When Shadows Pass

by Sean English

Chapter 23

New Friends, New Horizons (Part III)

On Tuesday evening, the boys made it to the game shop as promised. Jason turned to working on a newly arrived model, while Elliot proceeded to catch up with his gaming mates. Ron was among them, and the teen seemed even friendlier than ever with Elliot now. Jason watched them at times, and noted Ron worked more closely with Elliot, laughing and chattering away. Jason actually smiled, pleased to see Elliot having more friends than he initially let on about.

It was near the end of the evening though, when Ron walked over and sat down in a chair next to Jason, surprising him at his sudden appearance. "I wish I could do that," he absently commented, after watching for several seconds.

"It's not really that hard. It just takes some practice more than anything," Jason replied, shrugging.

Ron looked on as another piece fell into place. "So, is this like what you did back in the States? You know, as a hobby?"

"Yeah, kind of. My Dad bought me some simple ones at first, then he started getting me harder ones to put together. I would build them, paint them, and then put them on shelves around my room. You know, the kind that's high up on the wall, so they don't get broken or anything."

"Really? I have shelves like that in my room!" Ron declared. He grinned. "Great minds think alike, I guess!"

Jason grinned, then looked thoughtful. "Yeah. I guess I probably put together, uh, 20 or more over the last couple of years, maybe. It was pretty cool, at least until..."

"Until what?" Ron asked.

"Well, one day there was this cat that got into the house, while me and Dad were gone to town. It found my room and somehow decided it had to jump up on the shelves." Seeing the look of comprehension fall on the teen's face, Jason nodded. "Yeah, you guessed it. It knocked a bunch of them off and then ... crash!"

"Oh man, that's a bummer! Did it get all of them?" Ron asked.

"Most, yeah. I had maybe 5 or 6 that survived, but..." Jason paused. It had suddenly dawned on him that he had no idea what happened to those that were left.

"Did you get to bring them with you?" Ron asked, but Jason shook his head. An uncomfortable silence followed, and Ron understood. There must have been more to the story, than perhaps his newfound friend was ready to reveal. "Sorry mate, honest." Ron then changed the subject. "So, we have some classes together! That's going to be awesome! I suck at Geometry, but maybe the three of us can get together some to help me work it out."

Jason smiled. "I think that would be cool. I'm not too bad with math, but I don't handle history or stuff like that very well."

"Tell me about it, same here," Ron replied. He leaned back in his chair. "Not trying to be nosy, I promise, but I take it you didn't have any family left, from what I heard, right? In the States, I mean. Then over here it's mostly just you and Elliot, and his brother? Derek, right?"

Jason nodded as he straightened up. "Yeah. It's okay, that's not being nosy at all," he offered. "How about you? Any brothers or sisters?"

"I've got a sister, 17. She's off snogging her boyfriend tonight." Ron saw confusion on Jason's face and then grinned. "What? Snogging? I guess you haven't heard that one yet?" Seeing the shake of Jason's head, Ron leaned in closer and lowered his voice. "It's a British thing. It means when peeps go off and suck face all the time. You know, kiss, with tongues and everything. We call that snogging."

"OOhhhhhhh," Jason replied, blushing a little. Ron lowered his voice even further. "Has anyone said anything about fapping, or shagging? Those are British terms, too."

"Sorry, uh, not that I know of..." Jason replied meekly.

"Don't be sorry mate, it's cool, honest." Ron glanced behind him, then turned so that none of the other guys could see them. With his hand, he made a fist and moved it to his crotch. He made a few jerking motions above his groin. "Fapping. Get it?" When Jason grinned, he then added, "And shagging is sex. Like, going all the way and everything. Screwing." He leaned back and grinned. "I'm surprised Flavell hasn't told you about those yet."

Jason shrugged as he continued to blush. "I guess. I don't know, maybe he just didn't think of it yet," he replied. Ron giggled, but then placed his hand on Jason's shoulder.

"You're alright, Mathews," Ron said softly, then repeated. "You're alright."

"What makes you say that?" Jason asked.

"Well, most blokes would have tried to pull some bull-shitty response. You know, be a smart-arse and all. Like, 'Oh yeah, that's what I heard, I just didn't want to say it out loud!' You know, crap like that. You didn't though. You were just honest up front. And then when I told you what they meant, you turned a little red, but you didn't like, shy away or anything. Honest man, that tells me you're alright." He explained it all with a low voice, but Jason clearly heard and felt the sincerity of the message.

"Thanks, Ron. I - I appreciate it," Jason responded, gaining a new respect for the teen.

Ron watched him for a moment as Jason started putting pieces back into the box. "Oh yeah, it is getting late, isn't it?" he observed. Biting his lower lip, he spoke again. "Hey, listen Jason. Next week, I'm kind of having a birthday party at my house, on Friday night. More of just a dinner, but yeah. Do you think, well, you and Elliot could come? I'd really like to have you there. Please?"

Jason was surprised at the invitation, and furthermore at the earnestness displayed in Ron's face. "Um, yeah, maybe. We'd have to get Elliot's Mom to okay it first. Have you asked Elliot yet?"

"Nope, but come on, we'll do it now!" Ron exclaimed. Jason turned and waved until he got his cousin's attention, who then broke away from the group to come over. Upon his arrival, Jason explained what was up. Elliot's eyes lit up.

"Really? You want... me and Jason…, to come over?"

Ron grinned at them, then lowered his voice again. "Yeah, I do. Listen, there won't be many people there. Just mostly my sister and cousins, really. Maybe one or two of these other guys, but I haven't decided on that yet. Still, the point is, it'll be a small get together, that's all. It would be cool, for me, if you two would come. I know Dad would approve. Besides, he told me I could invite whoever I wanted, just not to make it a big group, that's all."

Elliot raised a fist to bump, which was met by another in mid-air and a wide grin. "It's a deal, as long as my Mum says okay," he said simply. Just then Elliot's phone beeped, and as he looked at it, he waved to Jason. "Speaking of which, we've got to go. Mum says she'll be outside in about 5 minutes."

Jason hurriedly stored the rest of his parts away. As they donned their coats, Mr. Fulcrum walked over and started to shake Jason's hand. "Here," he said, slipping some bills into the boy's palm. "I'm sorry. During Christmas, I had to watch the money a bit tighter than usual. But I wanted to give you some more, regardless. It's not very much, but you've certainly earned it."

