The Scars Above My Heart

by Sean English

Chapter 21

The Aftermath

Brett walked into Alex's room behind his friend, finding nothing changed from his previous visits, other than a bag sitting on the bed. Alex walked over and opened it, before unpacking various clothes it contained from his recent trip. As he withdrew them, the teen separated them into piles based on their type, and then dumped them into his hamper. "There, that'll make it easier to wash them with other stuff, I think." Brett sat nonchalantly on the corner of the bed, watching the teen closely, and admitted silently to himself he should probably learn something about this, some day. Thus far, his mother and Gina kept all the clothes washed in their house. He and his Dad were responsible for just getting them folded and put away - unless it was shirts or something that required ironing.

Alex kicked off his shoes and pulled his bean bags up onto the bed, tossing one to Brett while taking the other and sitting himself against the headboard. Brett joined him, arranging his own support in place so that they could lie side by side. There they sat for a moment, Alex lost in his thoughts, and Brett sensed enough to wait patiently. He had been watching his friend closely all afternoon, and he could feel something was going down. Exactly what, however, was anyone's guess. It had taken little effort to convince his mother to let him spend the night, especially when he found an ally in Gina, who wanted permission to go stay with one of her friends for the night, too. Realizing they would have the house to themselves, Brenda then relented - but not without stern warnings for Brett to be careful around Alex. He may not feel up to a lot of rough-housing and activity, having come back from being both ill and an unexpected trip.

Brett sat back, dismissing the first, but fully beginning to understand the second. Alex moved slowly around him, and there was a certain lack of energy and motivation that had surfaced throughout the afternoon already. "You know, maybe I shouldn't have brought up anything about sleeping over. You really do look pretty rough, bro."

Alex turned to him, almost pleading. "I'm okay, though. I just... I didn't want to stay at your place, because I thought we might have a little more privacy up here, that's all. Without Gina, I mean."

"Really? I, uh, well..." Brett relented, though blushing. "Are you thinking, like, we're going to need some privacy, or...?"

Alex giggled, but then shook his head. "I don't know," he intoned wearily, but then took hold of his friend's hand. "I... I don't... promise, I'm okay Brett, but honestly - I'm feeling ... I don't know what I'm feeling. Tired, yeah, but weird, too. I don't know what we'll do tonight, or not do, or anything..." He sighed. "Honestly, I just... I really feel like I need you, man. I mean, I know I've held out on you some lately, but-"

"It's okay, bro," Brett whispered. "Life isn't always about sex, if that's what you think I'm hinting at."

Alex laughed, but it was hollowed laugh that actually registered with Brett, causing the other teen to become concerned. "It's not that," Alex replied. "I mean, it may be okay and all, but I don't want you thinking I'm getting tired of it or anything. Honest, when we go to bed, I just... like I said, I just need you, okay? I want to hold you, and... and let you hold me. I want ... crap, I want to feel real again." Suddenly, a tear was escaping and rolling down his cheek. "I want to feel that ... that everything that's happened this week is finally behind me," he continued, and as Brett listened, he heard a note of distress breaking into his friend's voice. "You don't have any idea, Brett. This whole week, I've had to, had to keep myself focused and... had to... everything, with everything I had in me. I - I had enough things happening, some scary and all, that I just, I didn't... I didn't know how to deal with, you know? I just... I kind of waded through it all, and..."

"Hey, hey!" Brett spoke soothingly. "It's okay, really! You did make it, Alex. You're here, and it's all over with now, buddy." He moved in close, trying to keep Alex's attention focused on him.

Alex, however, shut his eyes tight, as if trying to regain some control over something not yet witnessed. "You know, each time when things were happening, I thought about you. Sometimes I wondered about what you were doing right then, and why you couldn't be the fuck with me there. I know, that's stupid, but it's how I felt! And... and... I even worried that maybe, like, you were finding new friends, or someone to replace me with and all, and... and... It was just bullshit, Brett, just me going fucking crazy, you know?" The teen was now crying freely. "I don't really worry about that kind of stuff, but sometimes, sometimes... Crap, I just wanted you with me so much. I felt so... alone..."

Brett reached up and caught a tear as it rolled down. "I wish I could have been there, Alex. I really do," he whispered. He squeezed the hand he was holding, trying to give some measure of strength back through their connection.

Alex felt it and held on tightly. "In some ways, you were there, Brett. Each night, see, I pulled up a pillow and wrapped my arms around it. Kind of stupid sounding, I know, but... I admit, I was pretending it was you." He shook his head, but Brett also noticed that by now his friend was shaking in other places, too. "I know, that sounds half-assed and lame, but it just... somehow, it just... helped."

"It's not half-assed or lame," Brett objected, squeezing the hand and then moving his arm around Alex's shoulders. "Calm down, Alex. It's just me, and I'm here now, okay? You... what you just went through... it was enough to stretch anyone's nerves to the end, okay? I get it bro, I really do."

"Maybe, I don't know," was the whispered reply, before Alex scooted in to close the distance between them. "It was just hard, Brett. It was hard because, sometimes it seems no matter what we do, or how we feel about each other and all, I feel like I should have been able to go away for a week and be a man, you know? Without having shitty feelings about being alone and everything like I did. But hell, you know something? I couldn't even get the fuck out of Greensburg before I started missing you being by my side!" He was shaking again, this time worse than before as Brett watched him. "I was so fucking scared at times, Brett, you know?"

The tears were dripping from his chin, and Brett understood what was happening. He tugged, pulling Alex over so he could hug and hold him up close. Before he could say anything however, Alex finally collapsed in his arms. "I'm sorry man," Alex went on. "I'm so fucking sorry, I... I'm so... I think I'm just a fucking mess, that's all. I don't know why I'm crying, really. It's stupid, right? I mean, all this shit is over now! But... I am... I can't stop... I'm just..."

"Shh... It's alright now, just let it out, bro," Brett finally interjected. "It's just stress, okay? You've been so wound up, all week long! This, it's just the stress letting go, that's all. It's not stupid, and you're not going crazy, Alex, trust me." Brett held him, soothing as much as he could while Alex continued to sob over the next few minutes, clinging tightly. Brett could feel the wetness against his t-shirt, but he didn't care. It was a stark reminder of just how much his friend needed someone just then, and he had chosen Brett to share his frustrations and fears with. His own heart ached, because he knew there was little he could do, but he continued to hold Alex and rub his side and back, feeling the sorrow as it finally found an escape. He thought about Alex, always the strongest emotionally of the two, and always the one who figured everything out on his own. Self-assured, level-headed, smart... They were all character strengths that everyone around the teen drew from - himself, his sister, and their other friends from camp and school. For Brett to see his friend break down like this now, though not unheard of, only proved to him that Alex was just as human as the rest of them were. Brett held the teen, not unlike a few times he had held his little sister in the past, comforting him in the only way he knew how. Eventually the tears did dry up, and the subsequent shaking subsided along with it. As he sat there thinking about what else he could say or do, Brett was surprised to hear a change in Alex's breathing. The almost lifeless body in his arms had fallen asleep, and the deep, measured intervals caused Brett to smile. The mere exhaustion had finally caught up with the teen.

Brett subtly shifted into a more comfortable position, pulling and holding Alex with him. The fatigued teen seemed to adjust with him somewhat, but didn't wake up. Brett could feel the heaviness in the limbs, and in the head that lay against his shoulder. A light snore made him realize, too, just how tired his best friend was. Looking out the window, he saw the sun setting in the distance, right at the edge of a shelf of clouds approaching from the west. The hour was not that late, but somehow Brett figured Alex might be out for the long count.

