The Bully and the Bullied

by Sean English

Part 14

The Ties That Bind Us Together

"Hey man, hold up!"

Austin hurried along the path in order to catch up with his friend. It was early in the evening hours, and the sun cast eerie shadows across the field. The air, still hot and muggy, created a mood that caused neither of them to necessarily hurry, but Jeremy was now several feet ahead. They had left the house some minutes before, and then covered perhaps half the distance toward the campsite before Austin needed to take a quick pit-stop. As they neared a set of thick underbrush, he had nonchalantly stepped off to take care of the business, oblivious of the other teen. At first Jeremy had followed, until he realized what his friend was going to do. It was then he blushed, feeling awkward at turning after him, and then muttering "Sorry," before he had backtracked and set off down the path again, although at a slower rate than before.

At his friend's call, Jeremy stopped and waited until he caught up. The teen had, as of late, never ceased to surprise him. He had known Austin for years, yet it seemed he was still discovering much more than had yet been revealed. For no particular reason, Jeremy's mood had grown somber all afternoon. He was subject to such mood swings, as the others in the household had come to discover, but at least they were never at any real extreme. Most of the "family" had learned to just let him have his space, but it wasn't always the case. This particular day, Austin would have nothing of it, as he went out of his way to keep Jeremy's mind occupied and active. Austin knew the informal birthday party had been strange to his friend, in more ways than one. Perhaps it wasn't unheard of, but he imagined it may very well be the first of its kind the teen had ever attended or experienced. Already used to watching for telltale signs with his brother, he picked up on this, and made it his personal mission to "help" his once best friend, in any way he could. Without, of course, making it seem too obvious.

Jeremy knew, however, or at least suspected it. It hadn't taken that long, for him to see through the shell of the boy. To be truthful, he was amazed at the amount of resolve Austin had. After eating their cake and ice cream, the two of them took the time to just hang out together, going for a long walk, and then coming back to play an easy game of basketball, among other things. It had been fun for Jeremy, mostly because here was someone closer to his own age, who understood things on a whole different level. As much respect has he had for his new, younger siblings, this teen had shared Jeremy's past first hand. Not only had Austin shared it, he really knew the dark places that Jeremy had been. Yet, his friend was also cleansed now, too. Austin was changing just as much as he had changed, and all in relatively the same short amount of time. When Jeremy's world had shattered, so did Austin's in a similar fashion. They were both rising from some deep, troubled memories - some of which still haunted Jeremy, enough so that he still shivered involuntarily from time to time.

Jeremy had liked the time they had spent that afternoon. He didn't discount Michael's or Thomas's friendship in any way - they were cool in his book. Having Austin around though, gave Jeremy a different level of comfort that he couldn't experience with the younger teens. There was another reason, too: Austin Mathews had stuck by him through thick and thin, from the beginning. No other person from the "gang" even bothered to give him the time of day after the incident so long ago, after he started "changing". Those 'friends' saw it as a weakness now, and with no more coat tails to ride, no more footsteps to follow in for the action, it wasn't worth pursuing.

Perhaps more than that, however, they saw there was no more reason to be afraid.

Jeremy shivered again as that thought hit him, and about how much he had been like his father. His reign of terror was only a defense mechanism, something that let him lash out and take revenge on the world for what was being done to him at home. Jeremy had been helpless in the hands of his father, and as the situation worsened over time, so did his manipulation of those around him. Some he treated well enough, but there were some... He shook his head a little, trying to lose the memory and encourage it to leave, to be gone.

"Hey, you okay there?" Austin asked.

Jeremy smiled. Of all the people he had lashed out at, and all the people he had failed - here was the one who didn't disappear. This was the one who did not abandon him - despite everything.

"Yeah, I'm good. You get finished back there?" Jeremy asked.

Austin laughed. "Yeah, sorry about that. Had to get rid of some of that Mountain Dew, or we might have been swimming in the tent tonight!"

"Eww, gross," Jeremy replied, wrinkling his nose. It caused Austin to burst out laughing. Jeremy listened to the laugh, joining him good naturedly as they continued along. As they walked, however, the memory returned of that day - the one that had completely controlled and changed his life. No one knew, as far as he could tell, what had happened that evening. When he had come to his senses, he knew while staring down at Thomas's bloodied face, he had simply lost control. He had stepped over the bounds of anything he had yet done. Jeremy had made life as miserable as he could for some people, but never had he unleashed his frustrations on anyone like he did that day, especially in so short a time. As the adrenalin had seeped away, he knew it was bad. Not so much for the younger boy, but for what was to come for himself.

Sure enough, Stan had pulled up into the driveway and topped the bank, and sure enough the old man had heard the bus approaching as he came out to them. The conversation between Stan and his father was just as sane as any had ever been, but one look at the old man's eyes, Jeremy knew it was going to be hell. A cold, hard, calculated expression that betrayed nothing – but Jeremy knew his father, and knew what to expect. When the bus had topped the rise again, pulling away and leaving him alone as he crossed the yard and headed towards the barn, fear struck him worse than it ever had before.

That night cost Jeremy unlike any night he had ever had to endure. The old man had been furious, already in a half-drunken daze, and enraged at having to deal with the little "shit" in his life, as he called it. When he had dealt with the boy, the old man had held nothing back, taking the kid seemingly to within inches of his life.

Ironically, as maddening as it had been, it did have one lasting effect on Jeremy in a good way. The teen got a glimpse of what he was to become. He saw his father losing what little grasp he had on reality, and it made Jeremy take a long hard look at himself over the next few days. In some weird way, he understood he was ultimately following in the old man's footsteps. Neglected, ignored, belittled and berated constantly, by a monster who surprisingly had such a hard, stone-cold grip on him, it was frightening. Jeremy was revisiting his pain every time he lashed out at those younger and weaker around him. His father used him, abused him to no end, to alleviate his own pain. Pain at losing his wife, and in dealing with life's share of injustices. In its own way, Jeremy was doing the same. That realization struck fear in the teen, and made him realize he had to transform before it was too late.

Change was hard, but it was something he had forced upon himself, despite the others surrounding him. He left the weakened alone, and tried to find a balance between them and himself - a balance such that he could keep control, without losing his sanity. It cost him - one by one, his gang disappeared and abandoned their prize entertainment. At first it bothered the teen, until he realized that they had not really been friends anyway. Instead, they were just loafers tagging along. That is, all of them except one - the one standing with him now.

"Okay you, spill it. What's going on in that head of yours? You look like you want to either cry or puke, or something anyway," Austin chided him, yet his tone betrayed a kindness and patience that Jeremy was getting used to by now.

Jeremy laughed. "What, you trying to be my shrink or something?"

Austin took a rapid step forward, moving in front of his friend and forcing them both to stop. "No, I want to be your friend."

Jeremy looked at him, bewildered. "You already are, man. You're the best friend I have ever had, even though I didn't deserve it. You've stayed with me since the beginning, and you didn't leave me. What more could I honestly, really ask for in someone?"

Austin's face acquired a strange expression. "What the hell? Do you really think you don't deserve having a friend? Man, you deserve every fucking friend you can get, you know? Especially right now!" Taking a deep breath, he put a hand on Jeremy's shoulder, standing at arm's length. "You don't decide who I pick for my friends, thank-you-very-much! Right now, you're it - whether you like it or not. You can always try to send me packing, but I'm not going to leave you."

Jeremy relented. "You're right, but..." His thoughts were troubled, but he took a deep breath and let his guard down for a moment. "I just don't, like, want to be a pity case for anyone, you know?"

"Crap man, don't you know me better than that by now?" Austin shook his head as he moved aside, and then put his arm around the other teen's shoulder. "You're not my pity case, but even if you were, what's the big deal? We're here for you, just like you've been there for me."


As they arrived at the campsite, Austin grinned. "You heard me. When all the creeps could have been pounding away at me these last few years, you were always there with me, keeping me safe. You watched out for me man, so let me decide what you deserve or not, okay?"

Jeremy was surprised. "You serious? You're not shitting me, right?"

They both stopped again, as Austin looked at his friend sheepishly. "No shit man, I'm serious."

That revelation almost floored Jeremy, so much so that he actually moved over to the bank of the stream and sat down on a set of rocks there. Austin, curious, followed and sat down close beside his friend. A silence fell between them, as they looked out across the water. "Come on man," Austin finally broke the silence. "What gives? Talk to me."