Jason hesitated, then looked at the man. "Uh, sir? How would you feel if I maybe, you know, did something else instead?" When the man looked on in curiosity, Jason turned and pointed. "See that LED light kit, over there on the shelf?" The man followed Jason's gaze, then moved around the counter and lifted the kit down from the shelf.

"This? Are you saying you want to purchase this?" the man asked, puzzled.

"Yeah, uh, yes sir. I mean, if I need to work more to pay for it, I'll be glad to. You can even keep it until I've maybe earned up enough!" Jason cleared his throat, then explained. "See, I got this model ship for Christmas, from Elliot and his family. It's like a big, old-time sailing ship, with masts and rigging and everything. And well, me and Elliot think we might have figured out a way to light it up. You know, from the inside and all. That is, if I can make a trade or something for the lights, with you."

The older man grinned widely and then handed the kit to the boy. "Ah, I understand now. You have a deal. Do not worry about the money, we'll work it all out. Just one condition, though."

"Yes sir?" Jason asked.

"You have to let me see the finished result when you're done with it. I would be most pleased to see this sailing ship of yours!"

Jason grinned. "Um, sure! It might be a while though, sir. I mean, it's a big model and everything, and it's going to take me and Elliot some time to get it together."

The shopkeeper shook his head and shrugged. "Does not matter to me, take what time you need. Here, take this, with my blessing," the man said. Ron was standing next to him with a wide smile on his face as well.

"Dad? I invited these two over next Friday, if that's okay," Ron announced.

"Oh? The party? Yes, it's fine, it's fine. We welcome them! I just had a ring a few minutes ago from my brother, too. He is going to come in and take care of the shop for the night, so this will be big family affair! Good food, music, games!" The man seemed really cheerful, which made Jason smile in return. Just then, Elliot's phone beeped again.

"Come on, Mum is waiting outside." They hurriedly thanked Ron and his Dad, then grabbed their jackets and rushed out.


Two days later, both Elliot and Jason were heading toward their gym class together for its first session. Jason was somewhat nervous, but Elliot kept coaxing him to relax. "First day is just usually get together, where they explain things to everyone, so it's cool, Jase. Ease up, okay?" Soon enough, Ron stepped in and joined them both, and together the trio moved through the now familiar double doors. Once inside, several teens had already gathered in various parts of the huge floor. One of the assistant coaches was standing near the entrance, greeting all the newcomers as they came through the door. Jason saw that the man evidently already knew many of the students, having identified them by name as they approached.

When the three worked their way through the crowd and approached the man, he nodded at Elliot. "Flavell, right? You're in Group C." He then turned his attention to Jason. "And, if I'm not mistaken, you're the Mathews boy, right? You're also in Group C. And..." He studied Ron's face briefly. "I don't think I know you, son."

"Fulcrum, Ron. I just transferred in from Riverport, sir," the teen offered.

"Ah, yes, here you are. We got you, uh, looks like you're also in Group C." The man grinned as he looked up from his board. "Well, that was easy, boys!" He pointed to the far end of the gymnasium. "Just head down there and take a seat, someone will be with you lot shortly. Probably me, I think I'm taking C-group this term."

Elliot was beside himself as they walked away. "Holy fuck, guys, this is so awesome!" he exclaimed, muttering under his breath.

Ron also grinned and nodded agreement. "I couldn't agree more or be any happier!" Jason, upon hearing them both, just giggled nervously and followed along. All three did as they were instructed, and as the next few minutes passed, several other boys of varying ages also joined their group. Jason was curious, and asked Elliot about it.

"See, like I said before, over here they try to bring as many of the gym classes together in the late afternoons. That's the warmest part of the day and all. Sometimes, we stay in here, like in the gym, and do stuff like games and exercises, that sort of thing. But then other times we go outside when the weather is warm enough. Like, right now it's not supposed to turn cold again until Sunday, I think. So, we may get to put on our uniforms tomorrow and do something outside." He scratched his nose. "Oh yeah, I didn't finish, did I? Well, because they squeeze as many of us as they can into the afternoons, we sometimes get a mix of Grades 7, 8 and 9. For us, it's always just boys in our group. The girls have their own group, too. They don't mix us up any."

Elliot nodded toward one youth, obviously younger than themselves. "That's Rocket. He's the brother of Derek's best friend, Chris. He's actually one of the cool dudes." He then looked around, lowering his voice. "And don't look now, but over there in the corner, its' the Albert brothers. They're twins, and they're trouble. Real trouble. Heads up guys, you have to be careful around them."

Ron looked at the two passively. "So, what's their story?"

"I don't know anything specific, but those two, they have a lot of nasty moods sometimes. They like to stir up trouble when they can, and they play really dirty on the fields and courts." He whistled low. "Actually, I think they're 16 or something. That's a little old for our group here, I'm surprised to even see them."

Just then another coach, different to the one they met only moments before, rounded the corner and brought the boys together. He looked down at the roster, then registered a look of surprise when he saw something within his notes. Looking up, he glanced around until he spotted the twins. Immediately, he motioned and had them follow him, where all three crossed the floor and exited through the doors on the opposite side. Elliot was puzzled. "That's strange, never seen that happen before." Neither Jason nor Ron spoke, and the rest of the group fell silent while waiting. After a brief pause, the coach returned alone and crossed the floor to stand in front again.

"Okay, now we've solved that problem," the man said. "Those two shouldn't have been assigned here to start with, simple as that." He looked up into the faces of the group. "I'm Coach Reed, and you already know what class you're in, so I won't bore you with those details. Just so you know, Coach Stouts, whom you met coming in, and I share the floor for both B-group and C-group. So, either one of us may be in charge when you're in class."

Coach Reed drew a deep breath. "Now, the rules are simple boys. By law, you have no other choice but to take this class. That means you also must take the physical fitness tests at mid-term." He listened to the chorus of groans that suddenly emitted from the group. "Now, now, they're not that tough, I'd think. Nevertheless, we're going to put you up in here roughly 2 to 3 days a week, and Coach Stouts and I both will work up routines to help you prepare for those. The other days, we'll try to have some fun. When weather permits, we'll head outside. When not, we have this end of the floor here, and we can do quite a few things with it. If you haven't noticed yet, we have new ball goals, and I understand we've acquired some nets over the break, so it should not be too bad."

