The Bully and the Bullied

by Sean English

Part 2

Finding a Friend

In the aftermath of the fight, neither of the two boys involved returned to school immediately. Wild speculations within the student body were fueled, and they lost no time in picking up the basic details, which quick reached the remotest corners of all grades. Not surprisingly, lots of sharply differing views emerged, given people from the bus had their own personal take about the "incident". Younger students, having been mesmerized by what they observed, tended to exaggerate Thomas's injuries, while older students retold Riddle's apparent loss of control. Among each layer of the student body, details flourished a little at a time. By lunch the next day, the authenticity of facts now varied, but at least one basic reality held its ground: Riddle had beaten the crap out of someone two to three years younger than himself.

What bothered Michael most was that, in almost every variation, people blindly laughed at and made fun of the victim. There were no expressions of sympathy to be heard in the hallways, but instead plenty of ridicule and scoffing. In classes that Michael shared with Thomas, the incident created an even wider distraction, mostly because what they thought were the facts were quickly twisted into a distortion of the truth. "I heard Riddle kicked the shit out of the little whelp!" one student stated, laughing hard, while another added, "I heard he was still bawling by the time he got off the bus!"

Although they were not aimed at Thomas directly, the remarks still degraded him as an individual, which Michael felt was just plain wrong. He tried to deny it, or at least provide a more accurate telling of the details, but most of the kids didn't seem to really care. They found their own inner circle of friends more fun to contend with. In the end, Michael finally just sighed and decided to ignore them.

When the weekend arrived, Michael's mother had to put in a rare appearance at work for a Saturday morning, something out of the norm since she had most weekends free. On this day however, she was needed as a substitute for a colleague off sick with the flu. However, seeing that it was only a half-day for her, she asked her son if he would like to tag along, hinting that afterward they might go to see a movie, or do something else together. He jumped at the chance, as such treats were rare, and soon they were both on the road toward the clinic. Once they arrived, he parked himself in the nurses' break room, finding a TV there hooked to cable, another rare treat where he could surf the channel selection far better than they had access to at home.

As they approached the latter part of the morning, Michael noticed there was a flurry of activity outside in the hallway. His attention drawn to it, Michael stepped to the door and watched as a family gathered at the waiting room desk. His mother had joined the receptionist and was attempting to discern what the problem was. "What's happened?" he heard her ask.

A rather thin-looking Hispanic woman, gestured frantically at the child in her arms. She started speaking in an undiscernible language, which Michael assumed was Spanish, before stopping and taking a deep breath. "My children, Lydia and Jess, fell through old cellar steps this morning, see? The wood gave way! They both are hurt!" She turned so that they could see the child in her arms, a little girl who appeared to be four or five years old, wrapped in a worn, over-sized towel. It was separated in front as the woman pulled back the flap, exposing a streak of blood stains trailing from somewhere underneath. Michael saw his mother reach across the desk to tentatively hold the towel back further, then turned her head to peer at something below the desk, beyond Michael's sight. She then made a snap judgment, withdrawing immediately and moving around into the hallway. As she rounded the bend, she saw Michael watching from the lounge, then smiled and gestured for him to approach.

The other woman rounded the desk as well, followed by what looked to be a boy slightly older than his sister trailing behind. As Michael's mother took the girl from her mothers' arms, she quickly turned to her son and tilted her head toward the boy. "Michael, take this boy into that room over there and stay with him, okay?" Michael understood, then approached and grasped the youngster by the hand. Just then the child's mother hesitated, looking between them and her daughter, her desire to stay with both children an obvious concern. Michael looked up at her before speaking.

"I'll take care of him ma'am, we'll just be in here, right next door," he said calmly. He had noticed his mother disappearing into the adjacent room as they spoke. The woman saw kindness in his eyes before finally smiling. With a nod, she spoke a few words to her son in Spanish, then turned and followed the nurse and her daughter.

Michael guided the boy into what was essentially another examining room, at first curious as to why his mother wanted to separate them in the first place. Then he thought about the streak of blood, and where it appeared to have originated. Comprehension dawned as he imagined they would probably have to strip the little girl before attending to her, which thus made perfect sense to him. He looked down at his young charge and was surprised to see the other boy looking up at him intently. There was a weak smile across his face, however, one which Michael returned. "What's your name, bud?"

Shyly, the boy responded. "Jess."

"Well, hi Jess, I'm Michael." Looking over at a nearby chair, he guided the youngster to it and had him sit down. "Are you alright? Does anything hurt?"

The boy stared at Michael for several seconds before slowly nodding his head. Glancing about, the boy then lifted his shirt to reveal a long, raw scar that stretched down the front of his belly. Michael whistled. "Umm, maybe you ought to sit up here," indicating the examining table. When the boy didn't move immediately, Michael encouraged him. "I promise, I'm not going to hurt you. I just thought maybe we could clean that up some. See? It's bleeding in a couple places, and you got scraped up really rough. We can keep the blood from soaking through to your shirt, see?"

The boy finally nodded before standing and, with help, climbed onto the edge of the examining bed. Once there, the light was much stronger, and Michael could see much better overall. Looking around, he considered the task. Having a nurse for a mother had been advantageous at times, as he formulated in his mind what would have to be done. They both heard footsteps in the hallway just then, and as they both turned and watched, a man in a white lab coat appeared, hurrying into the room next door. They heard the door close behind him, and Michael concluded it might be some time before anyone checked on Jess and himself. Walking to the cabinet, he began looking for rubbing alcohol and cotton swabs, which he found easily enough.

Returning to stand in front of Jess, Michael smiled. "Jess, I'm obviously not a doctor. But if you want me too, I can kind of clean some of that up. Does anything hurt inside? Did you just, like, get scraped up in a fall or something?"

"Yeah," was the shy reply. "I just got a big scratch, mostly."

Michael moved to stand by him. "We don't have to do this, bud. I mean, we can wait for my Mom, or someone else if you want to..."

Slowly, Jess shook his head, then lay back on his hands, propping himself up at an angle. "It's okay, go ahead." With his shirt parted he, exposed his belly to Michael and waited.

Michael reached out and pulled the shirt back even further, until he found the beginning of the damage. Holding the shirt up, however, presented a problem. "Um, is it okay if we take your shirt off? Just for a minute, so I can get in here?" he asked quietly. Jess nodded and sat back up, and then with Michael's help, removed the shirt completely before Jess returned to his previous position. Michael then began dowsing the cotton balls with rubbing alcohol, before proceeding to clean the score-mark, beginning at the top and working his way down.

All went well, better than he expected really. As the skin was cleaned, it revealed nothing broken, short of the few blemishes where the blood had been seeping to the surface. For the most part, the opening had already dried and clotted back, but as the cotton stroked over it, Jess would draw in his breath and grunt. Michael looked up. "Yeah, I know. It can sting a little, but only for a few seconds." The younger boy nodded, but never uttered a sound otherwise.

Michael noted Jess was fairly skinny for his age, but also had a smooth body overall. Michael coaxed him briefly, and they ended up talking as he worked his way downward. Michael then discovered more about what actually happened. It seemed Jess and his sister had been carrying something down a flight of steps, into a cellar or basement of some sort. One of the boards gave way under their weight, and both were sent flailing below into darkness. Jess ended up with only the big scar down his front, but his sister had landed on some old rusty nails under the stairsteps, two of which penetrated her on the side and her butt.