Jeremy sighed. "I don't know, it's just - I never knew, I guess. I've always wondered what you saw in me to hang out with me so much, you know? And now, to hear that, I just..."

"Wait a minute. I didn't use you, Jeremy, if that's what you think." Austin shook his head. "I- Okay, I'll be honest, I don't know why I did it, but at the time, we were both new to the school. You know, Kev and me, and I was already having to deal with some tough shit at home. The day you and me met, Dad had just busted my ass for something, and I didn't feel like taking shit from anyone. That's when those Lawson brothers decided to take advantage of me, remember? What were their names, James and Rondel, wasn't it?"

Jeremy smiled at the memory. "Yeah, I do."

"Well, I think I held my ground pretty good, don't you? I mean, considering that big one, James, who was what, a senior? He had to go dicking around with everyone that day-"

"Yeah, I know. He came at me, too," Jeremy replied. "Is that actually when we first met?" Jeremy tried his best to remember, but even now those thoughts were a haze to him.

"Yeah, that was the first time, we actually ganged up on them, you and me both. You don't remember?"

Jeremy tried, but eventually hung his head. "Sorry... it's all like, foggy or something..."

"That's okay, no sweat." After a moment, Austin continued. "So, how about it, you want to talk before we catch up with the crumb snatchers or ... ?"

Jeremy laughed. "You really DO want to be my shrink, don't you?" He waved off the protest he could see coming. "Okay, okay, I'm sorry! Don't get your girl panties twisted in your crotch!" He looked out over the water a moment, and then just shrugged. "I don't know Austin, honest. It's just - a lot of stuff - it's kind of new to me, you know? I'm just afraid I'm going to mess it up some way, somehow, like it was at - at -"

Austin shook his head. "Won't happen man, I promise." Seeing the other boy cast his eyes downward made him realize he had to push the point. "Jermz, look at me." When Jeremy met his gaze, Austin took a deep breath. "Look, I don't know a lot about this stuff, but I do know about some of the stuff I feel inside, and man - I can never feel what you felt, after living through what you did and everything. Believe me when I say I know THAT much. Still, I DO know how I might see some of it, and Jermz? I admit, it's scary. All I can think about sometimes, is if it's scary for me, then it must have been like hell for you."

Jeremy stared back before whispering. "You have no idea..."

"You're right, I really have no fucking idea. Excuse the pun, Jermz, but I'm trying to be honest here man. You know, I figure this much: if I can be honest with you, then you'll see in me that I really do care. I really care, about YOU. If you can see that, then maybe you'll be honest with me back. I don't care if we both sit here and cry all night, or whatever it takes. I just - I just -" He took another deep breath and let it out slowly. "I'm no shrink, I'm no expert with any of this shit, okay? But I want to help, you know? I just want to, because I..."

Jeremy's eyes moistened at that revelation. "Because what, man?" he whispered.

Austin cleared his throat before casting his own eyes away for a brief second. "You're my best friend, Jermz. Hell... because I care man, I care about you. I..." It was a long time before he could speak again. "Do you know how much I've kicked myself lately, because of what happened with Kevin? I'm the reason he got messed up with the drugs, Jeremy. I mean, if I hadn't treated him like shit and everything, been there for him more, then maybe..."

"That's not true. Is that what YOU really believe?" Jeremy laughed. "You know something? Maybe we're both pretty fucked up then." When Austin didn't reply, he continued. "Your little brother got messed up because of Tim Derrick and his brother."

Austin's eyes went wide. "What the fuck??!!"

Jeremy nodded. "Yeah, you know them. You know how they can be, too. They looked at Kevin and saw someone they could manipulate, so..."

Austin's blood began to boil. "Those fuckers, I'm gonna kill them," he muttered softly as he looked out across the water. "I'm going to strip them naked and parade them around the school yard, with chains linked to their balls, and-"

Jeremy shook his head. "You can't, man."

"Why not?"

"They're in juvie, down in O.C."

"Oklahoma City? What the hell? How do you know that?"

"They got caught - big time. They're both up the river for the time being." He looked at the incredulous look on Austin's face. "What? You didn't really think I would keep quiet about it, did you?"

"How... how did you know? Why didn't you tell me?"

Jeremy grunted. "As to how I knew, don't ask, okay? Maybe I can tell you someday, but right now, let's just say I happened to watch Kev more closely than you think. Especially before that day in shop class. And as to why - well, you didn't need to know - not really. It could have been ugly - they're part of a gang of people that, let's just say they're worse on dweebs than you and I ever were put together. You needed them out of the way, Aus, and I couldn't figure any other or better way to do it. Not without getting you or your family tied up in a huge fucking mess. And you guys didn't need that right then, you know? Who knows, they could have retaliated against you guys bad, and… and I couldn't live with that."

"I don't understand. Are you saying-" He thought about it for a moment. "Jermz, tell me - HOW did they get caught?"

It was Jeremy's turn to look sheepish, but he silently watched the water flow by for a moment before speaking. "One day, the police were trying to talk to me at the hospital. I- I sort of gave them some of what I knew. I mean, someone had to do it, you know? I remember - I mean, I remember a few nights in the hospital, hearing some screaming way off down the hall, going on in another wing or something. I don't know, I was half dead I guess, but it was like I could hear it and... and... I didn't know it was Kevin at first, until one of the nurses told me later. From then on, I just – I just knew, you know?" He shook his head. "When that cop came in, I told him everything I knew about my old man, but then I also told him about some of the other stuff at school, what I knew about the brothers and everything. He kind of took over from there, I think." His eyes were pleading suddenly. "You guys were going to have a hard-enough time, Austin. And … there was only one way to make sure those assholes left you alone. That's why I did it, man. I'm sorry, but..."

"You did it?" Austin asked softly, already realizing the answer as the words sunk in. "God man, you - you did it? For us - for all of us?"

Jeremy shrugged. "Meh, not all of you - more for you and Kev, man, but yeah." He smiled at the other boy. "I couldn't like, let him go back to school without me around to help you, you know, watch out for him. Right?"

"God Jermz," Austin replied, emotion thick in his voice. "I don't know what to say, you know?"

"Then don't say anything man just - let it be. I knew what I was doing, and besides, it got the cops off your back, remember? I- I gave them enough info they could do the thing on their own, see. So, it got them off our backs, and…" He hesitated and sighed. "That's just all there was to it, you know? So yeah, you talk a lot about caring about me. Well, I cared about you two, too. That's why I did it, that's why I did the only thing left that I could do."

Austin thought back to the day when the doctor came through the door to Kevin's room with the news he was going home. He recalled that conversation, and then suddenly realized the man was trying to tell them something more. It was then he knew the truth, and it was then he realized he owed Jeremy far more than he had ever thought. In an awkward show of affection, he reached out and grasped Jeremy by shoulder. When he spoke again, his voice uncontrollable, tears streaked down his face. "Man, t-thanks. I so o-owe you, b-big!"

Jeremy was moved, although he was uncertain as to why. Watching the teen sob quietly, he scooted closer and shakily embraced him, only having initiated this kind of hug once before in recent weeks. Austin accepted it and reciprocated, and together they sat in the stillness. When he finally quieted and relented, he pulled back. It was rare the teen ever blushed, but he did so freely as he wiped at his eyes. Jeremy, seeking to lighten the moment, spoke teasingly. "Uh, this doesn't mean you're going to kiss me or something… right?"

Austin laughed out loud. "Fuck you, Riddle." It was good natured ribbing, but they both knew something had passed between them that deepened their friendship. "N-no, but... I'm serious man, you understand? I owe you. I owe you my life. Maybe even my brother's life-"

"You don't owe me shit, Austin. " Jeremy gazed into the other boy's eyes. "Well, maybe a little, like this-" He had grasped his friend's hand, and firmly squeezed it. "I know, okay? It's girlish, even gay-ish for the most part. But - you're my best friend, too. All you guys have done is preach to me about trust and everything. Okay, I get it, but I have to admit, those other two - Michael and Thomas - have been teaching me about something more. They've been teaching me what it really means to be friends, and to be best friends. I see it in them, and… " He smiled. "I see it in us, too. I've just always been too much of an asshole to care, until now. I do trust you, you know? I really do man. It's just hard sometimes, that's all. Hard to know or understand what I'm feeling inside, because some of this is just still new to me."