"As to other items on the agenda," the man intoned, pausing briefly to consider the eyes of each individual in the crowd. "You must dress for gym - no exceptions! Since it is the last period of the day, I won't make you shower afterwards, unless you just want to. That is, UNLESS you've been outside and get caked up in a bit of mud. Or unless you end up smelling like a bunch of crotch-infested baboons! Is that reasonable enough?" The group lightly laughed and seemed to be in general agreement, so the coach continued. "Okay, for today, we'll just assign your lockers, show you around, that sort of thing. Some of you have been here before, but I also know there are a few new faces in the crowd. So, be prepared tomorrow and bring your gym clothes in. I understand it may be a little damp, but it's supposed to be plenty warm. We may try some football for a bit, if you like." That brought a chorus of cheers from the group, which amused Jason.

The group followed the coach down into the locker rooms, located off the side of the gymnasium floor. Upon entering the doorway, Jason noted they traveled down a series of steps, bringing them to perhaps a half-level below the playing floor. It was an odd design, but Jason had already found this school to be made of mezzanines, or half-floors, that twist with other odd-designs throughout the place. He assumed it was probably due to its age, but also random acquisition and restructuring of the property over a long period of time probably contributed as well.

Once in the designated area, the coach assigned everyone lockers in pairs, and gave them each a combination lock to use. Elliot and Jason were teamed together, while Rocket and Ron ended up sharing the locker next to them. When all in the group had their assignments, the coach looked about pointedly. "That boys, is the showers," he said, indicating an open area beyond where they stood, currently unlit. "Now, it goes without saying, I know. But mind you, be respectful and nice about it in there. There is nothing more embarrassing, or humiliating, to your peers than to be the brunt of various jokes and the like, if and when you're in the nude. That, boys, is the real reason I got rid of the twins," the man added in a lower tone. He noted he had their full attention just then. "We all know how that would have probably turned out. Quite frankly boys, I don't have the time to babysit everyone in here, every minute of the day. And although I have the perfect right and exception to come down here, and enter these rooms at any point, please trust me when I say that I don't WANT to have to come in here. This is YOUR room, during your assigned period. Understand? Be respectful of one another. Don't forget - I was once as young and tender as the lot of you now are at one time or another. In my day, it wasn't any different than it is in your day, especially when it comes to showering together. I'll repeat it again, just be respectful, and we'll all be better men for it in the long run. Okay?" Seeing a few nods, he turned and pointed up to a clock hanging on the wall. "Getting dressed, you have 8 minutes once the bell rings. You're expected to be out, on the court or the pitch, and ready for roll call. Your first couple of days you get a little longer, so that you get adjusted and used to it. Honestly, however, you'll find that there is plenty of time overall if you don't dally too much. We have gym for 52 minutes from that point. Then you're supposed to have as much as 15 minutes to get back inside and dressed before the final bell rings. I say 15 minutes, because that's the full period. Being the last class of the day, however, you can certainly have a little extra time if you need it."

Jason absorbed it all with a sinking feeling building up inside. It wasn't that he had not had gym classes before, but they were not structured quite like the way this one appeared to be. He swallowed nervously, thinking about what the coach had revealed earlier. What was this physical fitness test about? Jason wasn't a strong individual, and compared to some of those standing around him, he doubted he had the body mass to be much of a star competing with anyone. That weighed on his mind heavily, as the group headed back up the stairs and once again into their seats. Afterwards, the coach called roll once more, and then dismissed them. Many were surprised, especially when he informed the group they were free to go home if they wished.

As they walked outside, Ron noticed Jason had been silent for quite some time, so he spoke up. "Something wrong there, mate?"

Elliot grimaced. "Probably thinking about the showers," he teased, to which Jason cuffed him playfully on the arm.

After a few more steps, however, Jason stopped. Wrinkling his nose again, he responded. "What's this physical test thing that coach talked about?"

"Oh, that?" Ron replied, then shrugged. "Nothing horrible, mate. Just, it's something that's done every year. The system monitors and keeps records on you, too. Sort of to see how you do, you know, how you improve - or not. Between grades, I mean."

"What kind of tests are they?" Jason asked curiously.

"Exercises, pull-ups, push-ups, that sort of thing," Elliot answered. "Nothing really too tough. They measure how you are, physically and everything."

"Yeah, and there are also some running and field sport events," Ron added. "Like, how long it takes you to run a mile, or how far you can jump, flat-footed. It's mostly easy stuff, though. Nothing to sweat over."

Jason studied for a second before nodding. "Okay, I can handle that, I think."

Ron grinned at him. "You two blokes look to be more fit than I am, I know. So, if I can pass them, you won't have any problems either, I promise." When they reached the street, Ron made another observation. "What was that about the showers thing, if I may ask?"

Jason blushed, and noticed that Elliot didn't speak up for once. When he saw Ron's continued look of curiosity, he grunted. "Elliot, uh, just wants to see my ass, I think."

That made Ron snort. "Okay, good one!" He saw there was something more, however. "But really, what's up? Something wrong?"

The three stopped again, but this time Elliot chimed in. "It's nothing Ron. I just tease him sometimes. Okay, a lot maybe," he appended, getting another playful cuff on the arm. "You know, telling him about how it's different here in the UK and all. About taking showers together and all that, in gym classes."

"OOOOhhhhhh, I get it now. So, is he a prude or a free-flyer?" Ron asked, grinning.

"I don't know what a free-flyer is, but I'm not a prude, trust me," Jason answered, defending himself. He sighed deeply. "Okay, I know. I'm from the land of jerks who love to freak out, when someone of the same sex gets naked around them. But... I'm okay with it, really. Like Elliot said, he just teases me sometimes, that's all."

Ron smiled back at him, understanding. "Don't sweat it, then. Besides, I used to be kind of a prude, too – and I didn't grow up in America!" Seeing the surprise on Elliot's face, he shrugged. "Don't ask, I don't really know why I was. I just used to be kind of, uh, modest, I guess. I outgrew most of it, though."

