When Shadows Pass

by Sean English

Chapter 17

Growing Up Is Hard; Otherwise Everyone Would Do It... (Part II)

Britain experienced the month of December with another arctic blast of air, crossing the region from the north. Colder than the front experienced only weeks before, this one brought brief periods of sleet and snow throughout the southern counties, including the coastal regions. On the Friday morning, as the boys rose from bed and prepared for school, Jason looked outside. The entire area was blanketed in a thick frost, the scenery glistening as far as the eye could see. He asked Elliot about it, who just shrugged. "It happens. Though I do think it's kind of early this season. Most of the time, we don't see it until January or February."

That day was the beginning of exams, and they would continue through to the next Thursday, which was the start of their winter break. Each student felt their task was to merely survive, as the teachers had been hounding them for weeks now in preparation. Ready or not, the day, and thus the week, had arrived. After Elliot, Derek and Jason each ate a quick breakfast of scrambled eggs and toast, they left the flat heading into a stiff wind. Before they had reached the end of their street, however, the bitter cold had awakened their senses fully.

Jason learned that, for their exams, different classes were staggered throughout the period in 4 hours intervals, with breaks, spaced throughout the week. The first for Jason and Elliot together, was to be their Grammar and Literature that morning. Jason had, along with the rest of the class, found the subject more interesting in the weeks following Mrs. Crabtree's dismissal. That morning, there was an air of optimism amongst his peers, but upon their arrival a surprise awaited the class as they entered the room. Not only was their new teacher on hand, but so was Mrs. Crabtree, smiling and chatting pleasantly as they all filed inside. When the bell rang, everyone quieted respectfully, and their former teacher stood, moving directly in front of the class. Jason didn't know about the rest of his peers, but he thought he could detect a change in the woman. Her expression was softer, her eyes merrier. Mrs. Crabtree smiled as she cleared her throat before addressing them. When she spoke, her words were soft, but clear.

"Class, if I might beg you to indulge me for just a moment, please." Mrs. Crabtree looked around the room, using the time to make eye contact with each one of the students' present. That look also included both Jason and Elliot.

"I wanted to come in here today and apologize to you, personally. I admit, it took the actions of a dear friend to awaken me. Whilst she did, however, I realized that I have really, truly, misjudged you. You see, when I was reared from a young age, my peers and friends were somewhat different in character from you. My regard for how they, shall we say, behaved at your stage in life, was less than positive. I've come to realize, I think, that I was projecting that view onto you, too." She paused, smiling as she leaned back against her old desk. "What is more, I did it without taking the time to realize something. That was my time then, and I had no right to believe it was still the same as your time now. I have seen many of you grow up before me, even since our term started. And for some of you, I have been fortunate in witnessing you grow in recent years, too. I concluded, young ladies and young gentlemen, just how wrong I was. I realized that - as a student body - you are not of the same caliber my peers were, so many, many years ago. You, are much, much wiser."

She smiled at them, a sincere expression that was moving. "I say you're not the same caliber, because, ladies and gentlemen, your class sets so much of a higher standard for yourselves. You are truly gems, as if in a sea of stars, and I should have realized that fact long before I did. Instead, I let my prejudices get in the way, and they were rather ill-thought out. That, my dear students, is something I truly apologize for as well. It has taken some time for me to realize that now, and I am hoping it is not too late to seek your forgiveness."

The woman then made a surprising move, walking slowly down the aisle and stopping where both Jason and Elliot sat spellbound. "To these two especially, I owe a great deal," she said. "It was never my intention, Mr. Flavell, to make an example of you or your cousin, Mr. Mathews. I am incredibly thankful that all has worked out favorably, especially with the incident that, had it not been for my serious lack of judgement, should never have occurred. I apologize to you with my deepest sincerity, and hope that you can perhaps, someday, forgive me." She offered a hand to the youth, who smiled and took it, shaking it firmly. It was with an emphasis of feeling that Elliot, too, hoped the lady would recognize.

Mrs. Crabtree then turned to Jason. "And to you Mr. Mathews. I can only imagine the atrocities you've had to deal with personally, since coming into Her Majesty's Kingdom. I'm certain you've found things here to be both exciting and scary, I dare say. Like Moses first responded in Exodus, I am sure you've walked in those shoes, feeling like that proverbial 'stranger in a strange land'. I, for one, did not help with your journey in that light, however, and I feel remorseful of that fact. There is no excuse - I quite simply should have been better about both recognizing, and helping, you with it, young sir. Instead, as I said, I laid bare my prejudices in a cowardly way. They were uncalled for, and they had no place in this classroom." She paused to take a deep breath before letting it out slowly. "I, too, hope you will somehow, someday, come to forgive this old woman as well. I hope you will at the least, accept my apology." Her voice lowered just then as she continued. "May you in the future find your stay in our land to be much more than pleasant. If you're ever in need, something you feel that I might help you with, then please don't be afraid. Reach out to me, find me. I'll be there." She smiled, as Jason looked up into her eyes. Gone was the harsh, self-righteous woman he had first known. Now before him, Jason saw her in a different light, and it was heartwarming. There was a sincerity that made her offer genuine, and when Mrs. Crabtree extended her hand to him, like she had with Elliot, Jason smiled back. Instead of grasping it, however, Jason rose from his seat and threaded himself through his former teacher's arms. There he gave her a warm hug, which she returned in kind. Others in the class started to clap, and soon everyone was delivering thunderous applause to them both. After a moment, Jason pulled back and sat back down in his seat, blushing, but pleased.

Mrs. Crabtree's face held a rare emotional expression, punctuated yet by her still, sweet smile. This, she realized, was part of the joy she missed for many years. Today, however, she was happy to once again experience it, if only for one last time. Overcome and unable to speak again, she turned and waved at the class. Nodding to her counterpart, Mrs. Crabtree then quietly left the room.

During the supervised exam, Jason found himself smiling. Observing that the first page contained eight questions which he could answer easily, Jason was feeling quite confident. As he further progressed, he also found other questions throughout the exam to be of the same flavor. Reaching the essay portions, he took his time and wrote what he could remember, using his best penmanship. Jason hoped he was spelling things correctly, insofar as British grammar required. He also hoped he was putting as much thought into the exam as their teacher had expressed they should consider. Upon completion, he and Elliot, who also finished roughly around the same time, stood and stretched. They high-fived each other, and then made their way out of the room. Their route led them through the halls to the lunchroom, where sandwiches, crisps and 'biscuits' - the English version of what Jason termed as cookies - awaited them.