When Michael reached Jess's waistline, he gently pulled back the boy's shorts enough to reveal that the scar extended further down. Catching Jess's attention, he asked whether it was okay for him to continue. Jess half-grinned, and then shrugged. Without answering, the youth hooked his thumb inside the waistband of both his shorts and briefs, pulling them out and down in front. Michael grinned sheepishly as he saw the base of Jess's penis, lying flat against a very withdrawn scrotum. 'Um, okkaayyyy...' he thought to himself, but then observed the tail end of the scratches stopped just inches short of the groin area. He hooked his own fingers in the band to steady the garments, and then reached inside, finishing his efforts. Once completed, he let go and helped pull Jess back up into a sitting position. "There, that wasn't so bad. I don't think you need any bandages or anything, either, so you may be good to go."

Jess understood, and then they continued talking for several minutes, until they heard the other room's door open again. Michael's mother was then by their side. "We're getting Enid Memorial to send an ambulance down here," she stated, in lieu of explanation to her son. Turning to Jess, she smiled at him. "Your sister is alright, don't worry. She took a pretty nasty nail right though, below her hip. We're going to send her somewhere she can get fixed up in a jiff, though." Glancing about, she saw the alcohol and cotton balls lying nearby. Raising an eyebrow, she scrutinized her son.

Michael laughed. "He wasn't that bad off, Mom. I just helped clean his scratch, that's all. Go on, see for yourself."

Carolyn smiled as she stepped closer and examined Jess's injury with a professional hand. She asked Jess a question or two, and then nodded. "I'm really impressed, Michael. You did a pretty good job!"

"Who did what job?" The voice came from behind Michael, and as he turned, he saw Dr. Waller, one of his Mom's bosses, walk in with Jess's mother close behind. After exchanging a few details, the man made a cursory examination of the patient and then laughed. "I see I'm going to have to put you on the payroll one of these days," he teased while running his hand through Michaels' hair.

That was the one thing Michael learned he didn't like, as it gave him the impression he was being treated like for sport. "DDDoooocccc!"

All three adults laughed, and even Jess smiled. His mother exchanged a few words with her son in that language of theirs, and then turned and thanked Michael for his assistance. Within minutes, the ambulance arrived to transport the three of them, and all of them walked out to the bay area. Jess's mother carried her daughter, now wrapped in an oversized hospital gown, and with her son they were guided inside and into the vehicle. As it pulled away, Michael stood watching while his mother eased up to his side. Dropping an arm around his shoulders, she squeezed gently. She was proud of him, and for some reason or another, so was he. He had never done anything like that before, but - the act of helping someone in need, left him feeling good inside about the outcome. The rest of the afternoon was uneventful, as the two of them then had a quick lunch and went to the movies, before returning home and back to their usual lives.

The following week, Michael's life changed again from its usual, normal routine. The fight had lost little of its attention by mid-week, and teachers were now beginning to get annoyed. Try as they might, they found it difficult to settle things back into a regular rhythm, as the "incident" - as it was now being officially labeled - refused to dissipate. It was the number one topic of discussion in the hallways, in the classrooms, and during the lunch hour. New theories and gossip would surface everywhere, all in the wake of having the two primary participants absent from classes.

On Wednesday morning, however, Michael was surprised to see the bus stop in front of Thomas's house, and the teen stepping on board. His face no longer displayed the worse-for-wear it had acquired the previous week, and as he boarded, Thomas returned the grin that beamed at him from the driver. They exchanged a few words of greeting between them, and then the boy looked about. Working his way back to the row where Michael was seated, he stopped. "Can I?" he asked, using his eyes to clearly indicate he wanted to sit and share the seat with him. With the bus practically empty at that moment, any one of the other seats would have given Thomas more freedom and choice. However, as Michael looked up in surprise, he felt happy. Moving his gym bag underneath his feet, he nodded, and Thomas then sat down as the bus began rolling once again.

Darkness was slowly disappearing outside, yielding to the oncoming dawn. There was just enough light coming through the windows that it illuminated Thomas's face, enough so that Michael observed him closely for a moment. Only days before it had been swollen and bloodied, but now it only displayed a few remaining bruises. When Thomas glanced back at him, Michael quickly averted his eyes, embarrassed at having been caught staring so obviously. He was surprised, however, when he heard a grunt from his companion. "Go ahead, it's okay. Look all you want to. You're not the first, and I'm sure you're not going to be the last today. Probably not even for the whole bloody week."

Michael peered back into the passive expression that met him. "I'm sorry, though. You, uh, are you doing okay?" he asked, no longer hiding his curiosity.

Thomas nodded and, depositing his own gym bag beneath them, drew his legs together and propped them up on the seat in front, mimicking Michael. "Yeah, I'm okay. Was kind of rough that night, but afterwards it got better."

Michael took the opportunity to scrutinize his new companion closely. One eye still held a sunken-like bruise, and a few scabs were still visible underneath one nostril. "Man, you really got it rough," he muttered softly.

Thomas shrugged. "I guess so, but it's really not so bad. Heck, it didn't even hurt that much after a few hours."

Michael nodded. "How long did they suspend you guys?" he asked, timidly.

"I got nothing, just a slap on the wrist, more or less. I don't know about pussy boobs," the teen replied, obviously referring to Riddle.

Michael snorted, and then stammered, "Y-you mean they didn't can you, too? Heck, then where have you been?"

Thomas grunted. "Well, I was out Friday because Mom made me stay home. This week, though, we've been in Franklin at a funeral." He paused then added thoughtfully, "My Grandma's sister passed away, and Mom made me go with her and them. She thought maybe a couple of days break might do me some good."

Incredulous, Michael whistled. "Wow! That is what I call l-u-c-k!"

Thomas shrugged again. "Yeah, I guess so. Though, I can think of better places to spend my time." He paused for a second, before continuing. "Listen, thanks for letting me sit down the other day."

Michael was surprised. "Huh? I mean, you're welcome, but..."

"Meh, I know. You and me, we don't ever talk much or anything. But the other day... you know... I might have ended up sitting with him, and, well..." Thomas didn't have to finish the sentence.

"No big deal," Michael replied, shrugging. "You can sit with me anytime you need to, man. It's cool."

Thomas turned, a smile on his face. "I know, but... thanks, anyway." Michael nodded before turning his attention back to the window and the landscape rolling by. They both lapsed into silence as other kids started to get picked up, each almost as surprised at finding Thomas on board as Michael had been. As they progressed down the aisles, there were plenty of looks, and outright stares, from some of the younger kids. One of the youngsters, probably 6- or 7-years old, exclaimed as he passed by, "Wow! That's a beaut!" Everyone within earshot suddenly burst out laughing, and even Thomas could not help but smile. The mood changed then, and the rest of the trip to school was uneventful.