Finding the remote within reach, Brett turned on the TV and found a movie that caught his interest. Lowering the volume, the teen activated the subtitles and then sat back, relaxing for the next couple of hours. At one point, he carefully extracted himself from Alex's grip in order to pay the bathroom a visit, but he returned and curled back in somewhat. Not quite as close as before, but still enough Alex sensed his presence and snuggled in again.

As the teen thumbed through the available channels, it was then Brett heard a soft knock coming from the door. Taking quick stock of their positions, Brett didn't think they really needed to fear anything. Sitting up, he called out for their visitor to come in, and found Patty hesitantly stepping inside, carrying a tray of sandwiches, chips and sodas. "Are you boys hungry? I'm sorry, really. I didn't feel like cooking any dinner tonight, I hope you understand."

Brett looked upon the lady with a wide smile. "No sweat, Mrs. B. I totally understand."

Patty gazed upon Alex as she set the tray down on the desk. "It looks like Alex conked out on you, too." Stepping around, she sat down on the other side of the bed and ran her fingers lightly though her son's hair. "I take it he's told you all about what's happened this week, and where we've been."

"Yes, ma'am, he told me enough," Brett replied.

Patty looked up into the eyes of their visitor. "You would have been proud of him, Brett. He didn't buckle even once. Even when that bastard attorney turned loose on him, Alex was just as sharp, giving the man all kinds of crap back. Then, other things happened, too..." Patty fell silent for a moment, before she shook her head and spoke again. "It took a toll on him. Others might not see it, but as a mother, I know. Even Alex might deny it, but sometimes parents see things in our children's lives before they'll ever admit it to themselves. This whole, sordid affair... it's affected him in a lot of ways Brett, some I think we're all still just now working out. I mean, a couple of nights this week when I checked on him, I found him twisting about in the covers, moaning, restless. At first, I thought it was just bad dreams, but then I wasn't so sure anymore. I think he had a rough time getting any sleep, and I sure know none of us got any rest." She observed her son again, laying a gentle hand on his chest, and feeling each breath rise and fall rhythmically. "I know also that he missed you. Up there, he was all alone, with only his father and me to keep him company. Not that we amounted to that much, but... there is something you and your sister have done for him, and brought to this family, that Richard and I can never repay you for." Pausing, the woman looked deep into Brett's eyes. "You already know that Alex grew up as a lone child, without any brothers or sisters. That is something you and Gina have that's different. By being a part of each other, some kids don't get to experience having that kind of family dynamic. There's a warmth, a companionship that digs deep for some, like I think it has for you and your sister. Alex has never had that before, and not so much by our choice. It just is what it is. The one thing I can be thankful for though, is that it's different now that we've moved here. Somehow, Alex has accepted you and Gina both as being a part of his family now. I haven't forgotten how he spoke that night at your sister's birthday dinner, remember? Or the gift the two of you gave her. That was really something special, and we all could see that it came from the heart. Teens don't do those things these days, Brett. At least, not like you two did. That meant something, you know?"

Brett sat there, a lump building in his throat all the while trying to find words to respond with. Patty smiled before she pulled herself away from Alex and stood up. Circling the end of the bed, she then approached Brett and, with a silent gesture, motioned for the teen to stand up, which he obeyed. He was surprised then as the woman wrapped him up in her arms. "Take a hug from me for a change, kiddo. It's not much, I know, but I offer it with all the love and warmth I can muster. The friendship you three share, it's what Alex needed in order to start finding his way in life. Richard and I have both witnessed it, and we are both very, very grateful for you and your family. I want you to know that, okay?"

Brett fought hard to keep his voice as steady as possible. "You're w-wrong. Your hugs do mean a lot, too. I'm glad for you guys. I'm glad you moved in here when you did," he replied in a whisper. "Alex... he's done a lot for me, too. A lot for us."

"Well, I'm happy we did, too." Patty suddenly giggled before holding the teen tighter. "I mean this, Brett. I think Alex has found so much more to live for now, since we arrived. Going off to camp, that was probably one of the hardest bridges Richard and I have ever crossed for him, given everything that was happening up until then. But you know what? It was also probably one of the best things that Alex has ever done for himself, and then starting school, with you to sort of guide him on his way... that's priceless. You might not realize it, or understand it now, but give it 10, maybe 20 years down the road when you have your own children. I promise - you'll look back on this and understand it all the better."

"Maybe, but honestly? I don't think I have to understand it, ma'am. Like we've said all along, or like I've said all along, he's my best friend," Brett replied.

"Well, just keep that inside and nourish it then, and I promise it'll help you go far in life," Patty replied nodding, before giving the teen a final hug and then stepping back. "If he wakes up, try to get him to at least eat a little something, okay? Richard and I are probably going to turn in early, so we'll see you both in the morning."

Brett nodded in acknowledgement. "Do you... well, do you think I should leave, so he has a chance to recover and all without me distracting him?"

"Distract him? I doubt you would do that," Patty replied, shaking her head. "Not unless you just want to go. I've got a feeling though, that he'll sleep a lot better knowing you're close by." She smiled at him. "It's a little weird, kind of like an after-effect, I think. I know you're both boys, but you're still human beings. Everyone needs someone to help them work things out in life, and I'm afraid that's a job you've inherited for him. At least for a little while. It's one of those things about having a close friendship that rubs off on each other." She thought about saying something more, especially with regards to the seemingly physical closeness the two shared, but she stopped. She noted how close they were in proximity when she first entered the room, but then thought the better of it. She did not really care, as she understood her son was only now getting to the point of testing himself, finding and exploring boundaries in ways that Brett was obviously comfortable with. Perhaps, in a way, Brett was doing the same, exploring his own limits in unique ways. Regardless, the two trusted each other implicitly, and that was all that mattered to her as long as her sons were safe. She smiled at that thought, because she had already started thinking of Brett, long before now, as being one of her own. Right now, she knew they both were probably in the safest hands of anyone in the world when they were around each other, and she found that thought reassuring. "You're fine, Brett. I'll see you both in the morning, okay?"

Brett smiled and nodded, and then watched Alex's mother quietly slip out of the room, closing the door behind her. He turned to the tray of food and then realized he hadn't eaten much all day. His stomach suddenly announced with a rumble that it was hungry, and he could not deny it a chance of satisfaction. Brett scooped up a sandwich and started eating.

Sunday morning arrived to find an unusually quiet Branham household. No one in the family was really known to remain in bed late on any given day of the week, but on this morning, no one stirred until the day had already progressed for hours outside. For the time of year, sunrise usually occurred around 6:30, so when Brett rolled over and realized how bright it was outside, he was startled to find the time already nearing 9:30. Rising from the bed with an urgent need, he still paused to glance out the window, finding low-lying clouds covering the valley. With weather patterns returning to a more normal form in the last few weeks, it still did not help the heat and humidity that still hung over the Ohio Valley. Warm days, mixed with an intermittent combination of weather fronts with rain, brought a brief respite at least, something which pleased the local farmers. Their crops were finally getting much needed moisture to revive after the intense heat waves of July. Just outside the window, Brett observed the limbs in nearby trees both bend and shake on occasion, indicating that a stiff breeze was in the area. He wasn't sure what that would mean for him and Alex that day, but he was certain they would find something to do regardless.

Grudgingly the teen made his way into the bathroom, where the need of morning relief became the highest priority. The teenager was even surprised at how long it took for him to empty his bladder; that is, until he realized that the night before he had not only consumed his own soda, but Alex's as well. Finally completing the task, he flushed the toilet and rinsed his hands, but not without looking at himself in the mirror. What he saw was nothing new physically, but the words spoken by Patty the evening before came back to him, leaving himself with a feeling of pride. He and Alex already knew what they felt for each other was far reaching, especially compared to what most boyhood friendships evolved to. To have it acknowledged though, and understood by their parents, was an incredible boost to the teen's morale and self-worth. Brett wondered, however, if their parents knew, or even suspected, just how persistently close their intimate involvement was? He hoped not, at least for the sexual elements. Brett wasn't afraid for any of them to see the hugs they all shared, or the trust. He thought back to when Patty arrived in the room the night before, and how Alex and he had been positioned. His friend had slid up against him, but by being asleep there was nothing overly implied. Patty had seen that, and noted that Brett didn't seem to mind. He hoped, and soon discovered by her words afterwards, that she would and did understand.