Soon after, the two were headed home, as their next exam was not scheduled until the following Monday afternoon. Jason noted that, with interest, the school did not require students to remain in class when they had no exams being administered. With time to spare, their route altered slightly and they approached the game shop along the way. They intended to stay only a few minutes with Mr. Fulcrum. In their excitement, however, they spent almost 2 hours before getting free and making their way homeward. Natalie met them at the door, tapping her foot, a bemused expression on her face.

"Sorry, Mum," Elliot offered sheepishly. "We stopped by to see Mr. Fulcrum for a minute and lost track of time."

"I'll say you lost track of something," she chuckled good naturedly as she swatted him on the butt. They ascended the stairs and were making their way by Derek's room when a familiar voice called out. Looking inside, they saw Simon and Derek having a discussion.

"Hallo, boys!" Simon exclaimed, which the newcomers returned the greeting. "Test go well this morning, I take it?"

Elliot nodded. "I think so, Dad. It wasn't as hard as we were afraid it might be." Jason nodded in agreement. They both took turns then and proceeded to tell Simon about the visit that day from Mrs. Crabtree. Simon was surprised, but pleased.

"That woman is strange, but she does seem to have her heart in the right place. You know, I heard that other teen got remanded to a boys' facility, somewhere north of London. He's awaiting a pre-trial, I think, sometime early next year. Either a pre-trial, or some review board of sorts," Simon hastily added.

Elliot sat down on one corner of the bed. He nodded absently but did not want to think about Eric at that moment. "What's up, Dad? You're home early, aren't you?"

Simon nodded. "Took off a little early to come in. Seems I must leave early Sunday morning to make a quick trip back to the States. We are having some issues at one of the big automaker facilities over there that needs attending to."

"Aww..." Elliot moaned. "When will you be back?"

"Well, if all goes well, I'll be back Thursday or Friday, just in time for the party," Simon acknowledged.

"Party?" Jason asked, curious.

Simon grinned. "Yes, we, uh... The company I work for, usually throws a big party for us all. Kind of a Christmas, end-of-year thing, right before the break. We all wear costumes and have plenty to drink." He paused and rephrased that statement. "We, uh, well – I mean, there is an open bar and..."

Derek smirked. "He means they have plenty to drink. Like, LOTS to drink."

Elliot snickered, too, as he chimed in. "The last couple of years they had to have ambulances on stand-by, in case, you know, someone gets too wobbly."

Jason was incredulous. "You're kidding me... right?"

Simon responded with a bemused expression. "I'm afraid not, Jason. We've had a few to go overboard, so the precaution is real. But the company plays it up, making it a fun outing all the same. Some of the costumes are just as outrageous as the party itself."

Derek snickered again. "Last year, Dad's friend Andy, I think that's his name, dressed up in a pink tutu."

Jason snorted. "Ah, you mean, the dance thing, the girls-"

"Yep, that's the one," Simon acknowledged. "I must admit, he looked pretty fruity, that one! And I, let me tell you, went as Humpty Dumpty! I had a cracked egg costume and all! First one like that I've rented in years!" Simon laughed, but then suddenly looked at Jason with a serious expression. "I do take it you know the story of Humpty Dumpty, right?"

Jason rolled his eyes. "Yeah, he had a great fall and everything," he replied, smiling.

That satisfied Simon, who sat there with a mischievous grin. "Well, we can't always be sure about where and what stories get around, you know." He looked to the ceiling for a second. "Come to think of it, I think I have some pictures around somewhere, not from just last year, but before as well. I'll see if I can dig them out and show you later, if you're interested."

"Sure!" Jason grinned, then wrinkled his nose. "So, you guys, you drink a lot I guess." He made the remark as a statement, but Simon heard the unasked question embedded within it.

"I'm afraid that is something only you can judge, I think. British society, well, European society in general, looks at the consumption of alcohol differently to the rest of the world. It is sort of, how you say, embedded in our culture, and many of us use it as a prop, or as a release. You see, for centuries we've lived in eras of both oppression and depression, or eras where men had little real ownership of things, per se. So, one of the few things Englishmen have prized, mind you, are their local pubs and breweries. Over the centuries, they became places where at the end of a day, or perhaps the end of a long journey, men could unwind with their fellow mates. And for the most part, that included the occasional beer, mead, or harder liquor." He grunted. "You won't find a lot of that here in our household, although I'm sure you've seen the bottles of wine Natalie and I keep downstairs."

Jason nodded, so Simon continued. "I don't abhor drinking, but I do not like seeing it consumed in abundance. I've always taught these two, there are many finer things in life to experience than getting yourself wasted. To me, you lose a part of yourself if you don't exercise caution. Some even lose out on life itself, in more ways than one. I'm not a purist, mind you - I've shared a few beers over the years, especially when I'm out on travel. Or watching a game, or some other event, with friends. You'll always find, however, it's a very controlled thing we do, and it is always a very controlled measure when we do it. No one thinks ill of someone else who is enjoying himself or unwinding - as long as it stays that way."

Jason made a face. "I think the stuff smells nasty, really. I don't think I ever want to, you know..."

Simon laughed. "Well, keep thinking that way, as far as I'm concerned. It might save you some money in the long run, hmm?" he added merrily. "Anyway, that reminds me, I wanted to ask you if there was anything you'd like me to try and bring back while I'm in the States again. I can't bring back anything large, obviously, but if there is something simple, perhaps something I can fit in my travel bags and all, then I can certainly try to do so." He glanced at Elliot. "I already know what you want, so fear not," he added, laughing.

Jason raised an eyebrow, to which Elliot responded. "I always want him to bring me back some Whoppers. You know, the candy malt balls? We don't have them here. Well, let me correct that, we do have something here like them, BUT they are nothing like the ones that come from the States!" Jason grinned, then thought about Simon's request for a moment. Nothing, however, came to him immediately. "Uh, can I have some time to think about it?" he asked timidly, to which Simon nodded.

"Sure, you can. Just let me know, say, by tomorrow night. I'll be getting up quite early Sunday morning, so I'll probably miss seeing any of you three then. Is that okay?" When Jason nodded, Simon then stood to his feet and made his way to the door, exiting the room quietly.

The rest of the evening flew by quickly, with all three teenagers moving downstairs to play on the PlayStation. They even succeeded in enticing both Natalie and Simon to join them, and as a family they enjoyed competing in various racing and other head-to-head games. This being a family fun night, each of the Flavells seemed to come alive, which made Jason smile inwardly. There was still, however, a feeling of sadness that overcame him, one he found hard to shake. The Thanksgiving dinner had performed wonders in making his spirits soar, but another dread was inching its way inside. It discouraged him because these people had gone all out for him, and he felt that he ought to be happy enough from just those efforts alone.