As they pulled up in the parking lot, Michael leaned closer and spoke in a hushed tone. "Umm, don't be surprised what you hear today, okay? There's a lot of crap going around about you guys." When Thomas looked back, he raised an eyebrow, prompting Michael to explain. "Well, like everything. I mean, getting suspended, to you lying in the hospital to - "

"No shit? For real?" Thomas interjected, surprised. The teen then grinned. "Wow!"

Michael grinned with him. "Yeah, no shit." He somehow got the impression Thomas wasn't used to using swear words so loosely, probably no more than he did himself, but for once it felt okay between them. He recalled the few words that escaped in the previous week, but truthfully, Michael wrote them off as being spoken in the heat of the battle. That could happen to most anyone. They both rose once the vehicle came to a stop, and then exited the bus with everyone else.

As the day progressed, that conversation came back to Michael repeatedly, hanging each time on the words 'we don't ever talk much'. Both were in the same grade, both shared half their classes throughout the day, as well as the same lunch period. They rode the same bus and had lived reasonably close together for years. Somehow though, each had avoided any mutual friendship between them - at least one that might normally have developed. Why, though? It wasn't that Michael had gone out of his way to avoid the teen. He didn't feel like he really did that for anyone - except the bullies like Riddle. He did admit though, he was just a loner, pretty much one who had always been reserved around people. Michael was not used to making friends as easily like some kids did, mostly because he just didn't have the same interest in the things that they found so absorbing.

All morning long, Michael thought about those words, believing Thomas must have felt something similar. He thought back to when Thomas first started riding the bus, about six months or so after Michael started second grade. It seemed Thomas always sat in the front rows of the bus then, while Michael preferred the middle. Being the loner, Michael guessed the kid just wasn't interested in pursuing friendships, so he grudgingly obliged accepting it. Now he was beginning to wish otherwise. Something seemed changed now, as new feelings and realizations surfaced. In what few exchanges they had had, Michael could see a side of Thomas he hadn't noticed before. It appeared they were a lot alike, and now he berated himself at having missed out on so much of it.

By lunchtime, Michael found he was beginning to experience a level of anticipation about their new friendship, or so he hoped. Thomas had made the first move, opening and choosing to sit with him that morning, despite the vast array of other seats available. It was time for Michael to do the same. As he entered the cafeteria, he retrieved a tray of food and then looked around. He was disappointed at first, failing to find the teen right away. Walking to one side of the room, he found a small, round table, where he sat and began to eat. So preoccupied was he at getting settled, however, that when someone tapped his shoulder from behind, he was startled. Turning, he grinned at seeing Thomas there, tray in hand. "Uh, is it okay if I join you, again?"

Michael struggled to hide his elation. "Sure!" The other teen sat down, and both started in on bowls of chili and grilled cheese sandwiches. At first, there was a silence between them as they listened to other conversations across the large room. Occasionally, Michael caught parts of sentences and remarks that referred to his new-found friend, and the occasional blurb, "Yeah, that's him over there!" No one went out of their way, however, to join them, leaving the two pretty much alone.

Michael finally took a long look at the teen seated with him. Both were tall for their age, and the first thing he noticed was the fact that Thomas wore jeans that had seen better days. Someone could have passed them off as just simply faded, but up close there were places that had become thread-worn. Michael even sported an obvious patch, ironed in behind one of the open holes, which was not as noticeable unless you were up close, as he was now. The bottoms were frayed, falling just short of where you would expect, exposing instead more of his socked feet underneath. Like his jeans, the tennis shoes adorning his feet had also seen better days, but they at least appeared solid and sturdy. As his eyes trailed upward, Michael also saw his shirt was a newer, with a more modern take on fashion, too. It was a long-sleeved button-up that opened half-way down his chest, exposing a grey t-shirt underneath. Like Michael, he wore no watch, no necklace or other jewelry of any kind.

Just then, Michael noticed Thomas was staring at him. He flinched and dropped his gaze, blushing deeply as the other boy asked, "What?"

"N-nothing, just thinking is all..." When the other kid grinned at him, Michael was suddenly uncertain of himself. "I'm sorry, I- I didn't mean to stare at you." With a lack of other words surfacing, he turned back to his tray.

Thomas, on the other hand, wasn't letting it go that easily. "Were you checking me out or something?" he giggled, speaking in a soft voice so that only the two of them could hear. When Michael blushed yet again, he knew he had hit the nail on the head. Shrugging, he leaned in close. "Whatever, it's cool." He looked around the cafeteria and grunted. "Everyone else is doing it, checking me out I mean. I don't see why you can't either."

Michael turned an even deeper shade of red. "Still, I'm sorry man. I really didn't mean to." Inwardly, he was relieved the other boy had taken the context differently than what could have been an embarrassing situation.

"It's cool," Thomas replied. As if the ice had suddenly broken, the two then started chatting. Though awkward at first, their conversation soon developed into different areas, each learning more about the other. It wasn't until they started talking about football, however, that their exchange really got going. By the end of the lunch period, both were hyped up, finding many of the National Football League teams they liked were common to them both.

That afternoon, the ride home continued similarly to their time at lunch, with both boys sitting together yet again. This time, however, having little inhibition towards each other, both were heavily engrossed in the topic of football, and both were startled at the other's in-depth knowledge of the subject. By the time they made it home, both boys were beaming at their newly budding friendship.

Since the "incident", several days passed before Jeremy Riddle returned to school. Following a 2-week hiatus, it surprised Michael the first morning he saw the teen board the bus. Both he and his newfound friend had been sitting in what was now their customary morning seat, a habit born not of necessity but rather selection. On that particular morning, however, the bus came to a sudden halt, probably because Stan had become accustomed to passing the driveway by. Unlike recent mornings, this morning had someone standing there as opposed to being empty. The boys could hear their driver mutter something softly under his breath as he jammed on the brakes. As Jeremy climbed onboard, the driver smiled and greeted him. "Almost forgot you there, young man. Sorry about that. My mind was elsewhere, I think..."

Jeremy nodded, a brief acknowledgement no less, and then pivoted himself into the second seat opposite. He turned not once, looking at neither the driver, nor the other kids on the bus. Michael watched with curiosity, noticing the older teen simply stared ahead, sitting rather rigidly in his seat. As was his usual habit, he had no books, nothing of note - just himself, wearing typical school clothes, even short sleeves - although the mornings were now much cooler, and were worthy of at least a light jacket. His clothes, although not dirty or ragged by any means, still had threads that showed age. Perhaps what caused Michael to raise an eyebrow though, was the seat the teen chose to sit in. Jeremy had not been told to sit in the front - a seat he would normally have despised. Stan was quite good at letting people know otherwise, if they had assigned seats, but not this time. Michael saw Stan look over and raise his eyebrows, but then continued on his way afterwards.

Weeks passed by rapidly as autumn settled. The leaves changing to their usual kaleidoscope of colors before falling, and the cooler weather made life transition into a different mode. It was a time of year, brought on by shorter days and longer nights, that most people's habits were altered, forcing some to stay indoors more often than not. Their drought finally subsided and long gone, left the weather now changing to one of alternating fronts and showers interspersed throughout the period.