"How?" Jason asked curiously. "Can I ask?"

"Sure, you can ask. I don't care, really." Their new friend heard the uncertainty in the question, so Ron paused and thought about it. "I don't know, really. At first, I think it just had to do with me being self-conscious and everything. I mean, not everyone is built the same, you know that. Some guys work out, and get muscles and all that, but others are kind of chunky and everything. I'm not chunky, but I don't have anything to shout about either, for sure. Oh, and age makes a big difference, too, as you can probably guess." He paused, nodding to himself. "I kind of felt like I was more in the middle, and it sort of just embarrassed me to have to even take my shirt off. Especially in a crowd. But ... for me, I had some friends, and we kind of supported each other and stuff. So, eventually I just let it go - it doesn't bother me so much anymore." Ron adjusted his pack. "The way I look at it, I'm not letting just anyone get around me by myself, you know? I don't want just anyone staring at my stuff or anything. I know, when you're in gym and showers and everything, it's not exactly like that. But it's also not that different, either. The way I feel is, as long as I have some friends, people around that I sort of, um, you know, at least can trust and everything? Then yeah, it's a lot more comfortable that way. Then it's not such a big deal." He smiled and lowered his voice. "And yeah, you blokes will make that grade, if you want to know. So, if you're not freaked out with me around you, then we'll all be cool. We got each other's back, right?"

Jason stared in awe at the youth, and the openness he had talking about himself. He also admired the fact that, in his own way, Ron sort of put into words exactly how he felt about himself. If others were like him, like Ron, then maybe this wouldn't be so bad after all. He glanced at Elliot and saw the understanding there as well. Jason smiled and then met Ron's offered fist in mid-air. "I wouldn't freak out with you at all, I promise. And thanks, thanks for that. That means a lot to me, right now."

Ron nodded in understanding, and then the group parted ways. As Jason and Elliot started to head home, it was Jason who spoke first. "What's his story Elliot, do you know? I mean, he's seems really nice and all. I saw him the other night, really sticking by you and everything."

Elliot glanced sideways. "Really? Ron has always been nice to me, though, ever since I've met him. He's the one who taught me how to get into Warhammer, and we've hung out a lot in the group, too. He went to a different school though, so well, we didn't really cross paths or anything much outside of the game shop. He's funny sometimes, and incredibly smart too – even though he pretends he isn't. And he's cool. He has a way at sneaking up on you, saying things when you least expect it, you know? But then, he makes you feel good in the end."

"So, I kind of noticed, like just now," Jason replied with a knowing smile.

"Yeah, you noticed - he's really up front about a lot of stuff. Not too sure what drives that, but I kind of, well, I really like it about him. Be careful though, if you ever try to talk to him about which is better between Star Trek and Star Wars. On THAT topic, he is REALLY passionate, almost like Dad and Derek are about American football! I've seen Ron get really wound up, even once with a teacher who came in to the game shop! We spent almost the entire night listening to them debate it, and it was actually hilarious!" Elliot walked on a bit further and then added. "One more thing, though: be careful around his sister. Ron is great, but she is nothing like Ron at all. In fact, she is a real piece of work - and not in the best of ways, either. She uh, well, she's another one of those who likes to..."

"Snog a lot?" Jason asked.

Elliot laughed out loud. "Wow, where did you hear that one?"

"Ron told me about it at the shop the other night. We were talking about her a little bit," Jason replied.

Elliot whistled, nodding. "That's, wow... but yeah, snogging. That's not all, though. From what I hear, she's one of those who spreads her legs a lot, too. If you get my meaning." He looked over again as they rounded a corner. "Ron's just a nice guy, I think. Not exactly the quiet type, but he doesn't waste a lot of time either. He doesn't bullshit around much. All the times I've been around him, it's been mostly at the game shop or afterwards, but when you're around someone enough, you kind of get to know them, you know? He's always been cool around me, always talking or joking around. You know, just stuff guys do." He thought for a few seconds before continuing. "It does seem that lately he's being really out there and all, especially with us both. I don't mind it, and I take it you don't either."

"No way, I'm like you," Jason observed. Looking up, he commented. "You must have really liked him before, then."

"To be honest, I never got the impression he cared about me that much. Not - like, close, you know?" Elliot remarked. "But yeah, I admit it. When Derek was off doing his thing, if I could have had a friend like Ron, maybe things would have been different." He smiled at Jason just then. "Uh, I'm not sure if that came out right, Jase. You know what, though? I got you instead, and you're well worth it to me. You're worth a lot more, I think."

"Yeah? Why's that?"

"Because," he replied, leaning against the youth as they walked further. "I learned to trust you, and I have you, like, every day, to myself even. And I wouldn't trade you. Ever."

Jason leaned back. "Good answer," he smirked.

Elliot grinned, and then grunted. "About Ron though, that's all I really know. Maybe … maybe he was just looking for some friends and stuff. I kind of hope so. I feel like he's one of the good ones, I think. "

"Yeah, maybe that's it," mused Jason. He thought about what Elliot had said. "Any idea why he transferred here though? They didn't move or anything, did they?"

"Not that I know of. I did hear something, but mind you, I'm not sure about it okay? I only heard bits and pieces while we were at the shop the other night. I think there was some trouble at the school he came from, something that had been going on for a while. His Dad finally just said enough was enough. No idea what it was about or anything, though." Elliot shrugged. "If you want, we can ask him sometime. I'm sure he'd tell us."

Jason nodded. "If you don't think we'd be prying too much, then yeah, deal. In the meantime, I think your Mom said we're going out again tonight, right?"

"Yeah, she thinks my gym clothes are getting too small. Maybe she doesn't like my corker showing so much, who knows?" Elliot quipped, which made Jason laugh. "I think she said something about getting you some more, too."

"Corker? You mean your willy, right?" Jason asked, amused. Shaking his head, he replied, "You guys and your meanings and everything. Good grief!"