But the closer they now approached the upcoming Christmas holiday, try as he might, Jason couldn't shake the sadness that enveloped him.


The rest of their term exams the following week went by uneventfully for Elliot and Jason. By Thursday afternoon, the students were gathering back toward their normal classrooms, waiting for the customary dismissal before they could disperse. While the two waited about, idly chatting between them, they heard a voice call out to them. Turning, they saw Scott Beaker eagerly rolling across the floor in their direction.

Both Elliot and Jason greeted Scott with raised fists, bumped in friendship, before their friend spoke up. "Hey, gents, I wonder if you have any big plans for New Years' weekend?"

"Um, I don't know, why?" Jason responded, as Elliot stooped to re-tie a loosened shoelace.

"Well, my parents are going up to Scotland see, and I've really been trying to find an excuse not to go. Not that they wouldn't take me, mind you, but they don't really like me staying at home alone. Not for more than a few hours anyway. You can probably imagine why," Scott paused, pointing to his legs. "They're mostly afraid I might bugger myself up or fall."

"Yeah, I can kind of see that, maybe," Elliot replied as he stood up again.

Scott looked around before he lowered his voice. "There's another reason, too. Usually when they go out like that, I end up sitting around the hotel and watching the telly. Gets to be a boring drag, you know? Anyway," he started, then hesitated. "I got to thinking about something last night, and I wanted to run it by you two. Mind you, if you have plans, it's not a problem, case closed. But, if you don't, maybe you might consider us hanging out a couple of days. Either our pad or yours, doesn't matter. I just thought, well, honestly I was just hoping to see what you would say." Scott voiced the last with a resonance of hope in his expression. "What do you think? Maybe help a mate out?"

Jason hesitated only briefly before shrugging. "Kind of depends on Elliot and his family. I mean, I don't know what they usually do." He looked sideways atsub Elliot, who stood there and frowned.

"Honestly, I don't know myself man, not yet anyway," Elliot replied. "I'll have to find out. Can I like, have your number and ring you in the next day or so? That is, once I do find out what our plans are?"

Scott's face lit up substantially. "Really? Damn straight you can!" he exclaimed as he worked his backpack around to his forefront. Withdrawing a notepad, he quickly wrote the necessary information down before handing the sheet to Elliot. "That's my mobile, so ... anytime, day or night. Ring me, or text, okay? Just so you know, I have to give my parents an answer by Sunday night if I'm going to wig out. I'm not totally sure they'll even go for it, but - I'm hoping they will, you know? Anyway, if you could find out and decide by then, I'd be really grateful."

Elliot smiled as he put the paper away. "Sure thing, we'll know something soon. Maybe even tonight."

Scott sat back in his wheelchair, looking pleased. He observed them both before he spoke again, however, this time softer than before. "Guys, listen - I know, we're not necessarily the best of mates. I get it, but honestly? You're both about the closest friends I have here. I'm not shitting you, okay? Most of the guys here, they really don't want to get involved with someone in a wheelchair. You understand, right? Either that, or they look at me with a bunch of pity and everything, especially the girls. Yeah, there's a few people I can hang out with sometimes, but not really what I would call, you know - friends, if you catch my drift. But you guys, you've have never done that to me. At least, not that I've noticed anyway. That means a lot, you know? So, if there's anyone here I would chum up with at all, then … you understand, right? So, uh, maybe... you could, you know, at least consider it." He smiled at Elliot. "I know, you already said you would find out, but uh, just in case, that's all I'm asking for, at the least. I promise, I don't bark or bite, and I clean up my own messes by myself!"

Jason snorted, finding their friend to be quite funny. Hearing the reasoning, Jason decided he liked the youth now even more than before. "Sure Scott, no sweat. Like Elliot said, we can't promise it'll work out, but we can promise we'll find out."

Elliot nodded in agreement. "Don't worry man, a promise is a promise. If we can do it, you'll be the first to know."

Scott smiled in appreciation and offered the proverbial fist bump again, which they both accepted and met. Just then a hush fell over the crowd of students. Their teacher stood at the doorway, flipping the light switch on and off to get everyone's attention. "Okay, you may now leave - IF you can do so quietly, and in an orderly fashion. Your exam grades should be posted online by tomorrow afternoon, and they will also be in the post by early next week as well. I wish for all of you to have a safe holiday break. We'll see you upon your return in January!"

With that, the class started exiting, excited to be free at last. Elliot turned to Scott again as they were leaving. "We'll ring you soon."


"What did you think about that, back there? With Scott and all?" Elliot asked on their walk home.

Jason shrugged. "No idea, but you heard what he said. I admit, I have seen a few people, like, go out of their way to avoid him and all. I guess some people do treat him more like a kind of cripple. I know he doesn't like it, and man, the more I think about it, he does do almost everything by himself. So, he is independent, especially around school."

Elliot nodded. "Yeah, I agree. But you can't ignore the fact he IS crippled, right?" He wrinkled his nose. "How do you feel about it? Do you want him coming in, or us going over there? I mean, it'll be our time we're giving up with him, too. You know, you and me, and..."

"I think you and I will have a lot of time to be together before then, honest," Jason replied. "Yeah, I think it's okay if you do, but ... it's really up to you."

"No, it's up to US Jase, not just me. And of course, Mum and Dad." Elliot thought it over for a long moment, before reaching a conclusion. "Yeah, like you said, he's not a bad sort. Why not? It might be fun to have a sleepover for a weekend or something, with somebody besides Derek to bug us!" Both laughed before Elliot continued. "Besides, Derek will be out with friends anyway, I'm sure. Mum and Dad will probably go to a party somewhere, so most likely they'll say it's okay, too. I'll ask Mum first and then ring Scott tonight."

"When is your Dad going to get back? Do you know?"

"The big end-of-year party is tomorrow. Where he works, I mean. So, if I know him, he'll try to get back in for that one!" Elliot grinned. "I think Mum said something about he was planning to come in early tomorrow morning. He'll probably head straight to the office if he does that, just so he won't get an ear of warnings from Mum!"

Jason smiled. "Cool. I want to try some of your Whoppers."

"Hey, no way, they're mine!" Elliot retorted, then relented. "Well, okay, maybe you can have some of them." He pouted, but Jason could tell it was all in good-natured humor.


"Hallo, dear," came a cheerful voice the next morning, when Natalie answered the phone.

"Simon! It's so good to hear from you! Did you make it back this morning?"

"Yes, I'm in London now. I'm about to get a hire car and come back in. How are you and the boys?"

"Mostly well. The boys finished their exams yesterday, so they are now officially on break until the New Year. Trip go well?"

