The Scars Above My Heart

by Sean English

Chapter 22

The Distance of Trust

The door opened easily enough, as Harry inserted his key and gave the knob a twist. He looked at the police tape stretched across the entry at a haphazard angle, and grunted to himself. If this was someone's bright idea of barring entry to an office, then it was lame at best. He easily stooped under the strip and slipped quietly through, closing the door behind him. It was somewhat somber on the inside, and the man's eyes required a moment to adjust before he could comfortably move about. He dared not turn a light on, for fear of someone discovering his return. Instead, with the blinds only half-closed across the two windows the cramped room had, he was able to make everything out well enough.

The big man knew he could not linger, so he did not waste any time as he moved over to his desk. The deputy, or whoever had been sitting outside, had left without preamble, leisurely pulling from the lot to get a bite of dinner - or so Harry presumed. Regardless of the reason, Harry needed two things first and foremost, before he could make as quiet an exit as his entry had been. Still, passing the front of the desk, he headed for the bathroom with a more urgent need to settle first.

Upon his return, his nose wrinkled from the pungent odor in the air that followed him. In some respects, the stench was almost overpowering, but he ignored it for the time being as he sat heavily into his chair. Pulling out one of the desk drawers, it did not take him long to access a flimsy covering attached to the bottom. Within seconds he had the object of his desire for the last few days in his hands, and he grunted in satisfaction as he thumbed through the notebook briefly, finding the expected contents there and in place.

Closing the drawer, Harry then turned his attention to the floorboard underneath. Retrieving his pocketknife, the man ran his fingers along one of the boards, before very carefully picking a spot that was almost imperceptible to the naked eye. Inserting the blade, he was pleased when the board suddenly sprang upward along the edge, where he then grabbed and pulled it carefully out of the way. Inside, he found the long, thin lockbox he had expected, and grasped it by the handle before pulling it out and placing it on its side atop the desk. The box was quite large by any standard, and featureless in every way except for its considerable weight. As Harry searched, he found the almost hidden aperture and, within seconds he inserted the required key and had it opened.

The contents of the box were varied, but at least half of the interior held several stacks of money, banded together in different combinations. Harry pulled up what looked to be a crude list, then nodded as he made out the last entry, an amount added only months before. It was a lifetime of savings, if you could call the last decade his lifetime. Certainly, it represented a lot of stashed capital from sales and other services he had provided since opening the car lot. He had passed a modest amount on into his accounts at the bank, but here sat over $150,000 within his reach. Not a bad sum at all, considering. He thought for a moment that another ten years would have seen the amount doubled, or maybe even tripled, had everything continued as smoothly as before. It was a nice little nest egg, one that would have allowed him and Ramona to sit back somewhere, perhaps on a beach, sipping margaritas and getting their bodies nicely tanned in the lazy afternoons of the tropics.

Harry suddenly sighed and stilled himself at those thoughts. Ramona was no longer going to be a part of his future, and sadly, that quieted him considerably. When he had started setting this private savings aside, he truly intended for it to serve them both. Although the kids showed up early following their hasty marriage, Harry still cared for the woman deeply. He grudgingly had to admit that, through all their fights, their arguments and more, she had their kids' interests at heart always, and that was something the big man had failed at miserably.

With moist eyes and a countenance that threatened to turn into tears, he hastily withdrew a few bills from one of the stacks, and then briefly observed the rest of the contents displayed before him. Various certificates, vehicle registrations and other items were there, but he was in no mood to deal with them. He contemplated taking all of the money, but realized that would have been both cumbersome and foolhardy at the moment. Although he didn't count how much he extracted, he knew it would at least be a couple of grand - easily enough to let him live on for the next few weeks. He figured he would make better plans and then come back again for the rest when the timing was right. He closed the lid and then slid the entire box back into its receptacle in the floor. Moments later the man had the wooden flooring back in place, before he stood and walked over to a rack of various familiar keys. Selecting one, he walked back to the window and peered out into the darkness fast approaching. He stared carefully from not just one, but both windows across the lot, and discerned nothing of the returning watchman. Slowly, he then eased himself back out the door, making sure he stayed in the shadows as he crept around the corner. Stopping one last time to check the area out, he was satisfied he had finished his deeds well enough before the watchman was set to return. He then silently crossed the lot and opened the door to one of the vehicles, got in and started it up. He did not turn on the headlights however, as he had enough lighting from street lamps and security bulbs to get him navigated around the lot. Carefully maneuvering onto the street, he traveled several hundred feet before activating the lights, then turned along a side street and headed back to the convenience mart, pulling in as a regular customer.

Harry actually patted himself on the back for this move, thinking it was a fine idea to make such a simple exchange. Getting into his initial vehicle, he turned and drove it around the streets until he navigated it back into the car lot, parking it in the spot recently vacated. Getting out, he glanced around one last time, and feeling particularly smug and unconcerned, made to walk back up the embankment in the shadows of the trees where he could. The overcast sky kept the area outside of the street lamps coverage engulfed in a deep darkness. With his heavy frame, the man could not move quickly, but he did move steadily and, eventually arrived back to his set of new wheels. From there, he entered the store and purchased a large case of beer, and then started his merry way back to the abandoned house. To Harry, although it required the exercise of a patience he was not used to harboring, he had finally achieved the deed itself, right under the noses of Greensburg's finest. In terms of the Sheriff's department and his deputies, he probably had.

Someone, however, watched the whole thing happening though, from another corner of the lot. It was someone who knew Harry's ways as much as Harry knew his own self.

And as he watched the man walk back up the hill, he was someone who smiled to himself.

"You have got to be kidding me! No way, you ... you turd!"

Brett's exclamation initiated a flurry of giggles and then outright laughter beside him, as Alex rolled over onto his back. Brett sat staring at the TV screen with his legs crossed Indian-style, looking onward with disbelief. It was now the seventh match in a row he had lost to his best friend, and not only had he just lost, he lost horribly. Glancing sideways, he shook his head. "How?"

Alex just shrugged. "I don't know. Just playing a bunch, I guess," came the reply, followed by more subdued giggles. "I think you're just out of practice more than anything else, though. You used to fight a lot better than that!"

"No kidding! Tell me something I don't know!" Brett breathed through gritted teeth, before tossing the game controller aside. Stretching out, he rolled over on top of his friend. "You're still going to pay for that, just you wait!" As Alex laughed again, Brett's fingers started creeping inside and finding Alex's unprotected ribs. For the next few minutes, he proceeded to tickle the teen trapped beneath him, wrestling as he poked everywhere from the armpits to his sides and below. Alex quickly lost control and started to curl underneath, unable to escape the onslaught while Brett skillfully proceeded to take advantage of the now helpless figure. That is, until a sudden sound permeated the air around the two, followed by an odor that made Brett finally back away and gasp. "Good God man! Your farts STINK!" he announced good naturedly, before springing from the bed and heading to the bathroom.

For some reason, that brought on a second round of giggles from Alex, but only temporarily. He quieted as he eventually heard a stream of water hitting the toilet, and then took advantage of the break to catch his breath. When he heard the toilet flushing, he rolled and sat up again, taking a position next to where Brett's bean bag sat waiting for its guest to return.

The house had grown quiet since their return that evening. Both of Alex's parents initially settled in the family room downstairs to watch a movie, while the boys climbed the stairs and hung out above in solitude, playing with Brett's PlayStation he had brought down from the house. Hours passed, and after the darkness had already settled outside for some time, Alex stretched. He did not have to look at the clock to know it was late, but neither of the teens seemed worried about it. There was no school the next day, so both knew they could sleep later than common - provided they didn't delay too long in getting out to clean their vehicle as previously agreed. As Brett walked back in, he surprised his host by performing a half-summersault maneuver, one that caused him to land upon the bed in almost a perfect position beside Alex. Both giggled, but Alex nodded in appreciation how it had all worked out, especially as he shifted to curl up beside the other boy. There they sat for a bit, Brett extending his arm and pulling his best friend in until he was tucked neatly upon his shoulder. "So, what do you want to do now? Skunk me some more at Halo, or do something else?" he asked in a low voice.