Upon his return to the bedroom, Brett glanced at the tray and saw the uneaten sandwich still sitting there untouched. He was surprised, however, when his gaze turned toward the bed and found Alex was sitting up, yawning and stretching. "Hey buddy, welcome back to the real world again," Brett called out quietly, while climbing back into the bed and sliding up close again. After considering the idea of falling back upon the pillow, the teen instead opted to pull one of the bean bags up from the floor, and arrange it for the both of them back against the headboard. As he settled, he saw Alex had yet to move, so grabbing his friend, Brett pulled his friend back until he lay upon his chest.

"Umpf!" Alex grunted, finally breaking his silence. He did not resist the arms that enveloped him, but instead added his own to hold them in place. After a moment, he turned his head to look quizzically at Brett. "Wh-what happened?"

"What do you mean?" Brett replied, giggling. "You, buddy, conked out last night - completely!"

The look of confusion deepened. "What do you mean? When did you get here?" he asked, and after a few seconds, Brett realized his best friend was being serious.

"Uh, yesterday, remember? You came up to the house for a while when you guys finally got back home, and then you invited me to come down, and I spent the night with you," Brett replied.

Alex scratched his head then, obviously still puzzled. "I remember that much, yeah. I think I even remember us riding our bikes back but, everything is kind of hazy, you know?" Shaking his head, he continued. "So, what about afterwards? I mean- ha, I don't even remember going to bed or anything!"

Brett smile began to fade. "You're serious, aren't you?" he asked, then relented. "You probably don't remember going to bed because I'm the one who put you to bed, bro. I just, like, took off your socks and jeans, that's all. I covered you up and crawled in with you. You honestly don't remember any of that?" When Alex shook his head, Brett sighed and sat back. "What IS the last thing you remember, then?"

Alex frowned. "Honestly? Not much... I think I recall, uh, maybe unpacking my bag or something... didn't I? From the trip, I mean?"

"Yep, you did. Then we both set ourselves up here and had mad sex, and then we talked a little," Brett explained in a low teasing voice. He was unsure how much he should reveal, especially if his friend was feeling as stressed out as he was the day before. "Okay, okay... maybe not the sex part, but... you get the idea."

Alex laid his head back against his friend's shoulder for another minute, but then sat up, shaking it hard as if to clear the cobwebs fogging his senses. "I'm glad for that then, because if we had sex and I forgot it, I'd really be hurting." He glanced at Brett and gave him a faint smile as he pulled the cover back. "Be right back," he muttered, as he climbed out and crossed the floor into the bathroom. Brett heard the familiar stream hitting the toilet, and in the meantime reflected on in his friend's demeanor. Unsure if he should be concerned, he decided to wait and let Alex play this out. It could just be an effect of the exhaustion, which if it was, Brett knew the memories would slowly return.

When Alex re-entered the room, he climbed back onto the bed and stretched out on top of the covers, but positioning himself so that Brett's arms could reel him back in. "I'm starting to remember some more, now," Alex started. "I think I turned into some kind of crybaby, didn't I?" He glanced into Brett's eyes deeply. "That's what you're not telling me, isn't it? I was... I don't know what I was, just... I lost control or something. Probably over something stupid, right?"

"It wasn't stupid," Brett answered softly. "Honestly, I think you were kind of just decompressing, bro. It happens sometimes, to all of us. You've been so stressed out lately, I think you just needed to let it out, and then well, you just did and you fell asleep afterwards. There's nothing stupid about that; like I said, you were out of it."

"You stayed with me, though? You've been here, like, all night?" Alex asked, his tone low. "I mean, you didn't go home, and... and..."

"All night," Brett replied, nodding. "I was here all night. I didn't want to leave you alone, just in case."

Alex then grasped and hugged the arms holding him a little tighter. For a while he didn't say anything, his thoughts wandering aimlessly. "I'm glad," he finally whispered. "I think... I don't know, I guess I really just needed to feel something again. Something deep down and inside, maybe. If you stayed, then maybe that helped me to finally get some sleep."

Brett wrinkled his nose. "It's kind of funny, bro. I mean, there were a few times that you, you know, just rolled around and turned and everything during the night. But then I would grab and hold on, and you'd settle down and get quiet again," he admitted. "I didn't know what to do other than just that. You didn't do it a lot, but..."

"I'm glad you did," Alex replied, before turning over to face his best friend. "Brett? I'm sorry I went crazy-nuts last night. I'm beginning to remember some of it now. That's ... I mean, it's something nobody should have to deal with except me."

"It's fine Alex, honest. You just... it's fine, trust me," Brett replied softly. "You can vent to me anytime you want, I promise."

Alex smiled then, sighing in relief. "I keep telling you, there's a lot you do for me that you don't even realize, I think."

Brett smiled. "We do a lot for each other, I think, and that's the way it should be."

Alex scoffed, but then blushed as he looked away. "I guess we missed another night of ... stuff, didn't we? Stuff like getting to be just us for a little while. I seem to be making that a habit lately, don't I?"

Brett grinned. "Maybe, but honestly - it's okay. You've needed something more lately, and really, I'm just glad I was able to be here to give it to you." His voice dropped to a whisper. "Besides, you're more important on the inside than anything else we do on the outside. We have all kinds of time for that other stuff. That is, if you want to keep at it."

A look of annoyance crossed Alex's features. "You're kidding me, right?" To emphasize his point, the teen suddenly rolled off just enough to get his hand down to his best friend's groin, where he inserted it inside the briefs and cupped Brett completely in his crotch. "I still love my best friend, and I like his boy toy just as much, too," Alex whispered. Brett smiled, and with his one free hand underneath Alex, he inserted and grasped one of the butt-cheeks within his reach.

"You already know I love you, too," Brett whispered. He leaned up and first kissed Alex on the nose, but then went for the lips and held them there lightly. Alex responded by parting his own, and for the next few seconds, they passionately shared that one thing between them again with no holds barred. It was welcomed by both, who moaned softly at one point or another.

When Alex broke and pulled back, he gave his friend a gentle squeeze inside his briefs. "I think Little Brett is planning to try out for the next Incredible Hulk movie part," he whispered, which made Brett giggle.

"You keep holding him like that and he might just make it, too," Brett whispered back. Alex grinned slyly, but then shook his head, letting go and crossing his arms upon Brett's chest.

"Soon, bro. Cross my heart, I promise. I don't think I can hold out much longer anyway. I haven't cummed in a while," Alex whispered, laying his chin down close and observing Brett's expression.

Brett cocked his head a little to the side. "You haven't jacked off any? Really? Wow!"

Alex only smiled. "I didn't know if the feds had the apartment wired, or had hidden cameras or anything, you know?" He knew the excuse was a weak one, but he didn't want to tell Brett it was just because of how wound up he had been lately. Sighing deeply, he explained. "I wish we could now, but if we get started, there's no telling where we'll end up, and right now with Mom and Dad downstairs? I don't think I want to risk it," he explained. He then hugged his friend. "I still love you though, at least you know that."

"Never once thought you didn't," Brett replied. After a moment, he broke the silence. "We'll take care of you, soon, but man? You've got to do what you've got to do, no matter what! Don't hold out for me, okay!"