"The trip was ... interesting. I'll fill you in later tonight, on some of the more stimulating details."

"Anything amiss?"

Simon snorted. "No, not really. Not yet anyway - but it was definitely interesting. Seems the circumstances around our young Mr. Mathews have evolved into a strange case."

Natalie was immediately on alert. "How so?" she asked simply.

"It seems not one person down in the good old State of Tennessee Department of Social Services, has much of a record on him. In fact, the only item a quick search turned up was a random ticket, tied to some expenses prior to sending him over. I inquired what the expenses were, but they shut me down at that point. They couldn't, or wouldn't, seem to tell."

"Really?"

"Mmm hmm. I thought it was odd, you know. At first, they claimed I wasn't a guardian or member of the family. That is, until I settled that from the get-go. When I informed them, you know, it was we who had paid for his air fare and other costs, they were even more confused. I'm afraid then they just clammed up, sorry to say."

"Are you kidding me...?" Natalie whispered aloud. "We paid a lot of money for that ticket! What could they possibly be talking about?"

"Exactly. Even more important, however, is the question of why there was so little on record at all, right? I told the lady exactly what you just said, but all she would say is it must have been an internal matter. Then she would comment no further." Simon sighed. "Personally, as strange as it may sound, I'm not sure they knew he was coming to us. Nothing this lady said made any sense."

Natalie sat down on a nearby stool. "That is mysterious, indeed." She exhaled. "And absolutely not right. Why does this web keep getting more tangled every time we deal with them? They never did answer any of your emails or inquires, did they?"

"No, and I agree this has gone on long enough. I realize any inquiry we make into government doings can take time, but to just sit idly by and not respond seems far from anything normally acceptable." Simon hesitated. "The company is sending me back over, right after the holidays. I was thinking I might take a couple of extra days and travel down to Jason's old stomping ground. Maybe I could talk to a few people. You know, see if we can't get some answers. If the automotive issues clear up and the company doesn't want to send us out, then I still might make the trip. Do you agree? I mean, the extra days will have to be at our expense, but I think this might merit some investigation. We need to be getting some answers, not more questions the other way around."

Natalie nodded. "I do agree, sweetheart. I don't care, Simon. Whatever it takes. Something is not right, and I think it's our responsibility. Don't you?"

"I agree on this as well, dear. I'm proud to see he is beginning to open up more, too. All the same, there is still something about this that doesn't make sense. I'm concerned, for his sake - and perhaps even for our own. We need to get to the bottom of it, and soon." He hesitated. "Anything happening this week?"

"Not really. He's becoming awfully quiet again, around here anyway. But he isn't as sullen and withdrawn like he was before the Thanksgiving dinner. Maybe the break from school, maybe the holidays will help cheer him up again. He and Elliot did come in last night with a request, though. It seems one of their classmates asked if they could get together over New Year's weekend. Something about the boys' parents were heading to Scotland for the holiday, and he didn't want to go along."

"That sounds reasonable enough. Elliot has not had any company like that in quite some time, has he? It might be good to throw both the boys in with some new friends. You know, stir the pot up a little. If the boys brought it up, I take it Elliot already knows the kid somewhat. Are they going to his place or is he coming over?"

"Right now, that's not yet been decided. There is one other detail, however. The boy seems to have a walking impediment and uses a wheelchair. I'm not sure how that would work out here, but..." Natalie's voice tapered off.

"Really? Well, we can figure all of that out later," Simon replied. "Why don't you tell them to do it. As I said, it might be good overall, you know? Might keep Jason busy enough to take his mind off things, too. You and I know there is more going to happen anyway. Maybe together that will give his morale another boost, hmm?"

"I really hope so," Natalie mused. "Okay dear, I'll tell them when they get up here in a bit. Are you going to come by the flat before going over to the office?"

"Probably not. I need to have a serious sit-down discussion with some of our engineers. The problem they encountered over there does not have an easy solution. This may be the only time I get to discuss it until we return after the break. Putting a bug in their ear now will be much more effective, I think." Simon paused, before adding, "Then of course, afterwards..."

"Yes, yes - I know. You just be careful, though," Natalie replied, smiling. "I don't want to hear about any ambulance runs with you involved, okay?"

"Who, me? I'm always careful, you know that!" Simon exclaimed.

"Yeah. Mm hmmm..."


The next few days were a blur of activity throughout the flat. Saturday saw Simon back in the nest, with no wear to show for the festivities from the previous day. The ending of term had triggered the realization that the holidays were arriving, and a change in the atmosphere could be felt throughout. A flurry of specials and movies populated the British television channels, much like those Jason had grown up with in the States. To his surprise, the Flavells seemed to relish getting into the mood, watching many as time went on. It also brought a renewed round of everyone enjoying bowls of popcorn, drinks, and other snacks that Jason had yet to see within the family.

The clan began to do more shopping, too. Jason thought it was amusing how the family went out of their way to hide gifts from one another. More amusing, however, was watching them try to find a private time and space just to get them wrapped. This was one area Jason excelled at, helping both Derek and Elliot alike in getting packages swathed in festive colors and ribbons, while the others were distracted.

Only Jason himself seemed to lack catching up with the festive mood of the family. He still smiled, and went out of his way to help and participate with the Flavells as best he could. It wasn't hard to see, however, that something was off. The family respected him well enough to give him space, but his moods had become so commonplace that Natalie began to worry. Elliot went out of his way to be there for Jason, but the teen's quietness was beginning to worry him, too.

As they neared Christmas Eve, Elliot lay with Jason in bed late one evening. Not unlike nights before, he held the youth and cuddled him, smothering him with the love and affection he felt inside. Both were staring at the scene outside their window to the world, when Elliot finally spoke up. "Jase?"

"Yeah?" came the soft reply.

"What's wrong, bro? You know you can talk to me, don't you? You haven't lost trust in me yet, have you?" Elliot pleaded, speaking just as softly in return.

Jason rolled onto his back and silently invited his friend to snuggle up closer. Elliot complied, and just watched in silence as his cousin contemplated, their eyes meeting. It was a while before Jason smiled. "I haven't lost anything with you, Elliot." He finally sighed. "It has nothing to do with you, or anyone in the family here. I promise, cross my heart. I'm just... I really miss him."

Elliot sat very still. "Who? Miss who?" He thought for a second, then he realized it. "Your Dad? You miss your Dad?"

Jason nodded, glad that his cousin had figured it out as easily as he did. "It- it's Christmas, the first one since, he... you know..."

