The Scars Above My Heart

by Sean English

Chapter 20

Perceptions Are Not Always Reality

In the middle of the week, Brett arrived at school and made his way quickly to one of the computer labs in the building. The high school often opened the rooms during the breakfast hour, to accommodate any last research that students might be interested in doing before classes began for the day. The rooms were generally empty during the early days of their term, so Brett had no trouble finding a computer in working order. Sitting, he quickly called up the national news sites and did quick searches for the trial in Pennsylvania regarding Nicholas Picante. He was not disappointed, as there were usually several stories daily pertaining to the trial and how it was progressing.

Brett browsed the contents quickly, avoiding the generalist fillers that reporters often reverted to, when elaborating to fill out their columns. The tidbits of history and theorization of past efforts interested him very little, as Brett wanted instead to focus the latest news regarding the current trial. On Wednesday morning, Brett was rewarded when one of the stories reported that two witnesses to the double homicide the man was charged with, offered damaging testimony in the opening stages of prosecution. Although their names were not mentioned, citing privacy laws in place, the story did identify that it was a father-son team who had witnessed the event, and who offered overwhelming testimony of not only the crime scene surrounding the incident, but of the individuals involved, including Nicholas Picante.

Brett could not help but smile, however, when toward the end of the story the reporter noted, with incredulity, the amazing accuracy and detail with which the younger witness presented his testimony, leaving the jury with little doubt to both his sincerity and precision in delivering the truth. The defense team was ill-prepared, and stumbled multiple times during the teen's cross examination.

Brett sat back, feeling rather pleased as he closed down the browser and reached for his backpack. For a brief moment, he was content with knowing that Alex had socked it to the defense team, and that he and his father both had accomplished their mission. He wished he could have been there to see it, to experience it with his friend, but at the same time he understood why life had dealt them both this particular card. As he walked to check in at his homeroom, the teen actually giggled to himself. His imagination did not run overly wild, but he could see himself watching Alex in a witness box, facing off with some lackluster lawyer who was standing there dumbfounded, trying to figure who the hell was he dealing with. Those thoughts, and others like it, drove Brett through the rest of the morning and into the early afternoon. Their classes continued as normal, and as he sat with their newfound friends at lunch, he was somewhat cheerier than he had been since the early part of the week.

It was only when they arrived at Phys Ed that the euphoria began to ebb away. He had already faced this class twice that week, and each had left him feeling empty because Alex had not been there to share it with him. Though he played various games with the other guys, his heart just wasn't in it, and it showed.

"Hey, dude! What's up, man?" one of their teammates asked as they headed back into the locker rooms once class was over.

Brett blushed. "Ah, nothing really. My game is just off for some reason, I guess."

Before the other boy could reply, a familiar tall and lanky friend stepped up and quipped, "His biorhythm headed down into his ass instead of up to his head, I'll bet!"

Brett laughed, looking up at Steven as he fell into step beside him. "You think?"

"Hell, I have no idea, but the mutt's right: you are definitely not here!" Steven replied, bumping the teen's shoulder with his own.

The first boy turned around quickly. "Hey, wait a sec beanstalk ... who are you calling a mutt?" He laughed as he mocked looking high into the air above him at the taller teen. "On second thought, maybe that's not a bad analogy - but remember, I could probably bite some of those limbs if you needed me to!"

"Careful," another guy added as they entered the door. "He might mistake you for a fire hydrant! Then you'll really get scarred for life with him pissing all over your shoes!" Several nearby laughed, making Steven grin as he looked back.

"Fire hydrants are a lot shorter than either of us, I think, so he's probably safe! I'll take tree roots though; they can be watered any day!" Steven shot back, good naturedly. Others around them heard the exchange and laughed as well.

Brett walked over to their corner and started to undress as Steven caught up to him. They both had their shoes kicked off, when Steven remarked in a low voice, "Is Branham still sick? Must be something serious, being three days out like this."

Brett paused, then shrugged. "I haven't heard from him since Monday morning, so I really don't know anything new. The house is dark and locked up, too, so I think they had to go away for some reason."

Steven nodded. "Could be, yeah. Anyway, lighten up man, he'll be back before you know it."

Brett nodded sheepishly. "Does it show THAT bad? I mean..."

"No, not really. At least not yet anyway. If I didn't know how tight you two were, I doubt I would have put two and two together like that. Still, like you said, you've been off your game somewhat," Steven mused, pulling his shirt off.

Brett glanced up. "I- I usually handle myself better, yeah. I can't explain it, not really. That sounds dumb, probably," the teen concluding, grunting at himself. "I'm usually the one cheering HIM up, of all things, too."

As the two stripped their gym shorts away and prepared to don jeans, Steven laughed quietly. "Everyone has off days, buddy. Don't worry with it, you're okay." Brett nodded and stood, balancing himself as he pulled first one and then the other leg through the openings. It was that moment he glanced up and was surprised to see Steven casually observing him. It gave the teen pause to look down at himself, but his sudden rush of anxiety was misplaced. Although his briefs were easily visible all around his groin, he thankfully did not have a boner or any other display to be concerned with. Not that he would have worried about it anyway, not here or now. Glancing back up, Steven suddenly sneezed before reaching for his shoes.

The whole episode, though lasting only mere seconds, distracted Brett by giving him something different to think about for the moment. It wasn't necessarily unexpected, as Brett had looked around for himself over the years, and found lots of people subtly glancing about and similarly checking people out. He had done it many times himself, too. What made this moment different, however, was that **this** teen did it, and it somehow surprised him. Brett turned around and sat down and scooted up right next to the taller teen, before he began pulling his shoes on. "Hey, you okay over there?"

Steven scoffed then, but not without blushing. "Caught me, did you? Yeah, yeah, whatever... What did Branham say once? Something about being 'guilty as charged'?"

Brett laughed. "Yeah, that's one of his favorite come-backs." They finished dressing and Steven stood, offering the smaller teen a hand up, which Brett accepted. As they collected their packs and headed out of the locker room, neither said another word until they reached the gym. It was then Steven stopped and turned to him.

"Listen, sometimes... I don't know, my eyes go places and I don't even realize it, that's all. It doesn't mean anything, okay?" There was a nervousness in the taller teen's voice, hushed as it was, and Brett picked up on it immediately.

"It's cool, man, honest. I didn't think anything bad about it, I promise." Brett looked up, before adding in a whispered voice, "I'm not like a lot of guys, you know. You've got nothing to worry about with me, okay?"

Steven searched his expression momentarily before smiling. "It's why I like you, Edwards. Branham, too. I know I don't have to worry about either of you. Thanks, man," he added, offering a mid-air fist bump which Brett accepted before the two separated.

As they entered the hall to go their separate ways, Brett paused briefly to watch the teen disappear up a flight of steps that lead to the science wing of the school. Although he could not put his finger on it exactly, something about the teen and his demeanor made Brett feel even more at ease with the older boy. There was a likeable quality, not only in his personality, but in his actions and how he handled people in general. Not necessarily carefree, but with an attitude that showed he wasn't afraid to be in the presence of others. His tallness aside, everything else about him seemed as normal as any teen, and because of that, Brett thought of him as more than just an amicable friend ... even if he was a couple of years, as well as grades, older.

Brett nodded to himself as he turned to head for his last period class. Overall, it had been a good day so far.

"Michael Dory has asked if he could meet with you folks, or more specifically with Alex, before you head home."

Alex stared across the table in surprise, hearing the words uttered from James as if in an echo. "Huh?" he asked, ignoring the sounds of disbelief his parents had already made at the idea.