Friday finally arrived, and there seemed to be an upbeat atmosphere amongst the student body when the boys arrived. There was talk of a possible heavy snow moving in on the weekend, and that added to the buzz of the first week of school being almost over. From what Jason gathered, that was an exception to the norm for Portsmouth. Being as far south as they were on the coast, rarely did temperatures drop far for any significant amount of snowfall to accumulate. However, weather forecasters were already having a puzzling season, having experienced events thus far that reached both extremes. Simon had remarked, on more than one occasion, the weather for that time of year was certainly out of kilter.

Once again, Ron hung with the group during their first period, no differently than their other classes that week. Jason happened to note Ron's genuine acceptance of Scott as well. As much as he and Elliot made efforts to let Scott feel included, it was surprising to see Ron was bonding with the wheelchair-bound teen, too. It wasn't long into one of their conversations, that Ron pulled Jason aside and revealed that he, too, had a cousin living in Manchester who was also wheelchair bound. It explained a lot, Jason thought, about how Ron empathized with Scott in their surroundings. Once again, Jason could not help but be impressed at the openness of their new friend, especially in quiet, subtle ways. Ron had already learned, first hand, what life was like for people like Scott, and what it implied. Thus it was plain why he treated Scott as an equal, and not as a hindrance.

The morning flew by quickly, and all four boys gathered to meet up during lunch. Previously, Ron had been reassigned to another lunch group. Suddenly though, he found himself reassigned because of vast overcrowding during his normal period. He had an air of ease and an infectious grin when he found them, and then sitting down at the table, he explained his good fortune. The four conversed on a variety of topics, including the upcoming weekend and the next Warhammer session coming up. Something big was being planned, and both he and Elliot were in the throes of plotting their next excursion together. It was something both Jason and Scott had to back away from, for lack of understanding, but both still smiled as they ate and listened.

Just as they were about to get up and head to their next class, Ron suddenly sat back in his chair and turned to Jason. "You know, if you want to learn this stuff, it really isn't as hard as some people think it is. There are, like, different levels that people can play. I know it sounds complicated sometimes, maybe even more involved because Elliot and I are in the more advanced groups and all. There are easier ways to start out though, and you can always build your characters up as you get more practice." He lowered his voice somewhat. "I guess what I'm saying is, if you would want me to, I can help you learn it. Enough to give it an honest go, I mean. It's totally up to you, though. You, too, Scott - if you want."

Scott put both hands up in front of him, almost instantly. "Whoa, no can do. I'm afraid I'm not into those kinds of games and such. Mum and Dad both would have a hissy if I did, I think." He grinned. "I do appreciate the offer though."

Jason thought about it for a moment. "I don't know, I've never done games like that before. I will admit they do look kind of interesting sometimes, at least a little."

Ron's face lit up. "Then ... you'll give it a chance? You'll at least think about it?"

Ron's reaction surprised Jason in more ways than one. For starters, the teen was really reaching out, offering to find some common ground between them. Jason also had no doubt of their friend's sincerity. It seemed Ron really *wanted* this to happen. As he was about to answer, Jason thought he heard Elliot suck in his breath behind him. What was there in this? Why was this so important? He wasn't sure, but Jason was disarmed enough by their genuine interest that he let his guard down. "I would be willing to try it out, at least, yeah."

"That's awesome, mate!" Ron exclaimed, offering the proverbial fist mid-air. Jason giggled before reaching up and meeting it.

"You don't know how much I've been trying to get him at least that far, Ron," Elliot offered, shaking his head in amazement.

Watching their exchange, Jason felt like he was missing something. "Sheesh guys, I didn't know it was that important to you!" he mused, grinning back. Neither replied right away, exchanging knowing glances, but eventually Ron just shrugged.

"I admit, gaming like we do it, it's not for everyone. But see, at least you're not scared off of it like some guys are, and that is a BIG plus." He bit his lower lip before continuing. "I don't know Jason, I just think it would be cool to get you involved, you know, give it an honest tryout. If you end up liking it, then maybe we three can plan out some campaigns and stuff together for the other guys." Ron blushed, but then laughed and stood up. With a farewell bid, they separated again and proceeded to their next class. Although his remarks hung heavily with both Elliot and Jason for a while, they were soon lost in the throes of their classes for the rest of the day.

When it came time for their last class, gym was now officially starting for the first time. Although Jason had been mentally preparing for this moment, he still felt uneasy. In one way, he felt funny inside, while in another he felt totally carefree. Neither battled with the other internally, but it left a certain anxiety within him that one could not outlast the other. With Derek's blessing, he had already been in a locker room once with Elliot - though they both were only bystanders. This was going to be different. In some ways, Jason understood the 'what and why' of it around English culture and British teens. He was still, however, a captive of his American roots, and he was having to rethink everything yet again. The concept of the gym and showers, and more in the way British culture embraced it, was new to him. Entering the gym, he knew now he was no longer an observer. From here on out, Jason was going to be a participant. He glanced sideways as they entered through the doors, and thankfully, Jason saw Elliot was next to him. That steadied his nerves and helped him keep them in check.

Elliot happened to glance over at his cousin. Seeing the determined, yet taught facial expression, he smiled encouragingly. Leaning close, he whispered. "This will be a piece of cake, Jase. You'll see." Jason only nodded as they made their way across the floor and into the locker rooms to change.

Changing into or out of gym clothes was nothing, as far as Jason was concerned. He had been through those stages plenty of times before while living in the States. The only part of this experience that made him a little apprehensive, was the short amount of time they would have to transform themselves from one state to the other. He quickly realized, however, that the eight allotted minutes was not all that bad. He and Elliot worked together quickly, before moving out to get back onto the gym floor. They carried their shoes with them, the intent being to pull them on while waiting for the rest of the class. As they started to exit the doorway, they met Ron approaching in a rush. Short of breath, he paused just long enough to speak when he saw them. "We got held up in my last class," the teen breathed hard, and then quickly moved past them to get changed for himself.

Once back onto the main floor, both Elliot and Jason sat down with their group. Looking at his watch, Jason was pleased to see they still had a few minutes to spare. Elliot peered over his shoulder, then grinned. "See? I told ya. Piece of cake, right?" he intoned. Jason just smiled and nodded silently. Taking their time, they both put on and tied their shoes, all the while waiting for Ron to join them. Just as the bell was about to strike, Ron suddenly appeared, carrying his own shoes as the other two had done. His clothes were haphazardly in place, but he readied them as he sat down, leaning heavily into Jason until he regained his balance. As he pulled his own shoes on, Jason happened to look around at the group. Most everyone in their class were wearing basic, long-sleeve t-shirts and shorts, but with varying colors.