Austin's face held an expression of understanding. "I know, Jermz. I mean, I understand that. Some of it is new for me, too. Don't forget, I was right there with you, being an asshole a lot of times, too. It's been hard for me to finally understand what some of this means for me. I'm just glad it doesn't seem to be too late." The quizzical expression that met him made him laugh. "Kevin and I haven't really been, how you say, that close and shit, you know?"

"Yeah, you two were a pain in the ass for each other, I know," Jeremy commented.

Austin nodded. "I do love the creep, I guess. I mean, he's my brother and everything..." He paused before continuing in a softer tone. "Jermz?"


"You are too, man. You're like my brother, too," Austin voiced softly.

Jeremy giggled, then immediately regretted it when he saw the hurt expression that met him. "No, wait. I'm not giggling because of that, honest. I think we're a lot like brothers, too. I feel it, or at least something anyway. It's just - can you imagine how I feel, cooped up with the four of them in that house back there? Michael and Thomas, they're like my brothers, too - it's just, I don't know, just weird sometimes. I never had anyone like that, and now I have four of you guys, four brothers and everything."

Austin laughed, looking relieved. "Believe it or not, I get that, yeah." He looked thoughtful for a moment. "Jermz, we are. All of us are. All five of us - we're like, our own little family and everything now. You know what I mean?

Jeremy looked up at the sky and smiled. "Yeah, I think I do." He grinned. "Umm, does that mean I have to love you guys, too?"

Austin didn't take the bait, however. "I don't know about you, but I know I already do."

Their eyes met, and Jeremy's expression softened. With a shaky hand, he slowly pulled away and slipped it awkwardly around the other teen, embracing him from the side. Austin realized it and didn't hesitate or back away, using his own arm to do the same. They sat there in silence for a long time, neither speaking as they watched the stream floating by, and the sun beginning to fall in the horizon. It was an emotional moment for Austin, to get to see this side of his best friend. The revelations of the last few moments had been both earth-shattering and hopeful to him, in more ways than one.

As they sat there, Austin finally grunted, breaking the silence. "Any gay jokes about this, and I'll personally kill you, man," he said smiling.

Jeremy rolled his eyes before replying, "Not from me. Not this time," he whispered. "Thanks to you too, though. I really - I don't know, I really needed this, too. Like Mike was telling us anyway, this isn't being gay. This is being something else."

Austin whispered back, "I know."

"I know I've been moody. I'll- I'll try to do better, promise," Jeremy added.

"I'm not worried about it," Austin replied.

"Hey, about time you two showed up! " Kevin called out, spotting the two as the three younger troopers approached the campsite.

A small fire was already going by the stream, and as the others approached, they joined the two older boys around it. It was dusk now, and although the summertime air was still hot and muggy, there was an unusual welcoming feeling around the fire. Kevin noticed right away several sticks propped near the flame, complete with hot dogs attached, warming and cooking. Realizing for the first time their hunger, the three younger teens set about procuring chips and drinks, readying their feast.

The talk became lively again as they kidded about, hanging out and eating their rations. Before long, marshmallows were added to the meal, their roasted, gooey sweetness sandwiched with chocolate bars and graham crackers afterwards. It was a simple feast, enjoyed as the sun set off in the distance. Mosquitoes did seem to become more abundant, and thus the trio re-donned their t-shirts before stretching out around the fire with the older teens. They told stories they had heard or discussed things they had learned about other kids or teachers at school. It was a totally relaxing evening, one which lasted for hours. They also played cards, with no real victor for a change, making the effort even more enjoyable than common. To Michael, it was the perfect ending for a birthday celebration, and would be one he'd never forget.

As they neared the midnight hour, the boys gradually grew tired, and eventually Thomas headed for the tent after bidding the others good night. Not long after, Michael and Kevin finished, losing their hands to the older boys. Yawning, Michael stood up and declared he was turning in as well, before slowly heading away. Kevin had turned to his brother, for some reason or another, lagging and not joining immediately, so Michael entered their tent on hands and knees, pausing to let his eyes adjust to the darkness inside. The light from the campfire had dimmed down in the last hour, and as clouds began moving in from the west, the illumination of the night sky was diminished.

Eventually he could make out the figure of Thomas, stretched out on top of the covers, clad in only his underwear. The air had finally cooled in the last few hours, thus inside the tent the temperature wasn't bad. Shrugging, Michael decided to do the same, stripping down and lying next to his best friend. He lay on his stomach in the roomy tent, his arms folded underneath his chin, pulling his pillow up close.

Both hearing and feeling the boy come close to him, Thomas grunted before rolling onto his side, facing his friend. For a moment, he simply observed the teenager, watching as the other boy returned the stare blankly. Then, without a word, Thomas scooted and closed the distance between them, before slipping his arm around him and hugging him close.

Neither said anything, so Michael turned his back to his friend, allowing himself to be held and cuddled. They were still that way when Kevin finally arrived, dropping to his knees and entering the tent in much the same way as his predecessor. He, too, had to allow his eyes to adjust, but as he made out the other two and what they were doing, he grinned and peeled his shirt free from his upper torso. "Man, that's tons better! No mosquitoes in here, either!" he whispered, before zipping the entrance together, and then settling down onto the third pallet.

Michael and Kevin watched each other for a long time, Kevin unsure of what, if anything, he should say or do. The moment was awkward, as he saw the other two embraced. Not because of what it implied, but because he suddenly felt alone and separated. Deep within himself was an ache that developed, along with a certain sadness.

Michael could see it, watching the other boy sigh. "Kev?" he finally whispered, breaking the silence enough that Thomas propped his head up, looking over his friend's shoulder.

"Yeah?" Kevin replied, meekly.

"I- I can't like... you know... I know you wanted to, Thomas told me, but..." Michael hesitated.

Kevin did his best not to show disappointment. "It's okay, Mike. Honest, I understand."

"Understand what?" Michael whispered.

"I know you two are close, that's all. I'm kind of the kid in left field and everything."

Michael shook his head. "You're not in left field, Kevin." He returned the smile that slowly crept over Kevin's face. After a bit Michael sighed and reached out, just brushing the tips of his fingers with Kevin. "I know you trust us... but there is another side of trust, too. Like, just being with someone and everything, you know?" When the smaller teen nodded, Michael grasped, and then pulled the hand gently until Kevin scooted over next to him. Stretching out on his back, the smaller boy lay with his arms propped behind his head, and Michael draped an arm over Kevin's belly. Momentarily, he brought his hand up and lightly began rubbing the chest. It was the most intimate thing he had ever done with anyone outside of Thomas. He could feel Thomas watching them, but then felt reassurance as his best friend hugged him from behind, before leaning forward.

Michael thought for a moment before he spoke again. "Kev, it's not that I don't like you and stuff, it's just, being curious is one thing. But - the other stuff..."

Kevin could see them both in the darkness, able to just make out the faces that were observing him. Surprisingly, he didn't feel as down as he thought he was. "It's okay, Mike. I know, believe me - it's no big deal." He pulled one arm out and took hold of the hand that was caressing his chest. "You know, just feeling you do this means as much to me as anything. You guys, willing to do this, and not be afraid." When he said it, there was feeling in the response. Michael suddenly hugged him even tighter, and Thomas added his own hand on their side.

Michael spoke again. "Kev, we will hold you any time you want, honest. I mean that, too. I know how it feels, to have someone care about you and stuff. Thomas does, too. You've had it bad man, and we both know that."

"But...? I mean, I kinda hear like, there is something coming, so just get it over with, okay?"

Thomas sighed. "No buts, Kevin. You've got it wrong, just listen…"

Michael nodded. "Yeah, don't get us wrong. You want to mess around, and I promise, we might do it sometime. Seriously, who knows? Just - not now, okay? That's all. It's funny, you know? This morning I was horny as hell, and all day long I've needed to like, get rid of some stuff pent up and everything. But, tonight, I just want -" He stopped, thinking again. Thomas circled around and found his friends' belly button, poking it, causing him to giggle. "Okay, okay!" Michael said sheepishly. "Look, I just want to feel you, okay? I just don't want to be alone."

It was Thomas's turn to be confused. "When are you ever alone, bro?"

Glancing back, Michael sighed. "With you guys? Never," he replied, before turning to Kevin. "And I'm including you too, honest. I just sometimes, I don't know… I get scared and stuff. Like this is all going to end or something. So tonight, while we're out here and everything, like this? I- I just want… I just want…" He let his voice trail off.