James turned the palms of his hands up, indicating complete submission. "I have no idea, really, and quite honestly, it's unprecedented. After I left here last night, I went back down to the courthouse to file a report and pick up my briefcase. For some reason, I also decided to go downstairs and check on him. He was there, calm and all, and we ended up having a little chat about several things. Before we finished though, he asked me if I might try to grant him at least one last favor. That was to send his regrets about what happened to all of you, and to allow him to talk with Alex at least one last time."

Patty scoffed. "Regrets? Of course, he regrets it! Probably only because he got caught, though!"

Richard crossed his arms, his face still held fast with a look of incredulity. "What possible purpose would he have in wanting to see Alex?"

James sat back in his chair, and brought the tips of his fingers together as he thought about it. "None, at least that I can think of. Please believe me, I understand how you feel, and as strange as it may sound, that is the crux of why I am even considering it, at least from our side. In other words, it's nothing to do with the reasons I can come up with, but rather the reasons I can't think of that concern me. You see, I've known Mike in one fashion or another for at least the last 20 to 25 years. It's because of that I'm not sure he isn't sincere about this, and that is what surprises me." The agent glanced at each of them briefly before he explained. "He knows the game, and he knows the rules better than I do myself, sometimes. Like I said, this request is unprecedented, really. Yet... here it is, and the only explanation that I can even remotely imagine, is that sometimes when people penetrate this high up inside an operation and get discovered, they have this unusual feeling of remorse. You'd be surprised, I think, at how many will suddenly open the floodgates, and pour out details of what they've done, or what they know, in the end. Some do it with pride, while others do it with fear. Some want to cut deals, to try and make things easier for themselves, or some other line of reasoning that follows that. For all I know, I'll admit that might be driving Mike, but honestly? I get the impression his reasons are much more personal."

"But that's why you told us, isn't it?" Alex asked, then hurried on before his parents could stop him. "So, there must be some reason that you think we should consider it, right? Or else you would have just shut it down outright."

A long silence followed as the Branhams watched James squirm, an internal battle obviously being fought within him. Finally, the man coughed and sat forward. "Yes, Alex, you're right. I guess there is something that makes me hesitate here. Please don't get me wrong folks. I am not going to advocate on his behalf, for whatever his personal reasons may be - not in the slightest. You can each board a flight here," James paused to look at his watch, "in just under a couple of hours, and start making your way home ... never to see or have to worry about that man again. It's a simple choice, and I will support you to the fullest either way." He hesitated at that point before leaning forward again. "I have to tell you though, as I've already said, while I was talking with him last night, there was something about this request that struck me hard. I tried to get him to tell me, or let me relay a message of sorts, but he insisted he needed to let you folks know about something in person, and that Alex would understand. Not long afterwards, he shut down on me and I left. Mind you, to make a distinction here, his request was neither a demand, nor was it something he tried to use as a bargaining chip. He knows he's in for a hell of a ride in the weeks to come, and I think he is resigned to that fact. That, I think, is what has been bothering me about it all night long."

"So, that's why you're here this morning, then ... not so much as to see us off, but to see if we'd consider it," Richard theorized, at which James nodded in confirmation.

"To see you off, I would have been here anyway, I assure you. But yes, there is an additional agenda. It is not something I lay lightly at your feet, but I keep getting the feeling something may slip by us here, something that we may end up regretting unless we play it out to the end."

"But ... he wants to speak to Alex, right?" Patty asked, still dubious regarding the situation.

"Especially with Alex," the agent reiterated. "He actually said something on the lines of your son being the only one who would understand, whatever it is he has to tell you."

"Me? Understand what, though?" Alex asked, puzzled.

James shrugged. "I don't know. That is what he would not convey to me, no matter how hard I tried." Looking around at the rest of the family, he spoke again. "Okay, at least I can live with knowing that I passed this along. That, I think, is the important part in this for me personally. The decision has to be made by the three of you, I think. Like I said, I will support you either way."

Patty looked upon her husband, but silently held her tongue, knowing that the decision would have to come from him. When Richard glanced at her, he grunted before turning to Alex. "Well, I guess this ultimately comes down to you, son. I have no desire whatsoever to come face to face with that man again, and I'm sure that I speak for your mother as well. You, on the other hand, are perfectly old enough to have a say in this, too. So, the question is, what do YOU want to do?"

Alex stared at them blankly before turning to their guest. "Before I say anything, can I ask how it would be done? You wouldn't, like, leave me completely alone with him, right?"

"No. The building actually has what we call an interrogation room, similar to what you've probably seen on TV, or in the movies. Ours is one where attorneys can confer with their clients through a glass barrier, with each side using a telephone. I would permit Mike to sit on one side of the barrier, while you sat and conversed with him from the other side," the man explained.

Alex thought about it briefly, then nodded. "Alright, I'm willing to hear what he has to say. When, though? I thought we were supposed to leave in like a half-hour or so, right?"

James rose from the table. "We can delay the flight for a short bit, if you're willing to go now. I'll personally attend with you, just to ensure everything goes smoothly, but I will sit off to the side enough so that you have your privacy." He turned to Richard. "Just so that you know, you are both welcome to come in and sit with me as well, if you like. Or if you prefer, there is a waiting room just outside."

Patty glanced at her husband and then both rose to their feet. "We're practically ready now. We've already packed up everything. I'd like perhaps just a minute to brush my hair, if I may, and do a final check that we've gotten everything."

James smiled. "Of course. Then, afterwards, if you'll come along, we'll plan to head straight to the airfield." Richard nodded in agreement, as he glanced at his son.

"Alex, I'm a man of my word, you know that. I want to make sure though, are you comfortable doing this? There is absolutely no reason, none for us to have to go back down there, you know," the man intoned.

Alex, however, nodded. "I know, Dad, but it's okay. The way I see it, if we don't do it - all of us might kind of wonder about it afterwards, not knowing what it was all about. You know?"

Even Patty sighed as she came up beside her husband, although fully acknowledging her son's reasoning. "I agree, honey. Somehow, I kind of feel the same way you do. So, let's go get it over with before I change my mind." With that, she headed to the bedroom.

Alex sat in the room, waiting patiently as several people moved about on the other side of the glass. With James sitting nearby, and his parents waiting outside in the aforementioned waiting room, the teen was indeed isolated away from any other nearby influences. He had asked James whether the conversations would be recorded, but the man had smiled and shaken his head. "There are places we do that yes, but to do so here would be breaking something called the attorney-client privilege. It is a right for all incarcerated individuals protected by due process of law, especially since we do not allow them private rooms in which to converse. So, you can speak freely, and listen freely, without any worries. If for any reason you want to terminate the session, however, just simply hang up and then join me over here, okay?"

Alex did not have to wait long. Within minutes, a door opened on the opposite side, and the agent was readily led inside by a federal officer of some kind. The two nodded at each other, and then Mike stepped forward and took a seat across from Alex, with the officer remaining by the door. As he picked up the phone, Alex did the same, watching the man smile at him. "Good morning, and thank you for seeing me before you guys head home."

Alex nodded in silence, waiting for the former agent to continue. "Alex, I wanted to explain something about yesterday, something that may be hard for you to understand at first, but I think it is crucial you at least hear it out."

"Why?" the teen asked, his voice giving nothing away as to his internal feelings.

"Because, I know how it must have looked to you, and I think you need to consider putting it in a different perspective. If you don't, you'll never fully understand it for the rest of your life, and that troubles me, believe it or not. I can also imagine that it will at some point bother you, and believe me, I know this from personal experience," Mike explained.

Alex's eyes narrowed. "Okay, then what is it? Come on, I'm not going to sit here all day."

