The Scars Above My Heart

by Sean English

Chapter 4

When Two Hearts Finally Speak

The adventures of the week had not yet subsided for either Alex or Brett. The next day, both boys were called back to work on yet another vehicle for Mr. Bay, this time a 4-door sedan that had just been traded in on the evening before. Both boys were ecstatic, having now been called to do back-to-back jobs for the man. As they attended and then finished the job that afternoon, the reason for their turn of luck became abundantly clear. Mr. Bay, having returned from his travels, walked outside and inspected their work afterwards, before calling them aside. "This is truly remarkable! Well done! So, I have to ask, where did you boys learn to do all of this?" he asked, obviously impressed.

Alex shrugged. "When I was doing this last year back in Idaho, I guess I had a good teacher. You see, my family just moved in here about six to seven weeks ago."

"And then, he's the one who taught me most of what I've learned. So far, anyway," Brett added.

Mr. Bay nodded. "Well, that makes sense, then. I will admit something to you boys: the other day, when you first approached me, I was somewhat skeptical. You see, sometimes in this business, the making and selling of vehicles like these depends on the first impression a person gets when they see it. A car or truck not taken care of very well, cannot only be an eyesore, but it can create a train of negative thinking. Like, does it really run well, or has it had problems before now. That extends to making people wonder about how well the previous owner maintained the vehicle, too, or why they traded it in in the first place. I didn't know whether two young men such as yourselves would really understand that. In detailing, there is a lot more to it than just a general washing and vacuuming out. It's about paying attention, and in turn making the vehicle strike a good impression overall. You've both totally surprised me by how thorough you are, and it makes me appreciate this checklist you use to get through a job." Mr. Bay paused, then nodded. "Yes, indeed, you had to have had a very good teacher, I think. It shows by how much you're already prepared before you even get started on the task."

Alex beamed, but also blushed at the high praise. "Thank you, sir. I... We just try and do right, that's all."

"No, thank you." Mr. Bay then pulled his wallet from his pocket. "So, one truck, one sedan, I believe based on what you quoted me that would be $90, correct?" He counted five $20-bills from his wallet, and then added a sixth one to the stack before handing it over.

At first, Alex refused to take the offering. "That's too much, sir."

Mr. Bay, however, shook his head. "Let me be the judge of that. Both jobs would have cost me $160 or more to get done elsewhere, so I'm still getting all of this at a better bargain."

With a little coaxing, Alex finally accepted the cash. "Thanks again, Mr. Bay. We really appreciate you giving us the opportunity to try out for you."

The man, however, was not finished. "You're welcome. Now, let's talk some serious business for a minute. I won't have anything arriving in the next week, unless I should trade on another vehicle and decide to keep it on the lot. The truth is, some weeks I may not do very well business-wise, while others I do the exact opposite. Now that school is out for the summer, many people do seem to buy or trade around this time of year, more than common. A lot do it before going on vacations, or when the kids start back to school. You see, that's actually a plus for you." He leaned back against the vehicle and looked at them squarely. "A very good friend of mine, Bob Moore, owns another lot over on Breeding Street, about a mile or so from here. If you boys think you can extend your route out that far, I happen to know he has a truck coming in this weekend that will need a fair amount of attention. I know that because I did an intra-lot trade with him, see. That's another job for you right there come Monday morning, if you're interested."

Brett's eyes widened. "Seriously? Sure!" Alex nodded in agreement.

"Then consider the job yours. I'll call him before I head home this evening and tell him to expect you. The fact is boys, although I can't give you any certainties, I think between a few of us smaller dealers and all, we can give you, oh, two to three vehicles a week to do throughout the whole summer if you want it, maybe more. If you clean most of them as well as you did with the truck that I saw last night, and this sedan here today, then you'll have no trouble keeping some of your business on the go."

The man paused, however. "The only thing worth noting is about Bob, though. He is a little slow paying his bills on occasion, but I've never heard of anyone having a problem collecting their money from him. He has four kids, and does work on the side in real estate, so that keeps him pretty busy sometimes, or running from week to week on paychecks. I'll vouch that he's good for his word, though. You may have to wait a few days before collecting is all, especially if it's early in the week. All you have to do though, is just give him an invoice. He'll pay without any problem."

Alex nodded before grasping the man's hand to shake it. "That's not a problem, sir. If you say he's good for it, then that's good enough for us, too. And thank you again!"

The man shrugged as Brett also reached out and shook hands. "You've done really well, and you should be commended for it." The man hesitated yet again, however, before bidding them farewell. "There is one question I would like to ask you though, if you'll permit me. Trust when I say I'm only asking for curiosity's sake, as well, okay? I understand you had a run-in with Spalding the other day. I take it he must have given you a rough way to go, right?"

Although an awkward silence followed, Alex finally nodded. "Yes sir, kind of."

Mr. Bay snorted. "I figured as much. There was paper under my door this morning when I came in, warning me to be on the lookout for two strange teenage boys trying to, and I quote, 'bullshit their way into the cleaning business'." Shaking his head, the man suddenly laughed. "Old Herb Benningfield called me last night, said he heard the man got knocked flat on his ass in a sopping wet puddle. Which is saying something, I tell you!" He paused, still chuckling before looking up. "Honestly, I wish I had thought of it the other day when you were here. I could have at least warned you boys to stay away from him. Spalding is a hot-head, and I do mean HOT. His temper flares faster than a bat out of hell, and he doesn't care who knows it, either! Still, don't worry about him though. Bob, Herb and myself, along with a few others - we'll have your back."

Alex nodded, looking grateful. "Thanks, Mr. Bay. Uh, there is one thing we didn't mention to you the other day, sir, that I think you need to be aware of." Along with Brett's help, Alex then explained the upcoming camp trip, now only two weeks away, and that it would take them out of action for the following week.

Mr. Bay seemed unfazed by the news, however, as he smiled and nodded. "I know that camp quite well. I've sent my own son up there a few years back. I think it's great that you boys are volunteering to help out. It'll be a fun week for you, too, where you don't have to be around here doing all this sweaty work," Mr. Bay added, waving at the finished vehicle. "I don't see any problem with that, and I doubt any of the others will either. Just be sure to tell us the dates you'll be gone, and when you expect to be back and available again."

Brett could not help but break into a toothy grin. "I don't know how to thank you, Mr. Bay, but we're both grateful! It means a lot to us!"

Mr. Bay smiled. "It's summer, boys. You have a right to enjoy it as much as you can. Once you're older and entering the workforce, everything changes, so get as much out of the season while it's here. Everything will be just fine! I'll call Bob in a little while, and he'll see you Monday, okay?" Both boys bade the man farewell, before hopping onto their bikes and heading home.

When they arrived at the Edwards' house, Alex followed Brett inside to his room, where they sat on the floor and faced each other. Pulling out the money, Alex then separated it into 2 stacks, giving half of the currency to his best friend before picking up the remaining stack for himself. Brett held the money in his hand with both a look of surprise and contentment. "I don't think I've held this much all at one time for a while, now, you know?"

"You heard Mr. Bay tell us today - there's more to come." Alex suddenly smiled. "I got the feeling he kind of likes us, you know?"

"I'd say so, yeah," Brett replied. Looking up, he asked, "What are you going to do with your half? Any plans?"

Alex giggled. "Buy you a bottle of air freshener for your bathroom, maybe?" Seeing Brett roll his eyes, he then shrugged. "Just kidding. Honestly, I think I'm going to put half of it away for savings. I don't have a bank account yet, but it'll go toward a decent deposit when I do."

"That's not a bad idea actually," Brett acknowledged, thinking he might do the same. "Hey, what about the money you made last summer? Did you get it out before you moved?"

Alex suddenly stilled himself, thinking. He hesitated for several minutes before finally looking up. In the extended silence, Brett saw a strange, curious expression meet him before Bobba Fett suddenly appeared in the open doorway. Seeing Alex, the dog ran inside and jumped into the teen's lap, momentarily breaking his concentration. As Alex ran his fingers through the canine's fur and scratched him behind the ears, he said nothing. Brett felt that was both odd and out of character for his friend. "Earth-to-Alex, come in! Hey, you okay over there?"

The teen finally looked up, blushing. "Oh, yeah, sorry. I just got to remembering something, that's all. Anyway, yeah... Mom and Dad got it out for me, before we left."

Brett accepted the answer, but then another silence ensued. "Repeating, Earth to Alex... what's up, buddy?"

Alex finally grunted. "Nothing, Brett. I'm feeling pretty good, other than just suddenly feeling kind of tired. Anyway, I think I'm going to keep half of my share for just spending on, you know, for fun. The other half I'll put away for later, in case I need it. If I don't end up using much by the end of the summer then, you know, I'll open an account or something and put it in the bank. That's what I did most of the time last summer, anyway. I didn't have much I wanted to spend stuff on, so a lot of it went into the bank." He sat back and wrinkled his nose. "When we get paid for our next vehicle though, I'm going to give up some of my earnings so we can restock our supplies first - like the glass cleaners, dashboard and leather treatment stuff, and anything else. First vehicles are okay, I guess, but I don't want to depend on my parents for supplying them or anything, especially when we can afford to do it ourselves. After that, we'll split everything down the middle again, if that's okay."