Through the end of October and most of November, Michael and Thomas became the best of friends. The incident had finally become a thing of the past, and had died out of the conversations at school, being replaced by other, more recent activities. People also began noticing Jeremy's change in character, not just on the bus, but also in school. The once overly hyper, in-your-face persona was now gone, replaced instead by blank eyes and an expressionless face. His mood evolved to one of passive restraint, as he went out of his way to speak to no one anymore, unless spoken to first. His inner circle of friends, at first fearing a return of his old character, took long strides initially to preserve their lauded rapport, but soon they found him too despondent. During school hours, he would occasionally gather them around him, but those instances were now few and far between.

One afternoon, while waiting to board the bus, Jeremy and Thomas came face to face by accident. Riddle had stumbled, losing his balance someway and falling backwards, when he brushed against the younger boy. At that instant, Thomas happened to be stuffing something into his bag and was closing it up, oblivious to anything happening around him. As Riddle fell onto him, Thomas grunted as the other's weight bore down, but then quickly steeled himself as the person rolled off and regained his balance. Thomas had no idea who it was at first, but then realized how accidental the fall probably was. When he stood and turned around, there was Riddle righting himself. Both boys were brought face to face for the first time since the fight, and each stared at the other, squaring off. Thomas said nothing, holding his ground - not aggressively, but certainly without any sign of backing down. He half expected the older boy to start in on something, some hassle or wisecrack at least. Other kids standing nearby also hesitated as they saw the confrontation. All were surprised, however, when Riddle only stared and then softened his expression. Grunting, he moved out of line and toward the back.

That change in Riddle's behavior stunned several people. When Thomas recomposed himself, he looked sideways to Michael. "D-did you see THAT?"

"Wow! Honestly, I didn't know what was going to happen!" Michael replied.

Thomas turned and then shrugged. "Neither did I," he replied. Nothing more was said, but others who watched the exchange knew something was either festering or changing.

The rest of the week found others in the school opening up to Thomas more than usual. Most were supportive now, politely asking him how he was doing and the like. Most, that is, except for Riddle's inner circle of friends, who constantly taunted him at every opportunity in the halls between classes. "Hey jerk wad! Get enough of your balls handed to you?", "Come taste my knuckles man! They're so much better than Jermz!" and so on. Insofar as Michael could tell though, Thomas ignored them for the most part. He refused to acknowledge the fact he was still their center of attention, and he liked it that way.

Things changed between the two yet again, as their friendship deepened. It was one Friday afternoon, during the ride home, that Thomas looked up suddenly as they neared his house. Catching Michael's attention, he lowered his voice. "Umm, how about coming over Sunday, and maybe watch some football with me? I mean..." His voice trailed away, and there a different tone replaced it, one that was more timid and uncertain. "I just thought it would be, you know, kind of cool."

Michael hesitated only briefly, surprised. "Sure! That is, if Mom will let me."

The look of relief on Thomas's face spoke volumes. He stood up to leave. "That would be great! If you can, just come on over, we'll be there. If something comes up, I'll call you."

The date set, Michael grinned as he watched Thomas step off the bus. He had wondered before about the two of them getting together, but he was uncertain if they could. As he started getting his things together, he stood and moved up front, knowing his own destination was not far away. Sitting down behind Stan, he looked up into the long, rectangular mirror and saw Stan grinning at him from ear to ear. "What?" Michael prompted curiously, but ready to giggle himself.

"Nothing, I'm jes glad to see you both becoming friends, that's all." He said it in a kind way, and Michael just nodded, not sure what to say. "I think that is all he needed, really. That boy jest always sits by hisself, so much he never made friends with anyone. You, too, for dat matter - you need friends in dis world, people to hang out with. Too much bad stuff goes on to be all alone. Yes sir, too much bad stuff, indeed."

Michael thought this odd coming from the man, not so much because of what he said, but because it was coming from someone he never thought about as being particularly gentle. He just nodded though, as the bus rolled to a stop and he got off. After grabbing their mail from the mailbox, he started the walk toward the house, listening as the bus pulled away, its motor accelerating.

Michael had shaken off the curiosities of the day, however, by the time he reached the house. In an unusually good mood, he entered and found his mother already in the kitchen, preparing an early supper. He kissed her on the cheek - surprising her at the sudden display of affection. They began talking, Michael launching into the events of the afternoon, and ending with his invitation. Upon hearing it, Carolyn looked thoughtful for a moment.

"Do you trust him? Does he seem like a good kid?" she asked.

Michael was careful not to be annoyed by the "kid" reference. "Yeah Mom, I think he's okay. I mean, we're just kind of hitting it off somewhat, but - "

Carolyn nodded. "I understand, honey. Yes, I guess it would be alright. If it's raining, I'll drop you off on my way to work, because I have to go in again. You might have to get a way back, though. Of course, if it's not, you can ride your bike over there, although it will be cold."

Michael thought about that, realizing what she was saying. In the last few days the weather had changed even more drastically. Colder air had started making its way onto the plains, and he inwardly shivered as he remembered being chilled when he got on the bus that morning. Especially since he had failed to grab his jacket before leaving the house. He shrugged. "Whatever it takes Mom, it'll be okay." He watched her smile at his reply. "You're having to work more weekends lately, aren't you?" he asked nonchalantly.

Carolyn stopped and sighed. "Afraid so, kiddo. It's not too bad, but I have to admit, we could use the extra pay out of it, especially with the holidays approaching."

Michael walked over and gave his mother a hug. "It's okay Mom, I understand." With that, he left for his room.

The first part of the weekend found Michael busy, leaving little time for him to be distracted with the upcoming visit. With his Mom and aunt's family, who visited for most of the day on Saturday, they weatherized the windows and doors for the oncoming winter. It was a task not easily accomplished, given the state of the windows being as aged as they were. At times he had to entertain his cousins, two toddlers both 3- and 4-years old, keeping them occupied and out of trouble, while the hammering of beading and plastic sheeting was being done. Before Michael knew it, Sunday rolled around, and sure enough he awoke to a heavy rain pouring outside. There was a dampness in the air, one adding to the overall coldness of the 2nd floor, and when he descended downstairs, he didn't find it much better. His mother was sitting in the kitchen, drinking coffee and reading the Sunday newspaper.

"Hi honey. Sleep well?" Carolyn asked, looking up.

"Yeah, mostly I guess." He rummaged through the pantry, and then withdrew a box of cereal. Retrieving a bowl and some milk, he sat down next to his mother, causing her to look up.

"Honey, I got called a little while ago. Looks like I need to go in an hour earlier than we planned." At the look of confusion on his face, she continued. "Don't worry, I called over to the Wilsons and talked with Thomas's mother. She said they were going to church, but would probably be back around 12:30 or so, so you'll be alright. She also offered to bring you home tonight, so you won't have to worry with that detail, either."

Michael's face lit up, looking relieved, "Thanks mom!" He proceeded to give her a big hug before returning to his breakfast. As she watched him, noting his calm exterior and passive expression, she did not believe for a minute he was as calm as he let on. Despite the weather and implied gloominess from the outdoors, she knew he was excited. Michael had virtually no friends as it was, thus sadly having no one to hang out with. This was a big step for her son, and Carolyn was overly happy he had found a chance and was taking it. Smiling, she returned to her newspaper.