Alex grinned at him. "I won't, I promise."

Brett smiled back. "So, okay then, what do you want to do? I don't have to be home for a while."

Alex thought for a second. "Well, how about we get some breakfast of some sort first. I'm really kind of hungry now, then afterwards we'll see what we can come up with. I feel... I feel like I want to do something crazy, you know? Something wild, and carefree, or whatever. Maybe see if we can ride out to the Dairy Queen again, you know, get a milkshake or something. By the time we get started and all, it'll probably be around noon anyway."

Brett looked out the window. "We might, but... it could rain on us. It's pretty cloudy and breezy out there."

"So? I don't care, let's get all wet and everything, maybe go down by the park and shoot some hoops or something. It doesn't matter, as long as it's us spending some crazy time together, you know? Then, when we come back, if you can stay a little longer, I'm gonna get a shower, and I'm going to strip you to your birthday suit and pull you in with me. And I'm going to do some things we haven't been able to really do for a while." The last he announced with a rather seductive voice, a smirk crossing his features.

Brett raised an eyebrow. "Oh? Okay, that sounds like an AWESOME plan!"

As the teens entered the kitchen, they found both Richard and Patty had already arrived. Patty was at the stove, tipping up a large pan of scrambled eggs into a bowl, readying it to join various other breakfast foods already set upon the table. "Wow, Mom! Smells great!" Alex exclaimed, sniffing the air and enjoying the aroma of cooked bacon that was permeating the room.

"About time you two came down, I was beginning to worry," Patty replied as both teens took seats at the table. Within minutes, she was pouring large glasses of orange juice for all of them. "We need to drink this up before it goes bad boys, so have at it."

Brett thanked her as she handed one of the glasses to him, which he accepted and quickly consumed a third of it. "Ahh, it's still good to me!" he declared, which made Patty scoff.

"The jar is right at 2 weeks old now. With us being gone last week, I didn't think it would hold out this long, so we're kind of lucky, I guess." She sighed. "I think we're going to have to make a grocery run today, though. This is the last of the eggs and bacon, too, and the bread is overly dry and hard."

Richard looked up. "You and I can go out later, if you like. Might even do us some good to do something **normal** for a change, if you know what I mean."

Alex filled his plate with a generous helping of eggs and toast, contemplating the day ahead. "Brett and I thought we might go bike riding, if that's okay with you. Nowhere in particular, except maybe over to the park and maybe to get some ice cream."

Richard looked out the window. "Might be a short day of it. If the newspaper is right, there are some storms due to head in here this afternoon. If you do go, then... just stay together and be careful out there."

"Will do. We won't get very far out, I promise," Alex replied.

Richard turned to Brett and observed the boy curiously. "Brett, I know you've been told a little about our adventures this past week, right?"

Brett nodded. "Yes, sir."

"That's fine. To tell the truth, I figured Alex would fill you in at some point along the way," Richard replied with a musical tone and side-glance at his son, who was blushing. "I wanted to ask you though, about that with regards to your parents. Have you told them anything yet?"

Brett shook his head. "With all due respect sir, Alex told me how important it was to keep it between us, and so that's what I did. I haven't breathed a word to anyone, except maybe just a very small piece to Gina, so she wouldn't go around and stir up everyone's curiosity."

"I respect that," Richard acknowledged, "and, personally, I thank you for it." He glanced up as Patty joined them at the table. "Here's the thing, boys. Patty and I have decided that the fewer who know about all of this, the better off we all are in the long term. That being said though, we've also come to the conclusion a few people do need to be told, and that includes your parents."

"We were just discussing how to best go about it," Patty said, taking up the conversation. "I know that we, meaning Alex and the two of us, have been eating out all week, but we thought maybe we could all go out as a family later this afternoon and have an early dinner. Do you think they would go for that?" she asked Brett, who turned to her in surprise, but nodded.

"Sure, I guess so. Do you want me to go tell them, or...?" Brett asked.

"No, no... we aren't asking you because of that," Patty reassured him. "I guess we were just wondering about your thoughts on it. I can call your mother here in a little bit, if they haven't already gone to church or something."

Brett nodded. "They'll probably be home, sleeping late and all, since neither Gina or I are there."

"What time are you thinking we might go?" asked Alex. "That way, Brett and I can be sure we're back and ready to go, too."

"Hmm, how about 4:00 this afternoon?" Richard replied. "That would make it an early dinner, I know, but it's not too bad for a Sunday evening, I think. It should avoid most of the church crowds in places, too, and make it a more quiet-like get-together. Plus, we can have some time to just visit, too."

"And if it does happen to be too crowded or loud, we can always come back here afterwards," Patty added, to which her husband nodded.

"Okay, that sounds pretty good," Alex agreed. The conversation turned to other matters as the boys ate heartily before heading out the door.

Steven Gates lay in his bed, staring up at the ceiling and pondering things in general. It had been a lousy weekend thus far, as he had both caught a cold since late Friday night, and had to deal with Darren in an unusual argument the day before. His older brother was in the process of packing for his first year of college, and since the two shared the above-average sized bedroom, there had been quite a bit of disagreement over some of the things that could go with him, and other items which Steven felt should stay.

Along with the intermittent sneezes and coughing spells which had developed, Steven was also feeling depressed for another, entirely different reason. In recent years, he had come to depend upon his relationship with his older brother, for support and more. The two had practically gone through school together as a tag team, their antics delighting many of their friends. Without question, they were both the tallest of their classes, although Steven's height had surpassed his older brother by just over an inch. Both loved sports, but refused to officially play on any of the school teams due to their medical deficiencies. Aside from Steven's low-iron counts, Darren's bones in general were more brittle than common. The teen had tried to offset it with various calcium and other treatments, but the combinations had only been minimally effective in his teenage years.

The two still played a lot of basketball at home, however, and both enjoyed goofing off and other things they got to share over the years. Their parents had taught them to respect and watch after one another, and they had both taken that advice to heart. The fact they worked after-school and summer jobs together in the same places, often went on double-dates, and found a lot of hobbies to share was an encouraging testament to that. Their car, a shared resource that both had evenly worked and paid for completely, also added to the fact they stuck together in sharing the property, upkeeping and managing expenses together without any issues. Things like that were not enjoyed just between them, either; both had taken to watching over and including their younger brother Brad, too, when possible. The three of them made up a brotherhood of their own, and most people on the outside could see, even feel, the tight bond the trio shared.

On this day, however, Darren was in the process of finalizing which boxes he was leaving with, and which could go into storage. As Steven looked around their room, there was very little left that would ever remind the teen of the roommate-for-life he had once shared it with. Although he was happy for his older brother, it left him with a catch in his throat, a lump that had started small but gradually built larger. The overall feelings also risked causing more subliminal emotions to break out more than once. This was going to be a hard separation, and they both knew it before it even began. Darren would not be that far away, as the University was less than an hour's drive, but Steven knew that once one immersed themselves in college life, it would not be the same for either of them afterwards.

Just then, Darren entered the room and strolled over to the desk they shared, stopping to look upon what was left in the boxes and packages on top. He picked up a photograph, one depicting all three brothers taken only the year before while the family was out on a picnic. Steven sneezed behind him, distracting the older boy briefly when he heard his brother blowing his nose into a tissue afterwards. "Man, you've got it good, don't you?"

Steven sat up and swung his legs over the edge of the bed before nodding. "You're not kidding," he replied drearily. Seeing the picture frame in his brother's hand, Steven's shoulders suddenly drooped. "Please... don't take that one, okay?" Looking up, he saw the look of curiosity that met him. "It's the only recent one we have of all three of us together, you know? I'd... I'd really like to keep it."