"Yeah, that's a good idea, I agree," Brett replied.

Alex nodded and consciously looked at his watch, before setting Bobba Fett aside and standing up. "Listen, I don't mean to just up and leave, but there's something I remembered I'm supposed to do for Dad this afternoon, especially before he gets home. It's already after four now, so I figure I probably should get going. I'll be up a while later tonight, though. I mean, if you want to talk some more or anything. Okay?"

The sudden change caught Brett off guard, but he silently nodded in acceptance. As he walked his guest to the door, he noticed that Alex bade his friend goodbye and left rather quickly, which confused him even more. It wasn't so much what his friend said, but more of Alex's actions that seemed off-putting. Brett couldn't put a finger on it, but the sudden change in demeanor and sudden departure was uncharacteristic of the teen, and as Brett stared after him, he couldn't help but wonder what had happened in those few short moments.

Alex also realized he had handled himself badly, and as he mounted his bike and rode down the driveway he was overcome with a feeling of guilt. Still, his mind was already racing in other directions just then, too, as a sudden fear began to grip him inside. Reaching the road, he did happen to glance back in time to see both Brett and Bobba Fett outside, on the porch, watching him leave. Even at a distance, Alex clearly saw the disappointment in his friend's face, and that made the teen feel even worse. He knew he and Brett should have celebrated, or at least done something more together just then, but Alex was already on the verge of panicking. Right at the moment, he didn't want Brett to see that.

When Alex arrived home, his nerves felt stretched to the end, frazzling his normally calm and collected persona to the point of feeling sick. He entered quickly and began calling out, "Mom? Mom, are you here?" Moving through the downstairs rooms, he swiftly realized she had not returned yet. Closing his eyes, he counted to 10 slowly, trying to keep a balance between his fears and what he should do next. It calmed him just enough to let an idea to pop into his head, and as it formed, he rushed up the stairs two at a time. Quickly entering his bedroom, he grabbed his laptop and then plopped down upon the bed. It was one of his Dad's older units, one which took an excruciating amount of time to boot up, at least compared to more recent and newer models. Still, it was his, and he didn't waste any time using it for basic tasks ... like this one. With each passing second, Alex began sweating, so in an effort to keep himself calm, he rose and stepped into his bathroom while the device booted up. Pulling a washcloth from the shelf, he soaked it with cool water and then wiped it slowly across his face. He then stared at himself in the mirror for a moment and realized that he was suddenly losing it. He chastised himself, and with a renewed determination, it reinforced his resolve to calm down. After a moment, his efforts helped steady his nerves to the point where he could think more clearly.

Alex finally managed to sigh and return to his bed, where he still had to wait for the laptop to complete its boot cycle. Once it finally gave him access to the system, he sought out their neighbor's router and connected instantly to the internet. Using a set of carefully established virtual network links, a trick his father had recently taught him, the teen navigated to an address that in turn routed him into a familiar banking site. Once he signed into his account, the site displayed the usual summary page. His heart sank, however, when he saw the funds had been emptied. At one time, Alex knew he had over $800 deposited there in savings, but now all of it was gone. When he called up the details, he saw the last entry was only two weeks old, where someone from the outside had removed the entire amount, down to the last penny.

A sickening feeling began to develop in his stomach again. It wasn't so much losing the money itself that worried Alex, although that was a significant enough amount for any teenager his age to suddenly have taken from them. Rather, it was the fact that the account had been tapped, and from someone on the outside. How it had been done, he did not know, but given the way general banking rules were established, he knew it had to be by someone very conversant to get around the security. As he looked further, there was neither an audit trail he could follow, nor any kind of identifier signaling who might have done it.

It was Alex's thoughts about the audit trail that made him stop and suddenly consider what traceability he might be leaving even now. Quickly making a few clicks to copy the screen and save it, he then rapidly logged out and closed all of the virtual hops he had just created going into the site. It gave the teenager some respite, although he knew that could be short-lived. His access, in terms of location, had at least been hidden marginally, but any expert in network communications could glean more details if they mounted an investigation. He just hoped he had put enough layers in between to dissuade them from doing that.

Alex began thinking about the account itself. If someone had tapped it once already, then that would mean they knew something about him, or found out the account was never deleted or closed and might have wondered why. Could Alex have screwed up, not thinking about this path until now? Could it cost his family the one avenue he had tried so hard to protect regarding their past? The sinking feeling returned, as he realized that, having tried so hard, it may have been all for naught. The fact that someone had discovered the account and somehow uncovered his password was proof enough. If they did it once, then that meant they might do it again.

Looking at the time, Alex took another deep breath and simply signed off the internet entirely. He needed to clear his head and think through everything more clearly. His father would be home within the hour anyway, and they could sit down and work this out, surely. Climbing to his feet, he stripped his clothes and dropped them by the bed. He and Brett had worked hard that afternoon, in weather that was both hot and humid. Although Alex wasn't prone to sweat excessively, he was still adjusting to their new climate, and that afternoon he had certainly perspired quite a bit. The sticky, clammy feeling it left him did nothing to help his overall mood, so he determined a shower might help him feel a little better.

Moving slowly, the teen walked back into the bathroom and marched straight into the shower, stepping over the side of the tub and closing the curtain. There he set the water in motion and stood beneath the steady stream, letting it methodically massage his body. With eyes closed, the water's heat, combined with the steady flow of altering jets, helped him calm down for a few short minutes. Afterwards, however, the teen couldn't help it as he became restless. As his fears and thoughts returned, no matter how hard he tried, the water trickling down his face began to mix with a new cascade of tears. He felt awful.

How long he stood there he did not know, but several minutes later he noticed the water beginning to cool. Knowing the water heater was probably struggling to keep up between the supply and demand, Alex finally opened his eyes and retrieved a washcloth. He quickly scrubbed in the necessary places before turning the water off. Stepping back into the bathroom, he dried himself in silence before returning to his bedroom once again. There, the teen pulled on fresh briefs, denim-cut shorts and a t-shirt he acquired from his dresser, before sitting down on the edge of his bed. "What am I going to do?" he asked aloud, knowing he was only talking to himself. All at once, he was almost in tears yet again as he sighed in desperation. "I really wish Dad were here..." he voiced again, his voice cracking under the strain.

It was then Alex was suddenly surprised to hear noises coming from the lower level. Quickly racing to the stairwell, he descended the steps and entered the living room at a half-run, only to stop short when he saw his father at the front entrance, thumbing through the day's mail. As the man looked up with a smile, he was about to greet his son when he noted the angst upon his face. "Alex? Are you okay? What's wrong, son?"

Staring blindly, Alex opened his mouth more than once, but no words would come out. Richard immediately sensed a desperation he had not seen in his son in years. Dropping the mail back into the basket, he hurried over to stand in front of the teen. "Calm down, son. Has something happened? Just talk to me, what's wrong?"

Alex finally took a deep breath and steeled his nerves. He began by explaining what he discovered about his savings account, how it had been tapped and drained, and all the fears that had suddenly seized him from the moment he realized this little part of his life had been overlooked so easily. Richard listened intently, taking in every word, but then eventually guided his son over to the couch where they both sat down and turned, facing each other. The man's face was not unkind, but one could see he was thinking quickly. He knew enough about his son that he needed to let him finish, and that is exactly what he did. Alex poured his heart out, tightly controlling himself as best he could, until it seemed he finished. When the teenager had finally subsided, Richard spoke up with a gentleness he hoped would help soothe his son. "Okay, I get what you're saying, but ... tell me, why are you so worked up? Hmm?"

Alex looked at his father incredulously. "What- Are you serious? Dad, they... they..."

"Hold on a minute, son," Richard interrupted, maintaining his calm demeanor. "Now, I grant you, it does look pretty suspicious, but Alex? Don't forget: we're all supposed to be dead now, remember? There was quite an effort made to establish that, you know. Anyone - and I do mean ANYONE - can find a name, especially from a newspaper or some other method, and just start combing the local banks for accounts. It's not a new practice, son; thieves have done things like that for years. Anyone could have just stumbled across our names, and then started working on accessing and getting into banks up there in the region."

Alex listened, but then shook his head. "But, our names were never listed in the news, Dad... were they?"

"Oh, I don't know. Maybe not that we ever saw, but who knows? There are other ways to dig that kind of information out, right? You see, though? Someone could have just gotten lucky. It doesn't mean the worst, okay? You haven't done anything horrific, so... calm down, okay?" The man paused, looking curious. "Did you really have over $800 saved up?"