Elliot heard Jason's voice begin to crack, so he hugged him as tenderly as he could. Elliot chastised himself for not having thought of this sooner, and in the aftermath, he didn't know what he could say or do. "I'm- I'm sorry Jase, I should have known." Elliot felt helpless then, and as he felt Jason wiping tears from his eyes, and a lump began forming in his throat. How could he have missed this? Something so obvious, that would explain so much.

"No, Elliot," Jason whispered to him, sensing what his cousin was thinking. "You have nothing to be sorry for, honest. This is on me, okay? I know, I should probably grow up more. It's just hard sometimes, that's all. A year ago, I was at home, and he was still there. Just the two of us, but we did a lot of things together, like I see you guys do here and everything. I know he was doing it for me, but it was… it was just awesome. I don't know how to explain it, really. It was our Christmas then, like the ones we've always had ever since I can remember. But that's gone now, and although I'm trying Elliot, I'm really trying, it's just hard this time, you know?" He paused and stared off at the ceiling. "I'm not trying to be down, especially for you guys. I just - I'm realizing I'll never have any more Christmases like that again, at least not with him." Tears were flowing from his eyes freely, but he still smiled and hugged Elliot. "I'm sorry, I'll try and do better, I promise. You know, your Mom and Dad love you guys, so don't, like, ever forget to spend time with them and stuff. Otherwise something could always happen, like it did to me. You could always end up regretting it, then." He sobbed softly. "Like, I always regret not having told my Dad how much I loved him. I mean, we didn't usually say such things, I know. But still - I didn't."

Elliot clung tightly to Jason, still at a total loss of words. He could feel the anguish, and it was heartbreaking. His mind raced, not knowing what, if anything, he could do as they lay there. So, he held his cousin, his brother in every sense of the word, and tried to let him feel his own love in their contact. Elliot wanted Jason to feel him being there, and not letting go because that was all he could offer.

Jason did regain control eventually, and after wiping his eyes again he relaxed. When he spoke, his expression changed. "I know, I'm being all girly, again." He hesitated, obviously thinking about something, but then sighed before whispering, "I love you, bro. I'm glad you're here, with me."

Elliot looked back up into those eyes, seeing something else entirely. He let it pass, however, in favor of trying to be the one thing he knew Jason needed right now: a brother. "I love you, too. All of us do. And it's not girly at all." He paused, thinking. "You know something? I think it's a part of why I love you. You'll tell me how you feel inside, and it makes me feel more normal. I mean, I have these things, these feelings that build up inside of me sometimes, too. Maybe not the same and all, but I do get down sometimes." Seeing the understanding in his cousin's eyes, Elliot leaned in and softly kissed him. Afterwards, he nuzzled their noses together before adding, "It also tells me you still trust me, just as much as I trust you. That matters, Jase. A lot"

Jason smiled. "I do trust you, you know I do. Have you noticed? I'm getting to where I call you and Derek both brothers sometimes. You ARE my brothers, inside anyway. I'm not afraid who I say that to, not anymore. Even your parents," he added, which made Elliot smile in return.

"You know something else, Jase? What you said about your Dad? From everything you have told me about him, and the way you lived and everything? He knew it."

"Knew what?" Jason asked.

"He knew you loved him. And he loved you, too. I know he did," Elliot stated softly.

Jason hugged Elliot again, encasing him within his arms. "Thanks, Elliot. At least, I want to believe he did," he whispered.

Elliot fell silent as Jason closed his eyes. Watching his cousin closely, he was relieved to see Jason begin to breathe deeper. As delicately as he could, Elliot slipped just enough so he could lay his head upon Jason's chest. Once there, Jason detected the shift, and curled up as close as he could manage. Neither had undressed for the evening yet, but both had already wound up under their blanket. As Elliot listened, it was obvious that Jason had surrendered to a peaceful sleep. It brought a lot of pride to Elliot, knowing that when they were together, each could find such a profound contentment between them.

Elliot, however, lay wide awake for some time, thinking about what Jason had revealed. He wasn't sure if he should be worried or not, and he hesitated about taking something so private as this up with his older brother, or with his parents. It was true - Elliot had never succumbed to the idea of how he would feel, if one or both of his parents, or even Derek, were suddenly lost and gone. If that ever happened, Elliot knew he would be devastated. It also dawned on him that, despite everything he and Jason had been through together, his cousin had been through a lot more - alone. Every time Elliot watched his cousin struggle with his feelings from the past, Elliot assumed it stemmed from his systematic abuse at the hands of hos foster parents, and the rape. Not once had Elliot given thought to the idea, of what Jason must have been living through with the loss of his dad. A mother already gone, and no family at all to fall back on, was one thing. Then, to lose his Dad and end up living in a hellish environment. What would that do to somebody? A tear escaped Elliot as he realized, perhaps for the first time, that Jason had never even been given a proper chance to grieve. His cousin had no one to hold to, or just be with him. The world had left him alone, for all of it. Jason had admitted it already, or at least hinted around parts of it before – but it was just now beginning to sink into Elliot. He felt he now understood why Jason truly had become who he was then. It was something that Elliot always feared for himself. His cousin had become alone in the world, and nobody cared.

Try as he might, Elliot realized all he could do was to be there. Elliot again hugged Jason gently, before nuzzling himself into the arms that held him. He knew this was too important. Although, if his Dad followed through on what the boys expected, Jason was about get another big surprise that might help. This though, explained a lot of the last few weeks, and Elliot couldn't hold it back. He loved his cousin too much, to watch him suffer anymore.

As he slowly drifted off to sleep, he also knew who he was going to have to talk to. Elliot just hoped, beyond anything, Jason wouldn't get mad at him for it.


Derek sat still, his back to the wall and feet stretched out. His arms were crossed, and the mere look of him showed an individual deep in thought. Elliot lay next to him, sitting with his legs crossed underneath, anxiously watching for his older brother's reaction. Elliot had confessed to Derek what Jason gave up the night before. At first, he was nervous about bringing it out, but as it was then, he was resolved to try and help their cousin in any way he could. The trouble, however, was that Elliot didn't know how, or what to do. He only hoped Derek might have some insight to guide him. In the background, Christmas music drifted from downstairs, where right now Natalie was making room for the tree, one that Simon and Jason would soon be bringing home.

It was Christmas Eve morning, and the first real opportunity Elliot had been able to get away from Jason without arousing suspicion. Seizing his chance, Elliot cornered his brother in his room, and told him the thoughts Jason revealed about missing his father. Each member of the clan had all noticed Jason's listless behavior over the last few days, and it had been Simon who suggested that just he and the teen should get out that morning. For a brief time, Elliot was dismayed, thinking that the event was something special which he and Derek had always done with their father. Simon had pulled both boys aside, however, and explained that maybe this one year, they could make an exception if the boys were willing. Realizing that going to fetch the Christmas tree, to get him out of the flat, might be a better option, Elliot relented in thinking it might help cheer Jason up.