Darren heard the words clearly, but also detected the unspoken misery underneath them. He nodded, before glancing back around the room. He recalled some of the arguments they had been having since he started packing only days before, and he suddenly began to understand. Walking over slowly, he sat down by his brother. "I'm sorry, man," he stated simply, handing the frame over. "I think I get what has been bugging you for the last couple of days now." A silence enveloped them both while Steven remained unresponsive, sitting there in misery, causing Darren to finally sigh. "You're afraid I'm leaving you, right? Not just to college, but for good."

Steven nodded. "I'm going to miss you, yeah." He grabbed another tissue and blew his nose again, though uncertain if the drip was brought on by his cold, or by his emotions beginning to get the better of him. When he looked up, he half-smiled in a light-hearted attempt to defray those feelings for the moment. "I won't have your ugly ass here anymore, to remind me we're both still human, you know?"

"What are you talking about? I LIKE being the side-show freak!" Darren replied, laughing. He stilled himself, however, and observed his brother. "You know, I think you're getting sappier in your old age."

Steven scoffed. "Cream puff, maybe," he replied, his voice stressed with trying to refrain from coughing.

"No, not a cream puff," Darren replied, shaking his head. "You always were the softie between us, though. Reaching out to people in need, helping get them on their feet. A whole hell of a lot more than I ever did."

"You did plenty," Steven fought back, but then sighed deeply. "It won't be the same after today, you know. Things will change, and it's not that I'm regretting it... it's just a fact, I know. Still it doesn't mean I'm glad to see it happening. Not by a long shot."

Darren smiled at his brother. "I'm sad too, in a way." He noted the surprised look that met him, and nodded. "What, I can be sappy sometimes, too, you know? But... listen, it doesn't mean we have to grow apart. I'll still be here for fall break, and Thanksgiving and Christmas. And hell, we can still talk at night - we each have the other's cell number. We're only a phone call away!"

Steven grunted. "Do you really think I'm going to call and potentially interrupt you having your way with some gorgeous college babe or something?"

Darren laughed. "Who, me? I doubt that will happen, but... I promise, you'll never interrupt me with anything. If I don't answer right away, just... give me a while, okay?" He grinned. "Us side-show freaks, we have to keep our reputation, you know!"

Steven smiled, and upon glancing at his brother, he saw that part of him that was still there, that part that made him his flesh and blood. "Love you, brother - just don't go telling anyone else that."

"Don't go telling anyone else what?" The sudden voice came from the doorway, where Brad had just approached. "That he has King Kong-sized nuts or something?"

Steven rolled his eyes and started to retort, but a coughing spell overtook him. Darren looked up with annoyance, but upon seeing his younger brother's wide grin, he knew the boy was teasing them both. "Who, me or him? I don't know anything about either one of us having big nuts, but I do know someone in this room who has an ostentatious ass, and he isn't sitting down anywhere at the moment," he quipped good naturedly.

Brad laughed. "Ostentatious? What the hell does that mean?" he asked, before pulling up a bean bag and sitting directly in front of the two older boys. "Never mind, I don't think I want to know. So, do I take it this is our goodbye time right now?".

Darren shook his head. "Not yet. And ostentatious means flashy, or showy. At least, I think it does." He shrugged. "Not that you shake or wave it around any, but..."

Brad laughed. "Goof-ball!" he declared, shaking his head.

Darren laughed as well. "Meh. I still have a couple of things to do before we leave. Besides, it's not goodbye, little brother. You know that."

Brad nodded, pulling his knees up in front of him and resting his chin there. "Yeah, I know. I'm like big nuts there though, Darren. I'm going to miss you, big time."

"Going to miss you, too, Shortstop," the older boy replied, invoking his favorite nickname he often used for his brother. "But, like I was just telling him, you guys have my number, and I have his. Yours too, before long. I think I heard the rents talking about getting you a simple phone maybe, to use for a couple of years before getting you a smart phone." He lowered his voice. "Don't tell them you know about it yet, though, okay?"

Brad's eyebrows perked up. "Oh, I won't, trust me! But... thanks!"

"You're welcome." Darren turned to Steven, who had quieted. "Rest, take a nap or something. Then, if you feel like it in a couple of hours, what say you both ride with me and the rents up to the college. I could use a good send-off, you know."

Steven smiled and nodded bleakly, before easing himself back onto the bed. "You're on. Promise though, you guys won't leave without me, alright? Or, at least wake me up."

"I'll promise you," Brad interjected. "That way you can be double-assured not to miss out." With a look at Darren, the younger boy rose and headed for the door, Darren close behind him. Once outside, Darren closed the bedroom door and followed Brad into his smaller bedroom on the other end of the short hall.

"Hold up a sec," Darren called out, causing Brad to halt in the middle of the room as Darren pushed the door shut.

"Ruh roh, Shaggy, this looks like it might be serious," Brad said, crossing his arms and waiting.

Darren walked up and smiled at him, noting how much bigger Brad had been getting just over the past summer alone. "Damn, Shortstop, you're growing fast!"

Brad scoffed. "Yeah, rriigghhttt..." he quipped, but then saw his older brother was being serious. "Okay, what gives?"

"Not much, little bro. Just, I was wondering if you knew of something going down with Steven? You know, anything peculiar?"

Brad thought for a few seconds, but then shook his head. "Not really. He has been a little more, ah, moody, I think, but..."

"Exactly! I've noticed it, too." Darren hesitated, then pressed forward. "Do you have any idea why? Do you think its maybe because of me going off to college?"

Brad stared into the older brother's eyes for a moment before shrugging. "I don't think so. I mean, hell, once you're gone, he'll have that monster room all to himself, won't he?" Without waiting for a response, he plowed ahead. "Steven's always been kind of quiet though, you know that. It's just more his thing, I think."

"Yeah, he has, you're right. I don't know, I just get this feeling I'm missing something, or maybe, rather we're missing something, you and I both." Darren sighed. "Listen little bro, and please, let me be serious here for a second, okay? You're going to have to watch him from now on, because I won't be around to do that. It may be nothing, it may just be the common blues, I don't know, but he's... When you live with your brothers as long as we have together, and when you've been living in the same bedroom with Steven, sleeping and everything? I don't know, you just kind of get these feelings when something is going on. Understand? And I've got this feeling, that's all. I can't explain it, it's just there."

Brad furrowed his eyebrows with concern. "You mean, like suicidal or something?"

Darren shook his head. "No, nothing like that. I wish... I wish I could explain it better, little bro. I just don't know how. Just... go easy on him some, okay? Stay around him a little more than common when you can. Let him know he's not alone, that kind of thing. I think he just needs a good friend, maybe, and that might just be something you can do for him. I mean, more than being a brother, you could turn out to be a much needed friend."

Brad smiled. "I think he has a couple of good guys already. Remember my swim teachers, at camp? It seems he and Greg have kind of been hitting it up with them at school."

Darren thought about that a few seconds before turning and sitting down on the bed. "Well, maybe I'm wrong then. Maybe..." He paused until Brad walked up closer and sat down beside him.

"Maybe ... what?" the younger brother asked.

"I don't know. I just kind of thought maybe Steven was just, you know, maybe getting lonesome and all." Darren shook his head. "Damn, I wish I wasn't leaving so soon. I'd really like just the three of us to go get some pizza or something, maybe try and talk with him."

"I doubt we could get away with that. Both Mom and Dad are planning on taking you up this afternoon," Brad explained. "But, you're serious, right?" Darren nodded, then Brad looked out across the room. "I'll watch him then, and if I get a chance, AND if he'll even talk to a shrimp like me, then I'll let you know. I promise."

Darren smiled at his brother. "I'd appreciate anything you could do, really. I'm sure everything will be alright after a while, but until then, it's like I said, I just feel like... something is off, something kind of, I don't know, deep and all."