Alex's crossed his own arm gently onto Brett's belly. It lay there for a moment as Alex stared deep into the brown eyes that met his. "I don't know, bro. I know what I want to do, but I suddenly feel all nervous and everything about it."

"How so? About what?" Brett asked.

Alex stared into space for a moment, blushing. "I mean, I know what's going to happen, or at least what I think is going to happen, but for some reason, it's like ... like this taboo thing, and all." He leaned into Brett's ear. "When we got in the shower and sort of, you know, earlier today, it was all cool. That was because we were hurried and everything, and we didn't think so much about doing stuff, even though it was kind of on the spur of the moment. But now that I do think about it, it's sort of feels like we're starting from the beginning again, and that makes me feel like this little kid or something, you know? Like, a kid with that funny feeling inside his tummy and all."

Brett stared deep into the blue eyes that met his own. "But, why be nervous around me? I mean, we've been through so much together already. Do you think I don't want to, or something?" He smiled before rubbing noses with his friend. "I trust you, remember? Besides, I'll tell you a little secret, if you want." When Alex waited expectantly, he continued in a whisper. "I want you, too. Tonight, just you and me."

A little whimper escaped Alex just then, and he answered by leaning in and tenderly kissing Brett on his lips. Seemingly every part of his body was electrified at that moment, as he rolled to the inside and held Brett close. He kissed him long, breathing the other boy in deeply while he quietly melted into the other's embrace. Given everything that had happened over the last couple of weeks, Alex felt he was finally at ease. Once again, he had Brett to himself, with no agenda, no planning, no fear of what was around them. What he felt instead was just an aching desire to finally reach out and hold his friend again, with an intimacy that had long ago already defined their trust. He wanted their bodies to find one another again, to touch all over. He wanted to feel not just the lust, but the friction and contact of being with someone he had no reservations with. He opened his mouth and sucked gently on Brett's lips, before his friend reciprocated and let his own tongue find its way out to meet Alex. Alex whimpered again, but he suddenly felt alive as he pushed forward. It was something immeasurable between them, as Brett met every thrust and stab, and simultaneously melted as Alex had, into arms that were surrounding him by now, clawing to find their way inside his shirt. They were now in their own little world, each with a quiet innocence about them, finding each other yet once again but with a thirst and longing yet unfound before. As intoxicating and satisfying as it was for Alex, he began whimpering softly, and Brett was reassured that the sincerity they had for each other had never been lost.

As Alex slowly began to climb on top, Brett shifted deeper into the bean bag. His polo was already pulled upward a good portion of the way by then, over his chest thanks to Alex's efforts. Hands began rubbing and exploring the boy's nipples and upper chest, reaching inside to shoulders before sinking to the sides. Unlike Brett had just done, however, Alex caressed his touch, feeling without tickling, longing for more. Brett was moved by the energy and passion, especially when Alex broke their kiss and leaned down, suckling his friend's nipple and breast inside. His own excitement renewed ten-fold, Brett worked Alex's polo up and over his head, then rubbing all around the soft skin that met his own fingertips gently. Alex moved up onto Brett's neck, planting little wet kisses along the way, alternated with little suctioning sounds that Brett felt when his friend's wet tongue darted here and there. "That feels... so good..." he whispered contentedly.

A moment later, however, Alex pulled back and sat up with a semi-frustrated look on his face. "Your shirt is in my way," he whispered, but instead of proceeding to remove it just then, Alex instead slowly climbed from the bed and stood up. Moving over to the lamp, he switched it off and then approached the TV and pressed its power button. The room was then plunged into darkness, except for a night-light still on in the bathroom, and another along the wall beside Alex's bed. The sudden change took a few seconds to adjust to, but Brett was in no hurry, as he watched Alex return to stand next to the bedside. There was a slight hesitation, but then the teen quietly unbuttoned his jeans before letting them fall to the floor. Brett took immediate notice of the raging boner standing full-mast, tenting the front of the teen's briefs with full effect. As his friend stepped out of his jeans, Brett reached out to grasp hold of the hardened cock through the cloth. That, however, made Alex stop and hesitate. "Don't, I don't want to cream yet," he whispered. "And believe me, I am so ready to cum a mountain as it is."

Brett smiled in response. "Yeah?" he again whispered. Alex grinned and then gently picked up Brett's feet and pulled, shifting his friend to the side of the bed until his lower legs swung over and down. Stepping between them, Alex slowly began unsnapping and unzipping the un-belted jeans Brett still wore. He could feel little Brett, throbbing inside at his touch as it lay pointing toward his navel. Not only was its outline clear for any to see, but the tip of Brett's glans were peeking out of the band up top. Brett thrust his midsection up, and Alex proceeded to pull the garment down and off his legs. Coming back up, Alex rubbed his nose along the sides of the rigid shape, rubbing his face all around Brett's crotch. Then looking up, he grasped Brett's polo, still worn since their outing to eat that night, and removed it for him.

Alex pushed his friend onto his back yet again, and rubbed his nose and face all along the chest and lower belly, before coming up and retaking first one nipple, and then the other, and giving them a play with his lips and tongue. Brett had never paid much attention to that act before, but he found it stimulating nonetheless, especially while feeling Alex tucked between his legs and moving about. His dick pulsed time and again, which Alex finally felt at one point before looking up and smiling, then descending so that he could take the head and absorb it part of the way into his mouth. There, he breathed hot air onto the cloth separating him from his prize, but Brett found the heat exhilarating and thus pulsed yet again. "Damn, Alex... I'm going to cum ... and... hard..."

Alex pulled back. "Not yet, bro. Don't do it yet," he pleaded. Backing up enough to retreat, he placed a still hand over the package before him, but did not provoke it. Instead, Brett closed his eyes and fought to calm down, and succeeded in holding back the onset of feelings that had started to overtake him. When the moment had passed, he opened them to see Alex grinning again. This was an all-out special treatment, different from any that he had received yet. Before he could speak, however, Alex started shifting again.

Already situated between the teen's legs, Alex pulled back enough to get hold of Brett's feet. Without difficulty, he lifted them until they feet were initially surrounding Alex's upper body. It was then the teen slowly grasped Brett's briefs by the waistband and worked them out and off using one leg at a time. As Brett re-wrapped the legs around the boy again, even in the subdued lighting Alex admired the groin, with the neatly trimmed pubes and thrusting six-inch monster of a cock that was only inches from view. Although they had showered earlier that day, there was a slight scent that made its way up to his nostrils. He moved in closer, breathing it in before touching it with his hand and pulling the cock until it pointed upward. Then, with a gusto that surprised Brett, Alex descended onto it, sucking it inside and attacking it fervently with his tongue, moving it across the glans and down the sides.

Alex sucked hard, taking it in for all he could. Oral play had never been anything he detested, as he simply was giving Brett what his friend had given to him. Tonight, however, was different. Perhaps for the first time, Alex found he liked this. He liked holding something so personal, and naughty, yet so complete between his lips like this. Brett's cock had always been slightly larger between the two of them, making it hard for Alex to truly take it all the way down, but this night he attempted and succeeded, in giving his brother a deep-throat effect without gagging. His lips reached deep into the bed of pubic hairs surrounding the base, and his nose tickled as they brushed the scented area. He found he could do little more than hold the member in that position, but it didn't matter. He would plunge, then rise seconds later enough to go to work, tasting the lightly salted and sweat-lined palate that was his smorgasbord. He did it multiple times, as though to give Brett's tool his full attention, but did not focus entirely there. Pushing Brett's legs wider, Alex also popped off at times to go down into Brett's pubes directly, and then further underneath to his friend's testicles, licking and sucking the crevices that he could reach all along the way. He purposefully alternated the sequence, especially when he felt his friend begin to tighten up and shift. By doing this, he allowed Brett to hold off as long as he could, although the teen groaned at times at having to wait. He wanted to chastise Alex at times, but he also wanted to let his friend lead the way and do whatever he felt he wanted.