Alex suddenly blushed before he nodded. "It was a little more than I that, I think. Yeah, I guess so." He stared at his father with a sudden intensity. "But Dad, don't you see? If it was tapped, even by someone else, then why didn't they close the account when they were done? Wouldn't that, like, throw the bank off the trail, or anyone else who looked into it? Especially if they were trying to be quiet about it? Why would they leave the account open?"

Richard sat back, studying hard. Looking off in the distance, the man considering that aspect carefully before he returned his attention to his son. "Okay, you've got me there. But Alex, don't get too worked up about it yet, okay? There may be a perfectly reasonable explanation. I mean, who knows, maybe whoever was involved isn't as smart as you are, hmm?" The man smiled and then reached out, placing an arm around the teen's shoulders. "Okay, I get why your so torn up about this, but you need to calm down. I promise, it's alright. Even if it wasn't some dumb jock, it doesn't mean the worst, or that our little world is coming to an end, okay?"

Alex sat there, looking at the floor, as a tear escaped and ran down his cheek. "I- I'm sorry. I try... I really try to be careful, and... it's just..." He looked up into a pair of eyes filled with kindness and sympathy. "I just, I don't want to lose this again, Dad. Not now, I don't want to have to up and move and leave again, or start over, and... and..." The teen wiped at his eyes. "Shit!" he whispered, frustrated with himself.

Richard could feel that frustration as well, and he knew how totally uncharacteristic it was for his son to fall apart like this. It was then the man did something rare between them, as he reached out and pulled the boy in, encasing him in his arms. "Listen to me, son. It won't happen. I promise, you're not going to have to go through this anymore."

Alex shook his head. "Y-you can't promise that, Dad, and you know it! You don't know-"

"SShhhhh, hush!" Richard whispered, hugging him tighter. "That might normally be true, but it doesn't matter anymore. All this is putting too heavy a toll on you and your mother, and I know it. We're all close to the breaking point, and quite frankly, I'm growing tired of all the running, too." He nuzzled Alex's neck. "You're going to be fine, Alex. All of this - we'll work it out, I promise. I'm not sure how, but if things don't move along and tie themselves up soon, I'll figure something out. That's a promise I'll make to you here, and now."

Alex closed his eyes. "I'm sorry, Dad... I'm really sorry..."

"Shh!" Richard whispered again. "You have nothing, NOTHING to be sorry for, kiddo! All we can do is try to be careful, son. As long as we try our best, then that's all we can do, you know? Besides, it's just as much my fault as anyone else. I should have remembered you had that account, too, but it just slipped my mind."

Alex pulled back, and for the first time he began to look hopeful. "Wh-what are y-you going to do now?"

Richard thought for a moment. "Well, I think we'll give our good friend up north a heads-up, just like always. I'll send a message out tonight, and then I'll talk to him as soon as he gets back to me. But until then, we just keep everything moving along as we always have. You know, one day at a time." The man observed the teen with a smile. "You know something? I couldn't be prouder of you. I haven't seen you get this worked up in a long time, and then to think all this through, and reason it out like that? It's like your mother and I always tell you, you've got one hell of a head on your shoulders!"

Alex finally blushed. "Didn't do me a lot of good today though, did it," he whispered. "I actually freaked out. I really, fucking freaked out." He realized the slip and blushed even further. "Sorry, Dad."

"What the hell?" Richard exclaimed, laughing. "My son, using colorful language? That's a twist! And besides, didn't you listen to what I just said? Alex-"

Alex raised his hands in surrender. "Okay, Dad, okay, but... yeah."

"Listen, you've got to realize something: nobody expects perfection, Alex. Nobody. I certainly don't, and neither does your mother. We both have made plenty of mistakes in life, and we'll be making plenty more before it's all over with. That is just a part of being human. If you haven't figured that out yet, then you'd better get used to it, son." Richard sat back into the couch just then, pulling Alex back with him. "Besides, mistakes are how we sometimes learn to deal with the things we don't expect. They make us stronger in the end, you'll see. The thing is to always be willing to recognize them, and never, ever run away. Own up to them when you can. Sometimes you can't correct them, but those that you can, then you do it. It's as simple as that. Above all, learn from them, because that gives you both experience and wisdom in the end." The man shook his head. "Ok, enough preaching, I guess. I don't know why you think you're not careful enough, though. I mean it son, you're probably the most careful person in this family. I've never doubted that, trust me."

The two fell silent then for some time, before Alex sighed and extracted himself from his father. "Dad? I love you," he said quietly. "Th-thanks."

Richard, moved by the moment, placed his hand upon the boy's shoulder. "We'll work this out, you'll see. Just don't jump to so many conclusions too easily right now. We need to take it all one step at a time, okay?"

Alex smiled weakly, but then nodded. "When is Mom coming home, do you know?"

"Oh, that reminds me, she texted me on my way in. She's staying late at the library tonight because someone fell ill and had to leave. So, I guess it's just you and me. Have you got anything you're hungry for? How did your vehicle turn out today, by the way?" Richard finally stopped to breathe, making Alex giggle. It was good to hear the teen laughing again, the man thought.

"Anything is fine for food, Dad, but, I'm not really hungry. At least, not now. And the job went fine. Mr. Bay paid us for both vehicles, and even gave us a little extra. Then he told us that between him and some other of the smaller lot owners that he's friends with, they can probably get us a few vehicles to work on each week, for as long as we want," Alex concluded.

"Really? Well, that's fantastic, isn't it? Way to go, to both you and Brett!" Richard exclaimed. He wrinkled his nose. "You know, I'm not really that hungry yet, either. I need to do a little research on something, plus get that message off. What say we loaf about and take it easy until around 7:30 or 8:00, then we'll see if your mother can get free. If so, we'll go grab some burgers and tater tots, how does that sound? I haven't had a good burger in a while, anyway."

"And I haven't had tater tots in a long, long time!" Alex replied, feeling a sudden wave of relief. Each minute that now passed, the teen really was beginning to feel a lot better. "It sounds great, Dad... Just give me a heads up when you're ready to go."

Sitting at the head of his bed, Alex stretched his bared legs forward after scratching an itch just above his knee. They were unusually sore this evening, something he guessed was a by-product of their extensive work - if not exercise - he and Brett experienced that day. The hour was late, but he wasn't particularly sleepy yet. He had been waiting patiently for quite some time already, propped against the bean bag conveniently placed behind him. The room was dark, except for the single source of light emitted from the laptop resting on his thighs. In addition, the house was uncharacteristically silent, as his parents had already been long gone to bed.

Alex glanced at the clock displayed in the lower corner of his screen and then grunted to himself. It was already half-past eleven o'clock, and by this time the teen was usually curled up and sound asleep. Not on this night, though. He had already tried to call Brett a couple of times, but for whatever the reason, his calls went unanswered. Fortunately, Alex knew the web site which his friend had shown him before, one the teen frequently visited while chatting online. In recent weeks, Alex had been there a few times already, and the two had joined in with some of the fun in the room - which was basically consisted of a bunch of teenagers chatting with others world-wide.

Alex had signed in just before nine that evening, hoping he would find his friend eventually, but he was beginning to realize his efforts might not be successful. Growing weary, he was about to give up and log out when he suddenly saw Brett arrive. Alex smiled in relief when he recognized the handle of the newcomer, ThatDamnedTeenager, appear. Almost immediately, Alex settled back in and opened a one-to-one private channel to him.

'Hey, it's me. Are you alone?' Alex asked tentatively. Almost immediately he received a response.

'Hey! Just my harem of beautiful girls trying to rape my naked body' the teen teased, but then relented. 'Or, rather a certain 4-legged caboose trying to give me a tongue-bath all over.'

Alex smiled and then activated his web camera. Brett did the same, and Alex saw the topless teen lying on his side with Bobba Fett snuggled up close to his chest. Indeed, insofar as he could tell in the dim lighting, the canine was actually licking a spot intently on Brett's lower ribs. "So, that's how you get all excited, huh? Getting Bobba Fett to lick on your nipples and all?"

Brett scoffed and then rolled the dog over so that he faced the screen, and could thus see Alex. "Nah, not me. It feels weird most of the time, but he seems to get something out of giving me a bath," came the soft retort.

"Well, maybe it's because you taste good," Alex offered with a smirk.

Brett smiled weakly though, and just nodded. "I guess. So, what's up?"

Alex surveyed the face in his display and took a deep breath. "I was hoping to find you. I wanted to tell you I'm sorry about today. I acted like an ass, and I didn't mean to."

Brett raised his eyebrows. "An ass? I wouldn't go that far, but yeah, I knew something was eating you. The Dad excuse, though it might have been true, but it wasn't all that convincing." He hesitated, laying his head down onto his pillow to prop it up. "Actually, I was afraid maybe I had done or said something wrong."

"No, you were fine. I'll swear, even on a bible if you want, that it had absolutely nothing to do with you, or your family. I-" Alex hesitated, then took a deep breath. "Just, some memories of something came back to me, and... and I panicked, Brett. I needed to think through them, and get with my Dad. I promise that, sometime, I'll tell you about it, okay? I just- I can't do it right now is all, not yet. I promise though, on my heart, that I will soon."

