in and stuff. You're here because they haven't found your Dad yet, and they're afraid to put you in a normal room right now."

At the mention of his father, the older boy's face tensed and turned white. "They haven't found him?"

Both boys shook their heads. "Do you have any idea where he could be? Where he might go, or hide, or anything?" Thomas asked.

"I don't give a fuck about him, any more than he ever gave a fuck about me," Jeremy answered with a surprising conviction that made the younger teen almost jump.

The room fell silent then, with all three were lost in thought. Eventually, a knock came from the door, and all three turned to see Carolyn enter the room. She smiled widely when she saw Jeremy both awake and talking. "Why, hello there! It's good to see you sitting up and alert finally!" Stepping nearer, she stood beside her son and looked down at the teenager. "So, how are you feeling, young man?"

Before Jeremy could answer, another knock came from the door, followed by an older man entering. "Well, well, our Mr. Riddle has joined the world of the living again!" He smiled as he walked around to the other side and stood next to Thomas. "Hello there, I'm Dr. Riddle. I don't think we've been introduced yet."

"Riddle?" Jeremy replied weakly, his face betraying a level of amusement and confusion at the similarity of their names.

"Yes, I thought that interesting as well," the doctor replied, chuckling. "As far as I know, however, I don't think we have any relatives or next of kin in our families." The man's voice was lite and relaxed. "So, how are you feeling today, hmm?"

Jeremy paused before answering. "Tired, really weak."

The older man nodded. "To tell the truth, that's to be expected. You haven't eaten anything for several days now, and your body is probably getting tired of all these fluids," he added, indicating the IV tubes hanging from their stands. The doctor nodded to Carolyn and the boys, greeting them in turn before returning his attention to Jeremy. "Well, why don't we see how you're doing, hmm? Maybe we can take some of these things out and start you on some real food. Would you like that?" He smiled at Michael and Thomas. "If you boys would wait outside, I'll let your mother assist me here for a minute."

Jeremy looked at the older adults and then whispered. "No, let them stay." His voice had turned suddenly weaker, and both Thomas and Michael were surprised at the request. Glancing at their mother, she too found the situation odd.

"You understand honey, the doctor-" Carolyn began.

"I know what he's going to do, so just get it over with. Let them stay if they want, I don't care." Although still hoarse, his voice acquired a more assured tone, so Carolyn nodded to the boys. Moving back, they stood against the side wall, giving the adults plenty of room. The elder man smiled and nodded approvingly, before reaching to don a pair of protective gloves.

Dr. Riddle and Carolyn both rolled Jeremy gently onto his side, his weakened state preventing him from assisting them on his own. Pulling the covers down and off, the doctor gently lifted Jeremy's leg, positioning it in a way that Carolyn could help him support it. As the doctor gently probed and examined underneath, Thomas and Michael both moved back further. Their view was obstructed most of the time, but there were instances when they caught glimpses of the older teen´s nether regions. They saw the damage plainly, with the bruises and swelling still creating black and blue streaks along the middle thighs up to his groin. They could not help but notice the teen's scrotum and inwardly gasp, if only to themselves. Jeremy's balls were huge, swollen to an abnormal size, and streaked in colors matching his other areas.

Eventually, Dr. Riddle finished and gently lowered the teen's leg. With Carolyn's help, they both returned Jeremy to his back and made him as comfortable as possible. Once there, the doctor pulled up the gown and quickly examined the teen's groin, before pulling it back to its original position. Carolyn then pulled the blanket back into place.

Nodding his head, Dr. Riddle smiled at the young teen while he removed the gloves. "Honestly, it's not that bad young man, not that bad at all. You are healing as well as can be expected, I think, and perhaps even better than I had hoped."

Jeremy stared at the man for a moment. "Will you answer some things for me, then?"

The doctor sat down on the edge of the bed. "Sure, I'll answer anything you want to know. What's on your mind?"

The gentle manner surprised Jeremy, and it showed. Meeting the older man's gaze, the teen found a rare warmth there, and for some reason he decided he liked the man. "H-how bad? How bad was I?"

The man understood. "Well, you gave us a scare for a while. I won't bore you with a lot of terms you probably wouldn't understand, but the basics are simple enough. We know you were molested and sodomized, but your rectum was also violated with something a lot rougher, too. It – well, it messed you up inside pretty harshly, causing you to have a lot of problems along your bowel track and lower intestines. You lost an incredible amount of blood, and to be honest, you were a hairs breath away from probably developing blood poisoning. To have survived as long as you did was really a miracle." He glanced over at Michael. "I understand you're the one who found him, right?"

Michael walked closer, Thomas right behind him. "Yes sir."

"Well, it's a good thing you did. From what you told your mother, he was undoubtedly in shock, and although I'm not sure that what you two decided was the best course of action, it was undoubtedly what he needed. You crossing that field acted as a catalyst, enough so that you brought him out of shock. In that sense, he learned to deal with the present. Getting him out of there, finding help – all of that was spot on. You did really well, young man, all things said and done." He returned his attention to Jeremy. "Understand this, son: you have been in this hospital now for a week. After a little reparative surgery, we've kept you fairly sedated, trying to let your body heal itself from the inside. Moving around, tossing and turning would not help the sutures and stitches we had to put in place do their job. It was what we felt was the best course of action, so you have me to blame for that if anyone. That is why you feel so weak, by the way. The only thing your body has had running through it are all of these IV tubes and their supplements."