Kevin smiled. "I think I understand," he replied. "You guys, you don't know what it's like. Everyone I meet on the street and in school stays away from me now, like I have some kind of a disease or something. All week long, it's been driving me crazy, you know? You guys are the only ones who don't avoid me any. And right now, I guess I get scared, too. Scared no one is going to like me anymore, or be my friend, or… yeah, that." His voice grew thicker with the emotion he was feeling. "Like it's all some kind of dream, and I'm going to wake up and find out I'm living in some kind of hell or something."

Michael shook his head. "You're not. Sorry to break it to you, but you've already been through that - this is your reality." Michael found Thomas's hand and squeezed it as he went on. "You're right, we don't know what you've lived through. I can't say anything much because I've never done what you did. I do know this, though: no one deserves to be alone, and right now, your heart is as good as anyone else, as far as I'm concerned. I mean, I feel it, right here and everything. You're diff, I know that, but that's not bad - it's a good thing."

Just then, Thomas decided to sit up. Smiling at Michael, he quickly squeezed his hand before pulling away and moving to Kevin's other side. Once there, he cuddled in, placing his own hand upon Kevin's chest, and with Michael's, they both lightly lay there with their friend. Kevin looked at first one, and then the other, before he spoke again. "Listen to me - I swear it, right now, on my holy-anything-that-is-personal. My dick even, if it will matter," he added, causing Thomas to giggle and Mike to grin, but both waited patiently for him to continue. "I swear, I will never knowingly break us up. You two will always be my friends, and that I will be here for you anytime I can - day or night, no matter what. I'll even swear it in blood if you want, I don't care. I- I love you guys. You know it, and I'm not ashamed to tell it to you. You're my best friends, even more."

In the silence that followed, Thomas added his own oath. "And I swear the same, Kevin. No matter what - if you need me for something, all you have to do is let me know. Dream or not, you won't be alone, not if I can help it. Neither one of you."

Kevin nodded. "Thanks man. I promise, no matter what," he reiterated, before twisting around so he could engulf them both in a full body embrace. "You can even circumcise me, if I ever break my promise," he added, his voice returning to its usual lilt.

This brought laughter, to which Michael replied, "That's right, you two are alike. I'm the odd ball here!" He took his hand and, without preamble, pulled up the band of Kevin's underwear before letting it snap back into place. "It's okay, though. I like being the oddball, I think."

Kevin reached up and pinched the boy's nose. "You're not an odd ball," he whispered.

Thomas again reached across and hugged them both. "Definitely not," he added, and to make his point, he grabbed Michael's crotch, holding it for seconds before letting him go. "Even if you are, then at least you're our oddball."

Michael lay there watching them both. Although he could not see it, he could feel the raw support and love as it had always been. The little hugs, the intimate way Thomas nuzzled his shoulder and the back of his neck, and just the sincere interest in their exchange, made him feel freer than he had been when they started. "You know, I don't know... Maybe I'm just being goofy." When the other two looked on, he shyly added. "If you want, maybe we could... you know…"

Kevin then sat up between them, before shucking his underwear altogether and laying back down. Michael and Thomas grinned at each other before sitting up and doing the same. Kevin squealed as he felt their nakedness roll up to him, and their dicks stretching out to touch his own. He reached out and took hold of each of them in his hands. "Oh my God, that feels so… cool..." he whispered as he shut his eyes. "Anything you want guys…"

Thomas glanced at Michael, and then took hold of Kevin's rigid tool before whispering. "We'll keep it simple, Kev. We're just showing you how much we trust you, and how much we respect you."

"Ditto!" Michael added, using his hand to play with the smaller teens testicles. "You know something? You might be a little short, but these are some mighty big balls that you're packing!" He fondled them in his hand while running the tips of his fingers through Kevin's smaller patch of pubes. "And heavy, I think! You must be filled up tonight!"

Kevin grinned widely, anticipating what was to come. "I haven't jerked off for a couple of days now."

Michael raised an eyebrow. "Really? How come?"

"Well, for one, we've been kind of busy, or at least I have; and two, I knew we were going to be camping out tonight, so..." Kevin answered in a low voice.

Michael snorted. "You really were hoping for this, then!" he remarked, and Kevin just grinned back at him, while squeezing the two throbbing erections he still held in his hand.

"So, is there anything special you want to do, then?" Thomas whispered aloud.

Kevin hesitated, then nodded. "Well, there is one thing I was sort of hoping for…" Looking into their faces, he saw them both nod. Sitting up, he let go of Thomas and turned to Michael, leaning over to whisper in his ear. "THIS is for you, bro, for your birthday!" Then, twisting around, he leaned down and swallowed Michael's erection in completely, topping and licking the circumcised member all the way to its base. "MMmmmmm…" they heard him moan. Michael, surprised, lay back as the younger teen placed a hand upon his chest, holding him in place while he attacked his prize, sending sensations all too familiar, but equally satisfying through his loins.

Kevin kept up his pace of licking and sucking for about a minute, before pulling off with an audible pop. He grinned at Michael quickly, but then turned to Thomas. "Don't worry, umm…. It might not be your birthday, but…" the teen whispered, but then dropped quickly down again, engulfing Thomas and repeating the performance, all the while grabbing Michael's engorged tool and massaging it. Another moan escaped the boy as he worked up and down the new shaft for another brief period of time, sampling its girth and length before pulling off. With that, he sat back onto his elbows again and grinned wickedly at the them both with a satisfied expression. "So…?"

"So…?" Michael replied, making Kevin scoff.

"Shit, guys … I just BLEW you. Was it good, or…?"

Thomas giggled, then pushed Kevin onto his back completely. "You have no idea, man," he replied, taking Kevin's tool and beginning to move his fist over it, pumping it slowly.

"Yeah, you're right about that," Kevin replied softly, surprising the other two.

"Huh?" Michael asked. "Right about what?" Thinking quickly, it hit him. "You mean, was that a first time for you?" When Kevin nodded, Michael sat up. "Really? Uh, okay, have you ever been sucked before? You know, has anyone ever gone down on you?" Seeing the teen shake his head, Michael looked at Thomas and met his grin with a nod. Without hesitation, Thomas then shifted and went down on the smaller teen, while Michael once again looked on and cupped Kevin's scrotum.

"OOhhhh sshhhiiitttt!!!" Kevin exclaimed softly, as he felt a warm wetness engulf him. When he felt another tongue sucking on his nuts, he looked down to find both boys were giving him the ultimate experience. He closed his eyes, relishing the attack and spreading his legs wider apart, his body tingling with the new sensations. "Oh shit, this is so much better than jacking off!" he whispered.

After a moment, Thomas pulled off and nuzzled around in the flesh and pubic hairs beneath him. "Do you want to finish him off?" he asked his best friend whispering aloud, who popped up and briefly met Thomas's own nose, nuzzling him briefly. Glancing close-up at the throbbing member, he then guzzled down the thick, five-inch prize all the way to the base, sucking hard before retracting back. Once he reached the tip, however, he worked his way inside of the extra skin there and found Kevin's glans. With a renewed energy, he began sucking and moving his tongue all around, including across the slit. Each time he crossed it, Kevin would squirm underneath and whimper. As it continued, the teen's moans gradually grew louder.

"SSShhh!" Thomas hissed, then giggled.

Kevin was squirming underneath them now. "I- I c-can't hold out m-much longer guys… I'm g-gonna cum… I'm gonna cum ssoooo bbaaaaddd…."

Michael renewed his efforts more vigorously, as Thomas leaned in and whispered. "Go ahead, just ride it out. It'll be okay."

Kevin hesitated though. "But, I'll c-cum… I'll cream in his mouth, I'll…"

Michael suddenly popped off. "So? Maybe I want you to!" he hissed, taking his hand and grabbing onto the base, before squeezing the shaft firmly. "Just do it!" he whispered, before pulling Kevin's skin back completely and exposing the fully slickened helmet inside. Returning to his treat, he provided short, quick strokes underneath. That combination sent Kevin over the edge quickly. Thickened globs of white semen started spurting, a sensation Kevin rode in its entirety with eyes squeezed shut, and hands clenched tight. He could feel each contraction as it moved from deep inside his scrotum. After the first couple of spurts, Michael popped off and grabbed Thomas, letting his best friend move down and take over while he continued to masturbate Kevin and pump him from underneath in short, quick jerks.