Mike looked down for a few seconds before returning his gaze to the teenager. "Well, first of all, as to what you saw, I did not want to do what I had to do. What I did was for totally different reasons than you probably imagine. If you can at least hold that possibility for a moment, then I'll explain and you'll understand." He scoffed before continuing. "That defense team, they're not very happy with you, to say the least. Pendleton, he's one of those who does not like to lose as badly as he did. Your testimony totally caught him off-guard, and quite honestly, the man could not deal with you on the stand. But get this - even he had to admit that the way Banks handled you in front of the jury was brilliant. You see, insofar as anyone knew, there was supposedly only **one** witness to the crime - and that was your father. Even after going through the discovery process, they somehow had no idea you were there, at the scene, too."

Alex shook his head. "You lie, Mike. Nicholas saw me clearly as he was turning and leaving the scene. He smiled at me even, and made eye contact with me directly! He knew I was there!"

Mike nodded. "I know, I know. Settle down a sec, okay? I understand what you're saying, but that's not the same thing. You see, it's not quite the way the defense team perceived it. They knew you were there and that you were your father's son, but as to being a witness? There was nothing that led them down the path thinking you would be worth very much to anyone as a witness. You see, to them you were a little kid, and if they put you on the stand, they figured you would just end up repeating a lot of the things your father already testified to."

Alex looked onward briefly, but then shook his head. "I still don't believe that, Mike. There were ... things that happened to us, in places. Things that ... hurt. We've had to watch our back, constantly. I had to watch, hard."

Mike hesitated, then plunged forward. "I don't doubt it, but think with me for a minute, Alex. The only reason they were probably looking for you, to begin with, was because they knew you could lead them to your old man, your father. Nick saw someone who could have been as young as, what, 8- or 9-years old on that sidewalk, remember? Certainly not a teenager on the cusp of puberty!"

"Really?" Alex replied in disbelief. "And... you know this?"

"Yeah, I actually do, kiddo. You see, those kinds of assumptions can change the way some people think about others." The agent grimaced. "Nick-the-Pick, and Pendleton for that matter, made a fatal mistake, and that was by discounting you being there, at the scene. It's not Nick's first time losing out, but it will certainly be among his last."

Alex looked hard at the other man for a moment, and then lowered his voice. "What do you mean?"

Mike looked on before lowering his voice as well. "Take a step back and try to look at everything with a broader view, for just a minute, okay? Do that, and then tell me something: after everything we did this week, do you really believe that what I did yesterday was for revenge, or for Pendleton's team? That Mike Dory, honestly, believed he could get away with, what, killing or hurting you and your parents like that, as a payback of some sort? If the purpose was to keep you folks out of that courtroom, don't you think I had ample opportunity to throw a monkey wrench into the works, long before you even left for the courthouse that morning? Seriously? Please think about that for a moment, buddy - why would I do anything such as that for a scumbag like Picante? I have more reason to hate that man than most people realize, to tell the truth. What could I possibly hope to accomplish, in the best case, by hurting you or your parents, right now, after everything has been said and done?"

Alex's leaned back from the glass, frowning as he did indeed study the situation. Something certainly did not seem to add up. Something about this man, his expression, his choice of words... none of it fitted his personality or force of character, in any way that made Alex think that the man was insane. What he had just presented at the end, too, could not be tossed aside lightly. The fact was, Mike was testing him - pushing him to see something in all of it, and that gnawed at the teenager intensely.

At least, until a sudden thought struck Alex, and the more he focused on it, the more pieces of the puzzle started to fall into place. "Mike, are you... wait." He stared into the face across the glass before he lowered his voice to just above a whisper. "Dory, is that your last name? Was it always ... Dory? Or was it something else...?"

Mike sighed, breathing a sigh of relief and relaxing as he grinned widely. "Finally figured it out, didn't you? You see, that's why I told James that you were the only one who would connect the dots and understand. You were the only one who might put it all together in the end."

Alex stared at the ex-agent hard, his mind racing. "You're related to Dorsette, the man we saw killed with his fiancée, aren't you?" he whispered.

Mike nodded, leaning in close to the glass. "Harrison Dorsette was my father," the man breathed into the mouthpiece of the phone he was holding. "And yes, that means Nicholas Picante murdered my father." As he saw the teen look on, stunned, he quietly continued. "You see Alex, for whatever its worth, I needed you to understand at least that much. I honestly didn't want to hurt your parents, didn't even plan for it to get quite as rough or out of hand as it did in there... not in the way it looked, at least."

"Then... why?" Alex asked the obvious question.

"Because I needed to create a large enough reason that would get me into prison and behind the scenes where the man is going to be sent to. I don't expect you to understand all of the stakes here for me, but I do implore you to at least see that it had nothing to do directly with you guys - period."

The funny thing about confessions like this was that Alex did understand the stakes in this game. "Just... why should I believe that? Besides, what is it you think you're going to do?"

Mike shook his head. "That is not for you, or anyone else, to worry about young man. I mean, think about it hypothetically speaking. Maybe I'm hoping to make it into the same prison with a certain old serial killer. I promise you, my old man and his bride to be, were not the firsts to fall at the hands of Nick. He has had a hand in plenty of victims' lives over the years, so believe me when I say 'serial' is the right word for him. Of course, if I do get lucky enough to make it to the right place at the right time, I'm sure he has enough cronies of his own on the inside to build a safe wall of bodies around him, right?" Mike laughed just then. "After all, Nick-the-Pick's network of people is far reaching, all over the place, both inside and outside of prison. The stories you've heard or read on him are pretty much true. He is the ideal modern-day gangster, and then some. Still, it would be immeasurably satisfying if I were to get the opportunity to, say at the least, make his life a little rougher from here on out, wouldn't you say? And believe me, I know the system and how it works. I honestly don't think I'll have much difficulty in getting to where I want to go, and where he resides in the end."

"They'll kill you," Alex whispered, after digesting what the man was saying. Shaking his head, he leaned up close the glass and spoke again in a low tone. "You know they will, long before you even get near him." The teen's mind raced rapidly, reasoning out what this man was revealing to him. "I'm still not sure I buy all of this. I mean, what about me? Dad told me that as soon as I left to go to the bathroom, you tried to follow me. That sure as hell sounds like you were coming after me, doesn't it? To get at me?"

Mike sighed. "Not like it looked, no. Yes, I know that might sound a little bold, but really it was just a gamble. What I really wanted to do was just get on my feet and get closer to your Dad, without raising suspicion. Low and behold, however, your father was already ahead of my game."

"Ahead or not, why should I believe you? For just once, tell me why I should believe that any of this is true?" Alex asked. "If what you say is what you were banking on, then I stick to what I said earlier: they'll kill you in prison, and I think you know it. You'll be found out as an ex-agent or something, for sure!"

Mike shrugged. "Live a little, die a little more, you mean. Maybe you're right, but... I'll let you in on a little secret, Alex: I'm really dead already. I have been, for years. The things I know about what my family has done are the greatest of sins, and the shame of having that knowledge is why I turned away from them so long ago. That's why I got into the service - not to spy or pass information, no. That is something I have never even once contemplated. Instead, I did it because my intention was to get away from the bloodthirsty, laundering idiots I grew up with. The job I landed in, though surprising, was the perfect answer in order for me to do that."

Mike took a deep breath and then rested his elbow on the table in front of him. "You see, there are all kinds of little pieces that Banks hinted at, but never brought out in full, I suspect because he couldn't substantiate them. Like, the motive, for example. Picante and my father have been rivals for years, Nick's group being more into prostitution, drugs, trafficking, you name it. My father's business focused more on, ah, other things, such as smuggling, laundering and so forth. Every once in a while, the two would cross paths, and there would be a lot of fights, shots would be fired, people wounded, sometimes mortally. That's just what the business was, see? Only this time, my father picked up and fell in love with one of Picante's old flames. Nick couldn't bear to think of all the things that could happen if my old man were to come into some, ah, critical information. Get it?" Mike laughed. "I could just hear it now, how much Pendleton would have gone to town and raked Banks over the coals if they had stirred that up!"