"It makes so much sense now," Derek finally spoke softly. "I mean, I thought about something like this a while back, but it just never really hit me. Not this way, at least." He peered at Elliot. "You haven't told Mum or Dad, right?" When Elliot shook his head, Derek grunted. He sat in silence another short period before finally smiling. "Okay, we need to tell Dad. Let him decide if and what Mum should know." Reaching out, he placed his hand on Elliot's shoulder. "You did good though, little brother. Really good. I suspect there isn't much anyone can do, though. You know, and I know, it's a part of something Jason will have to just work out for himself. It's the one thing none of us have ever had to deal with, you know? Not like he has, and… and now that I think about it, if I were in his shoes? I know I'd be miserable." He nodded thoughtfully. "It has to be hard. I mean, he'll live with this for the rest of his life, right? But still... now that we know... yeah... we need to tell Dad straight-away. He needs to know this. He's the only one who might have an understanding, since he went through it with his brother all those years ago."

Elliot nodded, then dropped his head in disappointment. "Okay," he whispered.

"What's wrong?" Derek asked, his voice tender.

Elliot shrugged. "I just, I guess I feel like I've betrayed him now. He'll probably not, like, trust me as much anymore, or..."

Derek shook his head. "No, you haven't done that. You two will be fine, trust me. This isn't one of those deep secret things little brother. And yeah, I know you two have some of those." He observed his brother closely. "Don't you see, though? This isn't the same thing, Elliot. You really haven't betrayed that trust at all. I mean, it's a part of why I had to think this through first. I think he'll understand this, though. He'll be fine with it." He smiled. "It's heavy stuff dude, I know, but it's not the same."

Elliot looked up. "You really think so? I-I wouldn't hurt him for anything, you know?"

"I know that, and I think Dad understands that, too. It's like I've said before though, Dad needs to know. Because it explains something I think we've all been missing. And, you know what Mum and Dad are going to offer him, right? It'll make it mean something else to him, too." He wrinkled his nose. "Your thoughts about him still being afraid, and still feeling alone and everything, well… This will help. You understand that, right?"

Elliot nodded. "Yeah. How do you think it will go?"

Derek shrugged. "Sometimes I think it will go just great. Other times, well, we know Jason's still kind of iffy about some things. You know, kind of still scared. I think he'll understand though, and I think it will be awesome." Elliot nodded, so Derek started to sit up. "Come on, let's go downstairs and help Mum for a while. When Dad and squeaker get back, I'll let Dad know what you found out. If you want me to, that is. You can kind of keep Jason busy. Does that sound okay?" He moved his hand up on Elliot's shoulder again, then changed his mind and instead pulled his brother in for a warm hug. "You did good, little brother. You really did good this time."

They shared the moment before getting up and heading downstairs, Elliot feeling a lot better.


That night the entire Flavell clan, including Simon's sister and daughter, gathered for an early evening dinner. In the corner near the TV, there stood a tall, freshly cut scots pine. It was decorated with ornaments and tinsel but they were unlike any Jason had seen before. Many had a plain, simple appearance, yet were bright and vibrant against the branches. Natalie had explained to him they came from old world, family hand-me-downs, originating from both Simon's and her own family. She described how many English families settled upon the tradition that, every tree should have something from each generation, especially the youngest when children came of age. Although the custom was different, Jason agreed they were still very festive for the season, and he understood yet another little facet of what made English society so tightly woven. At least for the Flavells.

Their dinner was light, although it included a baked ham with a variety of side dishes. Unlike the recent Thanksgiving feast, this dinner had dishes that reflected more of the family's British traditions. For a while, Jason perked up with interest. He embarked on a new adventure as he discovered what the likes of mince pies were all about. Both Natalie and Ella also spoke about some of the very old traditions still employed today, and it fascinated him to listen to them. Traditions that included the making of a flaming Christmas Pudding served on Christmas day, and Blood Pudding, a dish more commonly known as Black Pudding in the modern era. His fascination was curbed however, when he learned it was made with pork fat and actual blood. Seeing his demeanor change caused several at the table to laugh out loud. Good naturedly, however, Jason rebounded as the discussion went on to more pleasant topics.

After dinner, the two families gathered around in the living room, sitting and chatting idly. Though the sofas provided only limited seats, the kitchen chairs were brought around so enough could be found by all. The lighting was subdued, as they spoke freely amongst themselves. For a time, the TV in the background was lit and displaying what passed for a simulated fireplace, it's flames crackling quietly and filling the room. Soft Christmas music could be heard as well, and on occasion one could hear Natalie as she hummed with the music and scene.

As they approached the 8 o'clock hour, however, Jason witnessed a change. A hush gradually fell across the group, and the room became serenely quiet. Uncertain of what was going on, Jason observed Natalie, the brothers and Simon's sister, turn toward him and waited. It was in this hour that Jason was privileged to observe something else he had never seen before. Simon, after smiling and clearing his throat, reached behind him and produced a candle from somewhere. It was tall and slender by design and, having stood to move to the middle of the room, Simon positioned it atop a tray that had appeared. Simon carefully lit the candle, watched it for a moment, and then returned to his seat. No words were spoken, and Jason watched in awe, knowing something was happening here. In like fashion, Natalie followed by stepping forward, and with a candle of her own she procured from somewhere, she borrowed Simon's original candle to light her own. Once it burned brightly, she sat it down next to her husbands', and like Simon, she returned to her chair.

Derek was next, followed by Elliot, both mimicking the actions of their parents with a deliberate slowness, yet with a steady hand. Jason noted that they each held shorter versions of candles compared to their parents, but each was just as pronounced as the others on the tray. When they had finished, Jason made the connection that the candles represented them as a family.

Jason looked up to see them each looking at him expectantly. For a brief second, he sat in confusion about what was transpiring. Simon, however, rose from his chair again and walked over to the teenager. Offering his hand, Jason grasped it and was gently pulled to his feet. It was then he noticed, for the first time, the man was holding yet another candle in the palm of his hand. Short and unlit, it matched the size of the brother's candles, already brightly shining and in place.

Guiding him, Simon drew Jason into the center of the room, before turning to face him. When the man spoke, his voice was soft, and his expression pleasant. "Now," he started, before clearing his throat again. "I get that this is new to you, and it's okay. But, this is something you need to witness. Even more so, I think you need to understand it. So, bear with me a few minutes, and I'll try to explain this the best way I know how. Okay?" Seeing Jason smile and nod, Simon continued.