Kevin had pulled a pillow over his head in an attempt to muffle the moans of pleasure he felt. When his climax had peaked, he growled into the cloth while forcibly thrusting his groin upwards repeatedly in quick succession, trying to hang onto the edge. As the feeling retreated, however, the teen cried one final time - yelling into the pillow before pulling it away and gasping for air. Momentarily afterwards, he gently pushed Thomas up and out from his groin. "H-Hold up! It – it's getting r-really sensitive right -n-now!" he gasped while sucking in huge gulps of air. Thomas grinned and he sat up while Michael pulled his hand away, too. Although the two had ravaged most of the semen, there were places where some had escaped onto the teen's lower belly. Michael threaded his finger through some of them, feeling the familiar slickness, all the while he and Thomas listened and waited for Kevin to recoup his breath.

When the teen finally had regained some control, he groaned softly. "Oh ffuuuccckkk ggguuyysss… that was sssoooo iinntteenssse!"

"Yeah, we know," Thomas whispered. Kevin opened his eyes and looked upon them both with awe.

"T-thanks, b-both of you," the younger teen whispered. "I never dreamed it would be like that, never at all!" He turned his gaze to Michael. "You can shoot me, if you want. I'd die happy right now, at least." Seeing the confusion, Kevin explained. "I mean, it's your birthday, right? We should be the ones getting YOU off, not the other way around! You guys shouldn't be getting me off!"

Thomas was the one who answered, however. "What? You think this night is over?" he grinned wickedly, then grabbed Michael and pulled him across. For the next hour, the three frolicked about, half-wrestling, half-hugging and just enjoying the naked intimacy between them. Thomas fulfilled the task of taking Michael to a much-needed escalation and climax, and after watching him swallow his best friends cum, Kevin became curious about it. He said nothing, but when it was time, he was the one to return the favor to Thomas. As he felt Thomas throb harder, Kevin steeled his nerves and let the teen erupt in his mouth, succumbing to the rising pressure in his groin. Tasting cum for the first time, he screwed up his face at first, before finally sampling it and nodding in amazement. "Hey, that's not really gross at all! Kind of salty, but yeah…" he remarked.

Michael giggled. "I know. At first, it's just the thought about it more than anything else that seems so gross, but… yeah." They continued to hug and hold for a short while yet, before stretching back out. Once again, Kevin found himself lying between the two, and each were turned to face him. Their bodies were drawn together, continuing to share the intimacy of the moment while each rested.

"You know something guys?" Kevin finally whispered.

"Hmm?" Thomas replied.

"You two are really cool. I'm so glad we got to find each other," he offered softly.

Thomas grinned as Michael gave the teen a brief hug. "So, who was better? Between us?"

"At what?" Kevin asked.

"Any of it, I guess. I mean, you blew me and Michael both. Did either one of us taste better than the other?" Thomas whispered.

Kevin snickered. "I'm not answering that one," he mumbled. That made Michael giggle and hug him again. Afterwards, Kevin thought for a few seconds before continuing. "I will admit one thing, though. I do think you guys are different and all. Don't ask me how, okay? Just… you're different, that's all."

"I can understand that," Michael replied, then raised himself up on one elbow, overlooking the other two. "I mean, Thomas is the only one I've done it to before tonight, but when I was doing you, I thought you were definitely different than he was."

Kevin scoffed. "Well, of course! I mean, I'm not quite as big as you guys, and… and…"

Thomas shook his head. "I don't think that's what he means, Kev. I agree with Mike: you - uh - how do I say it? You have like a different taste, or smell I think. You know, something that is just all you. Maybe it's because you're a little younger, and just kind of getting into all this sex stuff or something, but …"

"Yeah, your cum tasted really nutty and everything. That's different than Thomas, I think, because his is like, both salty and nutty," Michael explained. "And his cum is a little thicker, I think. Yours wasn't watery or anything, but… yeah…"

"Fresher?" Kevin giggled, but then thought about that briefly. "I think I understand, yeah. Either way, though, it doesn't matter - you guys were different, too." When he fell silent, Michael returned to cuddling with their younger friend. Kevin smiled as he felt the nuzzling upon his neck. "Mike? I owe you, bro. Both of you, really, but … I owe you."

"What for?"

"Well, it's your birthday, and you didn't really want to mess around at first, remember? But then you did it… for me," Kevin whispered.

"No, I didn't," Michael replied, reaching and finding Thomas's hand still upon Kevin's chest, which he then squeezed. "I did it because I wanted to, Kevin. I did it for us, all three of us. Before, I was just being stupid, that's all."

"You weren't being Stupid, Mike," Thomas interrupted.

"Yeah, you were fine," Kevin added. "It's just, I wasn't that sure and all, myself. I've been around Austin some, but when we did that stuff today, down at the creek and everything - I was just happy you still trusted me. And then, you did THIS for me, tonight!"

"Of course, we trust you, Kev," Thomas whispered. "It's not like you've got anything that different than we do, remember?" He giggled. "Maybe a slight bit smaller, but hey, if it works, then use it … right?" All three broke out in giggles.

"Oh, it works alright, believe me… It works plenty well!" Relaxing, Kevin closed his eyes. "Like I said, though. You two, you're awesome…" Not another word was said as the three of them slowly drifted off to sleep.

"What do you think they're doing over there?" Jeremy asked nonchalantly. He and Austin lay side-by-side on top of their covers, both in t-shirts and underwear. Occasionally they could each hear the faintest of giggles coming from the direction of the other tent.

"I wouldn't worry too much about it, Jermz," came the reply, followed by a yawn. Austin then turned to face the other teen. "Kevin is probably telling them all his dirty jokes, for all we know."

Jeremy grunted. "I think it's got to be more than that, from the sounds of it," he replied listlessly, before sighing. "You're right though, I probably don't want to know."

Austin propped his head up and stared at the youth. Between the waning firelight outside and the bright moonlight above, the interior of the tent was surprisingly illuminated enough that they could make each other out quite well. "It's not that bad, I'm sure. I highly doubt anyone is over there shagging or anything." He had meant it as a joke, but when Jeremy's face remained neutral, he sighed deeply. "Sorry, man. I didn't mean that seriously, you know."

Jeremy looked up at the teen. "No, no - it's not that. I'm just trying to figure out, uh, what 'shagging' means…"

Austin sputtered in a fit of giggles, enough so he had to hide his face momentarily to muffle the sounds. "Oh my God…" he exclaimed, his eyes watering as he fought to control his laughter. When he settled down, he turned to his friend. "Seriously?" Without waiting for an answer, he again shook his head. "'Shagging', man, is some British or European term, or something. It means having sex, like fucking and all that!"

Jeremy's eyes went wide before he laughed to himself. "Shit! You've got to be kidding me…"

"Nope! Why would I kid about something like that, at least now?" Austin responded, putting a hand on his friend's shoulder. "You've got to admit, though, your sexual education may be a little lacking!"

Jeremy grinned, shaking his head. For a long minute, he fell silent before speaking again. "You know, this whole sex thing is weird enough as it is, but I have to admit, it's not as repulsive as I was afraid it would be."

Austin rolled over onto his stomach, pulling and wrapping his pillow up underneath. "It's not repulsive, man. Seriously, it's just … it's just not what you've ever experienced in a good way. For example, like being naked and letting peeps see your plumbing and all that. That's not such a big deal, as long as you're comfortable with it and all. A lot of guys aren't, but others couldn't care less."

"Yeah, right," Jeremy grunted. "I think most everyone at the hospital got a good look at mine the whole time I was there."

Austin sighed. "It's like you said once before, though. In there, it's different. Doctors and nurses see people all the time, with and without their clothes. It doesn't faze them any, not like it does other people on the outside. They're respectful though, for the most part - when they can be. They see boobs and pussies and dicks all the time, so it's nothing to them. It's just part of the human body, I guess, and they know they have to deal with it like anything else."

"Yeah, but I'll bet I was the talk of the floor at least. The kid with nuts as big as a bean bag," Jeremy remarked timidly. "But yeah, I didn't mind it so much for a while. I was half dead to the world, anyway." He hesitated, then casually continued. "You know, the day Michael and Thomas came to see me, and doc showed up and wanted to check me out, I let them stay." He turned and looked at Austin. "I'm really not sure why I did it, or made such a deal out of it, but I did. I guess I wanted them to know I was just as human as they were, maybe. I think back now and wonder what the hell I was thinking, but… yeah…"

"So? There was nothing wrong with that, was there? I mean, why think about it. You were comfortable with them there, right? Anyway, you were by yourself with just the doc, maybe you wanted some moral support or something."