There was a long pause on the other end, before Brett finally nodded. "Okay, I believe you. That's fair enough, Alex, don't sweat it. It's not like it was that big of a deal."

"It was to me, though. Remember what we promised each other yesterday? I felt really bad about it all after I got to calm down tonight, and after Dad got home. I... I'm really sorry," Alex offered.

Brett threaded his fingers through the dog's fur for a moment before he responded. "It's okay. I mean, I probably overreacted anyway. Don't get me wrong. I just felt... I don't know. You know how much you and I have been hanging out and everything, ever since you moved here, right? We've been kind of, I don't know, just getting closer and everything. Even yesterday, when we took that nap, it was like everything just clicked between us. I guess I thought we were kind of on the same page and everything, and then when you left today, I wasn't so sure anymore. I didn't understand, and I just... felt... alone, and kind of empty, I guess. The way you rushed out, and then not hearing any more from you or anything. I'm sorry too, Alex. It was just, it felt weird was all. Does that make any sense?"

"More than you know," Alex replied softly. "Listen Brett, you're my best friend, period. Nothing is going to come between us, not like that anyway, I promise. What I did today was something I had to do, but it had nothing to do with you. You mean a lot to me, you know? I don't want to lose that."

"You won't. That's my promise to you," Brett replied.

Alex giggled as a thought came to him. "I'd better not. Besides, like you said, we've slept together now, right? You don't have to worry about whether we can make it in your bunk at camp."

Brett grinned, but shook his head. "Yeah, but we had more room in here than we will in the bunk."

Alex shrugged. "So? I don't care. I mean, like it or not, I guess we'll have to get used to it when we get there, you know?"

Brett snorted before fluffing his pillow again and laying his head back down. "You know something? I think that's what I like best about you, Branham. You know how close we'll be physically, and yet you don't seem to mind it. At least, knowing what it'll be like. As weird as that might sound, it means a lot to me that you seem to understand and don't care."

Alex thought about that for a minute. "Yeah, but, it's okay, honest. Brett, what is the worst you think will happen? You'll poke me with a boner or something? Or that I might do you the same way?" When his friend just stared at him in silence, Alex finally shook his head. "Listen, if it were anyone else? Believe me, I would have said no from the start. The truth is, I really don't care, as long as you don't leave me stranded or anything. I think it'll be fun, and I'll be with you. That's all that matters to me."

"Are you sure?" Brett whispered.

Alex smiled again. "Of course, I'm sure! You're stuck with me now, remember?"

Brett let go of a huge sigh just then. "I don't know, Alex. It's you who might be the one stuck with me." He paused before he added, "You know, if I were there, or you were here, I'd hug the stuffing out of you right now."

Alex sat back, feeling suddenly warm inside. "We can hug again tomorrow, if you want," he whispered in reply. Brett smiled and nodded. Alex grinned again. "Careful with my stuffing though, you might have to push some of it back in for me."

Brett grinned. "I would, anywhere you needed me to." Bobba Fett, for some reason, also growled and barked softly. "Shh!" Brett admonished the dog gently, rubbing his finger through the fur again before looking back to the screen. "I think he agreed." Alex nodded as both boys visibly relaxed. Brett raised his head a few seconds later, though. "Hey, something you said made me wonder: how long have you been waiting for me to get on here?"

Alex shrugged. "I don't know. A while, I guess. I tried to call you a couple of times, but..."

"No way!" Brett's eyes narrowed, before rolling back in the bed and reaching for something from the table behind him. Grabbing his cell phone, he checked it and grunted. "Oh man, I'm sorry! Gina borrowed it earlier, and she somehow must have turned down the volume on it before she brought it back. I never heard it go off!"

"That's okay, at least you've signed on now. That's all that matters," Alex replied. "I... I really wanted to try and talk with you and all."

Brett looked at him through the video window. "Are you sure you're okay?"

Alex sighed. "I am now. I just, I needed to talk to you, and to explain. I needed to tell you I was sorry." He paused and looked away. "Brett? I know I've been holding out on some things, and I know you're just being nice by not bugging me about them. That says something to me, though, and I don't take it lightly. I'm going to explain, I promise, and soon. Just... be patient with me for a little while, okay? I can't fill you in now, that's all." He smiled. "But you know something? Just your being here right now, it makes me feel a whole lot better. Like, the kind of better-I-can-finally-go-to-sleep feel."

Brett smiled. "Believe it or not, Alex, I totally get it. And you finding me, it's made me feel a whole lot better, too." A brief silence fell between them. "So, what's next? Do you, like, want to do something tomorrow?"

"If you'll let me, yeah! Are you sure you're not mad at me any?" Alex asked, almost whispering.

Brett grimaced and then leaned in closer to the camera. "Do I look mad?" he asked, before giggling. "We're cool, I promise."

"Good, I'm glad. Like I've told you, I'm not afraid of you, and sometime soon I'm going to prove it once and for all," Alex giggled in reply.

Brett sat back again, smiling. "You don't have anything to prove to me, Alex. So yeah, are we on for tomorrow?"

"Absolutely!" Alex replied. "After you get up, maybe we can go out and celebrate or something."

"You bet! Oh, hey, I just remembered something: Mom is off tomorrow! Maybe I can talk her into taking us to the movies. How does that sound?"

"Sounds good with me! I didn't even know we had a cinema here!" Alex replied.

"It's up on the other side of the interstate, close to where Gina and I go to school." Brett hesitated, however. "Uh, speaking of the little runt, that might be a slight hitch. Sometimes Mom makes me bring her along."

Alex shrugged. "I don't care, Brett. Just ... so long as we can hang out some tomorrow, that's all that matters."

"You bet! Okay then, I'll call you in the morning. Hey, Alex?"


"Thanks man. Thanks for finding me tonight. You're the best," Brett stated.

Alex shook his head. "Nah, you are." With that, Alex terminated the video call before Brett could reply, and then shut down the laptop. As he stretched out, he pulled a light throw blanket over him, smiling. It had been a long day, and a tough evening. He was glad it was ending on a good note though, because after seeing Brett's face in the distance earlier, he knew he had hurt his best friend. For the longest time that evening, after he had calmed down and finally sat with his father for a while, his heart had sunk.

All of that was behind him now, however, because the best part of the evening was that his friend had forgiven him. Alex now easily drifted off to sleep, thinking he might just try to also sleep late the next day, too.

When it came to compromises, Brett knew how to manage the ones in their household the best. His mother did, as he half-expected, impose upon the need for the boys to take Gina along. In the interest of not being overly invasive though, Brett also negotiated for Gina to invite one of her friends to come, too. Their mother agreed, recognizing the two girls could then watch whatever movie they liked together, while he and Alex also went their own way. Thus, following lunch the next day, Brenda picked up their guests, and all five made their way across town to one of the main shopping complexes which also housed the local cinema. As they pulled up to the theater front, Brett was reminded to call her once they were ready to be picked up, which he promptly agreed to fulfill. As Brenda drove away, he turned to the two girls. "Okay you two, go pick out your show so I can get your tickets and know where you'll be."

"Back in a flash, boy with the cash!" Gina called out, moving through the crowd quickly, with her friend already struggling to keep up. Brett and Alex grinned at each other and also closed in, observing the billboard display that towered above them. "Do any of those look interesting to you?"

Alex carefully studied their options. "Well, there's the new Avenger's movie. Have you seen it?"

Brett shook his head. "Nope! I was standing here wondering about asking if it interested you, though. Let's check it out!" Stepping away, the teens approached the box office where Brett stopped and asked the lady behind the window how long the film was. Hearing the result, he thanked her and then turned with raised eyebrows. "Wow! It's about two and a half hours long!" Before he could comment further, however, Gina appeared by their side and pointed out their selection. After a brief consideration, Brett nodded his approval. The end result turned out such that the boys could start their movie within the next 15 minutes, with the girls starting theirs only an additional 15 minutes afterwards. The girls would end up finishing sooner, but would only have to wait another 15 minutes for the boys' movie to finish up. Brett and Gina both thought it was a good compromise, and thus the older teen greeted the high-fives that both girls offered him. Approaching the box office yet again, this time he purchased the necessary tickets for them all. "Mom gave me money for the girls, and I'm treating for you and me," Brett explained to Alex, while they waited in the line for their turn.

"Hey, no, wait a minute! You don't have to..." Alex began, but Brett shook his head.

"No, it's fine. Listen, go get us some popcorn and a drink, okay? That'll almost make us pretty close to even, anyway. Though you'd better hurry up, because we've only got about 10 minutes before ours gets started," Brett encouraged. Alex hesitated a few seconds before finally nodding, and then moved off quickly to get in line at the concession stand.

Gina, however, looked up at her brother. "Hey, what about us? Don't we get to have some popcorn, too?"