"This is something we do, as a family, every year. Not just the four of us, but Ella and Trish as well. We're going to change it just a little this time, but you'll see why in a minute. I don't know if other families have traditions like this, but this one was started a long, long time ago. It's our way of acknowledging exactly who, and what, we are. We're a family, Jason. We're united, we care for one another, and we've promised each other we'll always be here, for one another, no matter what. It's not that different from what you chaps do at Thanksgiving, I think. That is a time of being thankful and recognizing the true value of family, friendships and more. This night though, tonight, holds all of that, but it also holds a special meaning for just us. We do this every year - but this year, you see, it has a bonus. I think of it as a bonus because you're here, with us."

It was then Simon handled the candle carefully, displaying it in front of the teen. "You see Jason, this is your light, son. It is supposed to represent the life you live, and the life you lead. Sometimes it can grow dim, and other times it can grow very bright. It represents one's life in general. The peaks, the valleys - the ups and downs, if you will. Within this house, however, you are protected by me. By all of us really, but its more than just being here with your presence. It's being here with your soul, your heart, mind and strength. It's being here and acknowledging what we, all 4 of us, already know. You are a part of us, son. You're a part of our lives, just as much as we are now a part of yours."

Simon knelt in front of Jason just then, pulling the teen down to kneel with him. "Even though we do this every year, I asked the boys not to tell you about it for a reason. It was because I wanted you to see it, to feel it inside, and to understand it - all without having to think about it in advance. I wanted to impress it upon you, because this is a part of our family reaching out to a part of you. We know, I know..." Simon hesitated, then plowed onward. "I know we will never replace your real family. I mean, I cannot replace your father, and certainly Natalie can never replace your mother. These boys, these cousins of yours, if you will, they can never be legally thought of as your blood brothers. You never had brothers or sisters before, and I can appreciate what that would mean to you. Why, suddenly coming here and finding a different dynamic like this to deal with, we all know it can have both ups and downs."

"But, do you see, son? That part of the life you had, the one before you came here, is the very thing that made you who you are. We respect that. We know it has had its sad moments, but it also has had what I hope were very happy moments, too. Rewarding moments, little pieces you can take with you, and keep inside of you. Little memories and treasures that will last for as long as you live. We never question that, nor will we ever question it. We'll never try to change that aspect of you, in any way."

Simon stopped and drew in a deep breath. "Understand this, though. We also respect that you have come to us for a reason. Whether it was by fate, or some divine intervention, it doesn't matter. You have come to us, to be a part of OUR lives. All of us in this room have accepted that, and we have all been very happy about it. From the very first moment I saw you, you know, when I met you in the airport, it was real. From the very first night you arrived and walked in here, into this room to greet your aunt and your cousins, it wasn't a fantasy, or a dream. We knew it. You needed us, but we also needed you. And in all these months, it has never been more apparent than it is right now. It has been proven, time and again, what you mean to each of us, as a family."

At this point Simon smiled. "So much so, that Natalie and I both have decided something. It's something we want you to think about. Just so you know, we've already discussed it with the boys, and they've agreed. In more ways than one," he added slyly, glancing at Elliot, who just blushed. Turning back, however, Simon made his point. "The decision, however, will have to ultimately come from you."

The eldest Flavell breathed deeply, getting his bearings again. "Right now, it would not surprise me if you still feel very alone in this world. Especially in this big, crazy land of ours. Losing everything you had - your father, your old home, your way of life - it has a profound effect on someone, especially as young as you are. It can leave you disoriented and feeling uncertain about your future. Well, Natalie and I want to change that. That's what we want to offer you, something where you don't have to feel that way anymore. And it starts with this candle."

Simon placed the candle into Jason's hand. "If you light this, here, and set it down amongst the rest of our candles, then you'll understand what I'm saying to you. You see, amongst all our lights that are burning here, yours will be added as an equal part, just the same. You'll acknowledge what we have already done for ourselves. You'll establish you're a part of our family, Jason, at its very core. Not as a charge, or a visitor, or a refugee. You'll acknowledge you're a part of us. You won't be by yourself anymore. You'll have a second family, one whom you already know cares about you. Then, if you like, Natalie and I will do everything in our power to adopt you into our fold, legally and completely, starting next Spring. You won't have an empty family tree anymore, not like the one that has left you behind. Instead you'll take that tree, and you'll join it, merge it even, with ours. You see, you'll become a part of ours, too."

Jason was stunned. At first, he tried to fight back tears that came welling up, stinging his eyes. He failed miserably, however, as he listened to this man. In the silence, Jason hung onto every word spoken, trying to capture every meaning. Caught up in the moment, he knelt there unashamed. The tears saturated his very inner being, exposing his soul even, before the group. He slowly, with an unsteady and quivering hand, leaned forward and embraced the man's neck. "Y-You mean… you – you'll adopt me?" he whispered.

As Simon nodded, Jason made no attempts to control the wave of happiness that enveloped him. No words could describe the feelings circling around the room either. Both Natalie and Ella were holding back their own tears, while Derek and Elliot felt big lumps stick in their throats. They had never witnessed their father get so emotional before, nor so tender. The earnest sincerity he displayed as he spoke peeled yet another layer back, and they saw what made the man a true human being. His choice of words, explaining everything so easily, surprised and pleased them.

When Jason eventually pulled back, he still couldn't speak right away. Looking around, he saw the faces and the smiles. There was an air of exuberance, as one by one each beamed at him. When his eyes settled on Elliot at last, he held them there. Everything his cousin had been telling him from the beginning, it was sinking in. Jason really did have a family of brothers here, and people who cared about him. Simon had just established it beyond any doubt now.

Elliot slowly slid to the floor and crawled across to sit next to him. The youth leaned close and whispered to him. "See? I told you, you're one of us now."

Jason looked down at the candle still in his hand and made the only decision that made sense. With a nervousness that made him shake, he extended the end out to the tray. While the others looked on, he replicated what he had watched them do. Using Simon's candle first, the tallest of the group, he lit his own now. Unlike the others, however, he used their candles, too, to add to the flame his already carried. Then as carefully as he could, he set it down with the others, making it a group of 5. There was just enough room that it could set it amongst the other four, and he thus wanted it to be there, for a lot of reasons. He hoped it symbolized how he felt about them, equally. Without looking up, he finally spoke again, his voice breaking. "Thank you, thank all of you, for believing in me. For letting me be here. And for sticking with me. I love you."