Coach Reed appeared momentarily afterwards, and then nodded approvingly when he saw everyone mostly ready to go. He called roll quickly, which gave Ron the extra time he needed to finish up. Afterwards, the coach looked up at them. "Okay boys, it's not too bad out today. The rain has moved off to the East, and this might be the only chance we'll get some outdoor fun in for the next few weeks. So, you guessed it. I say let's take advantage of it, hmm? Get a move on, out the doors and to the right, B-field, go!" The group stood and started moving together toward the rear exit.

Once the boys went through the double doors, however, a rather different environment met them. Jason had understood very quickly what Elliot had been saying regarding mid-afternoon periods being the warmer part of the day. This, however, didn't seem to really fit at that moment. "Th-this is outdoor we-weather?" he asked Elliot as they puffed along, trotting with the others in the general direction of the fields. He saw Elliot try to shrug, but his expression was one of agreement.

The sun had hidden itself behind the clouds since lunch, and a light mist hung in the air. As they jogged along, the air clamped onto their exposed skin without escape, making it feel abnormally sticky. Combined with a cool breeze blowing in from the Northwest, it did not help anyone's overall morale at first. However, once they arrived at the field, the coach quickly appeared and explained a set of basic rules for them to follow. The group suddenly began to spring more actively within the makeshift game, and the boys shrugged off the conditions in favor of playing sport. They were to play football (a.k.a. soccer, in Jason's mind), but not in as structured a way as normal. This version was simplified, allowing for everyone's involvement at once. Regardless of age or size, it pitted most every teenager for themselves with one aim: get the ball into the opponent's goal. When play began, most boys started to get a rhythm going, and before long the adrenalin kicked in.

The entire class played hard for the next 45 minutes. It was an exercise where the boys learned how to control and shift their bodies for balance. It involved skill, each individual training their feet and learning to keep their hands and arms out of the picture. Jason, at first, found it harder to participate with only their feet and legs in use. He soon realized, however, that this particular challenge was the basis for the entire sport. Some of the boys were familiar with this sort of play and did well while controlling the ball. Those teens would often keep the ball close to themselves, but then would also strategically kick it to others on their team. Others, like Jason, found that due to their lack of experience, they made several mistakes. More than once, hilarious mishaps occurred, either caused by leaning or extending themselves too far in the wrong direction. Many fell into the soggy grass and dirt, on the already cold and wet ground.

They were not the only ones, however. Even those with more experience tripped up in the slick grass. Because they were all thrown out of kilter, there were lots of bodies that ended up sliding all over the place. As they continued play, tumbling uncontrollably, all the guys laughed and ribbed each other. Many times, nearby friends lent them a hand, which was gratefully welcomed. Jason liked it, especially when several helped him to his feet at times. Before they finished the period out, it made him begin to feel more at ease with the group.

At the end of the period, the entire class was in a hilariously disheveled state. As they marched back to the gym, a light rain began to fall on them just before they reached the doors. By the time they were inside, many began shivering as the coach gathered them together one last time. He congratulated them on their efforts, then quickly dismissed them. All headed away quickly, and as they entered the locker room, lively conversation could be heard everywhere. As Jason and Elliot reached their lockers and kicked off their shoes, they noticed several of the kids were grabbing towels and heading toward the showers. Ron walked up at that moment, and quietly inquired. "You blokes gonna go in?"

Elliot looked up at him. "I am, I could u-use some h-hot water right now I think." He looked at Jason. "You?"

Jason hesitated, his uncertainties suddenly returning. He was honestly not sure what he wanted to do. "I... I don't know."

Elliot looked onward a few seconds, then quietly conceded. "It's okay, Jase. I can wait till we get home, if you want." Although disappointed, he still understood what must have been going through his cousin's head.

Just then, however, it was Ron who stepped over close to Jason. Speaking in a low, quiet voice so that only the three of them could hear, he looked at Jason. "Listen, if I can do it, I know you can, too. We'll be with you the whole time, so it's not like you won't have people in there you don't know, right? Besides, I'm with Elliot on this one. I'm freezing right now, and I know you have to be cold, too! So, come on, it'll be okay, we promise. We're not going to leave you."

Jason peered at him, then at Elliot, who looked as if he was holding his breath. There was something Jason saw in their friend's support, and in Elliot eyes, that eased him into changing his mind. He finally smiled. "Okay guys, let's do it," he finally conceded, which made Ron grin as he finished kicking his shoes off and removing his socks. He grabbed a towel and waited for the other two to join him, then started for the showers.

Jason entered and saw the room in detail, up close for the first time. He noticed immediately how it differed from the locker room and showers he and Elliot had been privileged to visit before. Just inside the open doorway, there were several benches filling one side of the room, while a series of open showers filled the other. In various places, he saw most of the boys had discarded their towels, and some with their clothes, scattering them about in different locations around the benches. Some of the boys were still in the process of stripping down, while others had already walked into the showers and activated several warm streams. The room was well lit all around, with no windows, frosted or otherwise, to be seen. Surprisingly, Jason noted there were more showerheads than he initially expected, too. Each alcove held more than one outlet, although there were not enough for each student to have their own. They were placed up high however, where most of the guys could easily pair up together, as he was noticing the other guys did in groups of two or three.

The three walked over to a spot in one corner, finding an area where the benches were mostly empty. They started shedding what remained of their own clothes, placing their t-shirts and shorts relatively close together. Elliot, never one it seemed to be modest in most regards, faced with his back to the other two and quickly shucked his underwear. He glanced back only briefly and grinned, before he started moving toward the other boys, who were already warming up ahead. Jason glanced over to Ron, who simply shrugged and started to do the same thing. Not wanting to be the odd one out, Jason hurriedly followed suit. There, he had done it. He stood naked in a room now filled with boys of his own age - mostly at least. Younger and older alike, he was now as exposed as they were. Now he and Ron, whom he felt step up to his side, began walking together to join them. Jason did not look down, nor sideways. He was scared, and he moved stiffly on the path, until he felt a hand on his shoulder. Giving in, he glanced at Ron. "See? We're here, it's cool," the teen whispered. Jason, surprisingly, relaxed and nodded before they walked onto the tiled floor. Once there, they both crossed over to where Elliot was already standing.