Brett handed his sister a $10 bill. "Yeah, Mom left that for you, too. Wait until I have your tickets first though, okay?" Being next in line, he quickly stepped up and made their deal, before handing the tickets to the girls. "Listen, uh, you two be careful, and go where you're supposed to, okay? With us separated and all, you know I'm taking a chance here. I don't want to have to tell Mom I didn't keep up with you like I probably should."

Gina nodded. "Relax, don't worry bubble butt. I promise, we won't run out on you or anything." She glanced to one side of the lobby. "If you don't find us right away, check in the arcade over there, okay?" Brett glanced at the alcove and then nodded in agreement.

"Okay, have fun. See you after the movie!" Brett replied. The two girls then began walking toward the concession stand, just as Alex emerged from the crowd and found his friend.

As Alex approached, he glanced down before shrugging sheepishly. "I kind of figured we could share, if that's okay. Though I'll buy another drink too, if you want me too."

"No way!" Brett replied, grinning before he turned and led the way into their theater. Brett was especially pleased, because with the single drink shared between them, it was yet another one of those little signs. The two were definitely becoming more comfortable with each other.

Sometime later when the movie ended, both boys emerged with a host of other patrons. The entire crowd was energized, talking excitedly about various scenes, the special effects, and how the movie had ended so cryptically. Before Brett and Alex made it halfway across the lobby though, Gina and her friend appeared beside them. Grinning, Brett gave his sister a quick half-hug in relief, and then pulled out his cell phone and made the required call to their mother. In the meantime, the girls headed off for the bathroom.

Alex sauntered over to a nearby bench and sat down, with Brett joining him. "You know, I just thought of something," Brett remarked after they had sat in silence for a moment. "I think you guys are coming over late tomorrow afternoon, right? For the cookout?"

Alex nodded. "Yeah, I think so. Why?"

"Well, Kristen, that's our cousin, she's planning to stay and spend the night with Gina." Brett hesitated briefly, turning to observe Alex closely. "Uh, how would you feel about spending the night with me? Are you up for it?"

Alex's eyebrows rose high as he considered. "I, uh, well.... Won't your harem of ladies be there to give you all your naked comforts and..." As he saw his friend roll his eyes, Alex smiled and relented. "Yeah, I mean... if you want me to."

Brett sheepishly grinned. "Sure! I mean, I invited you, didn't I?" Shaking his head, the teen laughed. "You're cool, Branham, but sometimes you throw me off a little, you know?"

"I know. Just like you do to me sometimes, Edwards," Alex retorted, his voice low. "But yeah, it sounds like it would be fun."

Brett nodded. "We do have a lot of movies and stuff on DVD that we can watch, like horror, sci-fi, James Bond... you get the idea. Or we can play games all night if you want. That is, if you're up for a good ass-whooping again!"

Alex rolled his eyes. "Oh, please... Just when have you ever whipped my ass on anyth-" He stopped, thinking suddenly. "Okay, okay ... one condition though: we're not playing that 'Crazy Taxi' thing!"

Brett laughed hard. "Y-you remember that n-now, don't you!"

Alex leaned in and bumped his friend's shoulder with his own. "How could I forget? But, hey, be fair about it - that game - it's weird!"

Brett nodded. "It's different, yeah." Falling silent briefly, he then spoke again with a lowered voice. "You, uh, you don't think your Mom or Dad will give you any grief about staying over, do you?"

"No, they shouldn't," Alex replied, shaking his head and realizing what his best friend was really asking. "It's not at all like the camp thing, Brett. I'm not going to be so far away or anything. They'll be fine."

"Is that the real reason you thought they might be worried about? You know, about going to camp and all?" Brett asked.

"Well, yeah, kind of," Alex nodded. "It's not so much that they're afraid of me getting out, I think, as they are about me being so far away, and for so long. I mean, I bet we could go to Louisville, or Indianapolis... maybe even Chicago, and they wouldn't care if it was for just a night or two. But we're going to be out 9 to 10 days, right?" Alex grunted. "There's a reason for it though, Brett, and however it weird it might sound, I don't blame them, really. It's one of those things I'll have to fill you in on later, like I promised."

"Oh, okay." Wrinkling his nose, Brett sat back on the bench. "I guess that's something I've never really had to worry about. Mom or Dad, and sometimes both of them, are always around for a few days during the week." Brett grunted. "Probably just to keep me out of trouble, but..."

Alex laughed. "Why is that? Are you doing naughty things, or something else they have to keep an eye out for you?"

"Oh, I don't know," Brett replied, blushing. "The guys usually get into all kinds of shit up there, but no, no drinking or drugs or anything like that." He looked at his friend and saw the amused look being returned. "Honest! If there is any of that crap, I've never seen or known anything about it!"

"I believe you," Alex replied, relenting and leaning in to bump shoulders with the teen again. "I'm not worried about it."

"Awesome!" Brett exclaimed in relief, looking pleased. "Hey, what about this evening? You up for hanging out some more when we get back home?"

Alex shook his head. "I can't. Mom is taking me to some kind of test tomorrow morning, and tonight she wanted to sit with me through some of the stuff to prep with."

"Really? What kind of test?" Brett asked.

Alex shrugged. "School stuff, mostly. I think she's trying to make sure I'll meet the minimum requirements for high school equivalency here in Indiana." Alex purposefully tried to play off the excuse as nonchalantly as possible, hoping that Brett did not pick up on the real reasoning behind the exercise. It was one piece of news he had yet to convey to his friend, choosing instead to hold it back for what he hoped would be a surprise.

Brett looked thoughtful for a few seconds and then nodded. "Wow, too bad you have to do it on a Saturday, though."

Alex shrugged. "It doesn't matter to me, really. It has to be done sometime. I'd rather just get it over with."

Late Saturday afternoon, the Branham family walked from their house to their neighbors, amidst sunny skies and humid temperatures. Upon arriving, they heard country music coming from the backyard, along with various shrieks of laughter. A group of youngsters were playing volleyball further back on the lawn, apparently having the time of their lives colliding and falling over one another. Nearer to the back door of the house, tiki-torches were already established around the area in preparation for the later hours, surrounding a variety of lawn chairs and coolers. In the middle, a makeshift table had been set up, already adorned with a table cloth, snacks and cold, iced drinks.

Roger Edwards, dressed in jeans and a short-sleeved polo, was already firing up a gas grill off to the side, all the while holding a sweaty, long-necked bottle in his hand. Standing next to him was another similarly dressed man, also enjoying a similar beverage and chatting away. As the newcomers approached, both stopped and turned with wide grins to greet them. "Hey, Alex, Richard - come on over! How are you guys doing? And ... Patty, I think, isn't it?"

Alex's mother laughed, taking the hand proffered to her. "Yes, Patty. And we're doing fine, thank you."

Roger then turned and jerked a thumb toward the other man. "Let me introduce you guys to my least favorite brother-in-law, Jerry Dickerson."

Jerry rolled his eyes. "Don't listen to him! I'm his only brother-in-law! I'm glad to meet you, though!"

All of them laughed as they shook hands, and Roger turned his hands outward. "What? Well, that just means the least is favored the most then, right?" Laughing again, Roger added, "His wife, Lisa, and my wife Brenda... they're sisters, obviously," he explained. "That's why we call each other outlaws!"

Richard and Patty warmed to the gentlemen almost immediately. They chatted amicably for a moment, and then Patty looked around before speaking up. "Um, where are the other ladies at?"

"They're inside, preparing the meat to be cooked by your semi-handsome gourmet chef!" Roger laughed, but then motioned onward. "Go on in and meet them, if you like. They should be just inside that door and to the right." Patty excused herself and disappeared through the appointed entrance.

Alex set down a dish of brownies he had been carrying along on the table. Observing the other teens and kids farther out in the yard, he abandoned the men and wandered toward the game. "Hey guys!" he called out as he approached.

As soon as Gina realized he was there, she dropped the ball and came running to greet him, practically jumping into the teen's arms. "Alex!" she squealed, hugging him quickly and tightly as he caught her. Turning to the others, she then put on a matter-of-fact expression. "Dibbs! He's on my team, I claimed him first!" Alex then laughed as she dropped back to the ground and began dragging him into the game. Looking about, he noted Brett was shirtless, but in his usual shorts, and teamed with a younger, also shirtless boy he did not recognize. Alex, Gina and Kristen were on the one side, and obviously facing off against the other two.

Brett introduced the other boy as Kelly, a neighbor from up the road who happened to have come down for the cookout. Once they greeted each other, Brett spoke up again. "Did you get your head emptied out this morning, from all the tests and everything?"

Alex shrugged. "I guess so. It wasn't that bad, really." He looked around again. "Where's Bobba Fett?"

"In the house," Brett replied. "We couldn't turn him loose out here with all this going on. Too much excitement for his little heart to keep up with, I think!"