"I understand." Brad glanced up and smiled. "So, maybe I can have one of these, especially before you walk out?" He reached out and encased his big brother with a big, warm hug. "Nobody can see us, bro," the smaller boy whispered, making his older brother scoff.

"You think I care if anyone sees us?" Darren squeaked out in a whisper as Brad put all his strength into a tight embrace. He felt Brad shrug.

"I don't know if you do or not, just saying. This is about the only way I know how to tell either of you I love you without getting all screwy-faced and mushy, you know?"

Darren was moved by the admission, to the point he suddenly stopped and pulled his brother into his lap. At one time, the younger boy could fit neatly there, but that time was now disappearing rapidly as the older boy grunted. "Shit! You ARE getting bigger and heavier!" Then leaning in close to his brother's ear, he whispered. "Must be those jewels and that super-sized cock you've got growing in your crotch!"

Brad giggled and blushed, which in turn made his older brother grin widely. "Shut up, you turd!" Brad hissed, before laughing. They observed one another once again before Brad leaned in and gave his big brother one last hug, then crawled out of his lap. "Go on, get the rest of your stuff together, then I'll go get numb-nuts and drag him to the car with a box of tissues." Leaning in, however, his voice lowered to a whisper. "Thanks though. Those are the kind of hugs I like the best."

"Hey, HEY!" Darren called out, stopping Brad before he moved out of reach. "I do too, sport. I'll give you one of those any time you want it, anywhere. Well, mostly anywhere, but you know what I mean!"

Brad smiled and then headed out the door. Once in the hall though, he stopped and turned around smartly. "Hey, what the heck am I leaving for? This is MY room! You, get out and do YOUR stuff!"

Darren laughed and then stood, saluting smartly. "Yes, sir, captain sir!"

It was early afternoon when Harry Spalding pulled into the outskirts of Greensburg, Indiana. Dark clouds had thickened overhead, and there was no question as to the forecast of what was upcoming weather-wise. Coming upon a turn, he headed onto the local turnpike, knowing it would transport him the quickest, and easiest, to the other side of town. Familiar scenery slipped by at a clipped pace, but he ignored it.

Having already come through the town only days before, the man had driven by the office with the intent to stop and collect a few things. Instead, he found a deputy's vehicle parked outside, and from the distance, it looked like the door had been decorated with various tags and notices, including a familiar police-tape that blocked off the entrance and warned curiosity seekers not to disturb the scene beyond. So, their disappearance had finally raised interest with the local law. Well, that wasn't unexpected. Nearly three weeks of broken contact would make anyone, especially his mother-in-law, suspicious, if not downright hysterical.

The caution tape suggested that Mackie and his team had probably been through the office inside, looking for whatever clues they could hope to uncover. Harry grinned at that thought. "Ha, they found nothing, NOTHING!" he bellowed to himself as he looked upon the scene from a distance.

Few people knew that his brother Casey had an old shack just outside of town where he holed up on occasion, especially when he found the kind of woman who could satisfy his prick on the best of nights. It was an old farmhouse, originally abandoned by someone long dead or gone, which he had spent minimal effort getting fixed up and repaired. The man spent most of his time with Harry or the family, with a very raw and prickly attitude that was highly demanding to those around him. Especially in the winter months, he had been known to roll out an old, dusty sleeping bag in the middle of the office, or in Harry's living room as it were, to pass his nights away. Early on he tried to insert himself into the kids' bedroom, but Ramona wouldn't hear of it. It was one of the few fights she and Harry had where she prevailed, but not without a cost.

With Casey now gone to wherever, as few knew where, Harry had use of the place for himself. It had a sparkle of electricity, hijacked from a neighboring farm pole supporting wires that were stretched through the area, so feeding a fan or two was not beyond question. It had its own onsite well-supply from a spring, so Harry was not deprived of running water. With those essentials, it was a reasonably simple setup where he could hide for a few days, which is exactly what he did. He missed having the comfort of air conditioning, but with the fans turned high, and the trees which hung close to the old framework, practically hiding it from the roadway, the big man had made do easily enough. He even found a few dollars left behind by his brother, which he presumed were stashed in order to pay his ladies of the night when they came calling. That had allowed Harry to obtain more gasoline, and then drive to a neighboring town to shop for food and supplies.

As he sat inside the makeshift shack, however, each day he wrestled internally over what he should do next. He had returned twice already, only to find the lawmen still staking out the place tightly. The evening before, he didn't find the vehicle in its usual spot, which gave Harry hope for a brief moment. He had almost turned in to approach the place when he discovered that no, the car was still there, just in a different location in the lot. Swearing to himself, he drove on.

What brought him out on this day, however, was the thought that maybe he could outsmart those on the lookout. He needed, desperately to get inside, so surely these lookouts had to eat sometime. If he could spy the lookouts, then wait patiently enough, he might get rewarded in the end. The thought had excited him so much the evening before he hardly slept throughout the night.

As he turned off the turnpike, he traveled down the highway directly into their section of town. As he spotted the lot coming up in the distance, he suddenly slowed and turned off the street before reaching the corner. Up the hill he went, until he reached a familiar stop sign, across from the local convenience store that served the area. Parking at the far end of the lot, in an inconspicuous alcove, he shut off the motor and got out of the vehicle. Observing his surroundings, he knew no one would question the car being parked where it was for hours, if not days. Satisfied, he began the short walk, cross country over the embankment and down the far slope. Within five minutes he arrived at a spot that overlooked the whole clearing below, most of which was occupied by his auto lot. Grinning, he immediately noted the Deputy Sheriff's vehicle sitting in an all-new location, where it still had a direct view of the office itself.

Harry sidled over next to a tree and sat down, pulling out a tall can of iced tea he had brought along. With no sense of hurry, he lit a cigarette and leaned back, before popping the top of the can and taking a long drink. Then sitting back, the man coolly observed the scene below with a half-smile...

... and he waited.

Dinner with the Edwards, Richard and Patty discovered, turned out to be quite a fun evening in the Mexican-based restaurant. Patty was telling the two elder Edwards about how Alex and Brett had showed up just hours before, simultaneously comical and pathetic looking, dripping from head to toe as if someone had dunked them into a river and just fished them out freely. Both boys had ridden to the park and found others there in the neighborhood, too. All had played basketball, until the forecasted front made its way overhead and began dumping a torrential rain. While the other boys scampered for home, Brett and Alex, at the latter's suggestion, just took their time and leisurely worked their way back.

For Alex, it was a fantastic distraction, one which made him smile and feel light-hearted all the same. There was no thunder or lightning, just a hard group of hydrogen and oxygen molecules having intense three-way sex, resulting in the wet drops cascading around them. At least, as he was told not that long ago by a certain new friend of theirs at camp. Although Brett was unsure at first, he come to realize there was no harm riding in the rain as they were, and as he observed his friend grin and move along, he advanced his own bike to ride side-by-side, relishing the carefree mood. Several vehicles passed them along the streets and roadways, some drivers honking their horns or shaking their heads at the sheer crazy nonchalance the boys displayed. Some, however, gave the boys a thumbs-up with wide grins, letting them know they had their support.

For Alex, it was a crazy and wild thing to do, just as he had predicted earlier that morning. When they finally made it home, Brett followed him down the driveway and onto the back porch. Once there, Patty overheard their arrival and, once they had stepped inside, she could not help but laugh heartily. The commotion brought Richard out to join her and see what all the fuss was about, before he too, added several chuckles. The teens were soaked through, their hair wringing wet, and their shoes squeaked with each step they took once they landed inside the door. Richard shook his head at seeing their wide grins, at which point Alex offered up, "What? We just had a little shower, that's all!"