To that end, Alex was still full of surprises. At one point, pulling off with another popping and sucking sound, he licked his lips before moving underneath yet again to take first one, and then the other testicle and roll it around in his mouth with his tongue. Then to Brett's surprise, he felt his legs being lifted and pushed backward. Elevated and spread, his whole bottom end was then exposed and Alex licked underneath the scrotum, moving downward toward the crack beneath them. When Brett felt the new sensations, he spread his legs even wider as he grasped his own knees to hold them back. No other position existed that did not open himself privately any farther or any wider, or more freely, than what he did now. As he opened his eyes and watched, Alex was taking him to town in every way he could short of rimming him, and he was doing it quickly, almost hungrily. He lay there, absorbing the moment and the sensations hitting him, especially when Alex suddenly moved up on top again with long strokes of his tongue, but not without first poking a finger inside his hole. He felt the ease in which it moved, and then understood that some lubricant had been obtained somewhere along the way.

As Alex reached the tip of the glans yet again, Brett could feel the tingle beginning to pull behind his navel. As he simultaneously throbbed and grunted, however, Alex once again suddenly pulled off without a word. It was then Brett finally vent his frustrations. "Come on, man! I want to cum, sssoooo ffuuccckkinngg baaadd..."

Alex only grinned at him. "Almost, Brett... almost..." Effortlessly, the teen suddenly stuck a finger up inside of his friend. Brett grunted, clamped down on it initially as he glanced onward, recalling their experimentation before and suddenly finding himself holding his breath in anticipation. As he gradually relaxed, Alex slowly pushed, making his way inside further. Brett's eyes almost popped out of his head at how deep and easily he we being injected, especially as he felt Alex's hand brush up against the exposed skin there. "Damn!" he whispered, the closed his eyes as his friend slowly pulled out, and then worked it back with a second finger into the exercise. When Brett felt the second finger joining it, he started to gasp and clamp down again, but discovered it was nothing painful at all. Alex waited patiently, and as the sphincter began to relax, he wasted no time in pushing them in altogether as far as he could. As he let Brett get used to it, the teen returned to sucking Brett's manhood back inside his lips again. In less than a minute, he had a steady rhythm built up, between his massaging of the dick in his mouth, and his subtle shifting of the fingers inside from below.

Alex knew that would be the point of no return for his friend, and that no more amount of teasing would hold back the eruption building up in his loins. Brett didn't even try to warn him, as suddenly his dick began expanding, causing him to go wild. He gradually moved his hands onto the back of Alex's head, and then started to let it happen. Alex felt the change and swelling inside his mouth, and as the cum began spewing, he pushed his fingers deep inside and wiggled them around as far as he could manage. Wave after wave discharged, and Alex caught it all inside, having moved off at one point to swallow and make more room. There was a seeming electric-like wave that coursed through Brett, with an intensity that usually only was felt when in the presence of his friend. Brett did not hamper it as he tried to cling onto the feeling for the balance of its ride. Even after he finished cumming, he rode the wave for several more seconds before it eventually began to subside.

Both boys finally stilled themselves in the quiet, and Alex slowly stretched up until he lay side by side with his best friend. Reaching Brett's lips, he proceeded to kiss him deeply again, but soft and slowly. Brett could taste trace elements of his cum, but he didn't care. He lovingly and deeply returned the kiss between them, melting into the embrace that followed.

It was in that embrace where he finally realized something was poking him hard in his crotch, and it caused him to pause and grin as he felt the steel-like rod grinding him through the briefs Alex was still wearing. He recalled the comment from that morning, about how worked up and frustrated Alex had felt, probably by not doing anything all week long. As Brett started to focus, he quietly worked the garment off Alex, using his toes to push it down to the teen's feet. With a bareness that intensified the intimate contact between them, he gradually began thrusting his groin upward, and his friend responding by grinding down. They both could feel not only their shafts rubbing one to the other, but the contact of their testicles, too. It was Brett who finally broke the silence. "That was fucking awesome! For me, that is..."

Alex breathed heavily. "Me... to..." Alex began a slow rhythm between them, almost mesmerized by the moment.

Brett watched him, and then decided his best friend deserved a lot more than just a rubbing to get off. "Alex? Go on..." he whispered. "Do it."

Alex furrowed his brow. "Do what, bro?"

Leaning up into his friend's ear, Brett answered him whispering softly. "Top me, bro. Put it in. Fuck me, if you want to." Seeing the surprise, he grinned. "If not now, when? Listen, we have our thing between us, our trust and... whatever else you want to call it. We've hinted and talked about it some, so... why not?" To emphasize his point, he slowly scooted back onto the edge of the bed again and brought his feet up, spreading his legs wide and opening up the whole area below.

"But..." Alex hesitated. He did get up and slide between Brett's feet, but even as Brett wrapped and pulled him in with his legs, and his hard shaft pressed up against the golden location, he hesitated.

"No buts... unless it's my butt you wanna talk about. Come on, do it. Give me what you've been holding out for days without spooging, man. I don't care, honest. You know we're both curious anyway, and we love and trust each other and all," Brett whispered. "We both want to do it sometime, right? Well, if anyone does it to me, it has to be you. I can't see myself letting anyone else, you know?" Then, pulling on his friend's neck until he was bent over, Brett stretched up to whisper in his ear. "Come on, bro... do it, push it in, we'll go from there, okay? Just do it..."

Alex pulled back and looked deep into the eyes meeting his own. Everything his friend said made sense, and was the truth. Each of them had hinted about it, wondered about it, and more. Although he had never admitted it, Alex too had been having some dreams about doing it. In some ways they had left him feeling guilty, while in others the curiosity had been renewed. Now, they were on the cusp of reality, where Brett was offering himself up to be a bottom. "Are you sure?" he whispered, which caused Brett to smile at him.

"I'm sure," the teen whispered back. "I'll even keep my promise, if you want me to top you sometime, though we don't have to. I promise bro, I've never been more sure about it than I am right now." Then, he leaned up and pulled Alex to him, kissing him softly across his lips and nose, until he stretched to his ear. "So, will you? I kind of want to see what it's all about, you know? If it's a good thing, then who knows, right?"

Alex smiled back, closing his eyes. His manhood ached, stretching and sticking out harder than it had in a while. He felt as if anything touched him in certain ways, he would give up his seeds far too easily. He sighed deeply, willing himself to back away from the moment and to let that urge recede for the time being. When he succeeded, he opened his eyes to see Brett still grinning at him. It was that carefree, selfless act of expression, that told Alex it was all, truly okay. Top or bottom, they were not only going to find out about what it was like, but they were going to solidify their trust completely in one another.

Alex repositioned himself slowly, but then stood back and found the vaseline again. He had decided that, okay, he would do it, but only if he could make it as easy as possible for his friend. As the thoughts grew, his hormones took on a new life, and his shaft pulsed with anticipation when he pulled back his skin and placed a copious amount of the lubricant on his tip and along the ridge. Brett watched him, and then grasped his own knees again, this time pulling himself as wide as he could. As Alex leaned in again, he pressed his glans up to the buttocks that met right over the hole he was about to visit. "You know, if this hurts, well..."

"It won't," Brett replied. "At least, nothing I can't handle. Come on, Alex. I want you to. It'll be okay, I promise."

"I hope you're right," Alex whispered, and then gave a little push, one which separated the buttocks and let him arrive against the hole itself. Brett let go and wrapped his legs high around Alex's waist, ready to pull him in. He wiggled slightly to encourage the teen, and even giggled at seeing Alex's expression in the dimmed light. Although he initially blushed, Alex did not pull away, and instead he pushed a little more, meeting the initial resistance head on. Brett closed his eyes, and without waiting, pushed himself harder against the rod that was invading him. Both he and Alex gasped.