"Really?" Alex laughed. "For us, or for him?" Grinning, the teen moved back into position to serve the ball, but then stopped as he observed the layout. "Um, won't this make it three against two, Gina?" Alex asked. "That's not very fair for them, is it?"

"Believe me, Brett makes up for two players and more all by himself! Come on Alex, it'll be fine! You'll see," Gina replied slyly. Alex nodded, and then over the next hour or more, the five players proceeded to play the match rather vigorously, keeping the ball surprisingly afloat for several long stretches. Alex discovered that Gina hadn't misspoken, as Brett easily ran all over the court with Kelly, keeping himself and the boy well established in the game. All five of the young people ended up colliding at times, and falling into tangled heaps upon the grass. For the most part, however, each side played well as a team. Alex, the others came to find out, was no slouch to the game. He understood the tricks and rules well, and he had no fear playing with the girls on his side. With his help, they were able to keep up as a group reasonably well, balancing out the scoring for both sides almost identically.

Eventually Brenda called out to them, and the group finally stopped their play, breathlessly making their way over to join the adults. Both Kelly and Brett donned t-shirts, and then joined the rest of the crowd as they gathered around. Throughout the evening, the various adults had been laughing and carrying on their own lively conversation, intertwined with the music that played in the background. The women had just finished setting the food onto the table, so everyone gathered around, standing in a semi-circle and falling silent. After subduing the music momentarily, Richard then asked if Jim would say a quick blessing, with which the man obliged. The group then started picking up paper plates and moving around the table, serving themselves generous helpings of the food. There were hamburgers, hot dogs and pork loin, all grilled fresh and adorning their evening's festivities, along with buttered corn-on-the-cob, potato salad, baked beans and a host of other items and condiments to complement the feast. Each of the teenagers happened to build plates with selections that would make any parent proud, having wisely chosen a variety of foods and not just the usual, picky fare enjoyed by a lot of young people in general.

As they finished loading their plates, each person took seats to enjoy their meal. The three families spent practically the next hour and a half laughing, telling jokes and stories and reveling in the fellowship they shared. It seemed almost strange to Alex, as this was the first time in a long, long while that he benefitted from observing family, friends and good people like this come together. It left him feeling melancholy at first, but as he sat back and listened, it also made him feel strangely warm inside. Glancing about, he noticed he wasn't the only one affected. His own mother seemed to come alive, delighting in the companionship of their new friends as well.

As dusk began to approach, Roger rose and lit the various torches, which added a soft afterglow to their serene surroundings, providing a perfect illumination below the darkening skies that were giving way to the slowly approaching dusk. The teens finally rose and began playing a game of lawn darts, trying to take advantage of the fading light as much as possible, and having fun picking out their targets in the increasing shadows. It created a lot of laughs, more jokes and genuine solidarity between them all as the evening progressed. Then, just as the twilight rolled into total darkness, the plate of fudge brownies suddenly appeared along with a host of other desserts, including another rarity Alex had yet to experience: homemade ice cream. Combined, the brownies themselves turned out to be the biggest hit, especially after Patty confessed that Alex had made them from scratch earlier that afternoon.

"You did these?" Gina asked, bewildered. "Really? Wow! They're good!" The other teens and adults agreed with her.

At half-past nine, the crowd began to break up. Jim and Richard helped Roger put the torches away, along with the chairs and table, and then all profusely thanked their hosts for an awesome evening. As Kelly started to bid the others farewell, Jerry pulled the youth aside and offered to drop him off on their way out, which he gladly accepted. Once they had left, Gina then took Kristen by the hand and led her inside. Alex helped Brett pick up the game pieces and deposit them in the garage, before they both excused themselves and headed inside, and down the stairs into Brett's room.

Once inside, Brett closed the door, but then had to reopen it when Bobba Fett started whimpering and scratching from the other side, wanting to join them. Once the canine made it inside, Brett made sure the door was closed securely. "There, now it's just you and me for the rest of the night. Mom and Dad will go to their bedroom eventually, and Gina has Kristen upstairs in their room. I'm sure they'll be keeping themselves plentifully entertained, probably all night long if I know her," he explained, turning the lamp on by his bed. "Otherwise, she would be clinging to us all night long down here, especially you! Did you see how she jumped you when you guys got here? I thought she was going to bowl you over!

"She practically did!" Alex acknowledged, before sitting on the edge of the bed and kicking his shoes off. "She, ah, did other things, too. Like, there were a few times she was grabbing at my clothes and all. Her and Kristen both, I think," he added, blushing.

Brett laughed before shaking his head. "I'm not surprised." He glanced at his guest. "Did you bring any sleeping clothes or anything to change into?" Brett asked, looking over at him from a distance.

"Nah, I was just planning to wear my t-shirt, really." Alex suddenly stopped and then blushed. "Of course, I didn't plan on getting all sweaty like we did, either." He then blushed even more. "Uh, honestly, I really didn't think about it, that's all. It's kind of been a while since I've done this. I guess I could run home quick and get a change, if you want."

"No way, it's cool," Brett answered him. "I can loan you some of my duds for tonight, if you're okay with that. I've got plenty of shorts and t-shirts."

Alex looked up. "Really? Cool, then. At least a t-shirt, if that's okay."

Brett nodded, peeling his own shirt off. "I'm going to just step under the shower head for a sec, to kind of rinse off. You want to join me?"

The question caught Alex so off guard that his jaw dropped, but then he quickly closed it, giggling. Seeing the wide grin that met him, he sheepishly replied, "You had me for a sec."

Brett laughed, then shrugged. "Honestly? Who said I was kidding?" He then laughed. "It doesn't bother me. Anyway, I'll be right out." He had already dropped his shorts and was standing in front of Alex in a pair of thin briefs, something the teen noted with surprise. He remained silent though, as his host turned and dumped both garments into the nearby hamper. Disappearing through the bathroom door, Brett happened to leave it open, which was another surprising move to Alex. Although he could not see inside the open space directly, he did clearly observe Brett's reflection in the bathroom mirror from the waist up. As he watched, the teen shucked his briefs and stepped into his shower before pulling the curtain up. Once again, Alex was surprised by the openness, and it caused him to reflect on what he had just witnessed. 'Who said I was kidding?' Brett had explained cryptically.

These were among the little things that had been going on for a long time, ever since right after they first met. At first, Alex believed it was just tied into the trust thing that his best friend had always talked about. Sometimes though, he couldn't help but wonder if there wasn't something more behind them. Brett seemed to have no hesitancy, no fear of modesty in front of him, and that actually made Alex feel good inside for some reason. Thinking about their conversation the night before, it had even more solidified the teen's feelings about being so close, and being inside of each other's confidence. It made Alex question something else though: how did he feel about himself around Brett? Although Brett had no reservations in his state of dress, Alex had not made it that far yet - unless they counted their excursions online while they were video chatting. Even then, Alex was sure very little was seen of himself, at least not like what he saw of Brett.

Another reason, however, also caused Alex to take pause. Absently, his hand reached up on the outside of his shirt, to rub the skin gently just above his heart. It brought back reservations to him, and memories of why he was there - in this town, in this neighborhood, and with his friend - in the first place. As he listened to Brett moving about, Alex wondered, could he learn to be just as casual and free with this boy, without the fear or worry of what might lie ahead?

Alex always thought of himself as having a kind of personal shield, when it came to matters of reaching-out beyond himself. It was partially because his isolation over the years hadn't afforded him many opportunities to build outside relationships or friendships. Although he was not the shy sort of person around most new people, it was hard for him to be himself around those he didn't know. Even worse, it was harder still for family, when there were several that he had not had the opportunity to even see for several years. In some ways, it created a very lonely life, devoid of human contact and interaction. That was one reason why he thought that he and Brett got along so well. The barriers he had with other people, carefully constructed as they were, had been shattered and lost when he met Brett and his sister. They had dived into a friendship with him that was so warm, and seemingly with no barriers, that it had taken Alex by surprise. 'Why was he so lucky?' Alex asked himself that very question time and again, but he never got a real answer. What he and Brett had built together was an ever-increasing closeness with one another, and it hadn't stopped yet. Their attachment was one that continued to grow by leaps and bounds, both physically and mentally. Alex knew and felt it on the inside, and he knew Brett shared it with him. Maybe this was what it felt like to have brothers and sisters, the teen mused. If so, he was glad at how good it left him feeling inside.

Tonight, though, there was a different feeling in the air. 'You want to join me?' Surely, he thought Brett had been teasing, but as he thought about it, now Alex knew better. Perhaps if he had not been so startled, he might have actually gone through with it. If he had just stripped and walked in there with his friend together, it would have certainly crossed a new threshold between them - a threshold beyond anything they had thus far achieved. 'What would it have hurt?' Alex wondered. Could Brett have been testing him? Or could his host have invited Alex for a different reason? Alex didn't know, but how did he feel about THAT? Was he okay with it?