The agent sighed. "Anyway, I digress. The point is, I am the last surviving male member of the Dorsette clan. Most of the ones left are my father's brothers, which I suppose makes them my uncles, but they don't acknowledge me that way. In fact, they go to great extremes to make sure I stay away from them now, as it is. I suspect my father laid the law down in some way, to make them leave me alone - which suits me fine, because it means I don't have to compromise with any of them, or develop some false sense of duty." He looked up at the ceiling. "Of course, I guess that's the ultimate price I paid, you see? This crime-business stuff, it's getting old. All the powerful people left in the world are sitting on their asses, getting fatter by the week and screwing all the whores they can get into bed with. I guess that wouldn't be so bad, except I always imagine they're doing it, while laughing at the rest of us."

Alex thought about that, then shook his head. "Okay, maybe that makes some sense, Mike, but there are some parts I don't get, especially about you. You said it yourself, you had everything going just fine for you here. A career, money, obscurity. If what you told me earlier this week is true, you didn't lack anything or want for it, right?"

"That's true for the most part, until Nicholas Picante killed my father and his fiancée in cold blood. A woman who had finally steered herself into his heart far enough to actually marry him. You get that, right? Not only did she love him, she had made him want to settle down, of all things. She would have been family kiddo, and believe me, from everything I discovered about her, that actually means something. You see, I still had a few good sentiments about my old man, even though I chose a life that followed a different path. He may have not been perfect, not by any means. I mean, come on, he swung his dick and sowed his seeds with the best of them out there for years. Yeah, you know what I mean, kid ... he was a very, ah, promiscuous person, to say the least, and because of that, it's how I came to be created, you see? I was just a by-product in that regard, one he could have laughed at and discarded all he wanted, and saved the humiliation, too, I think. If he had other kids, I never knew it, but you see, I doubt he would have known otherwise either. My old man, he was the type who was in charge, meaning he didn't let circumstances get the better of him. So, when it came to me, he knew. Don't let that fact slide idly by, Alex, because it makes all the difference in defining what family means to some people. When he found out I was born, he wasn't cruel. In fact, he saw to it I was taken care of, for the most part. He fed me and saw to my needs, sent me to school, and a lot more all those years ago, especially after my mother died when I was only 10 years old. And for the real kicker? When the time approached that I decided I didn't want to follow in his footsteps, you know, wanted out of his business, he respected it. He hated the idea of me leaving the family, but he let me go my way. That is saying something in families like ours, or even in Picante's brood. When you have a respect that is embedded with one's family like that, and when it's mutual, then that digs deep. You understand that, right?"

Alex nodded. "I think I'm beginning to, yeah."

"Good," Mike remarked, before leaning into the window one last time. "I'll leave that there then, for you to stew on and digest over the next few days or weeks. You at least know where this came from, and why I needed you to hear it. As to the here and now, there is one other thing I want to tell you, and then we're done. So, listen carefully: you, your father and mother - you're all free now. You're safe. You won't need to worry about anyone coming after you anymore. You understand what I'm saying, right? No more looking over your shoulder, no more hiding. Not from our families, see. During this trial, my goal was to make sure that you and your Dad got in there and testified your guts out, to put that mother-fucking son-of-a-bitch away. You did that, see, all for the well and good. It's all on record now, and there is nothing that is going to change that from here on out. That is why I'm telling you this. As mean-spirited as you've probably seen families be in the movies or on TV, Alex, that doesn't necessarily translate into real life."

"How do you mean?" Alex asked cautiously.

"In real life, Alex, the families involved may throw darts at each other in the fray, but when something happens, or someone comes in from the outside, it's a whole different ball game. If that someone does the family dirty, all hell will break loose. But for the rest of them, no one holds grudges like that, trust me. Most often, they see it as just something fate threw into the wind, and although they may have tried to stop you-"

"They did," Alex announced quietly.

"They may have **tried**, Alex, but this is one that Picante's group lost fair and square, and they know it. It wasn't tied to malicious intent see, nothing to do with families. You guys were innocent bystanders, in a cause that they lost out on. No one is going to hold a grudge and care about you guys from now on - at least not enough to worry about it. I understand, that's going to be a hard pill to swallow, for all of you, but it's actually very true. I mean look, if anything, my family will consider what you and your father did as a favor and a blessing, to get that load of shit finally off the streets, and..." Mike stopped to draw a deep breath before smiling. "You did my family a favor, all of you. Trust me, we know it. We may even realize there is a probable debt there to be owed by us, and it will not be forgotten. Like I've been telling you, families, syndicates, the like - we all take care of our own, even in extra nice ways when it is warranted."

The look of disbelief Alex displayed made the ex-agent laugh and hold up his hand. "It's true. Again, don't be so swayed by the books, TV and movie crap you see and read. It may surprise you, but we're not that high and haughty all the time. You see, the longer they remain quiet in society, the less trouble they can get into with the feds. If you can see that, even partially, then you're on your way to understanding what they're really like. If they have any one redeeming value that's common across the board, it's that they take care of their people in good ways, when it's for the right reasons. Someday, I hope you'll see and experience that fact first hand, and recognize it well enough to just accept it." The agent sat up straighter, recognizing their time was coming to a close. "That, my young friend, is my message to you. Whatever you choose to do with it is up to you. Just try to remember, life is an adventure, buddy. Live it to its fullest, and don't worry about tomorrow until tomorrow gets here. I have no doubt whatsoever, all of you will be just fine. Go home, relax, find your friend, get in trouble, lay some girls - whatever it is you want to do. You're free now, and that's a promise you can take with you to the bank." He slowly stood up. "Just so you know, if I could reach through this glass, I'd shake your hand. That would be pushing things though, and I know James has to be somewhere on the other side there watching out for you, if not your parents as well. Tell them I'm sorry, okay? Sincerely, truly sorry, for what had to happen as it did. I would have never really hurt them. If you can believe that, and if they can, then it's a start to understanding something greater than what the outcome came to, right? Oh, as far as James goes, I take it you now understand what message you should give him, right? From me?"

"Yeah, I think so," Alex commented. "In some ways, it will make him feel better overall about you, I think. In others though, he's got a problem he still has to deal with."

Mike grinned again. "You know, you have got to be one of the brightest people I think I have ever met at your age, Alex. Don't hide your talents, buddy - put them to good use someday, okay? More than anything, however, be good, be strong, and be safe. Adios, Amigo." With a smile and a nod, the agent set the receiver back in its cradle as Alex rose and did the same. As Mike disappeared with his attendant back through the door, Alex turned and smiled at James, who had stepped up beside him. He saw in the man's face the burning curiosity, and the need for answers, but Alex simply shook his head.

"It's okay. It was actually kind of pleasant, really. Thank you, sir, for letting me do this. Not just for me, but for him, too," Alex offered.

James extended his hand and smiled. "Then thank you, too. I've never bent the rules quite this far before, but from what I make of it, it must have been worth it."

"It was," Alex replied. "I know you want to ask, so I'll tell you: a lot of it was just a private conversation where he told me a little about what it was like for him growing up, and the real reasons for what went down yesterday the way it did. It seems we had some similarities, I guess. But he also explained to me that we, meaning me and my family, wouldn't have to worry so much about looking over our shoulders anymore. It took him a while, but he finally got me to understand why. And then, there is one more thing - something for you, a message actually."

James arched his eyebrows. "Oh? What was that?"