"Shit, that thing is hard!" Brett breathed, before giggling. "And hot!"

Alex looked up mischievously. "Well, what did you expect?"

Brett shook his head. "It's okay, really. I was just surprised, that's all. Push a little more, and then, yeah, like that. Let me have a few seconds to get used to it..." Over the next several minutes, each exercised patience while they slowly progressed further. Alex, on his feet, was amazed at how such a little part of him felt so wholly connected to the other boy. The further he pressed inside, the more solidified it all felt.

For Brett, he felt an invasion unlike any he had ever imagined before, but surprisingly it wasn't unpleasant. At times he would grunt as he felt his inside being stretched, but taking the time to get used to it seemed to be the trick. The pain was minimal, but the tradeoff was far more pleasurable.

In contrast, the experience for Alex was uncertainty until he buried himself deeper, finally reaching a point where he could feel his pubes brushing up against his Brett's butt. Brett felt it, too, and was amazed. "You feel it, don't you? It's pretty tight, but... it's awesome, too. And it sure as fuck feels a whole lot better than just having two fingers stuck inside!"

"Really? It's tight to me, too, and you said I was hot, but I think you feel really hot inside, too. I can feel the heat all around down there, even up to my balls almost," Alex confessed, whispering. "I'm inside, though. I'm really... I'm inside, for real!"

"Oh yeah, buddy. You're a part of me, and I'm a part of you. I feel it, you feel it, and it's... it's... fucking awesome!" Brett whispered back.

The next half-hour was then spent, both boys eventually giggling, neither caring about what they did as being obscene or disgusting. As Alex began moving in and out, Brett would curse and grab the covers, yet simultaneously wrap his legs tighter around Alex's butt so he couldn't recede. At one point, Alex observed him with annoyance, to which Brett shook his head and replied, "Don't even think about it!"

Little more was said, outside of the quieted giggles they would break into as they progressed beyond experimentation and into actual lovemaking. As Alex felt the build-up eventually breaking stride where he could no longer control it, he knew he was lost into another world. "I have to... I have to do it now, Brett... I have to let go..."

"Then... do it, buddy, cream me," Brett whispered back, his voice filled with kindness and understanding. Urged on by the lust of his loins, Alex was doing something that, only months before, he figured he would never do in his lifetime. Unless he was lucky enough to marry somewhere down the road, of course. The act right now though, was enticing him to have faith in the friend he was doing this with, and he clung to that reliance unquestionably. He leaned forward and found he could reach Brett's ear, where he proceeded to suck on the earlobe before finally whispering, "I love you, bro."

Brett stopped smiling and turned his head, catching Alex's lips into a gentle kiss, all the while feeling the pounding underneath. Within seconds he felt a change, and that was when Brett grabbed his friend from behind with his legs and shoved himself up close and deep. He could feel the pulses as Alex grunted between gasps for air, and they both smiled in pleasure as the uppermost let loose inside. Brett reached for his own manhood again, which at that moment was standing at full attention as he grasped it. He didn't try to accelerate his condition at all, however, choosing instead to ride out his first time being a bottom, feeling Alex slipping in and out, and enveloping all the love and magic that it afforded him.

Alex stilled finally and relaxed for a moment, before slowly extracting himself completely out. For some reason, he felt exhausted, his skin heated and sweating from the exertion. He looked down, and in the dim light could tell little difference about themselves than when they had begun. That pleased him, although he was unsure as to why. He observed Brett briefly before the teen let his feet slide to the floor. That's when Alex grasped hold and moved his friend further up onto the bed, turning him to lie lengthwise as he was before Alex joined him. Cuddled together, Alex finally relaxed, his muscles aching as he sank into Brett's embrace. Neither spoke for a bit, each coming down from the height of the excitement, feeling happy together. Brett finally giggled, then repeated and shook his head at Alex's quizzical expression. "Nothing, bro. I just... I'm happy, that's all."

Alex finally propped his head up on an elbow to stare at the teen. "Thank you," he finally whispered, which made Brett simply nod. They stared at each other a long time before Brett broke the silence.

"So, tell me, was it worth it? For you?"

Alex grinned. "Yeah, I think so. You'll find out soon enough, though."

Brett shook his head. "Not tonight, bro. You need rest, and I need to recharge anyway."

Alex's face fell in disappointment. "What do you mean? You've cummed more than once before when we've been making out and messing around."

"Yeah, I know, but... this is different. Tonight, it's your night, buddy, and I want to remember this for myself, okay? Just as much as I want you to remember it for yourself, too. You'll understand, I promise." Brett's soothing voice made Alex realize it was okay, and so he relented.

"So, is it at least okay if we, like, hold each other for a while?" Alex asked timidly.

"Oh, hell yes!" Brett snickered, as he suddenly threw himself closer and hugged Alex tightly, rolling the boy back against the covers and wrapping his legs around the teen. "Alex? I meant it, bro. Just wait, you'll understand, I promise. I mean, right now I could almost eat you alive! I won't, but... you'll understand, later."

Alex searched his friend's eyes. "You promise, right? You'll top for me? Next time?" Alex asked hesitantly. "Because if you don't, then I'll... I 'll feel guilty, and... and..."

"Alex, I will do anything for you that you want. I mean that, too, anything you want me to do. Just... don't leave me, or let someone replace me. Not for a while anyway, okay? You and me, we're brothers, remember?"

Alex detected the note of seriousness and nodded. "I'm not going anywhere, as long as I can help it. I promise, Brett. I really promise. Besides, we just... well, we just screwed, right? That has to mean something, to both of us, I think."

Brett grinned and leaned in to whisper once again. "We just fucked, yeah, and believe me, it was fucking incredible! And yeah, it fucking means something fucking special!"

Alex giggled at his friend's attempt to lighten the mood, and as Brett settled onto the teen's chest, he hugged him, wrapping him in his arms and legs as close as he could hold the teen. "As corny as that sounds, yeah," Alex whispered. "It's why I so fucking love you sometimes, I think." He sealed his own admission by kissing Brett's neck and shoulder.

The two relaxed and then began talking about what had just happened, what it felt like, why it surprised but also pleased them both. At times they giggled, while other times they hugged. It was well after midnight before Alex rolled and backed up into his friend, spooning close. "I'll rinse off in the morning," he whispered.

"I don't care, bro," Brett replied, whispering between yawns. They both fell silent, and before long, were sound asleep.

Monday morning arrived with a partly cloudy sky and cooler temperatures than had been recently experienced. Alex awoke early to see streams of sunlight entering through his window, alternating at times as clouds made their way by overhead. He lay there smiling, thinking about the night before and what had happened, and upon hearing a light snore drift beside him, he turned to find a very contented Brett still asleep. He stared for a moment, wondering how he was so lucky to have as deep of a relationship as they did. Then, almost immediately, he already had his answer. In the beginning Brett had started them both down this road of learning to trust one another, and everything had taken off from there. Sure, it included being free with each other, with no fears of the little things they did - especially when it came to sex. Both boys, though, realized that the sex was just the fun part of life. It did help define how much they invested with one another, but their real feelings, their brotherhood as some would call it, came from the inside. As Alex looked on, he smiled with the happiness he felt inside.

A pressing problem introduced itself as it usually did though, and Alex had to finally sigh and sit up. Wiping his eyes and stretching hard, the teen yawned deeply before rising and entering the bathroom to fulfill his morning ritual. Once finished, he looked at his still-naked figure in the mirror closely. Nothing 'looked' any different about him than on any other day he stared at himself. With his hand, he lifted his softened penis and scrutinized it closely, pulling the loose skin back in order to inspect the glans. Again, nothing was out of the ordinary, he thought, other than he could make out a telltale odor coming from his groin. He grunted, thinking it was somewhat stronger than usual, and that in turn made him aware that he needed to probably rinse off soon, at the very least.