Jeremy glanced at him and scoffed. "Yeah, rriigghhtt…"

Austin didn't let it go, however. "No, seriously Jermz. You knew them, right? Maybe, somewhere inside, you felt like you needed somebody close. There is nothing wrong with that, believe me." When Jeremy didn't respond, he went on. "Tell me, how about since then? Have they seen you butt-naked again?"

"Yeah, of course," Jeremy smirked. "Lots of times."

"Okay, and did that bother you any?" Austin asked.

Jeremy shook his head. "No, not really, but that was different. Like, for a while, being in the house there I couldn't be trusted to get in and out of the bathtub by myself any, you know? Usually one of them, or both, would stay with me and help me and get in and out and everything. And … and there's other times they helped me get my clothes on and off, too. So yeah - I've been skinned around them plenty."

"Okay, so I'll ask again - did that bother you any? Being around them?" Austin asked. "Or did they ever seem put off by it?"

"No, not that I know of. I mean, I trusted them, and still do," Jeremy replied.

"Then don't worry about it," Austin replied. "Kevin and I see each other butt-naked lots of times, and it never bothers either one of us."

"But…" Jeremy hesitated. "You're brothers."

Austin scoffed. "And you're not?" He let out a sigh. "Jermz, you've got to let go of this idea you're on the outside of all of us. You're a part of their lives now, and more a part of my life, and Kevin's, than you ever were before. All of us are family now. As for me and Kev, so what if we're brothers? We don't go parading around our parents or anything, mind you, but … we're okay with each other and all." He grunted. "Look, some people can be really squeamish about just seeing someone in their underwear, yet alone naked, you know? But you've got nothing to worry about. Honest, those two? I have a feeling their totally cool with it all."

"Yeah, I guess you're right. I mean, not once did they ever ask me questions, or make fun of me or anything. They just … helped." Jeremy turned to look at his friend. "Just like you. You've never made fun of me or anything, either. You could have, I know. Hell, you could have probably made quite a personal little hell for me with the other guys, if you wanted to. Or done a lot of other things, even with just the five of us. But… you didn't."

Austin turned his head to meet the eyes staring at him. "Why would I, Jermz? You've been thru hell, and we all know it. Honestly? Anyone who wants to pick on you for that shit needs to have their head examined. Their real head, not their dick-head, though who knows, maybe that's what some of them think with!" He relented. "I'm never going to tease you about that shit, ever. It's bad enough what you had to live through. I only regret you never let me inside. I mean, you never let me know what was going on. For that I could kill you, but I won't man. I can't."

Jeremy hesitated before responding. "I know, Aus, and I wouldn't blame you if you wanted to kill me, really." He scrunched his face as he shifted about, getting more comfortable before speaking again. "Why, though? I mean, I know you care and everything, you've convinced me of that, but… why? I mean, man, a year ago, if some of these things had happened, I would have castrated you and nailed your balls to the front of the bus." He glanced over and reemphasized his point. "You know I would have done it, too."

Austin made a face. "Sheesh, you know how to make a guy feel funny between his legs, don't you!" He laughed, then rolled closer until the two were now side-by-side. "It's simple, Jermz. The person I'm with right now, is not the person he was a year ago. Neither am I. Like I told you earlier today, you're my brother now. Whether you like it or not, I'm going to treat you that way, because I want to. Because, that's what we are now."


"Oh yes, really, and I'll prove it to you." Austin suddenly pulled up onto his knees and, with a quick flourish, pulled the front of Jeremy's underwear out and down, exposing his friend's whole groin. "You see? I'm not afraid of you, man." He peeked down, trying to observe what he could in the weak translucent lighting. "By the way, your balls look like they're almost back to normal now, anyway. Maybe still a little big, but meh." He started to reach out, but then stopped and looked up. When Jeremy didn't react, he continued and gently cupped Jeremy's scrotum in his hand, lifting the marbles they contained just enough to feel their weight before returning them safely as before. He let the band snap back, causing Jeremy to laugh aloud afterwards. Returning to his previous position, Austin lowered his voice. "I know, that was probably weird, but don't you see? Or better yet, don't you feel it? Don't you understand how much I trust you, too? And look at you - you didn't flinch or anything at what I just did. Don't you understand that that means something, too? Trust, it runs both ways, man."

Jeremy nodded. "Yeah, I'm learning that, too. Mike is always talking to us about trust, and this connection thing we all have. If there is one thing that has gotten through to me from you guys, after all the talks we've had… you know, inside of me, then it's that." He paused. "And what you just did? Yeah, I didn't mind. I trusted you, too."

Austin nodded. "Trust has a lot to do with all of it, Jermz. And not just the little kinds of trust, either - but the kind that comes from your heart. Someday man, you and me, we're going to find some chicks who will steal our hearts, and then you'll have to learn to relax and go with the flow." He grinned. "That's how babies get made, by the way, in case you didn't know."

Jeremy playfully punched at his friend. "Thanks, Pop! I think you're a little late with the birds and the bees speech, though."

"I don't know about that, to be honest," Austin replied with a smile. "You didn't know what shagging was, remember?" They both laughed as Jeremy blushed. Austin observed his friend closely. "Remember earlier today, you told me if I wanted to know something, to just ask? Well, can I ask you something then? Is that still okay?"

Jeremy relaxed. "You can ask me anything you want, any time you want, Austin. I mean that. Just-" He hesitated as he grinned. "If it's umm, sex stuff, maybe wait until we're alone is all."

Austin giggled. "Okay, deal, but um… that's not it this time, anyway." He rolled onto his side, facing his friend, the pillow pulled up tight to support his head. "You said something the other day, and I've been kind of wondering about it. You said something like still being afraid and all. What's your biggest fear? I mean, I can imagine before, it probably had to do with your Dad, having to deal with him and all. But, what about now?"

Jeremy studied for a moment, before scooting closer than before. When he stretched out, there was nothing separating the two teens. To Austin's astonishment, his friend then grasped Austin's hand and pulled it upon his chest nervously. "My biggest fear?" he whispered, before heaving a sigh. "My biggest fear is waking up and finding out all of this is a dream. From everything that you, your brother, Mike and Thomas have taught me – about letting my guard down, about feeling my way through things now, to learning to trust, and… and learning to love again … It might seem weird, but… it scares me."

"Why?" Austin whispered.

"Because, if I wake up, and I find out it's all just a dream, then… I have nothing left in me to live for anymore." Jeremy fell silent, and Austin suddenly could make out tears escaping and running down his friend's cheek. When Jeremy spoke again, his voice was deathly quiet. "Austin, I- I haven't felt these kinds of things, these kinds of feelings, since before my Mom died. Even then, I can barely remember what that was like anymore, you know? And now, they're so new to me and all, and some days I like them, and some days it's … well, it's just weird."

"But, do you ever dislike them? I mean, before… before the change and everything, didn't you ever feel loved or anything at all?" Austin asked.

"No, not really." Jeremy looked over into Austin's gaze. "Speaking of which, did you ever know why I changed? I mean, did you know why I let it all go, after I beat the shit out of Thomas?" He swallowed hard. "That day of the fight, I saw myself becoming my old man. Every beating he did to me, every time he shoved his dick up my ass, every time he scratched and hit and punched and slapped the shit out of me - that was the path I was heading myself into. I already started seeing it even before that day, you know? When the fight started, you weren't there, but Thomas called me a faggot, and it just … it just lit this bomb inside of me. I tore into him with everything I had, Austin, because in so many ways he was right. I WAS a faggot, I WAS the one being fucked hard, man. I was the one actually being fucked and having the shit beaten out of me."

"Oh man, Jermz! But - come on, you know Thomas didn't know any of that, he didn't-"

"I KNOW, okay?" Jeremy interrupted. "I realized it after I calmed down, but man, that's not the point. You never saw me like I was that day, Austin. I… l lost it, I really fucking lost it! The whole time Thomas was on the floor of the bus, and every time I hit him, I didn't see him, but instead I saw my old man there! I saw the asshole who had been doing all that shit to me! Don't you get it? I wasn't beating Thomas up, I was beating the shit out of my old man, because he had made me the faggot. He had made me a stinking whore, and… and I hated him, I hated myself, and… Don't you see? When I calmed down enough to see it was Thomas, and all the bruises, the cuts, the blood…" Jeremy stopped and started to sob earnestly just then. "I realized I had turned into the same bastard and monster that had been screwing me, and I hated myself for it. Oh God, did I hate myself for it! For the first time ever, all the taunting and shit we dished out on people for so long, it made me suddenly sick. I hated myself, I was… I was the fucking faggot, I was the dick head… I was… I was…"

As the sobs increased, Jeremy broke down completely. Austin put his arm around the teen and pulled him close, hugging him completely. "Hey, man. It's okay… It's really… It's okay…" he soothed softly, while his own tears flowed freely. "I get it, I really do."