Jeremy listened, absorbing the details. "Okay, then… what… what happens next? When will I get out of here?"

Dr. Riddle smiled again. "Not for a while, I'm afraid. Right now, you're protected here for other reasons, but you're also here because you need some help young man. It will probably take another week or so alone for your body to return to a point where you can get around again. Then you'll need some PT, or physical therapy as we call it, to get used to being up and about. Afterwards, we'll revisit your situation. Right now, however, I think I am going to go order the nurses to start you back on the road to a more solid diet, starting with just liquids for tonight, and maybe a little lite fruit. If you hold that down without issue, we'll up the ante for breakfast in the morning, so you can start building your strength back up. When you're feeling up to it, we'll also get a physical therapist to come up here to help you start sitting up again, and then eventually standing up. Mind you, it will take you a few days before you'll be able to walk again."

"Why?" Jeremy asked.

Dr. Riddle paused, then softened his voice. "You can't feel it now, son, but you're going to have a lot to deal with for a few days. Please, just trust me on this, okay? And be patient. Your first time is going to make you feel very sick to your stomach, probably – and all of that is quite normal. The act of doing it regularly will set things in motion though, and your body will respond, I promise. Within a couple of days after getting started, things will start seeming more normal again." He held up both hands when he saw the objection start. "No, I promise, I'm not holding out on you. Just call it something from experience. When a body has been down, such as yours has been for the last week, your whole equilibrium gets disturbed. That and the fact you will have to deal with some discomfort for a while, is just going to take time, that's all."

He hesitated before continuing. "There is something else I think you need to be told. It's nothing worth being overly concerned with right now, because you're still so young. But you should know this much, at least." His hesitation caused a look of concern to cross Jeremy's face, causing the doctor to smile sadly. "Ah- your scrotum was damaged considerably. Although its ability to produce sperm may be questionable in the near future, there are treatments that will probably return it to a more normal state eventually. We'll just have to wait a while and see, that's all."

Jeremy's face actually showed one of relief. "Oh. It's okay, really."

Dr. Riddle nodded. "It is not as bad as it sounds, actually. You've probably noticed how swollen it is now, and I can tell you that the swelling isn't going to go down for probably another week or so. When it does, we'll know a lot better about what to do." He paused. "Don't get me wrong, young man. I just felt you needed to know this, because in the next few days, once you're moving around, there is likely to be considerable discomfort for a while. I would, ahh, avoid any sort of - well, 'exercise' of any sort for a while, if I were you." The man was being as professional as he could about it, but his amused look betrayed the real intent to the older teen.

Jeremy, on the other hand, just relaxed and grunted. "No problem there, Doc. Besides, boners and me don't really get along, anyway."

Dr. Riddle nodded. "Well, we'll worry about all that later, I promise. Anything else on your mind?" When Jeremy shook his head, the man stood. "I'll leave word at the nurses' station, and although I'm sure you've had plenty of rest thus far, I would encourage you to try and get a little more. The main sedative is wearing off now, but you'll find that normal rest is different than one induced medically. It would do you some good to try and get a decent night's sleep." He nodded at the rest of party, and then excused himself from the room.

Carolyn looked at her watch. "I get off in about 10 minutes, Michael. Why don't you two stay here a few minutes and then head down to the waiting room." Glancing back at Jeremy, she ran her fingers through his hair briefly. "You're going to be fine, Jeremy. You have my word on that, okay? Don't fret or worry about things right now, you've got good people who care, and are looking after you now, kiddo."

"Will you be back?" the teen asked weakly, glancing at the two boys.

"You bet," Michael spoke up without hesitation.

Carolyn smiled. "We'll be back to check in on you tomorrow. Besides, I don't think you could keep these two away if you tried." She smiled before excusing herself from the room, leaving the three boys alone.

Jeremy looked up into their faces. "You two... you've been here every day?" he asked for a second time, clearly trying to comprehend what it meant.

Michael nodded. "Yeah, Jermz - every day."

"Thanks, honest." His eyes were moist as he gazed at them. "I d-don't deserve it, but thanks, for everything." He purposefully turned to Thomas as well. "You too. It means a lot to me."

Smiling, Thomas whispered back, "Anytime."

Michael echoed it. "Let us decide what you deserve, okay? Anytime man... We'll be here for you, and that's a promise." He grasped the teen's hand and squeezed, and Thomas added his own strength to it as well. "Both of us," Michael added.

A few moments later, after the two left the room, Jeremy cried silently. So, this was what it meant to have friends. Real friends. So strange was the feeling to him, he was overcome with emotion at having felt something different for a change. After all the years of hatred, after all the hardened walls he layered himself with, even after all the shunning of his feelings and bottling them away - he finally felt something different.

And he remembered the last time he felt that way, was in his mother's arms.

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