Stepping into his tub, he closed the curtain and activated the water, setting the temperature and, when ready, stepped under the stream. He knew he'd have to take a more thorough shower later that day, after they returned from their morning workout on the vehicle to be cleaned. So, for the time being, he quickly washed certain areas with the shower gel while rinsing others. The entire task was completed in just over a minute before he shut the water off, and as he stood there dripping wet, he suddenly realized he hadn't retrieved a towel from the linen closet. Inwardly grunting, he pulled the shower curtain back, only to find Brett had already entered and was stepping in front of the toilet for his own morning ritual.

"Hey, hand me a towel, will ya?" Alex requested after Brett had finished. His friend complied, but then stepped in front of him, thus blocking his way out of the tub.

"Arms up," Brett commanded softly, and Alex complied. Brett proceeded to wipe his friend down hastily before backing up and motioning for him to step out. Once done, he finished the job around his friend's legs and feet before handing him the cloth. "There, all done," he announced, before taking Alex in his arms and hugging him close. Alex returned the gesture, the two of them holding one another in silence, with only their breathing between them.

"Any regrets?" Brett asked quietly, breaking the moment as he pulled back far enough to find his friend smiling.

"I was going to ask you the same thing," Alex whispered.

Brett grunted. "We've been here before, haven't we? Or, at least, it seems that way," he mused, then shook his head. "None, bro. I'm glad we did it, honest."

Alex smiled. "Me, too. No regrets, Brett."

Brett leaned in and kissed his friend on his nose, then turned to step over into the tub. "I'm just going to rinse off, kind of like you did." Alex nodded, and then headed back into his bedroom, listening to Brett duplicate much of what he had already just completed. After a cursory glance, he found their clothes dropped by the side of the bed, and he swiftly donned his underwear before moving to the dresser and extracting cut-offs and a t-shirt.

Alex was sitting on the corner of the bed and pulling on a pair of socks when Brett appeared. "What time is it, anyway?" the teen asked as he picked up his own pair of briefs from the floor.

"Um, about 8:15, I think," Alex replied. As Brett completed donning the garment, Alex bade him to hold up, and then quickly opened the bedroom door before disappearing. Moments later, he returned, bounding up the stairs two at a time until he was back and handing Brett his clothes from the day before. "Here, Mom put them in the dryer last night." Brett accepted the clothing thankfully, then swiftly dressed. When he stood there holding his original briefs, uncertain what to do with them, Alex grinned. "Here, let me have them. I'll wear them to your house sometime and we can swap."

Brett grunted. "Okay, that'll work." He looked up grinning as he adjusted his shirt. "So, the plan?"

Alex nodded. "Easy enough. We go to Mr. Bay's and do our job, get paid, then... I don't know, we'll find something to goof off for a while. The 'ladies' are going shopping anyway, so it'll just be us I'm sure until probably mid-afternoon."

"I agree. Say, I've been wondering, I've got some radio-controlled race cars I was messing with back in the spring. Would you be interested in getting those out and seeing what we could do with them?" Brett asked.

"Really? Cool, I used to have one car, before... well, you know, the fire," Alex answered. "Have you, like, ever made stunts for them, like ramps to jump and everything?"

"Ohhhh yes! It's a blast! Sometimes Gina and I would set up obstacle courses and all, too. I'd usually win, but sometimes she'd beat my as- uh, yeah, you know." Brett suddenly blushed, making Alex laugh out loud.

"What's wrong man, afraid to say the word 'ass' or something now?" Alex observed, giggling.

"Well, not exactly, I just..." Brett finally laughed. "It'll be cool, I promise."

Alex stepped up close, arms draping Brett's shoulder. "It was cool, what you did for me last night, bro. Thanks. I mean, I didn't expect it, and never even really thought we'd do it, but..."

Brett placed a fingertip against his best friend's lips. "You misunderstand, Alex. I'm not embarrassed about what we did, honest. I know you, and I trust you, and I know that no one will know what went down between us. I'm **glad** we did it, honest."

Alex looked at him curiously. "Then... why did you blush and all?"

Brett observed his friend and then, for a second time, blushed again. "Do you really want to know?" When Alex nodded, he sighed and then smirked. "My ass, man, it feels kind of funny. Didn't you see me walking in here? It's kind of, uh, well..."

Alex started giggling then, before pulling up and laughing into Brett's shoulder. "I split it THAT bad?" he asked, muffling his laughter.

"Oh yeah, it was awesome! Just, uh, don't plan on whipping on me for a few hours at least, okay?" Brett whispered back, and then both had a good laugh before retrieving their shoes.

"I'm so happy we could get out today," Brenda commented, as the ladies and Gina were seated into a corner booth. Their hostess informed them their server would be with them shortly, so the three made themselves comfortable, picking up and studying the menu. Having spent the last few hours browsing and shopping at the various outlet shops, they had grown tired and hungry. Leaving the mall, the group quickly found a local diner to stop in for some lunch.

"I'm glad we could, too," Patty replied. "After the last week or more, it's been a nice distraction."

"Do you think you're done with it by now? That all of that business is behind you?" Brenda asked, settling in.

Patty studied briefly before answering. "Maybe. Certainly, from the way everyone is talking, the worst of it is behind us now. We were told to be vigilant, always be on the lookout for anything strange, but otherwise life should be much simpler going forward. I'm hoping it will be, anyway."

"I'm glad for you guys," Gina pipped up, not to be left out or ignored from the conversation. Patty smiled at her and, as the younger girl had chosen to sit next to her when they arrived, gave her a tight hug around her shoulders.

"I'm glad for us, too," Patty replied back.

"I think we're all happy for you, Richard and Alex alike. I'm not sure I can imagine, or even want to imagine, what you three have had to put up with over the last few years!" Brenda observed.

"It hasn't been too bad, overall, other than losing the house in Idaho. We almost lost Alex, as sad as it sounds, and that shook us up pretty bad at first. I think, more than anything, it gave both me and Richard a sense of how dangerous this business was getting to be." The woman sighed deeply before continuing. "Honestly, we almost called it quits then. You know, called it off. I was all for telling the authorities and everyone to take it and shove it. I mean, the price was just getting too high. We were within a hair's breadth of all being home when the fire started, and we could have easily been killed. The amazing thing, however, was that Alex who convinced us we needed to ride it out," Patty explained.

"Really? How's that?" Gina asked curiously.

"Well, while he was recovering, Alex mentioned something about the fact we'd probably never be totally free. Even if we gave up, someone would probably always be out there, seeking to shut us up permanently. As long as we were alive, we could always be a danger to Mr. Picante, and he probably would not like that hanging over his head. The more and more Richard and I thought about it, the more we realized how right he was. So, his father and I took it to heart, because even though we could have backed away, there was no guarantee the other side would leave us alone." Patty stopped to observe the other two. "In other words, the only way to ever have some of this off our shoulders, was to really see it through to the end."

Brenda nodded. "I can see that. I'm not sure if I could have ever agreed to do it from the beginning, but I certainly understand why you all did." She sighed. "Like I said, I think we're all very happy for you three. You were certainly very brave to undertake it from the beginning and see it through." Just then, their waitress arrived and, after ordering sandwiches, salads and drinks, they sat back as the woman disappeared. "So, what now? Is there anything special on your plates for the near future?" Brenda asked.

Patty scoffed. "Get Alex through school, and settle back into a normal life again, if we can. That and get back to cooking some home meals! We've done nothing but practically eat out for the last two weeks!" Patty giggled. "The week leading up to the trial was pretty busy, with school starting and Richard working on some kind of deadline and all, so you can imagine time was running short." Looking around, she caught herself. "Not that I mind us being out here today, like this, it's just-"

"You don't have to explain, I understand dear. Life just hasn't been normal for you guys for a while, has it?" Brenda remarked.