True to his word, Brett finished his shower in no time, as Alex heard the water turn off and the shower curtain peel back. He resisted the urge to peek into the mirror any further, as he heard his friend move about briefly before re-entering the room wet and with a towel wrapped around his waist. "Okay, your turn, if you want," Brett announced. Alex briefly looked into Brett's face, seeking something, but knowing not what he expected. When he saw a sad smile returned to him, he sighed and simply nodded in acknowledgement.

In the interim, Alex had already removed his socks, letting his feet enjoy the cooled texture of the carpet beneath his toes. He had also pulled Bobba Fett into his lap, giving the canine a good but playful belly rub while he waited. He was still trying to decide how and what he was going to do exactly, and he used those few precious seconds with the dog to try and reach a verdict. It was during these seconds that Brett, moving quickly over to his dresser, opened and withdrew a pair of fresh t-shirts and briefs for them both. Tossing one set to his friend, he commented. "I think those will fit you okay. You and I are about the same size overall."

"Yeah, they should. Thanks," Alex replied, smiling. When their eyes made contact, it was then Alex suddenly realized he felt free. With no reservations or fear, he decided then what he was going to do, provided he didn't lose his nerve. Although it had only been hinted earlier, he knew it was going to mean something to his friend, no matter how subtle his actions were. Alex had been saying all along he was going to prove himself, especially over the last couple of weeks. How much he trusted Brett was unquestionable, and he figured now was as good a time as any to show it. Taking a deep breath, he stood up and turned away from his friend, before hooking his fingers into the elastic bands of both his own shorts and briefs. With only the slightest of hesitations, the teen dropped them to the floor and stepped out. From his peripheral vision, he saw Brett do a double take, staring with his mouth ajar in obvious shock, and the sight almost made Alex laugh out loud. His t-shirt, not overly long, but well hiding half of his butt at least, was the only thing that bridged and shielded the nervousness he suddenly felt. Smiling inwardly to himself though, he walked toward the bathroom as nonchalantly as possible. He wasn't sure why that mattered, given the thousands of butterflies seemingly fluttering in his stomach, but he tried to not rush or hurry. He wanted to seem carefree, and as openly un-modest as his friend was to him. In his mind, Alex knew that what he was doing now was not only for Brett, but also for himself. After all, Brett gave a lot of himself into their friendship; Alex knew it was time he started returning some of that back, too.

Once inside the bathroom, Alex pushed his nervousness aside. He did believe in the trust game, and he was going to prove it beyond any doubt now. Just as Brett had done before, he left the door wide open, but avoided looking directly into the mirror. From his peripheral vision, he saw he was being watched, but that was okay. He expected it, really. Otherwise Alex might have lost his nerve in his world of uncertainties, and he certainly did not want that to happen. Not now, after coming this far already. Facing the shower, he then peeled his shirt free and dropped it to the floor before stepping into the tub, and pulling the shower curtain closed.

Once his friend disappeared from view, Brett audibly gulped. His heart had been racing surprisingly, and the sudden change in his now rushed breathing, caused the teen to stagger and sit on the corner of the bed. What he felt then was pure astonishment, not so much at what he could, and couldn't see, but because Alex was being as free about the exchange as he had been himself. No, that was an understatement. The teen had gone tons further than Brett had in his actions, all in just those few short seconds. As he heard Alex start his shower, Brett sighed and closed his eyes, before taking hold of his towel and drying himself off. Slipping his briefs on, he couldn't help but smile. 'Maybe, just maybe he does really trust me. Maybe he understands,' he thought to himself. He suddenly felt happier than ever in the last few days, and it showed as his eyes became watery, and the feeling of subtle elation overcame him. Donning his t-shirt, he then plopped down in front of his entertainment center and started going through the collection of movies he kept there. Although it wasn't extensive, he did pull several discs out and weighed in his mind which ones he thought Alex might be interested in. While he was at it, he took the time to reorganize the cabinet in which they were stored, giving Alex additional time to complete his shower.

Although he tried to hurry, Alex could not shower as quickly as his host did. Eventually, he did kill the stream and pull the curtain back, dripping wet from his hair down. He wiped at his eyes briefly until he could peer out, and then tried looking about for a towel. Neither boy had turned on the light, the illumination from the bedroom providing all that was really desired, so initially he had to peer carefully. It was then he realized that, although he had made use of the facilities a few times, he had never taken any deep notice of the bathroom or its layout.

Alex spotted an assortment of towels finally, sitting on a metal shelf not unlike his own at home, although these were located slightly outside of his immediate reach from the tub. Without paying attention, he took a step out, placing one foot outside onto the tiled floor. The problem, however, was the fact that water was still collected there from Brett's previous session. When Alex placed weight on the foot, his balance was thrown off and his foot suddenly began slipping out from under him. He gasped, panicking as he tried to find something he could grab onto and break his oncoming fall. Unable to grab the curtain rod, he found only the shelf itself, so he extended his hand sharply to grasp it on one side, only to have it give way under the sudden change of weight.

Down the teen went, each leg spreading in obviously opposite directions, sending his nether regions directly toward the porcelain tub's wall. In desperation, just as he was about to land squarely on its rim, he reached out and twisted himself somewhat sideways. The move gave him partial success by, just as he hit it, the rim jammed up the inside of his thigh and thus missed his testicles by the merest of fractions. That maneuver, however, sent the pain of impact through both his leg and the side of his groin, causing him to cry out loudly. In pain, he skidded back into the tub with a loud thud afterwards and, as if to accentuate the whole episode, the towel shelf decided to break apart and crash loudly into the room around him.

Both Brett and Bobba Fett heard the cry and jumped to their feet. As fast as they could manage, each hurried toward the bathroom doorway, but stopped upon seeing the sight inside. Alex was curled up into a near-fetal position with one leg draped over the side of the tub, and both his hands grasping at his crotch. Observing the look of pure agony upon his face was enough to keep Brett from breaking into laughter, realizing it was not one of those moments. Springing into action, he stepped in close and grasped his best friend by the shoulders, trying to rotate him slowly so as to free the leg underneath. Alex, however, was not yet ready for that. "Stop, please! Give me a minute, okay?" the teen hissed through his teeth, tears streaking down his face.

"Sorry, bro. Is... is anything broken?" Brett asked, concerned. He turned and hushed Bobba Fett, who had been barking loudly up to that point in the excitement. Turning back, he felt suddenly helpless about what he could, if anything, do.

Alex slowly shook his head, before heaving a huge sigh. It was a full minute before the injured teen could open his eyes and gaze into the face of a very worried friend. "I'm okay, I promise. I - I just didn't pay attention when I was getting out, that's all. My foot, it slid out from under me and..."

Brett grunted as he sat down in the floor beside the tub. "You did the splits, didn't you?" he asked softly, looking down upon the tiled floor and seeing the water still there. "Shit!" he exclaimed softly, before reaching out and rubbing the dog reassuringly. "I think it's my fault, Alex. I didn't wipe the water up when I was getting out."

"No shit, Sherlock!" Alex whispered, laughing quietly. The tears had stopped coming now, and he began to relax somewhat. Both lay there for a moment while he recovered.

"Are... are you okay?" Brett asked, to which Alex nodded.

"I will be, just give me another minute." Alex lay there, gently cupping his groin, but feeling the pain slowly recede to a more manageable level. He grunted. "If I had fallen another half-inch to the inside, I don't think I would have any family jewels left."

Brett winced. "Ouch! Did you ... do you think you bruised them?"

Alex shook his head. "I don't think so. I'll check in a bit, though I didn't land on them outright. The pain is down more underneath, like where the inside of my thigh ended up hitting the tub. Well, maybe up in my crotch a little too, but still - splits or not, it wasn't the best feeling or the worst." He suddenly giggled. "You know, if you really were trying to catch me naked, then-"

"Shut up! You know I'd never do anything like this, man! Not on purpose!" Brett said in anguish.

Alex looked out at him. "I know that. I was only teasing, Brett."

His host, however, looked out over the floor apologetically. He grasped a fallen towel and quickly wiped up the loose water he found before turning back to Alex. "Do you, uh, think you can stand up?"

Alex hesitantly took one of his hands away from his groin and grasped the corner of the tub. "I guess now is the moment of truth to find out. Do you think you can help me?"

Brett grabbed another couple of towels nearby and pulled them around, spreading one upon the floor just outside of the tub. When he started to use the second one up to cover his friend, Alex surprisingly pushed it aside. "What's that for? I'm not shy, Brett. I've told you all along I trust you, remember? I guess now you're going to see how much I really do." He grinned weakly at his best friend before, with a huge breath, he started lifting himself and shifting his knees underneath him. Once there, he stopped and waited, balancing himself as he evaluated the change in pressure. Surprisingly, it wasn't that bad.