Alex was hesitant, trying to assess for himself if Mike could have been misleading him, but in the end, he knew the ex-agent had given him the truth. "He's not the one you should be looking for, sir. That was his message, for you. That means, if I'm right, that he's..."

"...not the source of our leak?" James' scrutinized the teenager for a moment as Alex nodded, but then turned to look back in the direction where the man had disappeared. "That, then, was definitely worth something to hear, and knowing him like I did, believe me I'll take that under serious consideration. Did he, by chance, tell you if he knew who was?"

"No. I don't think he knows, really. In fact, I doubt he really knows anything about that side of the fence." Alex looked up into the man's eyes. "It's just the way he talked with me, you know? I mean, I can't say exactly why I feel that way, other than... well, it just didn't fit him. I mean, for what it's worth, I really do think he was telling me the truth, sir. His words, his actions... unless he's just really good at acting out and fooling people, which I know he can probably do, I just didn't get that here. I think he was speaking on the up and up, and truthfully? He let me draw some of my own conclusions, too. I guess maybe that's why I believed him more than I initially thought I would."

James nodded slowly. "Oh, I don't doubt he was telling you the truth, Alex. Don't forget, although I slip up on some things here and there, I know Mike's character. He was someone always thinking ahead, always watching out - even in my own best interests for this group, I think. He's warning me, through you, about something very close at hand. It may even be something he came close to, but never vetted out. The fact he revealed that much to you though... that's why I think I believe him, too." James placed a hand on the teenager's shoulder. "Come on, Alex, it's time. Let's take you home - your real home."

Alex nodded. "Yes, lets."

Brett Edwards had awakened earlier than usual that Saturday morning. He had slept fitfully the night before, even with Bobba Fett staying in the room with him. More than once the canine would wake up at the constant turning his master did, only to push himself back into the teenagers hold. If Brett had any comfort from the short naps he took, it was because of the security and comfort his dog offered him.

Man's best friend, however, was nowhere to be found upon the bed just then, and as Brett looked about, he saw the little furry four-legged creature waiting by the door, a hopeful expression meeting his master. Brett climbed from the bed, wearing only his briefs, and moved to not only open the door, but follow the canine up to the front door landing and letting the mutt outside to do his business. He stood there long enough to yawn before he closed the door to turn around, but stopped abruptly when he saw his sister come up to him. "Morning, sleep jeep," she said softly, before pushing her arms around his waist and giving him a hug.

If it had been anyone else, Brett might have retreated in fear, but he returned the gesture, holding her close. Gina hugged him close, feeling the mostly naked skin embracing her, and then smiled. As they started to break, she glanced at his scantily clad figure up close and then nodded, impressed. "Looking like a stud, and not a hunk of mud," she whispered, before turning her head to look upstairs. "Better disappear though, Mom's in the kitchen!"

Brett suddenly became alert, and made his way back down the steps quickly, as Gina, snickering, made her way upstairs and into the kitchen. He could hear her in the distance. "Mom, Brett's running around in just his underwear again!"

"Gina!" Brenda giggled as she threw up her hands. "What am I going to do with you?"

The girl sat down at the kitchen counter, amused. "Don't blame him Mom, he was just letting Bo out to go potty."

Brenda sighed, turning back to the stove. "Then forget whatever you saw, before it leaves you scarred for life."

Gina giggled again, but then sat back, picking up a banana and starting to peal it. "Mom, I'm not ignorant about such things. Boys are boys and girls are girls, big deal. Besides, he's Brett - what would I get out of catching him streaking around me anyway? He's my brother, for heaven's sake! Cute to some people maybe... but not cute enough for that, or for me, no matter what kind of Oscar Mayer he's packing!"

Brenda turned and gazed at her daughter sternly for a moment, before sighing defeatedly. "Well, as long as you have that attitude, I can't say much more about it, but... just be careful, okay? Always remember, what you think you may know, does not mean you know everything. Understand?"

Brett smiled from the bottom of the stairs, listening in to the exchange. He was half expecting his sister to pipe up the 'boys have dicks and girls have boobs' line, but he heard them move onto other subjects instead. Quietly the teen returned to his room and closed the door. Gina had worked her way out of that one nicely enough and protected them both. Had they been alone in the house, it would not have mattered to him, and they both knew it. He could have floated around the house undressed all day, as could his sister, and neither would have any fear of the other. Their parents, however, were a different story, and both knew they had to exercise considerably more caution in their presence.

He took a deep breath as he plopped back down onto the bed and found the TV remote. Turning the unit on, he quickly navigated to one of the CNN stations, and at that moment he noticed they were going through their top stories for the hour. To his surprise, he didn't even have to wait a full minute before the story he was hoping to find, actually was presented.

**"In Philadelphia yesterday, attorneys for Nicholas Picante, the defendant of a double-homicide case, came to an agreement with prosecutors to plead guilty to all charges, thus ending the trial before it could be advanced to the jury. Late last night, speaking from the Federal Building's outside lobby, U.S. Attorney Jonathan Banks, had this to say about the trial and the ending result:"**

**"Nicholas Picante and his attorneys faced the evidence presented this week and found it overwhelming, to say the least. After the facts were brought out, and testimony was presented, there was literally nowhere left for the defense team to go. They sought a plea-bargain, and we in due course granted it for this round, which guaranteed to keep the man off the streets pretty much for the rest of his life. It's a win for us, and a win for the American people, knowing that the man known as 'Nick-the-Pick' is now permanently behind bars.'"**

Brett stared at the screen for a full minute before letting his breath go. It was over, now. For some reason, a huge weight seemed to lift from the teenager, leaving him feeling tons lighter than he had only moments before. He had followed the trial and the reports, but this news seemed to have meant the most. He slowly rose and walked over to his bedroom window, separating the shades and peering out to where he could just make out Alex's house down the road. It still appeared as empty and lifeless as it had all week long, but now it seemed to just look 'different'. Brett smiled to himself ... now, maybe, his best friend would be coming home.

He started to pull back when something else caught his eye. Looking down, he saw Bobba Fett looking straight up at him, his head cocked to one side. It was as if the dog was asking 'Can I come in now?' Brett actually smiled. "Sure Bo, be right up!" The canine must have understood, as it suddenly scurried away back in the direction of the front door. Brett figured the dog's normal hatch upstairs must have been locked.

Brett moved across the room, but stopped near his bed and quickly pulled on some shorts and a t-shirt. He did not want to have to come up with something as clever as his sister did, should he run into his mother.

Harry Spalding suddenly bolted upright, hitting his head against the roof of the old car. That was saying something, in truth, because as he fell back into the upright seat, his head still cleared the ceiling by two or more inches. As he reached up, he nursed the sore spot that remained behind, until he noticed someone was standing outside his window. Glancing up, he noted a figure wearing a uniform resembling that of the Illinois State Police. Suddenly his senses came to full alert, and he rolled the window down a few inches.

"You can't park here overnight, bud," came a husky, deep voice belonging to the figure. "You need to move it on."

Inwardly, Harry nodded with relief. "Sorry officer, I didn't even realize I had fallen asleep. Just pulled in to visit the facilities."

The man looked onward, observing Harry as he started to sit straighter in his seat. When the man continued his silence, Harry looked out. "Uh, I promise to move on. Is it okay though, if I make one last visit before getting back on the road?"

The officer grunted. "Make sure that you do," the man answered, his voice as grave as before, before stepping away.

Harry followed briefly, watching the man as he climbed behind the wheel of his own cruiser and then headed out onto the exit ramp. Harry sighed with relief, as he opened the door to get out. When he turned to place his feet on the pavement, he halted and realized the whole area was blanketed with a steady rain. "Shit!" he muttered under his breath, shaking his head. He looked across to the building containing the restrooms and then sighed. He was a good fifty yards away, at least. It really didn't matter however, as Harry's bladder was making its condition very known at that moment. With a sigh, the large man hauled himself to his feet and stepped away, slamming the door of his vehicle in the process.