"No, it hasn't," Patty replied. Glancing out the window, she lowered her voice. "I'm not so sure we even know what normal is, anymore. It has been far too long since we've visited any real family, or gone out to just enjoy things anymore, without having to worry, or be careful." She turned back and gave Brenda a weak smile. "But, we're committed. Over the next couple of months, we're going to try and do some of those things, and more. Anything really, to just feel like... just feel again. Does that make any sense?"

"More so than you think, dear. You know, I opt we help each other do just that. I've been talking about fixing up a batch of homemade soup lately. Normally we wouldn't do that until the weather turns cooler, but Roger has been wanting some lately, and quite frankly, I think it would be a nice change. Why don't we do that tomorrow or Wednesday? You and the boys can come up after work and we'll hang out for a while. Mind you, it won't be anything fancy, but soup and maybe some grilled cheese sandwiches... how does that sound?"

Patty observed her from across the table. "Are you sure? I mean, we've already imposed on you enough this weekend as it is, and-"

"Dear, I wouldn't offer it if I were not sure. In fact, if there's anything we can do to help you three get settled back into a normal routine, then just let me know. I'm not doing a lot right now, and it's mostly slow at work. Besides, Roger has been talking about working on some cabinets for the garage, and I think he mentioned something about getting Richard to help him out. What better way to get them together to brainstorm over it? And as for us, I'm sure we can find some things to get into. I have all kinds of crafts and things started around the house, but I never seem to get around to finishing them." She shrugged. "They're a lot easier to do when you have someone to share doing things with."

"Oh, boy, does she ever!" Gina interjected, rolling her eyes and causing both women to laugh.

When they quieted, Patty nodded. "You know, I would love to. You guys have been so good to us. I'm not sure how we'll ever repay you."

Brenda shook her head. "We haven't done anything, girl. You three have been doing all the hard work. I just wish we'd known sooner, so we could have been a little more helpful along the way."

"More helpful? Are you kidding?" Patty grunted. "I don't think two people ... excuse me, four people," she restated, smiling at the young lady still in her grasp. "I don't think anyone could be more understanding and helpful than you guys have been. It's not easy living with a deep secret, and keeping some kind of a social life and all. You've been great, in my honest opinion." There was a genuine warmth in her expression, and both Brenda and Gina glowed from the praise.

"Can I ask about you something?" Gina eventually broached, breaking the silence that had followed. Seeing Patty nod, she continued. "It's about Alex, and his... I don't know, his shoulder? Brett told me he got hurt, and I see he stretches and like, massages it a lot, kind of in a funny way at times." Gina had intentionally stopped short of letting the women know she had seen the scars, but was wondering what the woman might tell her.

"Yes, he was caught in the fire at our previous house." Patty answered simply, searching her eyes for any reaction. When she heard Brenda gasp, however, she turned her attention to the older woman. "He had part of a wall, or the ceiling or something, fall against him, pinning him down just inside his bedroom door. It burned his skin and muscle tissue, leaving a few ugly reminders behind afterwards." She sighed. "He's been pretty self-conscious about them ever since. Not that I blame him, really. Initially they were not very pretty to look at, but since then they've been healing somewhat."

"Oh, my stars!" Brenda whispered. "How bad are they? Are they permanent?"

Patty nodded. "Unfortunately, there will always be something left behind, I'm sure. It's been around five months though, and I can tell you they are healing nicely. The doctors treated the burns by grafting some skin in places, and using some experimental techniques to restore some of the area naturally. The general prognosis is that he'll be fine eventually, though it may take a year or two. He has to do these exercises though, to make sure the muscles stay pliable across both his chest and shoulder." She glanced back down at Gina. " That's probably a result of some of that stretching you noticed. Is that it, or was there something in particular you were wanted to know about?"

Gina shook her head. "I was just... I was afraid to ask him, that's all. I didn't know if it something was bad, or wrong, or... you know."

Patty accepted her answer. "I suspect he'll show you sometime, if you want to see them. I figure Brett has probably seen them already, but the thing about Alex is that he's shy, but he's not always that modest around people he feels comfortable with. I think you three have already built enough friendship between you that he wouldn't mind you seeing his scars any." She sat back and relaxed as their drinks arrived, and after the waitress walked away, Patty continued. "Alex calls them the scars above his heart, which to me is kind of funny. I mean, they aren't exactly above his heart, see, but they do stretch from his, ah, his breast sort of toward his shoulder and side."

"Why does he call them that?" Brenda asked.

Patty pondered for a moment. "I'm not exactly sure. I think it has to do with the fact that they remind him of the price we've all paid. Until these two came along," Patty paused, smiling down at Gina. "Until you and your brother came along, Alex went through a rough spell, not really trusting anyone, always suspicious. He even told me one night he doubted they would ever really go away, and that he'd be marked for life, always to remember what Mr. Picante did to us. He said if the wall or beams had fallen just a little lower, they would have gotten his heart, and he probably wouldn't have made it."

"Oh, my stars!" Brenda exclaimed quietly.

Gina was also surprised. "So, you mean you could have lost him? He could have died?"

Patty looked deep into the girl's eyes. "We DID almost lose him. When he was found, as far as we know, the emergency people said that he was barely breathing, and they feared he was too far gone."

Gina's eyes suddenly watered. "No!" she whispered, the reality hitting her at full force.

Patty sat back, pulling the girl with her. "But, he didn't, and that's the important part. Alex has changed since then, there is no question, but not like he was the first few days. He was depressed, and even though the treatments did wonders, he was emotionally drained, even despondent at times. It was a few weeks before he started acting like a teenager again, and we all sighed with relief then."

"I'll bet!" Brenda acknowledged. "He seems to me though, to be a very good kid, if I can use that phrase. If you hadn't told us this, I doubt I would have even known any different."

Patty raised her eyebrows and took a deep breath. "He is. Can you imagine, raising someone who never gets in trouble except on a rare occasion? Who picks up after himself, keeps things clean, cooks dinner for us, washes clothes... it is unreal to find boys who do that stuff! I know, because I used to teach high school, and there were a lot of laughs to be had about that kind of thing!" She looked hard at Brenda. "I don't know, I think that's why I like the idea of Brett being around him so much now. Alex never had much of a childhood life beforehand, and now..."

Brenda nodded, understanding. "I certainly can understand your feelings about it. I just hope Brett doesn't get him into too much trouble along the way. He can get a bit boisterous sometimes!"

Patty suddenly laughed. "Boisterous? Now, that's a term I haven't heard in a long, long time!" She looked up, but then shrugged. "I don't care, really. As long as they don't hurt anyone, let them. Alex needs a little wildness in his life, and he needs to discover what it means to be around real people his age."

Gina suddenly perked up. "Wait, you're saying you WANT Alex to get in trouble?"

Both older women at the table laughed, before Brenda whispered. "You were not supposed to listen to any of that part!"

"It's okay, though," Patty admitted, smiling. Observing the young girl closely, she lowered her voice as well. "I'm not saying get in trouble, no. Boys in general, and sometimes certain girls," she intoned, pausing for effect, "will always get in trouble in some way or another. I just want Alex to stop trying to be so perfect, so nice about everything around him. I want him to live a little adventure, and not be afraid to see the world. Then while he's at it, maybe he'll learn to believe in himself again. Does that make sense?"

Gina nodded. "Oh, yeah, I get it. You want him to learn to be a boy like other boys, so that he can trust himself." She sighed when she saw the smile. "I'm glad he's here, and that you guys moved in, you know. Me and Brett, we really like him."

Brenda smiled, and another silence fell between them. Gina excused herself then to go to the bathroom, and in her absence, Brenda leaned forward and took Patty by the hand. "Well, I'm happy for him. I think he and Brett have a beautiful friendship. Maybe a little close physically, but..."