"That's all? You think?" the man replied. That created more laughs all the way around as both boys slowly slipped out of their shoes and set them aside.

Patty disappeared for a few seconds, but returned with a clothes basket which she handed to her son. "Put your wet clothes in here boys, and then head upstairs and rinse off the parts the rain couldn't reach! Oh, and don't take too long, okay? We need to leave for dinner as soon as we can!" she said between giggles. Both she and Richard, shaking their heads at each other, burst into another round of laughter as they finally disappeared, giving the boys some privacy. Both teens grinned at each other as they stripped to their briefs, following their instructions, before sneaking around the corner and up the stairs into Alex's bedroom.

All had gone well that day except for their timing, as the game-play and the following rains delayed them in getting back home as soon as Alex had hoped. Still, once they were upstairs, he pulled Brett into his bathroom and turned on the shower, before stripping their last garments away between the teen and himself. They stood before each other only inches apart, before Alex leaned in and kissed Brett quickly on his lips, followed by eagerly hugging the boy to himself. Coming from the rains and into the cooled room air, had begun to create a clammy-like chillness to their exposed skin. There was a quiet stillness in the room just then, with the rain falling hard against the roof outside and only the sound of the shower in the background. Alex closed his eyes briefly, wanting the moment to last, as did Brett, but both quietly separated. "Hey, just so you know, this time is NOT my fault, okay?" Alex teased, and Brett knew immediately what his friend was referring to.

"I know," Brett whispered back. Alex reached out and took his friend by the hand, pulling so that he would follow him into the shower before he closed the curtain. Once inside, Alex quietly stepped behind the teen and grabbed the shower gel. In seconds, Brett felt a pair of hands roaming quickly all over his backside. The soap quickly lathered with the suds building over his skin, as Alex worked across Brett's shoulders, back and buttocks, and then down to his legs. When he gently steered the teen to turn around, Alex then worked in reverse, from Brett's feet and legs, up to his groin and then belly, doing everything in rapid succession. He didn't hesitate moving around Brett's half-erection, or what hung underneath, grinning as he looked up into the blushing face that met him. "Sorry," Brett breathed, which happened to annoy Alex just then. Rinsing his friend's groin clear of the soap, he suddenly opened his mouth and engulfed the gradually rising cock, sucking and playing with the tip for a few seconds, using his tongue expertly. Just as quickly, however, he pulled off with an audible pop, and then stood up. Placing his lips near Brett's ear, he whispered. "What are you sorry for? I kind of liked it!"

Brett giggled and, once Alex had run some shampoo into his hair and he rinsed the suds out, he realized he was finished. Taking the gel from Alex, Brett began performing the same ritual in return. To him, it was a fun game, made even more daring as they took their risks together like they were doing now, all too aware of the timetable being imposed upon them. When he reached Alex's groin, he grinned glanced upward before replicating Alex's feat, swallowing as much of his friend's fully erect cock as he could and locking onto it for but a few seconds. Pulling off, he went the extra step of pushing his tongue inside of the extra folds of skin to reach the glans, which caused Alex to tense up and groan quietly. Brett enjoyed watching and sensing what it did to him, but breathed a sigh as he, too, pulled off. Standing, he remarked quietly, "So did I, bro. I liked it, too."

Alex reached out and shut the shower off, before grasping his best friend in an intimate, up-close embrace again. "God, I wish we could, you know..." Brett understood the reference though, and ground himself back into his friend.

"I do too, Alex. Just you and me," Brett quietly replied, before sighing deeply. "I guess we need to dry up though, don't we."

Alex feigned a crying expression. "NNNoooo!" he whimpered, but then sighed as well. As he wrapped Brett in his arms one last time, he grasped his butt and locked them together for a few more seconds, Brett repeating the same gesture and grinding their now hardened cocks together. Eventually, they both let go and stepped back. No words were exchanged, only a smile as they both observed each other yet once again. Finally, Alex turned the shower back on and pulled the curtain, before taking Brett by the hand and pulling him out into the cool bedroom.

Brett looked back in puzzlement at the tub, then at Alex. "We both have to have a turn in the shower, remember? It's so Mom and Dad don't get any ideas," Alex explained.

"Do you really think they would care if they thought we showered together, today of all days, especially with us coming in wet like we did?" Brett asked, smiling. "Besides, didn't your Mom sort of say to hurry up?"

Alex thought about it and then shrugged, grinning. "You know, I think you're right!" With that, he crossed back into the room and turned everything off before re-appearing. Walking over to his chest, he began extracting fresh underclothes for them both to wear, followed by opening his closet and selecting jeans and polos. "It's a good thing you and me are almost the same size."

Brett scoffed as he picked up the briefs that were tossed onto the bed. "Tell me about it!" Both quickly dressed and then went about finding shoes. Although they were alike in size in most respects, Brett did wear shoes two sizes larger than his best friend. Alex looked up at one point and then frowned. "Wait a minute, we're doing this all wrong," he voiced aloud, before grasping Brett's hand and leading him downstairs. Richard and Patty were both in the living room waiting, but Alex pulled up short. "Dad? Do you have any tennis shoes? Didn't we get you a pair a couple of months back?"

"Well, yes, but... they're size 13; too big for you, I think!" the man responded lightheartedly as he rose from his recliner.

Alex laughed. "They're not for me, Dad, but for Brett. At least, so he has something he can wear until he gets home tonight."

Patty laughed. "Of course, he can wear them! They're just inside the coat closet, right in front," she replied. "By the way, I put your other clothes in the washer. I'll switch them to the dryer after we get back." She grinned as Alex came back from the closet and handed Brett the trainers. Within minutes, Brett found the new pair of shoes fitted him perfectly.

"Thanks guys!" he remarked happily.

Patty had laughed once again. "Well, it's a good thing you two are almost the same size. I take it you don't mind wearing some of Alex's clothes for a while."

Brett shrugged. "Doesn't bother me any."

In the restaurant, Roger and Brenda laughed aloud as the story unfolded. Gina grinned as she sat back in her seat, arms crossed. "Boys!" she breathed, to which Brett quietly reached between them and squeezed her knee.

Once they subsided, Brenda looked at her son rather sternly. "You do know, I hope, that's the perfect way to catch a cold, being out in cold rain like that!"

Brett shrugged. "It wasn't cold, Mom. In fact, as hot as it has been lately, it was really just kind of fun riding through it and all!"

Roger leaned forward. "Oh, let them be dear. They probably needed to sweat out some energy anyway, after being cooped up for a while. I do hope, however," he paused, turning to Alex, "that it doesn't send you into a relapse after being ill for a few days."

The group suddenly fell silent, and Richard cleared his throat, leaning forward after glancing at Patty. "Ah, about that... there is something we wanted to talk to you guys about. Alex wasn't uh, exactly ill this week - at least not in the way you probably thought."

Brenda turned to the man with a look of curiosity. "How do you mean?"

Richard studied for a few seconds before answering. "There is no way to explain this neatly, I'm afraid, but Patty and I have talked about this off and on all week long. You see, there are not many people we can tell this to. It has to deal with going to a federal trial, and providing testimony about events that Alex and I were witnesses to." He paused to look around the room before returning his attention to the group, and lowering his voice. "You see, Alex and I witnessed a double homicide in Pennsylvania a couple of years ago, at an outlet mall."

An audible gasp went out from both Brenda and Roger. "Are you serious?" Roger asked, his voice hushed. "Wait... trial, double homicide... was it that syndicate fellow? What was his name... Brenda, you remember, you asked me about him some time back... Nick something, wasn't it?"

Alex spoke up on her behalf. "Yeah, Nick-the-Pick, or Nicholas Picante."