With those words said, Elliot embraced the youth from his side while Derek moved and did the same from the other. Simon and Natalie both had tears running down their own cheeks now, overjoyed with their own happiness. The scene being displayed before them showed they were now both gaining another son. Natalie, unable to restrain herself any longer, finally joined the group in the floor, hugging them all. Simon had to delay slightly, moving the tray out of the way to keep the candles safe. Once secured, however, he added his own gesture of comfort with them collectively.

When Jason looked up, his face was totally changed, almost aglow. "You knew? You really knew?" he asked Simon.

The man nodded. "For the most part, I knew. But, you do have two brothers now who made sure I knew it, too." Jason separated from the other three and put his arms around Simons' neck a second time. He said nothing, his actions speaking a thousand words. Even if Jason had tried, no words existed in the English language that could convey this. There was a new connection now in the making, and Jason was ever so proud of it.

Sitting back some time later, the mood had changed to one of happiness. Ella and her daughter both added their own affectionate hugs, too, joining the others in the floor. Even Trish gave Jason a long, loving hug before kissing him on the cheek. Jason admired her for that, and ended up holding her in his lap for a short while. As the chattering continued amongst them, Jason at one point looked over at Elliot. "You guys really do this candle thing, like, every year?"

The other youth nodded. "Every year. It's always been Dad's way of telling us how much he loves us, and loves our family." The boy grinned. "And now we have another one to add to it."

Derek overheard the last part of that statement, then nodded in agreement. "You realize, our family doesn't really get so mushy about things very much. Except, honestly, at this one time of year. Can't imagine why," he added nonchalantly, to which he got a playful smack on the back of his head from Natalie.

"Men!" Natalie exclaimed, getting up from the floor and heading to the kitchen, returning a moment later with cups of punch. "Okay, you boys are old enough this year, so we'll let you have a little for a change. It's a special occasion anyway, right?"

Jason took the cup, but upon seeing the others waiting, he held out until everyone had been given one. Then Simon turned to him. "Why don't you give us a toast this evening, hmm? I think I've run out of things to say for some reason," he playfully expressed.

Jason thought about it for a few seconds, then he mimicked something he had saw the man do once before. "To all of you. No, excuse me. To all of US. May we find a lot of joy and ... and everything, just being together. Not being alone." Not as eloquently as someone with more skill might have pulled it off, but the sentiment was there still all the same.

"Hear, hear!" Ella exclaimed first, and then the rest as they took their drink. Immediately, Jason noticed it tasted... different. Scrunching his face uncontrollably in displeasure, he noticed Elliot had done the same. Derek, on the other hand, just smiled at them and finished his off. Elliot was the first to gasp. "Um, too much on the Vodka, or Rum, or whatever is in this thing, Mum. Yikes!"

"And how do you know what rum would taste like?" Natalie responded, venturing a harsh look at her son, before bursting into laughter. "Okay, okay. I know the bottle has been in the refrigerator all week. You're off the hook!"

Everyone laughed.


That night, Jason and Elliot were standing in their room, having just changed the bottom sheet on their bed. As they were replacing the blanket, there was a soft knock coming from their door. Opening it, Elliot found Derek on the other side, clad in his boxers and a loose-fitting t-shirt. Beckoning him inside, the teen entered as Jason finished adding an extra quilt to their covers. Elliot stood, watching his brother curiously, but when the older teen didn't speak, he broke the silence. "What's up?"

Derek turned to him first, then Jason before looking down to the floor. "Uh, you two think, maybe... well, tonight is kind of, you know, one of those rare nights and all. I just wondered, if maybe we could huddle up for a while. You know, together?" Looking up at Jason, Derek was quick to add in a hushed whisper. "No sex, I promise. Just, you know, I thought maybe we three could hang out together. For a little while. What do you say?"

Jason smiled at him, then glanced at Elliot to see him nod. Without a word, he began peeling his clothes off, down to his briefs, while Elliot did the same. The only difference was this time, Elliot turned out the light as Jason pulled the covers back and got in first. Derek hesitated only a second, until he felt Elliot gently push and steer him toward the bed. Before getting in, however, Derek removed his own t-shirt and climbed in, moving to the middle between them before lying on his back. As Elliot joined them, both he and Jason curled up into sharing the older teen's shoulder, one on each side. Turning inward, they sandwiched the older youth, causing Derek to smile inwardly. As he brought both arms out to surround the two, he pulled them close. Once they settled, it was Jason who spoke first in a soft voice.

"Listen, thanks guys. Both of you. Thanks for being here, thanks for letting me be a part of you. And…" Jason hesitated for only a second. "Thanks for helping me learn how to live again. You know, to believe in people. Thank you for being my brothers."

Elliot developed another lump in his throat, but before he could speak, it was Derek's soft voice that permeated the silence that followed. "We're glad you're here, too, squeaker. Now, just try and believe it, okay? Mum and Dad both, they love you a lot."

Jason nodded. "I know. I realize that now. Your Dad... He's amazing. Your Mom is too, but he - he understood me tonight. Just like you always do. Both of you."

Elliot finally found his voice. "It's because we love you, too. You know this by now. Even this oversized buffoon with the big, fat hairy dick between us, does." He turned to look at Derek full on. "Who can still be an arse sometimes, but - is really awesome at others, you know?" He leaned in and whispered into his brother's ear. "And yeah, I love you for it, too."

Jason placed a hand on Derek's chest and softly moved it over his heart. He could just make the telltale thrum of a beat inside. "His heart is as good as yours, Elliot," he commented, bringing Derek to a state of surprise.

"What? Did I just hear you defend me? To this little squirt beside us?" Derek grinned in the darkness, then hugged them both closer.

"Okay, yeah, yeah. I know. I just can't tell him that too often, see? If I do, he'll get the big head... Ow!" Elliot exclaimed, as he felt a sharp poke in his ribs.

Looking down at his younger brother, Derek also reached down and pinched his butt. Elliot smirked, but hugged Derek back snuggly. Looking across the boys' chest, he confided to Jason. "I think he likes pinching my arse as much as you do sometimes!" This brought a giggle from all three.

Derek lay there a bit, listening and watching the two younger teens. He eventually felt Elliot's hand move up and slip inside his boxers, cupping his groin. Any other day of the year, Derek would have probably sprouted a full hard-on. Tonight though, Elliot wasn't playing or trying to entice him. Instead, Elliot just let his hand lay there quietly, enjoying the trust he still felt with his brother, and knowing it went both ways.

Jason felt the movements and knew exactly what had happened. Elliot had done the same to him many times already, and he understood its significance. Jason only smiled however, as he cuddled and kept his hand placed over Derek's heart. Before long, all three drifted into a quiet, peaceful sleep.

The last thoughts that went through Derek's head was how lucky he felt, at just being able to be so close, and feel so much, from them both.

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