Several minutes later, the large man returned and climbed inside. He sat for a moment, dripping from the loose water rolling down his body, trying to get his bearings. He ran his fingers through his hair, matted and soaked as it was, until it flowed away from his face and backwards. He then squirmed, trying to right himself more comfortably, only to overcompensate in one turn and ram his hand against the console. He cursed, the pain stinging sharply as he nursed his fingers momentarily, until the impact's results faded away.

When Harry Spalding cursed other people, he mostly did it in humor or intimidation. When he cursed himself, however, he was much harder on the liberties he had taken in his life, and the misfortunes he encountered while pursuing some level of happiness. He looked about himself, at the unkempt car, tissues, rags and various papers spread everywhere. To top that off, he smelled of someone who had not bathed in days, and given the fact he was pretty much wearing the same clothes he had started with weeks before, it did not surprise him. They were worn and disheveled, and left little imagination to being a size too little for him. Especially his shirt, which was presently straining at the buttons in order to remain latched together.

Since the night of the accidental event, Harry had been driving considerably, with his first destination launching into Chicago. Upon arrival, however, he discovered that his **friends** he had in the city were long, long gone now. He kicked himself for not having gone by the office to pick up his little black pocket-pad, something that held various numbers on various pages with other, useless data. Harry knew how to read it though, and it would have given him all the information he needed to reach out and find where everyone had disappeared to. Without it, though, he was running blind, and the cursing that followed that stressful realization had lasted an entire afternoon.

Harry had tried everything he could think of - visiting local bars and night clubs, querying people discretely on the street, checking for forwarding addresses, anything that might trigger moving forward in some way. The latter had been a last-ditched effort, he knew, with little hope of succeeding. These people knew how to disappear both quietly and quickly into the night. They would not be so ignorant as to entertain such an idea, really. Harry still tried it anyway, even if it was to no avail. For three days, the man crossed all parts of Chicago's less affluent side before he called it quits. He knew what he had to do, if there was to be any hope remaining. He had to go home. He needed to get back to the office, get his little memo pad and try again. He hated the thought, however, given where he was and knowing he was surely on the doorsteps of their private little realm - but he had no doorbell to ring, and certainly, no one recognized him for who he was. Or at least, so he thought.

Slowly, realizing his funds were dangerously low, the man started making the long drive back towards Greensburg, Indiana. He couldn't stop for hotels now, or other amenities, really. He figured he was pushing his luck, as it was, when he stopped at a large grocery just days before, and loaded up on sandwich meats and chips from the deli. He reserved his change for vending machines as he made his way south, which was what had drawn him into the interstate rest area the evening before. Aside from relieving his bladder, the man had tried to purchase a cold soda in one of the vending machines, only to have the apparatus steal his money as if nothing had even happened. Harry had cursed harshly then, scaring a young family away as the mother whisked two kids, a boy and a girl, back from the obscenity-driven display. Harry recalled observing the woman at one point and then rolling his eyes with disdain. "What, you think they don't know anything about hairy dicks and fucking pussies by now, woman??!!!"

It had been the last of his change, too, now being down to only pennies left in his pocket. That was one thing vending machines were not known to be especially flexible with - American coins made up of nickels, dimes and quarters. Pennies were pussy coins as far as most vending owners were concerned. Just then, it wouldn't have helped anyway.

Harry had only 13 of them in his pocket to begin with.

Thinking about the night before and his loss of coins and drink, Harry suddenly recalled something. Reaching desperately to open the glove compartment on the car, he cried out. "Yes!" Several coins lay upon the bottom of the compartment, and as he sifted through to pull them out, he retrieved just over three dollars! For Harry, that was a victory, and the man was desperately needing a victory at the moment. Although the rain suddenly seemed to begin falling harder, he ignored it and pushed open the door anyway. Stepping out, he calmly walked back into the vending area, yet keeping his silence as he walked to a different machine, and deposited the appropriate coins to retrieve a drink. This machine did not fight with him as its cousin had done the night before, but instead gave up a 20-ounce, ice-cold bottle as requested. Right there, Harry opened the bottle and turned it up, chugging a third of the drink immediately before letting up. Harry sighed in relief and looked around, but noted he was alone this time.

Walking back to the car, he stepped in and pulled the last of his sandwich meat together, along with dry bread slices that were beginning to turn stale. He ignored it however, enjoying his breakfast with his soda, refusing to believe his days were going to get any worse. Finally, something was working out in his favor, and with that thought, he turned to the idea of getting back to Greensburg, parking a block away, and subtly make his way back into the office. Once he had his notepad, the man could only see everything going uphill from there.

When he finished his sandwich, he started the engine and then observed his fuel gauge before nodding appreciatively. He wouldn't have any trouble making it back. No trouble at all.

As the plane's wheels touched down onto the runway, all three Branhams gave a collective sigh of relief. Two of the agents that had accompanied them were unknown to the group, but a third familiar face, at least to Alex, grinned. "Welcome back, you're near home now. There's about a 30- to 40-minute drive to get you into town, but it's almost over."

Alex slid forward. "Thanks Anthony, or do you prefer Tony?"

"Either one, doesn't matter. Let's get your bags, and I'll take you in, if you like. Boss said to let one of these guys go, but you kind of know me, I figure. I'm not going to attempt anything underhanded! Besides, I want to try and make it to the game tonight!"

"Who's playing?" Richard asked, but Anthony shrugged.

"Honestly? No idea, but I have a cousin who agreed to meet up with me in Indy with a spare ticket, so all I have to do is show up on time!"

Richard grinned. Something about the man's personality struck the trio as being completely genuine. "Well, as long as you promise to get us home first..."

Anthony smiled before shaking his head. "No worries about that, Captain!"

Roughly half an hour later, they turned into the drive of the Branhams home, coasting down until they stopped by the house. Anthony whistled appreciatively. "Nice digs, Mr. B.! Agency set this up for you?"

Patty nodded as she reached to shake the man's hand. "Yes. It's nothing fancy, but then again, this is kind of how we like it anyway."

"Hey, Mrs. B., I understand that completely! I grew up in mainstream America, mostly on a farm in Oklahoma. There is a LOT to be said for fresh air and open spaces, believe me!" Anthony then turned to shake Alex's hand, before turning and holding onto Richard's hand. "Understand something, sir. We're not abandoning you in the slightest. If you have a problem, any problem at all, you will always have the boss's number to call. All of you, for that matter. Someone will check in on you, supposedly every 3 months, just to see how things are going for a while. I say supposedly, only because I've made a few callings like that, and it sometimes gets a little stretched out into more like 5 or 6 months. Still, all should be fine. I presume the boss gave you a few instructions about easing back into everything, right?"

Richard nodded. "That he did, yes."

"Good, then I will leave you and your lovely family to return to your regularly scheduled programming, already in progress," Anthony replied with a grin. Both Richard and Patty smiled, having heard that reference before, but Alex stood there puzzled. Anthony gazed at him and then cocked his head to one side. "Not for your generation, huh? That's okay, get one of them to explain it to you sometime. Anyway folks, if you have any problems with being away from work, school or what have you, give us a call. We'll take care of it! And for you, young sir," the man hesitated, turning to Alex. "All of that goes double, okay?"

"Thanks, Tony," Alex replied. Anthony smiled and winked as he turned to approach the vehicle once again. He got in and the family watched him turn around and proceed back up the driveway, before turning onto the road and disappearing from sight.

Patty walked up beside the two men in her life and sighed. "I'm telling you, I started to wonder if we'd ever see this day."