When it was time for them to leave, she did as she promised. They happened to arrive just as the Wilson's were returning from church. After the two women spoke briefly, exchanging pleasantries, Carolyn reminded her son to be good. Backing out of the driveway, she then pulled away, leaving him there. Thomas was waiting on the porch, grinning from ear to ear as Michael joined him, before they went inside out of the damp air.

The first few minutes were somewhat awkward, as Michael greeted Thomas's mother and grandparents basically for the first time. Introductions were made, and he shook hands with each one, a rarity for teens his age. After a brief period of small-talk, the two eventually made their way to a back corner of the house. Once there, they entered Thomas's room, and Michael got his first glimpse at his friend's world. The room seemed small, taken up by what appeared to be a full-sized bed tucked into one corner, freshly made and topped with a patch-work quilt. A non-recessed closet stood back in one corner, and next to it was placed a half-dresser, half-desk combination. Upon it sat a TV along with his gym bag and school books. The only other piece of furniture was a nightstand at the head of the bed, on top of which was a lamp and alarm clock. The room had a window, partially obstructed by the bed's headboard, that let the light in from the outside world. Thomas's walls were mostly bare, except for a tall mirror situated behind the TV, and an NFL poster that hung off to the side. Michael grinned, recognizing the team was the Indianapolis Colts, which was one of Thomas's favorite teams to keep track of. The floor was carpeted, but it appeared to be extremely worn and flat overall. It presently was clear, except for a pair of socks in one corner. Although the room was small, it was still comfortable, and it provided his friend with a private place away from the rest of the household.

After entering, Thomas closed the door behind them and proceeded over to his closet before opening it. There he extracted a hanger and tossed it on the bed as he began unbuttoning his shirt. Michael, feeling a little uncertain, sat on the edge of the bed facing him, as it was about the only real option he had for the moment. He watched as his friend kicked off his church shoes, punting them into the closet, and pulling his shirt out from his slacks. "Do you guys go to church any?" The question surprised Michael, causing him to glance up just as the teen removed his dress shirt completely. Underneath, a smooth and unblemished chest and belly faced him.

"Umm, yeah, but not on Sundays when my Mom has to work. Mostly because we don't have enough time to get home and everything before she has to go in," Michael replied.

"Oh. That makes sense, yeah." Dropping the shirt onto the bed, Thomas reached inside a drawer, extracting a garment and then started to don a t-shirt. Michael's eyes again danced around the room, but could not help coming back to his friend, stealing quick glances here and there. He was surprised at the openness Thomas seemed to have, changing his clothes in front of him.

Thomas paused just then and wrinkled his nose. "I thought your Mom worked for that doctor, though. Does he come in on weekends or something?" he asked, oblivious to the fact only a few feet separated the two. While waiting, he began removing his belt and hanging it on a hook just inside the closet door.

"Uh, yeah, she does, but they work with the hospital clinic, too. You know, their offices are a part of the hospital, so she's on some kind of a rotated shift sometimes. She also gets to make some extra money on weekends, when her turn comes up to be there," Michael replied. Thomas looked thoughtful for a second, then nodded. Without hesitation then, he unsnapped and unzipped his slacks, letting them fall to the floor. Stepping from them one leg at a time, at first with his back to Michael, he eventually revolved around. One foot seemed to catch on something, so the teen began balanced on one leg while attempting to pull it free. In the process, he lost his balance and fell toward Michael, who moved quickly to catch him. Thomas grunted, but then couldn't help but giggle as he pivoted around onto the bed and sat upright. The brief contact was strange at first, but Michael could not help but feel something magical in that brief touch. His friend whispered an apology, but Michael was too enthralled in the discovery of those feelings to reply just then.

As Thomas stood back up, Michael's eyes focused again on his friend. Seeing him there in the thinnest pair of white briefs he had ever seen, just a few feet away, caused him to momentarily hold his breath. Michael had to exert a lot of control to keep from gasping, especially when Thomas pulled the hem of his t-shirt up to wipe his brow. Through the thin layer, enough of the teens midsection was outlined in such a fashion that Michael did not have to use his imagination on what was covered inside. He silently gulped as he turned his gaze upward.

Thomas grunted before turning and grabbing the hanger from the bed. Facing his friend, he folded and pulled the pants neatly onto the hangar, followed by the shirt he had just removed. As he returned the items to the closet, Michael did not look away this time, catching instead the view of Thomas's butt, pretty much at eye level to him now, beneath the partially transparent material. Through all this open display, Michael also noted one other thing: Thomas's briefs clung to his friend tightly, as if they were smaller in size than they should be. As it registered, he couldn't help but wonder if there might have been a purpose for that, but he didn't have time to dwell on it.

Michael was uncertain what he was feeling just then, as Thomas closed the closet door. In one way, he felt a tinge of guilt, having to be in such proximity to his friend. Viewing Thomas in his private world like this was incredible, and as he watched his friend's expression, it seemed to not even register with him. Even as Thomas turned around, Michael could not hide the fact he was watching the teen, even if unobtrusively. Thomas paused briefly and half-smiled, but then just shrugged. Maybe he did know what he was doing, Michael thought, which awed him even more. There was a level of trust his friend had given him, and it humbled Michael. Thomas could have taken the clothes and gone to the bathroom, or somewhere else to change. He didn't though; he wasn't shy, and that fact just registered in some way.

Thomas then reached out and grabbed some sweats which, Michael noticed for the first time, were lying across a nearby pillow. As he pulled them on, he looked into the other boy's expression. "Okay, that's done now. Umm... are you cold or anything?"

Michael returned the gaze and grinned. "Umm, not really, it feels pretty good in here to me."

Thomas grinned back. "That's awesome. Then here, turn on the TV and find the game." Out of thin air, it seemed Thomas produced a small TV remote and handed it over to his friend. "I'll be right back, okay?" he stated, before moving toward the door, opening it and then disappearing without waiting for an answer.

Michael found the game they wanted to watch easily enough, and he had just started to determine the score when Thomas returned, carrying two sodas and a bag of chips. "Grams is making up some sandwiches, so we'll have something to eat in a little bit." He tossed one of the sodas to his friend, before half-climbing, half-bouncing onto the bed next to him. There they both settled on their stomachs, facing the TV. Michael, taking the cue, kicked off his tennis shoes and relaxed.

The day was spent watching the game, eating, hanging out and playing games. The more the two got to know each other, the more Michael felt at ease. Not only did Thomas seem to want their friendship himself, he seemed to go out of his way to let Michael know that he trusted him, a fact that did not escape his guest. It was getting late when Thomas's mother, Linda, knocked on the partially closed door before poking her head inside.

"Michael, whenever you're ready to go home, just let me know and I'll take you back," she stated sweetly.

The teen grinned up at her. "Umm, what if I might not want to go back?"

The woman laughed, but then shook her head. "Well, I don't know what to say, to be honest. I did promise your mother we'd try and take you back by 7 or so."

Thomas interrupted. "Aww, Mom..."

Michael wrinkled his nose, thinking quickly. "Uh, my Mom usually gets home about 9:00 or so on Sunday nights. So, could we like, go around 8:00? Is that too late?"

"I think we can make it work around 8:00, all right." Michael grinned back, glancing at the clock, noticing it gave them a little more than an hour to go. "Thanks, Mrs. Wilson!"