Jeremy suddenly grabbed at his friend's arm and held tightly. "That's when I saw it. For some reason, I knew it then. I knew I had gone way too far. I had become my father's monster! Maybe I wasn't fucking anyone, but who the hell knows, it probably coming to me before long." With a wildness in his eyes, he looked up to the ceiling of the tent over them. "I hurt him, Austin. God, I hurt Thomas so bad… I fucking hurt him, before I even realized it wasn't even him who I was fighting. I thought I was finally giving some of the shit back to my old man, but… but…" He gasped. "That's when it finally sunk in, man. That night, before Dad ever got hold of me, I knew I had to stop, that I had to change. I couldn't do that again, not to another human being, no matter how much of a creep they were, or a geek or a dweeb or anyone. I had to stop it… I had to fucking stop being a bastard to everyone, before I lost everything, you know?"

As Jeremy continued to sob, Austin quietly held him, soothing him and encouraging him to let it all out. Several minutes passed before Jeremy regained control and quieted down, but he never let go of the arms that were holding him. When the lump in his throat subsided enough so that he could speak, Austin whispered to his friend. "Well, you did it, you know? It cost you a lot between then and now, but now you're the best friend and brother I could ever have asked for, right up there with Kevin. You understand that, too, right?" He twisted around until he was facing just inches from Jeremy, smiling at him. "You did stop, you did change, and you caught me just in time, too. Because I would have probably followed you down that road. I would have become the monster, too."

"No, you wouldn't," Jeremy replied thickly, but Austin didn't let it go.

"I'm not so sure, man. I was hanging onto your coat-tails, remember? You and me, we go back a long way Jeremy. We did a lot of shit together and all, remember? But you're forgetting something else, too. If you hadn't caught Kevin, he would most likely be dead by now, and I would be the one that fell apart. I was awful to him, sometimes. I was far from the brother he needed, and if I had been better to him, he might have not gotten to where he was. I have you to thank for that, you know. So not only did you change, man – but you changed for something good. That's what brought so much more peace to you in the end, didn't it? Me seeing that in you, that's what changed me, too."

Jeremy hesitated before closing his eyes. "Maybe, I don't know," he whispered weakly.

"I do, I know it. So, you shouldn't be so scared then, man. You're not going to wake up from this - this is as fucking real as it gets. Those people in that house, and in that tent over there - they love you, and not out of pity, either. I see the way they look at you, I see the way they watch after you. They really do care. You talked about having to have help and everything, being naked a bunch of times, and a lot more. Hell, do you think Mike and Thomas would do that for just anybody? They cared, they wanted to help, and you needed it. And you know something? I see how you look back at them, too. You care about them now, just as much as they care about you. Don't deny it, okay? I know… Inside, I know…"

"Austin, I… I do care, yeah." Jeremy closed his eyes. "They've given me something to feel in this family, that I never thought I'd be able to feel again with anyone, or anywhere. That's what I was trying to say a bit ago. That's why it seems so scary to me, because if I were to wake up and find out it wasn't real, what the fuck would I do then? Does that make sense?"

"Does a dog squat to shit?" Austin replied, grinning widely. The remark caught Jeremy off guard suddenly, causing him to laugh aloud. Austin took advantage of the opportunity and leaned in, hugging his friend tightly again. "Listen, it's real, and not one of us is going away. You'll have to learn to live with us - all of us - so get used to it. Get used to all the water balloons, and the water hoses being stuck down your butt. Get used to the hugs and, heaven help, even the kisses, too. Get used to Mike's mom doting all over you, and Thomas's mom trying to fatten you up. Get used to us wanting to keep checking out your plumbing until you get your jewels back to normal, too - because you know we're all going to be curious and will want to do it - no matter how weird it might seem. At least for me, Mike and Thomas. Kev, too, if you'll let him. But more than anything, Jermz? Get used to being loved man, and while you're at it, catch up on all the things you missed out on if you can. Don't worry if it takes a little while, either. Seriously, so what? We don't care, because we know what you've been through. Okay? Around us, man, just be yourself. Let us help out, but have some fun while you're at it, okay? Never forget, all of us love you, and none of us are afraid to wrap you up in our arms, if it'll help. Your safe man, no one is going to hurt you like that ever again. And I mean it, not ever. This is just as real as you can imagine, trust me. Just believe in us, and believe in yourself, too. You've got this, I promise."

Jeremy pushed back so he could look into the eyes that met his. "How did you become such a fantastic shrink?" he whispered. He then pulled on the neck and wiggled underneath until Austin was totally on top of him. Once there he gave him the fiercest hug of all, wrapping his arms and legs around his friend. In so many ways, it was still an even newer experience for him, with them both being so intimately close and holding each other. In just as many ways, however, it offered something else, on the inside – a certain peace that was indescribable. "I love you, too. Don't forget it, okay? You're my best friend."

"Ditto" was the only reply he got back, but it was also the only reply Jeremy needed to hear.

"Well, what do you think?"

The question was voiced quietly, focused so that only Michael could hear. The five of them had separated into different groups to explore and check out different parts of the house. Carolyn and Michael ended up on the back deck, outside overlooking a yard which backed up to a dense line of trees. Several feet away, Mr. Mathews and his wife stood chatting amicably, the latter tagging along on this afternoon to meet the ladies more formally than before.

When Michael didn't reply immediately, Carolyn paused and looked across to their hosts. They seemed friendly enough to her, although she had to admit she knew very little about the man and his business. It was no secret, the family had been going through some rough times recently with their youngest son, but then a funny thing had happened. Linda had pointed out to her the night before, that once again Michael - and now Thomas - seemed to be reaching out to someone in need, but in a totally different way. Carolyn smiled at the thought, as it solidified her belief in her son's empathy for others being a rare gift. As she turned and glanced down at him, she was quite proud - of not only who he was, but also of what he was becoming. She only wished her husband had had just had a fraction of the depth of commitment that Michael had. And the warmth, she added in her thoughts. She thought about those 2-1/2 years she had been with the man well before she got pregnant, finding sensitivity and love in him. How wrong she had been in the end, though. As soon as she had told him of their impending little bundle of joy, he at first seemed happy about it. A month had not passed, however, before she arrived home one night, and found he had packed everything up and disappeared. Michael's father had shown his true colors then, running out on them and never to be heard from again. Even her in-laws had dropped all contact with her, leaving her - and her unborn son - truly alone.

Their abandonment used to bother her, especially the fact that after Michael was born, he would grow up fatherless. She had tried to date a few times, but each time ended with someone who was either stranger than before, or abusive. When Michael reached his second birthday, however, he was suddenly stricken with a bad infection that lasted for months. It was then Carolyn had decided she had better buckle down. Not that she hadn't already, to some degree, but a renewed determination sprung within her just then. From that point forward, she gave her son the one-on-one care he needed at such a tender age, and even after he finally got better, she never let up. It was while she nursed him back to health that she realized, if he was to have any kind of a future now, there was only one person in his world he could ever truly rely on - and that was her. With that faith, she set out to finish her nursing certifications, and before they knew it, their life together as a team had solidified.

A "team"; the thought stayed with her as she turned and looked out over the yard again. There was absolutely no question that was what they were. Through all the years, they had always made their decisions together, from the simplest to most complex of situations. Despite his age, Carolyn made sure they always talked it out. She had come to rely on his intuition heavily - because surprisingly, Michael was extremely perceptive about things, and especially people. Her son could size a person up within minutes, seeing a great deal of character in them that others could easily overlook. It had helped her more than once in dealing with people they met. And not just people, either; he had an immense ability to tackle problems and find solutions to them. Even at times when you would think something was over his head, Michael would surprise her by just seeing the most obvious pieces of the puzzle first.