Richard slipped an arm around her and hugged her close. "It's been a trip, I know." He then looked at his son. "I know, you're probably just itching to go over there to the Edwards, and I don't blame you. What say you help me get the bags in the house and then you can take off for a while. Deal?"

"Deal!" Alex responded cheerfully, but looking at his parents standing there just then, he suddenly reached out and embraced them both. "I love you guys. You know that, right?"

Alex opened the screen and knocked on the front door of the house. Since getting involved with the Edwards as a family, it had become a habit for him to start his visits at the back door, but this time he wanted to see if he could surprise the family by doing something a little unexpected. There was a doorbell button beside the handle, but he ignored it, having been told before that the switch only worked about half the time. In its absence, however, his knock was quickly relayed to the rest of the house by a sudden, familiar-sounding series of barks. Alex smiled, listening to the excited dog as Bobba Fett approached from somewhere in the house, frantically bounding about while someone else advanced. Just before the door opened, Alex heard someone shushing the dog before turning the latch. Pulling the door back slowly at first, it then swung wide quickly to reveal Gina on the other side.

"Alex!" the girl hissed, jumping their guest completely with a huge hug and squeezing him tightly.

Alex laughed merrily as he caught and engulfed the girl in return, though having to struggle to not drop her onto the porch. "Hi girl, how's my little sis doing?" He nuzzled into her neck, something she seemed to enjoy immensely, as the dog jumped all around them.

After a few seconds, Gina pulled back just far enough to look at him. "I'm doing great, especially now! I've missed you!"

"I've missed you, too, more than you'll ever know," Alex replied, hugging her warmly once again before letting go and settling her back onto her feet. Gina's grabbed his hand and guided him inside into the entrance hall, before closing the door behind them.

Before Alex could progress any further, however, he was met by Brenda coming up from the lower level, carrying a large basket of towels that appeared to be coming from the laundry. "Alex!" the woman cried in surprise, setting the basket aside before offering the teen her own hug. "It's good to see you again, honey! How are you? Brett and Gina said something about you being ill again this week!"

"Yeah, kind of," the teen replied, blushing. "I'm doing much better now though, thanks."

"Well, I'm glad to hear that. We've been missing you, especially Brett! I tried calling your mother a couple of times this week, but there was no answer," Brenda went on, before giving him a gentle squeeze and stepping back. "I was going to see if she might want to go out and spend the day with me and Gina Monday, since there's no school. Maybe go over to the outlet mall in Edinburg, get some lunch, that sort of thing."

Alex suddenly grinned and then nodded. "That's one of her things she likes to do, so I would almost bet on it," he intoned. The source of his amusement was lost on both of them, but they let it pass all the same as the teen continued. "I'll tell Mom to call you in a little while. That is, if she doesn't do it already. We just kind of got back from a short trip and all."

"That sounds good then," Brenda responded, then picked up the basket again and started to climb the steps toward the upper level. "Brett's in his room, by the way. I think I heard the shower going though, so you might have to give him a few minutes. Gina? Come and help me get these towels and things folded and put away, please?"

Gina rolled her eyes, but then replied, "Sure, Mom." With that, the two ladies disappeared while Alex turned and slowly descended the stairs. Bobba Fett plodded happily along at his feet as the teen turned the familiar corner toward his best friend's room. Letting himself and the canine in, Alex closed the door behind him and quietly stepped across to the bathroom door, which was opened fully. Inside, he found that Brett was indeed taking a shower, and Alex smiled as he heard the teen humming to himself inside. He stepped up just far enough so he could peek inside, where he saw the form of his friend moving about behind the shower curtain. There was just enough light and shadow that it appeared Brett was washing his head.

A variety of ideas and pranks zipped through Alex's head just then, about ways he could surprise his friend somehow. Ultimately though, he decided not to indulge them, and instead crossed over to sit on the bed. Kicking off his shoes, he pulled his legs up Indian-style and sat with his back to the headboard. Bobba Fett jumped up and nudged his way into the teen's lap, before rolling over. With paws in the air, he whimpered, causing Alex to grin again as he began giving the pup a well-deserved belly rub. "So, did you miss me, too?" Alex whispered. With a start, the dog suddenly turned and looked at Alex fully, its ears perked forward with an almost comical expression. It was as if he fully understood the question too well, because he gave the human an immediate reply. "Ruff!" Alex giggled, and for the next few minutes he petted, rubbed and loved on the pet affectionately, before picking him up and hugging him close to his chest. The small dog closed its eyes, enjoying the attention, and the teen loved the feeling of content the pup gave him in return.

Alex listened to Brett, smiling as the humming would change at times with Brett bursting into low-toned singing. He had never heard his friend sing before, and he was quite surprised to discover the teen had a very nice baritone-like voice. Before long, however, the singing stopped and the water cut off, and Alex heard the shower curtain being pulled back. There was a footstep, followed by a slight pause, before Brett strolled through the doorway with a towel wrapped around his waist. His first few steps carried him away from the bed in the direction of a chest of drawers, where the teen extracted fresh underwear and one of his seemingly infinite supply of t-shirts. When he pushed the drawer closed and turned however, he suddenly stopped in surprise at finding someone on his bed, cuddling with their dog and looking at him pleasantly.

Alex said nothing, seeing the look of astonishment that met him as Brett suddenly dropped everything from his hands. The teen moved slowly toward the bed, where the surprised expression was suddenly replaced with one of relief. Alex, in turn, set Bobba Fett aside and stood up as Brett reached his side. Initially, they only stared at each other, but within seconds Brett slowly slipped his arms around his best friend and started to hug him tightly. "Oh my God, you're here," he whispered, and then repeated it again seconds later.

"I'm here, yeah," Alex responded, sinking into the warm hug that held him close. The parts of Brett's skin he touched were clammy, if not outright wet, but the teenager did not mind as he nuzzled his nose into that crevice between his friend's shoulder and neck. He nurtured that spot, breathing in Brett's fresh scent before speaking again. "I've missed you, bro. I've missed you so much this week." The whispered words caused Brett to hug him even tighter.

"Oh God, you don't know how much I've missed you, too," was Brett's softened reply. "So many times, I wanted to just hop on a plane or something and come up there, but I knew I couldn't." The teen then grunted before he backed up to the bed and allowed himself to fall, pulling Alex down on top with him. Once there, he wrapped both legs around the boy and proceeded to draw his friend in. The towel had started to come loose, but Brett really didn't care. They had been here before, and his need to just hold Alex outweighed anything else at the moment. Letting his hands slip up into the sides of his friend's shirt, Brett gently pushed him back just enough so he could lean up and kiss him. Alex offered no resistance, and within seconds they were both intimately gasping as they shared that part of themselves with each other once again. If there was a moment to be had of pure bliss, that feeling of completeness which comes from just feeling one another and soaking it in, this was it. They didn't have to tell one another their feelings, as the love was already there encompassing them both.

It was Alex who finally broke the kiss to come up for air, sighing deeply. They observed each other up close, catching their breath, with lopsided smiles that eventually turned into giggles. Alex rolled to the side and pulled Brett with him, both remaining to face one another when they stopped. In the timespan that followed, however, Bobba Fett decided to make his presence known again by joining the duo. Hopping on top of Brett, he scurried over until he stretched out between them before whimpering. 'Did you forget about me?' he seemed to ask, but became quite content when both boys started to give the pup more loving rubs and scratches. It was then that Brett finally broke the silence. "I think you've got him spoiled."

"Huh? Me? He was already spoiled man, long before I ever moved here!" Alex retorted, giggling. Brett giggled in return, and after another minute or so, he gently picked up the canine and set him aside. "Sorry boy, this is me time right now, okay?" The dog observed them both wistfully, but then settled down near them, curling back onto a pillow.