Linda nodded, and then disappeared. As she walked away, Michael whispered, "You're Mom seems kind of cool."

Thomas shrugged. "Meh, I guess so... Grams is okay, too. Gramps though..." He left the sentence unfinished.

Michael noted the tone but decided not to pursue it. Changing topics, he spoke again timidly. "Can I ask you something? What, umm, about your Dad? Did something happen to him?"

Thomas froze momentarily, and then rolled over onto his back. "My Dad died in a car accident when I was around 7. Honestly, it's just me and Mom," he explained, his voice becoming quiet.

Michael saw his friend's expression changed, and then began feeling guilty. "I'm sorry Thomas, I didn't know."

Thomas gave him a smile, and then shrugged. "About what? Don't be sorry, it's okay. I mean, I do remember him and all. He was a pretty cool Dad to me, you know? Not like some fathers are, being pricks and all. I miss him, but I stopped crying that out a long time ago. Me and Mom, we make it okay."

Michael wondered if there was something else, as it seemed Thomas was using care to avoid something. Before he could pursue it, however, Thomas grunted again. "You live with just your Mom, too. Right?"

"Yeah, but my Dad just left us. He left me and Mom before I was even born. Totally disappeared, zing, whoosh - gone." Like his friend, Michael's voice fell to a hush as well.

"What about your Mom? What does she do actually?" Thomas asked.

Michael stretched out again, turning and propping up on his elbow. "She's a licensed nurse, an LPN, down at the medical wing. It's like you said earlier, she works for one of the doctors down there mostly. They're a clinic that's hooked in with the hospital staff in some way."

Thomas nodded. "That sounds cool, actually. My Mom works for the county, in the tax office. You know, where you go to pay property taxes and stuff."

"Yeah? That's cool." A pause. "What about your grandparents? Do they do anything? Or are they retired, or...?"

Thomas shook his head. "Not really. They farm here a little, that's all. Gramps has about 60 acres or so, but a lot of it is in trees and stuff." He paused, glancing out the window. "When Dad died, it got kind of hard on us, see. Mom was having problems paying the bills and everything. That's why we ended up coming to live with Gramps and Grams. They took us in and gave us a place to stay and all."

"Are they your Dad's parents, or your Mom's?" Michael asked.

"Dad's, yeah." Thomas stared at the ceiling. "It's not all that bad. I mean, we do okay, I just sometimes wish we had a place of our own, that's all."

"Yeah, I kind of understand that. I mean, we have our own place, but we rent it. It's not like, really ours, you know?" Michael looked thoughtful again. "What about family? Like uncles, aunts, and cousins?"

Thomas grunted. "Some. I've got two aunts and uncles in Tennessee, and one in Florida. Umm, 4 cousins, 3 girls, 1 boy, all older than me. Mom was an only child though."

Michael was surprised. "Really? Wow... Mom has one sister and her husband, and they have 2 boys, both like four and five, or something like that. So, not really as big a family as you have, but..."

"Yeah, but it's still cool," Thomas replied. They stared at one another for a moment, before he added, "That sort of makes us more alike, I think." Michael nodded in agreement. They continued watching TV, each lost in thought.

After a moment, Michael turned again, a serious look crossing his face. "Thomas?"


"Why..." He paused, suddenly unable to put his words together. When Thomas saw the hesitation, he nodded encouragingly. It was then Michael glanced up at the ceiling. "Why haven't we, well, ever done this before? You know, get together, before now? I mean, was I being weird or something to you, or did I do something, or not do something? Did you just not like me, or... what?"

The question hung in the air between them as they each observed the other. Finally, Thomas shrugged. "I guess I, like, just always thought you wanted to be left alone." It was a partial truth, he knew, but he didn't feel like he could tell his newfound friend everything. At least, not yet.

An expression of surprise met him. "Really? That's what I always thought about you!" Michael exclaimed, grinning. It became infectious, making Thomas inwardly sigh with relief. "I'm glad," Michael continued, "about us, I mean, and about you. I'm sorry I wasn't around so much before. I'm glad you sat down with me that day. And I'm glad we finally became friends."

Thomas grinned. "I'm glad too." Nothing more was offered between them, and Michael was satisfied. He felt that, at least now, he knew it wasn't something he was imagining. They really were building a close friendship now, despite whatever unspoken element had kept them apart all these years. He felt ... happy.

A half hour later Michael climbed to his feet and found his shoes, putting them back on. As he was tying his shoelaces, he looked at Thomas, who was now sitting cross-legged on the bed watching him. "Hey, would you want to come over to my house next weekend? I think the Redskins and Cowboys are playing."

"Really? Yeah, that would be cool!" Thomas answered.

With the ice now broken, both Tomas and Michael began spending more time together, especially on Sundays. Whether after church, or other times by mutual agreement, their moms let the two get together at one or the other's house on a regular basis. They watched TV, whether it was football, movies or other shows, or sometimes played various board games and cards. With the colder weather now upon them, little could be done outdoors for the time being, but that did not dampen their spirits. Only when Thanksgiving approached did Michael become disappointed, finding out his new friend was going out of state for the holidays. Although his own family getting together was nothing to sneeze at, he found himself wishing they could still have had some of the holiday weekend together.

Time passed slowly for both boys as December arrived, bringing some of the most bitter and coldest weather the area had seen for years. Short of their excursions to school and back, and the occasional trips they each made into town, both were limited in what they could do. Regardless, their Sundays were still spent switching back and forth between their families, watching football and hanging out. Thomas's mother was rather strict when it came to school nights, however, preferring to keep her son at home and focused on his school work.

When the weekend before Christmas arrived, things began taking yet another turn. Other than their first time together, where both had opened themselves up to the other briefly about their homes, their lives, their likes and dislikes - neither dwelled on those topics again. This particular Sunday was different, however, because Carolyn was off from work, spending time with her son more than usual. She surprised Michael when, by chance, she brought home a live Christmas tree the night before, something they had not had for several years. When Thomas arrived, a grin split his face as he discovered they both had waited on decorating it so they could include him. He was amazed, and yet something also stirred within him as he helped them decorate it with various lights, tinsel and ornaments. Carolyn also found some Christmas music playing locally on the radio, and the three of them spent a good part of the afternoon together. It was Thomas's first insight into the dynamics between the two of them, and he loved the way they clowned around, and the laughter they shared. Just hanging out with his best friend, while snacking on Christmas cookies with cups of hot chocolate, improved his camaraderie deeper than it was already rooted.

With all things considered, there was a spark lit within him that was different than before. Long was the football game for that day forgotten, as they all spent their time with one another. When it started getting late in the afternoon, he fell into a peaceful but subdued mood, but only because he knew it was all going to come to an end before long. When both boys trudged up the stairs to Michaels' room, he glanced at the clock and was relieved they would at least have a little more time together, if only by themselves. Kicking off his shoes, Thomas fell onto the bed. "Man, this day has been so awesome!" Rolling onto his back, he watched as Michael fell in beside him before adding, "I wish it didn't have to end."