Patty scoffed. "I know what you mean, but you know something? I was watching them Saturday night for a bit, and a thought came to me. I can't speak for Brett, but Alex - he's never had anyone to feel close to, other than his father and myself. Brett is sort of a new ground for him, and I think he's had to test the waters somewhat. I thought maybe, at least perhaps, Brett is either doing the same thing with him, or is at least being awfully patient and forgiving."

"He might be, yes," Brenda responded thoughtfully. "Brett and Gina have always been close, ever since they were little, so I know he's had a little experience dealing with her. When it comes to someone else, on the outside, maybe... I don't know."

"You know before, Alex was always kind of closed-up toward people, but since finding Brett, he's been skirting some new territory. With both your children, really, but Brett and Gina both have done a lot for him in that regard. Certainly, Brett doesn't seem to be afraid, that's for sure. At least, not like a lot of teenagers would be." Patty sat back. "Did you notice the other night, that Brett was wearing some of Alex's clothes? A lot of younger kids wouldn't think anything of it, but as they get older, teenagers especially... as old as our boys are?"

Brenda smiled and nodded. "Oh yes, I noticed. You're right, that's not very common at all I think, unless you're into sports or something."

Patty laughed. "Exactly! You know, when I first saw them soaking wet and dripping yesterday, I half-way expected I'd have to find a way to bring him home to you guys, without turning our back seat into a swimming pool! You should have seen them both, standing there and grinning ear-to-ear like wild wart-hogs or something! Neither of them had a care in the world, grinning like clowns and looking outright comical... it was a sight!" She quieted and then spoke seriously. "That's the thing, though. Brett didn't mind, he and Alex just... they stripped and went upstairs and changed and all, and when he came back down, I thought he looked pretty decent. That's why we just met you at the restaurant, see? Brett even admitted he didn't mind wearing Alex's clothes, and you could tell by watching them he was comfortable and all. That might not mean much to some people, but I've been around these boys enough to feel like, well..."

Brenda let go of Patty's hand and sat back, relaxing. "I know what you mean. Boys will be boys, there's no arguing that fact. They'll do all kinds of crazy and goofy things at that age, just like Gina is beginning to do now." Brenda looked on closely. "Tell me something, though, do you worry about anything, ah... physical between them?"

Patty paused, but then shook her head, knowing full well what the other woman was implying. "Not really. Like you said, boys will be boys. Alex is sort of coming into some things late, in terms of life as a teenager, and like I said, Brett doesn't seem to mind it. If they're comfortable, I'd rather just not worry about it for the time being, and let him, or rather them, find their way and all. Richard tells me he thinks they just need to have some space, and I don't disagree. Now, if they're hurting anyone or anything, that's different, but..."

"I agree," Brenda replied, sighing in relief. "I'm glad, too. To be honest, I was worried that maybe you'd find what's happening between them a little too trusting, or a little too comfortable. Roger and I have tried to tame Brett down, because if we didn't, I think both boys would be practically living with each other and joined at the hip all the time! Not that it's a bad idea, mind you, but..."

Patty laughed. "No worries." She leaned forward. "May I say something? This is just me speaking, mind you, and you have every right to jump in if you think I'm wrong. When it comes down to it though, I honestly believe that Alex is simply growing up now, even maturing ahead of the game in some ways. But he's also finding there's a little kid that's in him still, a little kid he never knew existed until just now. And there's something else, too. Now that he's older, he's discovering he has stronger emotions, just like Brett is probably, too. That's why, at the moment, they're so focused on each other. I don't find that to be a bad thing, though. I mean, I figure that will change eventually as they both get to meet more people, especially girls." Patty looked deeply into her friend's eyes. "Do you think that makes any sense? Some of the responsibility that goes along with growing up too fast, is having to worry about the social implications at their age, far too soon. That's why I back away and don't worry about it so much right now. I'd rather Alex had a little craziness right now. It can make for chaos, but at least it's the good kind of chaos, you know?"

Brenda nodded, amazed at the logic and thoughtfulness behind what she was hearing from her friend. "For what it's worth, Roger and I also love Alex for being the level-headed one next to Brett, too. I think there has been a good balance between both boys, and honestly dear, after hearing your thoughts on it? I'm definitely not worried about it now. Brett has changed for the better because of it. All of us have seen it," Brenda reassured.

Patty smiled, and with moist eyes reached out to grasp the hand that first held her own, squeezing it affectionately. Brenda placed her other hand on top before nodding to the woman. "Don't worry, Patty. We're not worried about either of the boys. Whatever happens, it just happens. As long as they stay out of any deep trouble anyway, but then again, I suspect they'll both be pretty well taken care of. Right?"

Patty nodded, and then pulled back upright just as Gina returned. Behind her, the waitress approached with a large tray containing their lunch, and thus the conversation turned elsewhere.

"Oh, hey, I almost forgot! There's someone you need to call, and soon!"

Brett had pulled up, holding the basketball to his side. Alex stopped as well, panting, as the two had just finished a rather grueling session of two-on-two. "Oh? Who's that? Ethan?"

"Yeah. I think I told you he called while you were gone last week, looking for you. He sounded kind of depressed and all. We talked for a while though, and anyway, I told him I'd have you call him when you got back," Brett explained.

"Honestly, I forgot about that," Alex acknowledged. "How was he doing?"

"Not that good," Bret admitted. "His parents still hadn't come home yet, and a lot of people were beginning to get worried. He said the Sheriff visited them one night and talked with their grandmother for a long time. He couldn't hear a lot, but he got the idea that the Sheriff was going to put out a missing-persons thingy and everything."

"Really?" Alex walked over to the side of the court and sat down in the thick grass. "Since school's out, what say I give him a call now?" Pulling out his cell phone, the teen quickly found the desired number and dialed it. On the third ring, an elderly, but familiar voice answered. "Hello?"

"Hi, Ms. Simpson, this is Alex Branham. We met um, I don't know, a couple of weeks before school started, for lunch with your grandchildren, Ethan and April," Alex greeted her.

A sigh of relief was heard on the other end. "Oh, yes, Alex, I remember you. I think there was another boy with us, too, wasn't there? Brett, I think? And a girl, but I'm afraid I've forgotten her name. She and April hit it off though, I do remember that."

"Yes ma'am, her name is Gina. She's Brett's sister and all. Listen, I was hoping to talk to Ethan for a few minutes. Is he there by chance?" Alex asked casually.

"No, I'm afraid not. My neighbor was taking her children down to the city pool today, and I had to make Ethan and April both go with them, just to get them out of the house." Another audible sigh could be heard before the woman continued. "They've been so cooped up here, and for so long and all, I was hoping it might take their minds off of everything for a little while."

"Is everything okay?" Alex asked. "Have you guys still not heard anything from your daughter, or Mr. Spalding?"

"No, we haven't. The Sheriff has a missing-persons alert out now, but no one has seen either of them yet. There have been no accidents, no hospital reports or anything answering to their descriptions thus far. They've never gone this long without being in touch before, and as every day passes, we are all growing more fearful of something being terribly wrong." Ruby paused to catch her breath. "That's what I meant about getting those two out of the house for a while. They sit around here and just worry all the time, as I'm sure you can understand."

"Sure, I do, ma'am," Alex replied, thinking fast. "Uh, listen, I know you don't know us all that well and everything, but what if we invited them both to come over after school, say tomorrow or Wednesday? Just to hang out for a while, maybe have some dinner with us, too. I could get my Mom to bring them home afterwards. I know it's a school night and all, but we won't keep them out late, I promise. Just for a while, like you said, to get them out of the house and doing something different."

There was a brief silence on the other end of the line while Ruby considered. "You know, I think they would love the idea, but I'm not sure exactly how to arrange it."