Brett rose and slowly placed his arms cautiously around Alex's waist from behind, steadying the teen as he slowly pushed himself up and pivoted onto the side of the tub. Seeing the discarded towel though, he did retrieve and drape it around his neck, while Brett slipped further around behind him on to the outside. Only pausing briefly again, Alex finally twisted once more, placing one leg onto the freshly dropped towel, and straddling the tub before turning to face his friend.

Brett tried to be as nonchalant as he could regarding his host, but Alex tossed all modesty aside and instead reached up with both hands. Drawing his friend closer, he placed an arm around his shoulders and took another deep breath. "Lift," he commanded, his voice a strained whisper. Brett complied, bringing the teen to his feet before helping him step out of the tub completely. Once cleared, they both moved over to the sink's basin where Alex reached out and hunched himself over, but supporting himself on his own. "Yeah, okay, this is good. I just need to take my time is all."

Just then both heard a knock come from outside, presumably at the bedroom door. It caused Bobba Fett to begin another round of barking again, which in turn caused Brett to spring into action. "Stay here," Brett suddenly commanded, quickly turning away and closing the bathroom door behind him. Moving swiftly, he reached and opened the outer door of his bedroom a few inches, only to find his father standing on the other side.

"Is everything alright in there? We heard someone cry out, and then there was something that sounded like a crash of some sort," Roger asked.

"Alex fell getting out of the shower, Dad," Brett explained. "I think he tried to grab the towel shelf and it gave away, coming down on top of him."

"Oh, my! Is he alright?" Roger asked in concern, at which Brett nodded.

"He seems to be. I was helping him get up just now, so no broken bones or anything."

Roger hesitated, but then nodded. "Tend to him, then. If you need anything, give us a shout. You two be careful in there, okay?" During the exchange, Bobba Fett inconspicuously made his way beneath them out the door.

Brett promised he would and then closed the door, inwardly breathing a sigh of relief. By the time he returned to Alex, the found the teen had turned and was sitting on the toilet, pulling on his borrowed t-shirt. Observing the slow and seemingly painful movements, Brett could not help but frown and ask again, "Man, are you sure you're okay?"

Alex looked up, however, with a boyish grin. "I'll be fine, I promise." He looked at the shelves. "I guess I busted that thing up pretty good though, didn't I?"

Brett examined the mess but then shook his head. "I don't think so. They're just tongue-and-groove brackets. They aren't braced together or anything, see? They just have metal supports, and the shelf itself was just sitting on them. I bet when you grabbed it, one of the brackets just buckled." He searched among the debris and quickly found it. Noting the bent hooks, which he pointed out as he nodded. "See? No real harm done. We'll take this out to the garage in the morning and bend the hooks back in place, then I bet it will all be as good as new." He then turned and picked up the shelf itself, surprised it had remained unbroken. "Believe it or not, even the shelf didn't break, so we're all good." Setting it against the wall, he then grabbed the remaining towels and refolded them, placing them on top of the toilet behind his friend. "That'll do for tonight."

Alex sighed with relief. "Good, I'm glad." The two spent the next few minutes tidying up the space inside the bathroom, before Brett noticed that Alex had yet to put on his briefs. The whole time, the teen had been sitting with his legs apart, with everything in his crotch exposed and open, but without a care in the world, and Brett had unwittingly left it unnoticed. As his gaze faltered though, gulping at one point, Brett looked up to see Alex watching him and smiling, before the teen pointed to the other side of the sink. "Uh, hand those to me, will ya?" he asked, indicating the briefs that were still sitting there. Brett reached out as instructed, but before handing them over the teen knelt down and spread them wide. Alex blushed, but then inserted first one foot followed by the other until they were inside. As Brett pulled them up, he made it to the edge of the toilet seat, before looking up and blushing once again. The two exchanged a knowing look then, both realizing what had happened.

"So, now do you believe me?" Alex whispered. What surprised him, however, was when he saw his host almost on the verge of tears. Reaching out, he quietly placed his one hand upon Brett's shoulder and the other upon the bathroom sink, and then started to stand up. Now, there was nothing hidden. The most private part of most any individual surrounded with their personal modesty, was fully exposed for Brett to see him, but Alex still didn't care. Once he accomplished standing again, he bent over and finished pulling the briefs up the rest of the way by himself. He tentatively moved his legs around, turning and testing his balance, and grabbing his crotch and the sensitive jewels underneath before nodding. "See? Nothing broken, man. Everything is cool." Brett finally stood with him and smiled in return, before letting go a huge sigh. He then helped his friend back through the doorway and into the bedroom.

As he looked about, Alex saw a large assortment of pillows, spreads and a blanket arranged in the floor in front of the bed. All were placed onto a makeshift pallet, organized in such a way they could both relax in the ample space in front of the TV. "Wow, you've been busy!"

Brett grinned sheepishly. "Gina and I do this sometimes. I don't have any bean bags like you do, but I do have this whole closet full of pillows and stuff. I kind of thought maybe, well... you know..."

"I think it's fantastic!" Alex exclaimed softly, grabbing his friend's forearm and lowering himself carefully to the floor. Once there, he immediately pivoted about, moving his back to the bed and stretching his legs out tentatively. He grimaced. "Uh, yeah, still tender," he said before grabbing the bottom of the briefs and stretching them down, hopefully to the point where they wouldn't pull up too tightly into his crotch.

Brett solemnly followed him, but stopped to observe. When Alex didn't appear to be in any direct pain, he sighed. "If you need something... Anything..."

Alex show his head. "Don't worry, I'll be fine, really."

Once situated, Brett reached out and pulled one of the lightweight spreads over them both. "So, have you ever seen Starship Troopers? The original one?" Brett asked, holding the case out for his friend to preview. When Alex shook his head no, Brett explained. "This one is sort of a sci-fi and horror film combination, but I warn you - it's gory in some places, with lots of blood and stuff. Otherwise, it's a pretty cool movie."

Alex nodded. "Okay, you sold me, let's watch it!" he replied. Brett then leaned forward and inserted the disc into the player. After a moment, they had the disc started. When he sat back, Brett hesitated only slightly before moving so that the two sat next to each other, close enough their sides and legs touching freely.

Brett whispered. "Is this... is this okay?"

Alex turned and looked sincerely at the teenager, before he himself scooted closer. To add to the effect, he carefully raised his knee until it leaned over against Brett, where he let it settle. "Are you still worried about all this? I'm okay, really, I promise."

Brett stared at his best friend for some time, however, before he spoke again. "Alex? What you did, out here and... and in there... I..."

Alex then did another daring thing by slipping his arm around and behind his friend. "It's nothing, Brett. I don't care if you see me, honest. I know, I'm a little careful about that stuff, but... you're the one who taught me about trust, remember? I told you once before - anyone else, no way. But you, well, it's all good, I promise."

"I'm glad," was Brett's only reply. Alex snuggled in, pulling the teen even closer as the movie began. Brett slipped his arm behind as well, and then neither boy said anything more for some time. As they watched, their only sounds came with the surprising, and bloody, scenes while watching the bugs take their toll on the humans. Alex was also surprised at the nudity in places, something he hadn't expected but nonetheless found amusing. Both he and Brett giggled, laughed and grunted, but in the end, Alex found he really enjoyed the movie. He was watching something so different from his usual fare that it captured his attention in more ways than one. Somewhere along the way, he finally pulled away from his host and turned, stretching out in the floor on his side before placing his head in Brett's lap. That move made Brett tilt to the side, pulling the pillows up for comfort, before draping an arm across Alex's belly in return.

Both teens were content, and although the movie had captivated them, Brett could not help but feel at times a happiness overtaking him inside. Several times he peeked at the boy in his lap and smiled inwardly because he felt so gratified. Nothing between them so far that night was born of sex in any way, but instead from intimacy with pure confidence in one another - an intimacy of untainted trust. Brett felt he could die and be happy right then if he had to, as he had found something he had always wanted and needed, but never dared to let himself have before. He had found someone he could feel wanted with - and needed.

'No', Brett thought. 'Not just me, but both of us.' As if reading his mind, Alex suddenly shifted, snuggling in closer before stilling himself. Brett thought it was going to be sad moment when the movie ended, especially if they were going to turn in for the night. He hoped he would at least get the chance to give his friend the heartfelt hug he had promised just a few nights before, because right now he wanted Alex to know how happy he was inside.

He need not have worried, however. Their night was yet far from over.

Talk about this story on our forum

Authors deserve your feedback. It's the only payment they get. If you go to the top of the page you will find the author's name. Click that and you can email the author easily.* Please take a few moments, if you liked the story, to say so.

[For those who use webmail, or whose regular email client opens when they want to use webmail instead: Please right click the author's name. A menu will open in which you can copy the email address (it goes directly to your clipboard without having the courtesy of mentioning that to you) to paste into your webmail system (Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo etc). Each browser is subtly different, each Webmail system is different, or we'd give fuller instructions here. We trust you to know how to use your own system. Note: If the email address pastes or arrives with %40 in the middle, replace that weird set of characters with an @ sign.]

* Some browsers may require a right click instead