Michael smiled. "Yeah, I know." He paused before asking. "So, what do you want to do now?" Thomas only shrugged, so Michael got to his feet and crossed over to his desk. Pulling out an envelope, he handed it to his friend. "Here, umm, this is like, for all you guys. You know, your family and everyone."

Surprised, Thomas took the envelope, suspecting and finding a Christmas card inside. As he opened it, however, he saw that it not only had Michael's signature, but Carolyn's as well. "Thanks!" he exclaimed, sincerity in his voice.

"You're welcome. It's the one thing Mom and I get to do, like every year together. Not that we have very many people to hand them out to, but still - it's kind of fun." He watched Thomas nod in acknowledgement, and then grabbed a pillow from the bed before throwing it at his friend.

"HHEEYYYY!!!!" Thomas retorted in surprise, laughing. He grabbed the other pillow and, before long, both were involved in an all-out pillow war. At one point, Michael laughed hard as he teased his friend, "Come on, don't fight like a ggiiirrrlllll!"

"Oh yeah?" was the quick retort. Both boys injected a new energy into their activity, with many grunts mixed in with the obvious fun each was having at the other's expense. It was the first time they had actually became so physically involved with one another, and for Michael it was a blessing in disguise. Their play eventually progressed into wrestling, creating more of a bond in their friendship at a personal level. They each had a lot of pent up energy, for some reason, and they had no fear of expending it with each other now.

Downstairs Carolyn walked by the staircase, listening to the laughter coming from above. It made her pause and smile. It had been a long time since she had heard that sound, and as it filled the house, it eased her worries. In all the 6 years they had lived there, there was somewhat of a heavy cloud around them, where happiness seemed suppressed and devoid. She sighed to herself, remembering how her ex-husband had just walked out on them and disappeared completely from their lives. Michael had never had the benefit of having a male figure in the house, never had the benefit of understanding what a positive influence a father could have on a child. A good father, that is. She stared up the stairwell and thought to herself, her husband had at least left behind the best part of their all-to-brief marriage. She never looked back or regretted having her son come into her life. What she heard and felt taking place now, brought a tear to her eye, as she finally nodded to herself. This was the happiness Michael needed. She could only provide so much, and she knew it. Having this, though, was a game changer. For the better.

Upstairs, Michael and Thomas continued their hard-fought wrestling match - hard fought because of their almost equal size and weight, neither able to gain the advantage over the other. As they tossed about on the bed, the covers coming loose and sliding in different directions, each became seemingly comfortable with the close contact with one another. First one, and then both, changed tactics often, attempting to tickle or bind the other together. Michael finally worked himself behind his friend, before thrusting both hands deep into Thomas's armpits. Once there, he clung wildly while close wiggling underneath. Thomas was then practically paralyzed, thrusting forward belly-down onto the bed. He drew his arms in tight, attempting to stop the advancement as fingers reached even deeper, but failed miserably. Instead of the desired effect, it served instead to lock fingers already there into place, and thus Michael started taking advantage of it while he could. After several minutes being pinned underneath, and the screaming and laughing at trying to escape, Thomas sprawled helplessly across the foot of the bed and stopped squirming, giving in. "Stop! O-Okay, you w-win! P-Please... HaHaHa! Please! You win! You win! Stop!"

Michael hesitated before backing off, lifting his weight and maneuvering the vulnerable figure underneath him so he could roll over. Afterwards he lay back down, pinning Thomas underneath him again, and threatened to return to the torture he had finally weakened his opponent with. Both were breathing hard, so he used the momentary break to catch his breath, pausing only to ask, "You give? Are you ssuuureeeee?"

Thomas thought about denying it and charging on, enough so his face betrayed the fact he was having second thoughts. Both boys, however, were still gasping for air, and at that moment Michael had his full body pressing down upon him. Although his friend was not heavy by any means, Thomas knew it would still take a formidable effort to escape. He wasn't helpless, but he was feeling proud of the moment for some reason, and what they had just done. He relaxed and, in a low voice, finally replied. "Yeah, I'm sure. I give up."

Michael grunted in disappointment, realizing the end had come. He didn't really want it to, for some reason, but decided it was probably for the best. Pulling back, he sat back in Thomas's lower lap and helped pull his friend up into a sitting position. Each continued to stare at the other while catching their breath, grinning wildly. After a long moment, Thomas finally broke out giggling, causing Michael to speak up. "What?"

Thomas only shook his head. "Nothing," he replied, but still neither made a move to break the connection between them. It was only when, seconds later, they heard a car door shut outside, that both realized the afternoon was coming to an end. Michael was crestfallen then, but grudgingly made as if to move and let his best friend up. Surprisingly though, Thomas caught him by the arm and held him. "Mike?"

Michael looked up, startled. It was the first time he had been called by that name in a long time, and it was so uncharacteristic to hear it from his friend. "Yeah?" There was a certain hesitancy, an unsure mannerism in the individual that stared back at him. The silence that followed puzzled him, further prompting him to go on. "Something wrong? or...?"

Thomas sighed as he looked down between them. They heard a knock at the door downstairs, and they heard Carolyn answer it. Finally, in a quiet, guarded voice, he looked up into the waiting expression that met him. "You didn't do anything, I promise. I just..." He hesitated. "Would you let me, I mean, c-can I do something? And ... and not, like, weird you out or anything? Just this once, maybe?"

Michael raised an eyebrow, curiosity piquing his interest. He slowly nodded and waited, unsure of what was going through Thomas's mind, but willing to let it play out. He sat still as Thomas then leaned forward, slowly at first, as if testing what he was about to do. Then before Michael knew what was happening, Thomas inserted and hooked his arms, inside and underneath those of his friend. For an instant, Michael became nervous as their heads moved closer together, thinking perhaps his friend might be intending to kiss him. He had no time to let those implications sink in, however, as Thomas, more assured than at first, pulled closer and lay his head upon Michael's shoulder. In every way, the boy enveloped Michael in a one of the most warm, complete embraces he had ever had. It held such a surprising tenderness, the way Thomas rubbed his back and just snuggled in, that Michael initially just sat there rooted and unresponsive. It only occurred to him within seconds, though, to return it, and so he slowly put his arms around his friend in a similar manner. There was a calculated moment in Thomas's actions, one that gave his fears and feelings of uncertainty, because as Michael enveloped him in return, the tension seeped away. It was in this moment, however, a voice called from downstairs. "Thomas, your Grandmother is here!"

When Thomas didn't at first respond, Michael called out for him. "Okay Mom, we'll be down in just a minute." As he replied, he still held his friend firmly, sharing the embrace, and feeling as if something more was being shared, too. Time was frozen in that moment, and Thomas pulled the boy straddling his lap even closer, so much so there was no space to be found between them. Their chests were so close together, it would not have taken much for one to feel the heartbeat of the other. Michael noticed he could feel the warm breath on his shoulder as Thomas continued to rub and squeeze, clinging to the life between them. It was a feeling that brought peace to Michael as he closed his eyes and did his best to return it back. Michael decided he liked this for some reason, and he wasn't afraid to show it back. He buried his face into Thomas's neck, finding a warmth there they could both feel. Even though each wore t-shirts, there was an intimacy in this simple action neither had ever experienced before. Michael thought about his Mom and other, mostly older people, who had hugged him often enough, but nothing like this. Here, for the first time, was someone his own age, sharing this with him. It wasn't just a hug, because of the way it felt inside. This was an embrace meant to convey something - but what? He wasn't sure, but something stirred on the inside that was warm and pure.