In the following silence, Richard picked up the conversation and continued. "You guys have been great to us, all of us, even though I know we've been evasive about things at times. But the reason for that was, we were being kind of shepherded, in a sense. Are you guys familiar with WITSEC any?"

Brenda nodded. "I am. It's some kind of witness protection program, isn't it?" As her own words dawned on her, she looked from one face to the next. "Wait ... You three... all of you...?"

Patty nodded. "Yes, all of us. Only Alex and Richard saw what happened, but I was on the trip with them in one of the stores at the time." She sighed, watching their reactions move from one of surprise to incredulity. "We're the ones who the news and media have been talking about. We're the ones who've had to move a few times, and relocate into small-town life as indiscreetly as possible."

Roger sat back, then smiled. "Well, that does explain an awful lot then, doesn't it?" Shaking his head, he continued. "I always knew there was something going on behind you guys, but honestly - I never thought it was untoward or anything." He suddenly turned to Alex and Brett, sitting next to each other and just observing the group. "Do I take it you knew about it, son?"

Brett shook his head. "No, Dad, at least not until last weekend. Alex filled me in on some of what was happening then, and why." Alex nodded silently in agreement.

Roger nodded before turning his attention back to Richard. "So, why now? Why tell us this now?"

"Because, in our family, we hate keeping secrets from anyone, and I know you and Brenda both have brought up a few topics we've had to maneuver around in the past. And because, well, you're our closest friends, people we've grown to know and trust. Even that young lady there," he paused, nodding at Gina. "She and your son have become such a part of Alex's life, intertwined in ways that sometimes suspend disbelief, I think. Moreover, what all of you and your friendship has done for our family is beyond description. I think it's just time we finally told you the truth, now that the worst of everything is over, so that there would no longer be any doubts or questions hanging out there anymore."

Brenda sat back finally and observed Patty, before reaching out and grasping her hand. "You have never been anything but good to us, as well. We hold a lot of that dear to our friendships, too."

Roger nodded in agreement. "Who would have thunk it, I wonder?" he remarked. "We've never worried or seriously questioned your honesty about anything before, and I don't think this really changes anything now. I was always sure you had good reasons, and this... it makes total sense." He glanced at Brett and Alex. "These two boys and their companionship, for all their teenage-driven craziness, is what initially brought us all together, I think. Having Alex nearby has certainly done wonders for us as well."

Alex blushed, and Brett inconspicuously grasped his hand under the table and squeezed it. "I didn't do anything though, sir. I just, well, I just felt like I got a couple of close friends out of the deal. We all help each other, you know?"

"That you do," Brenda remarked with a knowing smile.

"So, do you care to fill us in on some of the details? How did it all go down? The trial and everything, I mean. Where did you go?" Roger asked. For the next half-hour, Richard explained in detail what had happened originally, and what had happened over the last week. Although he guarded some of the details regarding the fire, he also gave them an explanation as to why they had moved so often, and how they came to live in Greensburg. Alex sat back feeling relieved, as now his best friend and sister were also getting their news from another source, someone different than from himself. Neither had ever indicated they doubted the teen, but there was a feeling of elation within Alex at being vindicated at such a higher level. He couldn't be prouder of his parents, given the words they had used to describe their relationships and how they felt about the Edwards. It reflected his own sentiments, and as he observed Brett and Gina both, as they returned smiles that told him they understood.

"So, other than asking for your forgiveness, there is only one real favor I want to request of you four," Richard concluded as the conversation began to subside.

Roger, however, felt he knew where this was going, and thus spoke up first. "You want to keep all of this low key, right?" When Richard nodded, the man smiled and placed his arm around Brenda. "I don't think that will be a problem. Right kids?"

Gina nodded emphatically, and Brett added, "About what? We don't know anything, do we sis?" There was some chuckling around the table, before Brenda spoke up.

"As to forgiving, there's nothing to forgive you for, I think," she voiced softly. Roger nodded in agreement and then waved for their waitress.

As she approached, she smiled at the group. "So, are you folks ready for some dessert?"

Richard nodded, feeling relieved. "Oh yes, you bet! How about you bring us a couple of platters of those sopapillas, and add some ice cream for everybody, too!"

Later, as the group was readying to leave, Brett informed his mother he was going to ride back with Alex and collect his clothes. In a rare move, she eyed him briefly before speaking. "Why don't you just stay the night again? That is, if it's alright with them. You two have a vehicle to clean up tomorrow anyway, right?"

"Yes, ma'am, we do," Alex spoke up. "It's just one, though, so it won't take us very long, I think."

Brenda turned to Patty, her eyes twinkling. "Well, since there's no school, I think it would be alright for once. What do you say, Patty? Gina and I can pick you up around 9:30 or so in the morning for our little trip. Would that be alright?"

Patty eyed her son with amusement, before he attempted his most pitiful, cat-like expression he could muster. Bursting into giggles, she waved him off. "Don't look at me like that!" she declared, before nodding in Brenda's direction. "I think 9:30 will be perfect! See you then?"

Brett and Alex glanced at each other, with not only Brett disbelieving his luck, and Alex equally amazed at Brenda's offer. Walking over quickly to his mother, Brett gave her a quick hug and then gave one to Gina, too. "See you tomorrow, sis!" he whispered into her ear.

"Love you," she whispered back.

Just then, Alex felt he was riding on air. Even the drizzling rain could not dampen his spirits now.

The late evening hour upon them, Ethan, his sister April, and their grandmother Ruby were out for a stroll in the neighborhood. The rains had tapered off, and the air was considerably more comfortable to bear than earlier. Ruby thought a walk before dusk settled in might be nice, and though grudgingly, both of her grandchildren agreed to come along.

Ruby had been trying to raise the children's spirits, after having suffered through another weekend of no further news on their parents. Ruby was beside herself, sick with worry and uncertainty despite her attempts to show otherwise. There was little she could come up with that provided distractions anymore, and both children, Ethan especially, were growing more somber and reclusive by the day. They approached a neighborhood convenience store, where Ruby guided the brood directly. "Let's see if they have any ice cream bars in there, shall we?"

Ethan sighed. "Not really in the mood, Grandma," he announced.

"Me neither," April followed.

Ruby stopped and looked down upon the two before kneeling between them and pulling them to face her. "Now, come on. I know how you feel, honestly, but you know what? No news is still good news. We shouldn't think the worst, just because of that. Both of you hardly touched your supper, either - so it wouldn't hurt, would it? What would your mother say to you anyway, about not eating right now?"

"She'd tell us we were being dumb," April offered, her voice catching as she seemed on the edge of tears.

Ruby pulled the young girl in for a hug. "Now, now... there is nothing dumb about it." She looked up at Ethan. "The Sheriff, he's going to find them, I'm sure, and when he does, your parents are going to have a lot of explaining to do! Until then, come on, let's try and keep some hope, all right?"

Ethan looked at his grandmother unconvinced, but then he gazed upon his sister and understood exactly what Ruby was trying to do. He had his doubts, largely because he had grown up watching his parents fight so many times, and living as they did, the boy knew deep down that something was very wrong. For his sister's sake though, he tried to help ease her burden for the time being. Nodding, he slowly took April's hand. "Sure, Grandma, we'll try. Come on April, maybe they'll have some of those drumstick-thingies we like. That is, if it's okay with Grams?"

Ruby smiled and nodded.

Quietly, as the trio entered the store and found the ice cream treats, Ethan could not help but look out the window. "Where are you, mom? Why did you leave us? Just, please come home... please?" he whispered. When he turned, though his eyes were watery, he avoided the gaze of the others and worked his way toward the counter.

Ruby, however, had heard his soft plea, and had to struggled massively to fight back her own tears. They needed answers...

... and they needed them soon.

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