Brett turned his attention to Alex. "So, are you okay?" he whispered.

"I am now," Alex whispered back, then scooted closer. Leaning in, he added, "Your towel came loose, by the way."

"Do you think I care?" Brett replied, laying his head upon Alex's outstretched arm. "Take me, if you want to. I'm just so... happy right now."

"I am, too," Alex replied back, leaning in and nuzzling their noses together.

Brett finally cracked up, muffling his laughter as reality sank in. "So, are we just going to lie here and stare at each other all afternoon, or what?"

"No, I don't think so. I suspect your sister is going to be coming down any moment now. She answered the door for me and let me in," Alex offered in way of explanation.

Brett grunted as that realization set in, and then slowly sat up. "I guess that means I better get some clothes on then, before she gets in here." He sighed again, looking at Alex. "I do kind of wish we had the afternoon, though. Hey, do you think you can spend the night tonight?"

Alex shook his head. "No," he started, but seeing the crestfallen face that faced him, he smiled. "But you can come stay the night with me, if you want to."

"Deal!" Brett hissed, a wide grin replacing his previous frown. Alex then pushed back against Brett and rose from the bed. Without a word, he snatched the fallen garments from the floor and returned, opening the briefs and readying himself in front of his friend. Brett grinned widely before pulling the towel the rest of the way off, exposing himself and lying back before raising his feet into the air. Alex slipped the briefs over his friend's feet through the appropriate openings, and then minutely slid them all the way up to his thighs. With Brett's help, he worked the briefs into their proper place, but not without grasping the softened member there and giving it a squeeze. Brett giggled, but remained still until taking the offered hand, where Alex helped the teen sit up.

Leaning in, Alex whispered into the teen's ear, "I see you still trust me."

"Always, bro," Brett whispered back. Alex then took up the t-shirt and, with Brett's arms raised, pulled it over and down the teen's mid-section. Brett briefly leaned in from his sitting position and hugged Alex around his waist, before moving from the bed and acquiring a pair of cut-off jeans to pull on.

Brett had just finished donning and snapping them together, when there came a sudden knock at the door. "Hey, you guys decent in there?" Gina asked. "Can I come in?"

Alex returned to his place on the bed while Brett let her in. Bobba Fett, not to be ignored, jumped back into Alex's lap, where he lay happily once again. Gina entered and then rushed to jump into bed by Alex's side, causing Brett to grimace but say nothing. Grinning, she ignored her brother as she spoke to their guest. "So, how are things?"

"Things are good, now," Alex replied grinning.

"So, you didn't get mobbed or kidnapped and raped, and you're definitely back here in one piece," the girl mused. "Must have been one heck of a trip though, wherever you went! Brett has been pining for you ever since you didn't show up for the school bus Monday morning!"

Brett pulled a bean bag up onto the foot of the bed and joined them, rolling his eyes. "Have not!" he hissed, but when his sister gave him a hard stare, he relented. "Okay, okay... I admit, I was disappointed for sure. I just... I'm glad you're back now."

Alex nodded. "Yeah, I am, too." He observed them both, seeing their curiosity, and knowing they wanted to know more. He was not afraid now, although he knew he should still be somewhat selective because of Gina being there. "How much does she know?" he asked Brett.

"Not much," Brett replied. "Don't be too surprised, really. I told her your Dad was having to be a witness in a trial is all, and it needed all of you to be there. Which is pretty much the truth, right?"

Alex smiled. "Yeah," he answered nodding. Turning to Gina, the teen then filled her in on some of the background, and then also telling them both where he went, and how he and his Dad had done their part at first. He explained that they had to wait before coming home, in case of being recalled to the stand. He did not mention anything about who the man was on trial, the danger that he and his family had been in, or their participation in WITSEC.

As he finished, however, Gina frowned deeply. "But... What about the scars then? Why the burns and everything, on your shoulder? Did they have anything to do with this?" she asked. In the awkward silence that followed, she searched both Alex's face and then her older brother in turn. "Or, is that something I'm not supposed to ask about?"

"You can ask, girl," Alex answered. "You can ask me anything you want, remember? I promised you that, and I promised I would tell you anything I know. It's just, well..."

"There's more to it, sis," Brett spoke up. "Whether or not Alex tells you though, it might get him in trouble."

Gina scoffed. "Don't you think I can't keep a secret?" she whispered. "I thought you knew me better by now. I mean, I don't tell anyone how close you two really are and everything." As she looked on, however, there were tears beginning to sting her eyes. "But then maybe, I don't know, maybe you still don't trust me enough."

Alex reached his arm around her. "Hey, none of that now. You know better." He considered for a few seconds before he continued. "The fire happened because some people were trying to keep Dad from testifying. Sort of a scare tactic, you know? It was a warning to him, and that's why we ended up moving here. Only thing was, I don't think they knew I was home at the time. You know the rest though. Does that make sense?"

Gina studied his expression. "Honestly? Is that it?"

"It's the truth, sis," Alex replied. "I'm not holding out on you, scouts' honor."

Gina scoffed. "Huh! Some scout, you've never even been in the boy scouts!" she teased, but still with a seeming reservation on whether she believed him or not.

Brett spoke up. "No, but he's been to camp, and believe me sis, that's not discounting anything. But, yeah, he didn't make it out of the fire without getting hurt."

Gina wrinkled her nose. "And that's why you moved here?" Alex nodded, and after a pause, the girl nodded in acceptance. She turned so as to pull up into his side, sliding her legs around his waist and pulling him into her own warm hug. "Thanks. Thanks for trusting me," she whispered into his ear.

"I do trust you, more than you'll ever understand, I think," Alex whispered back. Glancing at Brett, he pushed the girl back until he could lock onto her eyes. "Listen, we've been through a lot, you know. All three of us. Secrets, sex, boys vs. girls at least, and a lot more. Just understand, if I don't tell you something, it's not because I'm afraid of you. You were right, we all know each other enough by now that it shouldn't matter. But it doesn't mean I'm not afraid for you sometimes, Gina. Some things in life, they cut really deep, and you knowing about it could be worse than you not knowing about it. Like right now, I can't let the guys at school, or anywhere else, know anything about this - for a lot of reasons. It's more than just not being any of their business, it's something that could create problems and all, for me or them. Get it?"

Gina nodded. "Yeah, I get it Alex. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to put that on you like I did, honest. I was just, I don't know..."

"You were disappointed, and really, I don't think Alex or I would blame you," Brett mused quietly. "Maybe you didn't mean to put it on him, but you did sis, all the same. Just be careful about doing it anymore. You know how we both feel about you, and we know how you feel about us, okay? We're together, and that's all that matters right now."

Gina smiled. "I promise," she replied, and then as if to seal it, she kissed Alex on the nose, then turned to crawl over to her brother and hug him, before giving him a similar kiss as well. "I'll be good," she said afterwards, sitting up. "Besides, if I don't, I know what Brett will probably do to me."

"Oh, what's that?" Alex asked.

"Something about holding me upside down naked in the shower, and running cold water all over me," she quipped.

Alex saw Brett blushing as he burst out laughing. "He... crap, he wouldn't do that...!"

Gina shrugged, grinning. "Don't be so sure. I wouldn't put it past him to want to see me naked for a change, especially you know where..." She turned and eyed Alex evilly. "You either. I mean, it would take two of you to hold me up anyway, right?"

Brett made a face. "Gina!" he hissed, and then started giggling himself. "Please, oh please, don't ever let Mom hear that!"

"Hear what?" Gina replied mischievously, before she tackled her brother and began poking and tickling him all over. Alex looked on with amusement before he decided to join in.

How he loved this family!

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