As the voices of the talking women floated up the stairs, Thomas finally gave up a huge sigh and slowly withdrew, breaking the moment and sitting back. Michael saw watery eyes, and saw a deep level of emotion there, not at all unlike he felt himself. Smiling, he whispered into the stillness between them. "You okay?"

Thomas returned the smiled meekly, and just as quietly whispered back. "Yeah, I am. You have no idea what that meant to me. Thanks, Mike." On the verge of tears, Thomas suddenly wiped at his eyes in embarrassment, but it moved Michael inwardly. He still wasn't sure what had passed between them, but it was unmistakably something important.

Smiling back, Michael could not help but ask the ultimate question. "Thanks for what?" Would he learn what was going through his friend's head?

Thomas hesitated before answering, as if he were struggling. "For not -" He stopped, then lowered his voice even more, a feat that made Michael strain to hear. "For not freaking out on me... For being my friend, and not pushing me away and... and, you know, just letting me thank you, I guess. It's all I have to offer you, but it's... it's all from me, Mike. Thanks." He ended with a thickness in his voice, and Michael felt the raw emotion between them. He had never witnessed or come close to something like this before that moment.

"You're welcome," he whispered in response, and then moved off Thomas's lap. It was then they both heard laughter drifting upstairs again, returning them to the present as a reminder that Thomas was about to leave. Michael pivoted to one side of the bed, freeing his friend who arose and started looking for his shoes. As he pulled them on, Michael remained, watching him with a curious interest. At one point, a thought hit him that he offered up, all on his own. "Hey, Thomas? Just so you know, you can thank me like that, anytime you want to."

Thomas grinned as he looked back. "Really? You didn't mind, like... I mean, hugging you was okay?"

Michael nodded again. "Yeah, it really was. That was more than okay, I promise." There was a quiet hesitation before he continued. "I'm just glad you're my friend, too, and that you... like, trust me and everything." He said it with meaning, and Thomas only smiled and accepted it, before pivoting up completely after tying his shoes. He extended a hand to his host, and then pulled him up, just as a smaller voice called up from below. "Thomas, honey, are you coming?"

With a look of annoyance, Thomas rolled his eyes, "Yeah, coming Grams. I just had to get my shoes on!" As he pulled his jacket out of the corner, Michael suddenly stopped him before they walked out the door.

"Umm... How about coming back one day next week?" he asked.

Thomas looked up. "Yeah? You really want me too?"

Michael's face turned into a lop-sided grin. "Of course, doofus!" He picked up a pillow from the floor and threw it at his guest, who caught it in mid-air. Both giggled, and then Michael thought quickly. "Um, Christmas break starts Tuesday, right? How about then? It's only a half day, but..."

Thomas nodded, getting the idea. "You think your Mom will let me come back that soon?"

Michael smirked. "Oh yeah, I think so. Mom works late on Tuesdays, sometimes in the Emergency ward most of the day. So, I'm usually here by myself until 8 or 9 o'clock!" He paused, took a deep breath then plowed forward, timidly. "See if maybe your Mom will let you spend the night. I mean, if you want to."

Grinning, Thomas responded, "Really? Seriously, stay here? I thought you might never ask me!" Seeing the surprised expression, he just grinned. "I mean, well, honest - you wouldn't want to stay with me, trust me." He didn't elaborate, but Michael caught something in the expression that made him wonder. Thomas blushed. "It's not like that, I promise."

"Not like what?" Michael asked, confused. That statement could have meant a hundred different things.

Thomas just shook his head. "It's more like, I dunno, my gramps and everything, that's all. You coming over and spending the night with me just wouldn't be, umm, fun I think..." He grinned afterwards. "I'll ask my Mom though, as soon as I get home tonight, okay?" Michael nodded, grinning as they both began hurrying into the hallway before moving down the flight of stairs. "And yeah, I'd really, really like to, I promise!"

Within minutes after they departed, Michael suddenly felt empty. A familiar feeling of lonesomeness returned, only this time it was combined with a mixture of other feelings. He felt confused as he plopped down in an old recliner, thinking about what had just transpired. At Carolyn's insistence, he remained downstairs for a while, listlessly watching TV with her, but not really paying any attention to the Christmas shows being broadcast. He observed the Christmas tree, and thought back over the fun they each had experienced together that afternoon.

More than once, however, his mind returned to those events of the last few minutes. Somehow, he felt drawn into a different world, one which made him feel sad and longing. Although it had been strange at first when they hugged, it had developed into something meaningful not just for Thomas, but also for himself. He knew that, because when they finally parted, they were both on the verge of tears - though he was unsure as to why. Instead of feeling guilty, however, the closeness they shared made him feel glad.

He thought about asking his mom, but there Michael stopped short. What had transpired was for him and Thomas alone. He had told his friend he could hug him anytime - not directly, but in so many words. He had meant it, too, although at the same time, he wondered about what he had done, and why he had felt he had to say it. Somehow, he wanted Thomas to know, really feel, that it was all okay, that it was cool. He knew Thomas enough by now, to know they would never do stuff like that in school or on the bus, but in their own private little world? He found himself hoping he could share that intimacy again.

While aimlessly watching the TV, another thought occurred to him. Michael didn't think of their hug as being queer, like he knew some kids would jump to thinking. He had already guessed that was what made Thomas so hesitant to begin with. Boys were not supposed to be touchy-feely or emotional, especially when it came to being around their peers. Too many false impressions, and too many stereotypes, were typecast with guys who did even the simplest of things. The only exceptions seemed to surpass the status quo, meaning when anything occurred between guys and girls. That was accepted without question, hugs, kisses, and playing the bases, for whatever reason. Even if girls hugged other girls, no one raised an eyebrow at that. Nobody questioned things about sex or stereotypes in those scenarios; but, put two guys together and everything fell apart if you were not careful. Even the display of raw emotions, such as crying, could easily bring about the worst in some people.

Michael had seen it, though - and at the unlikeliest of times. That evening Thomas had let his guard down for a moment, and then had asked him if he would let his guard down, too. Michael reflected that what bothered him most, wasn't any fear of being touchy feely, but rather the fact he liked it, and really missed it now. Now that Thomas had gone home, there were so many things he had left unsaid, things he wanted to ask about and feel his way through. Never had anyone opened their feelings up, with that much trust, to him. His best friend though, in that moment, did just that. He hoped he had reciprocated it with as much feeling as what he felt.

Michael wondered what Thomas was thinking, and what he was feeling right now. Was there something more inside his friend than he had yet met? Even worse, was he reading too much into all of it, thinking something was there that maybe wasn't. 'No', he decided. The look, the expression, the whole effort that made it happen - it wasn't just a glib moment. In fact, the whole day they spent together showed Michael there was something more, something sentimental, yet cool between them now. Of that much, he was sure.

Michael sighed finally. He didn't have the answers to those and other questions that floated around his brain. One thing was sure, however: it was going to be a long two-days before he would get the chance to find out.

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