That was what she needed from him, now. She needed to know what he was seeing, if anything, and that also meant what he was feeling, too. This was the break they had been hoping for, but there were reservations. She looked down at him again. "Honey?" He looked up into her eyes, and she saw an uncertainty there as well. Unlike the other, newer members of their "family", who had found the place exciting as soon as they stepped in the door, she saw Michael hesitate. Reaching out, she grasped his hand and guided him over to a nearby picnic table that had been left behind. There they both sat down facing each other. "What is it kiddo? What is it you're thinking? Tell me."

Michael lowered his eyes toward the deck. "I don't know, Mom. I mean, I guess it's alright. I don't see anything wrong with it…"

"Okay, but...? I do hear a 'but' in there, don't I?" Carolyn asked. When he didn't answer right away, she leaned toward him, gently cupping his chin. "What is it honey? You know you can talk to me, right? I know you have your new friends and everything, but don't shut me out kiddo, please. You're all that I have. I need to hear what you think, scouts honor."

Michael looked up again, startled. "I don't shut you out Mom, honest! We, I mean..." He choked up on that thought, and she could see by his expression something troubled him.

Carolyn thought about how he had come in from the campout that morning, how he had looked different and preoccupied, more so than the other boys. She initially thought it was because the boys had stayed up most of the night and were just tired. Now, however, she feared it was more than that. "Did something happen last night, honey? Something not... right?" There was an edge in her voice, as she looked out into the trees beyond the yard's edge.

Michael shook his head and finally smiled. "No Mom, I promise. Everything yesterday, and last night, was fine, really. It's one of the best birthdays I've ever had."

Sighing inwardly with relief, she kissed the top of his head. "Then what honey? What is it? Is it the house?"

Again, Michael shook his head. "No, not really. Mom, I just - I don't know, I guess I have to be honest about something." He hesitated for a long time, thinking through what he wanted to say. Carolyn waited patiently, an arm comforting him until he gave a sigh. "I guess, it just seems like it's too good to be true, you know? I used to wish Mom, to have a friend, to have somebody I wouldn't feel so alone with anymore, you know? And then, it seemed like Thomas just dropped in from nowhere. I knew him for a long time before then, I know, but we never really connected or anything. And then, all of a sudden - boom, there we were."

He turned to look up at her. "Then there was his Mom, and then Jeremy, and now Austin and Kevin. It's like - we're getting to be this really big family together, this family of friends, I guess. Suddenly, we needed a bigger place and now, boom - here it is. And, and..." He looked at her helplessly. "It's hard to explain. It's just something that's been growing on me for a few days now, and I'm like, really scared sometimes it will all go away and..."

Carolyn smiled at him. "You're afraid the bubble is going to burst, aren't you?" When Michael slowly nodded, she laughed, surprising him. Running her fingers through his hair, she leaned in and whispered. "I've got some news for you, kiddo - you're not the only one who has that feeling, either."

Surprised, Michael pulled back and looked deep into her eyes. "No way! You too?"

Carolyn nodded. "Yep!"

Michael was awed. "Mom, how... I mean..."

Carolyn shrugged. "I don't know. I think I'm kind of like you, sometimes. Our lives used to be just you and me, for a long time. Then last fall, things changed for the better, you know? Before you and Thomas started watching football, it was always quiet, even sort of getting boring at times. And now, here we are seven or eight months later, and this is what we're faced with. All of this has happened so fast and everything, it's enough to make your head spin sometimes!" She smiled at him. "But Michael, listen to me. I understand how you feel; it's like having butterflies in your belly, and it makes you both nervous and excited, and at the same time anxious and unsure, all rolled up into one. But honey, that's no reason to be afraid. I mean, okay, we've been thrown a few curve balls. So, what? That's life! Sometimes you have to just embrace it and go with the flow."

"I know, Mom. That's what you always tell me, anyway," he conceded, leaning up against her.

Carolyn looked back at the house. "Listen kiddo, I want you to tell me something: Do you like Thomas?"

"Mom, he's-" The boy started and then sighed. "He's like my brother. I love him. I mean it, he's so much like me, and he likes the same stuff I do and, and..."

Carolyn nodded. "I know you do, and I know he has a lot of affection for you, too. So, you got your wish, right? You have a friend now, and eventually he and his mother had a need. At the time, we were the only people who could help them through that, so in a way, fate or not, that's how it all worked out, right?" When her son nodded, she continued. "And so now, fate or not, you have another friend who needs you just as much, although in a different way. In fact, I'm not so sure but I think Jeremy really needs all of us. You wouldn't want him to have to live the rest of his life, would you, rejected and alone? He could end up in a place, somewhere that would never really teach him anything about love, family, trust, friendship – not like he really needs. I mean, Linda and I have had this talk before - and she told me what it was like growing up in foster care and orphanages. They just don't have a lot of people that provide the kind of emotional and physical support he needs right now. And given how old he is, there is not much of a childhood left for him, you know?"

Michael nodded. "I know, Mom. He's already lived most of his life alone and abused."

"Exactly. So, fate threw that curve ball our way, too. Tell me something else: Have you regretted it? Has Thomas regretted it any? Have either of you had any reason at all to regret all of us being together?" When he shook his head, she hugged him. "You see? It's all good, honey. I admit, things get a little weird and funny sometimes, but that doesn't necessarily make them bad things. You know something else? You and me both needed something to do in our lives kiddo, and I guess this is what the Good Lord has provided for us. He answered your prayers, and at the same time, He gave us both people to care for and help, hmm? Even better, these people care about us in return, too - so that's a good thing any day, don't you think?"

Michael gazed out over the back yard and thought about that. "But what happens when - if it all goes away?"

Carolyn scoffed. "Do you really believe that will happen now?" She could tell he didn't, but the question left a haunting reality for him. She pulled him back in for a motherly embrace, speaking quietly all the while. "I don't. Michael listen, life is like a road, a road of discovery. You go down one highway, just to turn onto another one every so often. You go around curves, you seek out places to go, destinations to find, people to greet and meet - and it never really ends. Sometimes they're coming from the other direction, sometimes they're going the same way you're going. Sometimes, they speed on by and don't even notice you, while others slow down, and wave or smile at you. Some hook up with you, taking the time to help and talk, and who knows what else. Remember what your grandfather used to tell you, before he passed away? There are only two things in life you HAVE to do-"

"You have to be born, and you have to die," Michael replied quietly.

"That's right, honey. Everything else in between is a choice. Well, you have a choice - you decide which road to travel, which direction to go, how fast or how slow you want to move along. Everything, and I mean EVERYTHING, is a choice. Just remember though - it never ends, there is always some new challenge lurking around the curve. Sometimes it's a good one, sometimes it's not. Sometimes you'll meet someone on the wrong side of the street, and you both have to either crash or swerve to keep your life on track. In other words, you have to just face it when it comes, and then roll along and figure it out as you go. Honey, I don't know any better about the future than you do - it's just the here and now I can deal with." She hugged him tightly. " We, that's you and me kiddo - we have a bigger family now, and it doesn't look like it's going to get any smaller for a while. I think it would be kind of cool, don't you? So, what if something happens, and something doesn't work out in the end, or the dynamics change again? If it does, we just deal with it then, and find a new road to hop onto for the better, that's all. Right now, though, this is where we're at. SO, maybe getting a bigger place to stay is our next step, hmm? What do you think?"

Michael grinned as he returned the hug, burying his face in her shoulder. "Yeah, I guess you're right. You're so smart, you know?" He relaxed. "I love you Mom; I don't know what I would do without you."

Smiling, Carolyn took hold of and held his chin. "Oh, I don't know about that. You might be sad for a little while, but I bet you would find your way just fine. I'm so proud of you Michael, so very proud. Don't ever forget that. I love you with all my heart, honey." She let go and glanced toward the house. "So, tell me now, what did you really think?"

Michael grinned widely. "I think it's perfect, as long as we can get some new carpet downstairs. Those two rooms would make great bedrooms for us guys, and you and Linda could have the whole upstairs."

Carolyn nodded in agreement. "That's what Linda and I were thinking, too." She studied him closely. "Michael, before we get up, honey, I'm asking, one more time – are you okay kiddo? Is there anything else you want to talk about?"

After only a brief hesitation, in reply he leaned in and kissed his mother on the cheek, before whispering in her ear. "I swear to you Mom, on my heart - I'm okay." He glanced at the Mathews, who were still standing in the distance. "Let's go see if we can buy, or rent, or whatever it is we have to do for this place."

Carolyn smiled in return as her son pulled her to her feet.

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