At first, although Jason tried to not pay much attention to everyone else, it was impossible to not notice the feast of naked flesh around him. So far, he appreciated the fact that it had not affected him yet. He had already been pleading with himself not to get a boner, and so far his body had obeyed. He was as soft and 'normalized' as one could be. When he joined Elliot in his stream, he closed his eyes. In no time, he was enjoying the feel of the warmth that flooded over his body. He finally understood why Elliot had wanted this, and he appreciated it now more than before. He felt someone move up and stand right next to him, subtly touching each other directly, and when he opened one eye, he saw it was Elliot. He couldn't help but give his cousin a wan smile.

When he opened both eyes, he quickly glanced about at the others in the room. He caught glimpses of everything he could have never really imagined, especially since he was now in the middle of it all. He saw boys first hand, surrounding them with varying degrees of size and shape. Most had pubic hair, but some had little to none at all. Some of the guys had erections, too, which surprised Jason, but at the same time helped him feel more at ease. Most, he noted, were in a soft to semi-soft state. He glanced at Elliot, who just grinned as he watched him, and then nodded for him to turn around. Over his shoulder, he noted Ron standing behind him, and as he turned, Jason was privileged to absorb the teen completely. Ron was facing them, but his head was upturned into the spray with his eyes closed, just as Jason had done earlier. Their friend ever so slowly moved himself into the center, with little regard to whom he touched or where. You could tell that, like most of the boys, Ron was enjoying the warmth, too. Jason could not help but look down and notice, to his surprise, that their friend also sported a partially inflated, nicely-sized uncircumcised penis. Just like himself and Elliot, Ron's plumbing was not overly large, but it did sport well - especially in front of a nice-sized scrotum cushioning it underneath. In fact, Jason quickly glanced around again, and noticed that all the boys in the showers, at least those he could see, were uncircumcised as well.

When his gaze made its way back Ron again, Jason noticed how the teen was one with only a sparse patch of pubic hair above his manhood. To be as old as he claimed, Jason thought that was odd. Then again, he admitted he did not really know; maybe it wasn't that odd for some guys. He was also surprised to find they were a light brown in color, not far from being blond. Trailing his eyes upward, Jason noted that Ron had a definitive v-line that rose sharply on his belly, tracing forward to just above his hips. The center fell southward until it curved into the top of the pubic bush it found there. This was something else Jason had not seen with any of the boys yet. Was that uncommon?

Lastly, Jason noted that, true to his own self-assessment, Ron was not muscular in any way, nor bare thin like some of the other boys seemed to be. But as the youth turned sideways, Jason thought the shape and curve of his chest, along with his whole mid-section underneath, was that of a normal-sized young man. Jason absent mindedly found himself nodding to himself, before he caught what he was doing and then blushed. Moreover, when he glanced up, he saw that Ron had been watching him with a smile on his face. Blushing a deeper red, Jason shut his eyes and wished that, right then, he could be anywhere else but there. A sudden feeling of shame seeped into him, and he eventually hung his head low.

To his credit however, Ron also noticed the change in Jason's demeanor, and immediately understood why. Grinning at Elliot, the teen stepped closer until he was standing next to Jason. When the American didn't react, Ron placed a hand casually upon his shoulder, startling him to look up and realize how close they were. Ron spoke softly, so that only Jason could hear. "It's cool man, don't sweat it, okay?" Getting a nod from Elliot, Ron reached out and turned off the water, before casually heading back toward the benches. Jason noted that others were now beginning to do the same, so he followed along.

Elliot trailed close behind his cousin until all three reached their towels, where Ron pulled them free and handed them out. All three dried off in silence, listening to the banter going on around them. At one point, Ron sat down on the bench, draping his towel around his shoulders and heaving a big sigh while he waited for his two friends. Glancing sideways at Jason, who was still blushing and feeling embarrassed, Ron noticed the teen would not meet his gaze. He waited patiently, and when Jason propped his foot up close by, Ron slid closer still. "See? Look around us, Jason. Lots of guys here have wood, but nobody cares. We all have the same plumbing, more or less, right?" Then Ron's eyes trailed down directly to Jason's groin, and grinning, raised an eyebrow. "Well, except maybe you. You're missing some skin, I think!"

Elliot grunted beside them. "Yeah, he's the lucky one, he's circumcised!"

Jason continued to blush a deeper red just then, unsure of what to say, if anything. Elliot giggled, then followed Ron's lead and leaned closer to his cousin. "Relax Jase, okay? It's fine, I promise. You'll get used to this before you know it," he whispered.

"Maybe," Jason finally spoke. "But you're not the one getting caught staring all the time, like I am."

Ron agreed with Elliot, however. "He's right, you know. I'll tell you a secret, if you want to know. I was the same way for the first couple of times I had to do this. I was even caught looking around, but you know what? No one cares, really. Honest man, it's okay. Besides," he paused, then leaned in almost to the other youth's ear. "You look kind of cute - for a guy," he added as he got up. Surprisingly, both Elliot and Jason saw the teen blushing, but then he smiled before walking off, back toward the lockers.

No one could be in more shock than what Jason felt at that moment. Shaking his head in disbelief, he turned to Elliot. "Did I just hear him... uh..."

Elliot grinned widely. "Yeah, he thinks you're cute. Who knows, maybe he'll want to get in bed and have some fun with you someday!" the boy whispered as he teased his friend. Jason rolled his eyes, but otherwise ignored him.

Somehow, Jason's spirits suddenly rose, and he felt a lot better. Recovering, he whispered into Elliot's ear, "You're the only one I want to get in bed with right now, especially before I get so horny I can't stand it!" With that, he grabbed his clothes and followed Ron out into the locker area. Elliot looked on happily, while he struggled to grab his own clothes and follow.

When the boys were dressed again, Jason looked at the clock and was surprised. Only 20 minutes had passed since they returned from the field. Feeling refreshed and much warmer than in their previous state, Ron made to zip his jacket up before heading for the door. "So, see you guys Monday, I guess?" His tone was one born of both warmth and friendliness, with a pleased expression meeting them.

Jason saw a certain softness there. He couldn't explain it, but he really was beginning to feel better about their ordeal. Sheepishly, he leaned in close. "I'm sorry Ron, I really didn't mean to stare. I know what you said about it, you know, not to worry and everything. But – I'm still sorry."

Ron shrugged. "I'm not." Seeing the look of surprise, he grinned and then whispered back. "Look, if I minded you guys seeing me and all my glory, then I wouldn't have even stayed and showered with you. You understand that, right?" He wrinkled his nose. "Look, Jase, I can imagine this is all kind of new to you anyway, right? I told you before, it's cool with me, so don't sweat it. I trust you both, probably in more ways than you know. We'll probably see a lot of each other this term, anyway." With that, he added, "I meant that, by the way, when I said I do trust you. Both of you."

Jason smiled, a sigh of relief escaping as he donned his own jacket. "I trust you, too. Thanks man. I owe you. I really owe you - a lot."

"Nah, you don't owe me anything. That's what friends are for, we support each other, right?" Ron looked around and noticed they were almost the last ones to leave. He suddenly stopped and quickly hooked an arm around Jason's waist, giving the American a quick hug before withdrawing. Jason was surprised again, as he stared at Ron in amazement. Ron gave him a brief smile, and then turned toward Elliot. "Oh, I almost forgot to tell you guys something, both of you - no presents next Friday night, okay? The birthday is the party itself, the dinner. It's all I wanted. Besides," he added in a softer tone, "you both being my friends, that's a present enough for me, any day."

Elliot stood up next to the teen. "Are you sure? I mean, we planned to bring something-"

"No. I'm kind of adamant about this, really. You'll understand when you get there, because it's going to be a surprise all to itself. I promise, though, all I want is for you both to come, period. Okay?"

Reluctantly Elliot looked at Jason and then nodded.

"Thanks guys, see you Monday morning!" He raised his fist and bumped theirs in mid-air before exiting the room, and then he was gone.

Jason just stood there watching after him, and eventually had to sit down. "I think I see why you liked him so much. He's... like you said, he's a really cool guy."

"Told ya," Elliot agreed. "I don't know, there's just something about him. In some ways, he's kind of like Scott, but way different, too. You know? It's like, he's just a lot more personable and everything."

"Yeah. Scott is kind of this lonesome, needy guy without knowing he's lonesome and needy," Jason mused. "Ron, he doesn't seem so needy, he just... gives. He's a lot more confident about stuff, too. He seems to always put everything out there up front, without holding anything back."

Elliot nodded. "Kind of like you, you know? You give a lot, without holding back, too."

Jason shook his head. "I'm just me, Elliot." He looked at Elliot as they were walking out. "Did you notice what he said? He was checking ME out!"

Elliot laughed. "I keep telling you bro, you're just as cool as the rest of us. Nobody is going to cut your balls off or anything. Besides, don't I check you out enough, almost every night?"

"Yeah, but… you're different. Okay though, you get a point for that," Jason smiled good-naturedly as they walked along. After a bit, he suddenly remembered something. "Hey, what does free-styling mean?"

"Huh?"

"Ron, he asked yesterday if I was a prude or a free-styler, remember?"

"Oh, not free-styler, but free-flyer! Yeah, I remember. I think it means the opposite, you know, someone not afraid to walk around naked with peeps. Like Derek does with us, in his bedroom."

"Or you," Jason added, teasing. "At least, in our bedroom."

Elliot laughed and then leaned in close, bumping into Jason's shoulder. "In our room, anything goes Jase, you know that by now." He smiled pleasantly. "You know, I'd hold your hand right now if we were not in public."

Jason smiled. "And I would hold it back, too."

After a short stretch, Elliot changed the subject. "Okay, fess up now. You got to see a lot more guys now, our age and all. What did you think? And be honest with me, okay?"

Jason thought about it for a moment. "Honest? I – I kind of was concentrating on Ron mostly. Not that he was all THAT different, but at the same time, he was. You know?"

Elliot nodded. "Yeah, it's the first time I ever got to see him, too."

"I was going to ask - did you notice he doesn't have as many pubes? Is that rare, or normal, or…?"

"Yeah, it's kind of rare, but honestly, I didn't think his was that sparse. I mean, some guys shave down there and everything, or keep it all trimmed up and stuff. But I've seen guys who really don't get that much outside of, you know, where everything comes together down there." Elliot thought for a second. "I guess I didn't notice that as much like you did, that's all. Anyway, how about the others?"

Jason hesitated, but then nodded. "The other guys were, well, it was really kind of awesome. I mean, I never thought about any of this stuff before, you know that. I've never really even paid attention to myself, for that matter." He giggled. "But a lot were kind of, yeah, cool. Oh, and that black kid, his was … different, for sure! Anyways, now I got to see how everyone develops and stuff, at different stages. Different ages and everything. You know?" He blushed. "All the ones I paid attention to were like you and your brother. You know, with breakfast sausages and everything."

Elliot leaned in. "I think you're right. When I looked around, I don't think any of the other guys were cut, like you."

Jason laughed. "So, I'm going to be the odd one, then?"

Elliot grinned. "Maybe. Once the others realize it, they may want to check you out. You might get to be a celebrity, you know?"

"Oh God, I hope not!" Jason exclaimed, then shook his head. "Well, you and Ron, I'm okay with that, but, uh… yeah, anyway." He glanced sideways at his cousin. "You guys look so much cooler to me, than I do to myself, that's for sure."

Elliot laughed out loud, drawing the attention of an older man who passed going in the opposite direction. "Okay, okay. You know something, Jase?" Elliot mused after they were turning down another street, this one less busy.

"Hmm?"

"I'm glad you like that about us. You know, our 'sausages'. I mean, it makes me think we're special in some way."

Jason stopped there in the middle of the sidewalk. "You ARE special to me, Elliot, and I don't have to have your sausage in my hand to prove it, either." He glanced around then leaned up close. "Ah, fuck it," he whispered, and then gave Elliot a very quick, soft kiss before bouncing onward again.

Elliot, in total surprise, had to rush to catch up.

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