"That's not a problem, ma'am. Ethan goes to the same school as Gina, so he can just catch the bus with her, and I think April is next door, too... isn't she?"

"That's right, they are. Okay, it's a deal then. Only, I was just thinking, Wednesday I have a doctor's appointment at 4:00, so that would be a better day to do this, if that's acceptable," Ruby offered.

Alex assured her it was, and then bade her goodbye. Brett, who in the meantime had approached and sat down by then, now looked on with curiosity as Alex hung up. "Still no word?"

"Not a message, phone call or anything," Alex answered nodding. "She said Ethan and April are both depressed, and she was trying to get them out of the house to take their minds off of things for a little while." Glancing at Brett, he suddenly stopped. "Uh, I think I just did a thing again... I invited them over here with us, to help get them out some again. For me, it's fine with Ethan, but um, I didn't think about asking you guys first, especially for April's sake. I mean, she and Gina hit it off before, so I guess I just kind of assumed..."

Brett grunted. "It's okay, I don't think we have anything going on. I'll let sis know about it in a little bit, and tell Mom, too. Same for Ethan, I can hang out too, if you want me to."

"Of course, I do, Brett!" Alex replied. " I'm sorry, I didn't mean that quite the way it ended up sounding. I was inviting him to spend time with **us**, not just me. Like I said, I should have checked with you first, but what's done is done. Since it's a school night, I say we just keep it really simple, if we can. Maybe shoot some ball, or if it's raining, we can team up on some video games or something."

"No worries," Brett said, then sat back before changing the subject. "I wish we didn't have to go back to school tomorrow. I could use another day off, I think."

"Labor Day weekend is in two weeks, isn't it? We'll get out then, too, won't we?" Alex asked.

Brett nodded. "Yeah, I know. I guess it's just, well, this is the first full weekend we've had to ourselves almost, you know? It's been awesome and all, I just wish we had another day like this."

Alex smiled. "I understand, and yeah, it would be kind of nice. Hey, I just thought of something - isn't there a football game this Friday night?"

"Yep, the first for the season, although I'm not sure whom we're playing. Why, interested?" Brett asked.

"Oh, yeah! Plus, I was just thinking, maybe that's something we could do with Ethan too, for a while anyway." Alex suddenly pulled up short, realizing what he had just done. "Sorry, Brett. I'm really not trying to have a one-track mind or anything, it's just... I want to help them somehow, if I can, but there is so little I feel we can do, you know?"

"I'm not worried about it. We'll ask him Wednesday if he wants to go, and if so, then we'll do it." Brett smiled. "It's a part of what I like about you, anyway. You're always thinking of others before you think of yourself, you know? It's a little annoying sometimes, but..." He ducked as Alex playfully reached in to grab hold of his nipple through the t-shirt. They had teased each other this way before, and as both laughed, Alex blushed again.

"Yeah, I know it's the truth, though. Sorry," he murmured, apologizing.

"It's cool. So, want to shoot some more, or call it?" Brett asked.

Alex shook his head. "I probably should head home. I'm sure Mom will have some supper fixed before long, and I need a shower - a proper shower, I think, before I do some reading for Ms. Woods."

Brett groaned. "Sheesh, you had to remind me of that, didn't you? Why does she have to do literature anyway, especially so early in the term?" He sighed, then stood up and offered Alex a hand, which the teen accepted as he pulled himself to his feet. "Alex? Listen, man... About Ethan, it's cool, honest. I want to help, too, but I know there isn't a lot we can do. I hope his Mom and Dad turn up soon, for everyone's sake, you know?"

"Yeah, I know," Alex nodded in agreement, then offered his fist mid-air, which Brett bumped accordingly, although holding their touch a few seconds more than common. "I know I don't have to tell you, but thanks for everything, Brett. Being here, hanging out - all of it. It's what I've needed, bro."

"Me, too," Brett whispered back, before leaning in and bumping shoulders with his friend. "Love ya, bro. Call me later if you want," he added, as Alex turned and mounted his bike.

"I will. Hey, I was thinking, maybe this weekend you can help me go shopping, too."

"Oh? What are we buying?" Brett replied.

"We, nothing... but I figure it's about time I got my own bike again, so your Dad can have his back. I'm not going for anything fancy, because I know we'll both be driving in about a year anyway, but still..." Alex explained as he turned around.

Brett shrugged. "I don't think Dad would mind you keeping it longer, really. He never did ride it very often anyway, but still... if that's what you want to do, then sure."

Alex smiled. "We'll see. Maybe I can talk to him about it Wednesday night, if he's around. See ya!" With that he rode down the driveway to the road, then turned to head home.

As the school week began anew, Alex arrived in Kirby Richardson's math class to find the seats had been rearranged in the room to form a circle. Uncertain if they were specifically assigned, he walked over to where the teacher was standing at his desk, and as the older man looked up, a wide grin appeared. "Ah, Mr. Branham, back from the living dead I see! How are you feeling, son?"

"I'm fine, sir. I'm sorry about last week, it was kind of a sudden thing, and I just... I couldn't get back in here, sir," Alex responded, handing over the note he had procured earlier from the office.

"Nothing to apologize for," the man said, taking the note and adding his initials to the bottom. "Life happens, whether we want to acknowledge it or not. Stay out of trouble with the office, and you'll stay out of trouble with me, I assure you. There was another young man, friend of yours I think, who stopped by for your lessons and assignments a couple of times."

"Yes, sir, Brett. I have about half of them caught up here," Alex began as he handed over a small stack of papers. "If it's alright, I should have the rest by tomorrow or Thursday. I know that's late, but-"

"That will be fine. Just pick a seat somewhere, we'll get started in a few minutes." Alex complied, choosing a seat near the teacher's desk, then watched as other students filed in and began to take their seats. As soon as everyone was situated, Mr. Richardson walked over to the marker board, and wrote in large letters the number **10**. "Okay, everyone - I have a puzzle for you to think about. How many types of people are there in the world? And what does this number have to do with it?"

"How many kinds of people?" a girl asked as she sat up, taking note of the number.

"No, no, Miss Woodward, how many **types** of people are there, and how does that number associate with them?" their teacher corrected. There was a silence that followed, as the rest of the students started to ponder the question. All of them, that is, except for Alex, who sat with a half-smile. Mr. Richardson noted it, but only smiled in return. When a full minute had passed, he finally spoke again. "How about it, Mr. Branham? Do you know the answer?"

Alex blushed, but then spoke in an even voice. "Well, as far as types, without trying to be politically correct, there are basically two types - boys and girls, or males and females. And, well, that number could be ten, in the decimal base, but if it were binary, then that's not a ten, it's actually a two."

There was a gasp and a low murmur amongst the group. One girl beside him bopped herself on the forehead. "Of course! I should have recognized that!" Several others either chided themselves, or laughed in appreciation that Alex recognized it so quickly.

"As usual, I see your time in recuperation land did not diminish your sharpness. Good job, sir, because that is absolutely correct!" Mr. Richardson exclaimed, obviously pleased. "You see, class, we take our numbering system for granted at times, but there are other numbering systems that exist, too. Binary, as Mr. Alex has just stated, is a numbering system made up of purely ones and zeros. There is also an octal base, which is made up of only the digits 0 thru 7, and you may have heard about the hexadecimal system, too. That one sports values in digits from 0 thru 9 for the first 10, plus A, B, C, D, E and F for the remaining 6 digits."

"Huh? But those are letters, not numbers!" one boy exclaimed, and several around him nodded in agreement.

"Perhaps, if you look at them in a certain way, yes. The trick, though, is to recognize the value they represent. In the hexadecimal world, for example, the digit 9 is actually the value of 9, but the next digit in the sequence, which starts with 'A', has a value of 10. Then 'B' represents a value of 11, and so on until you get to the letter 'F', which has a value of 15," their teacher explained. "So, let's look at some examples on the board here. You'll find that the math works the same as math you've always done before, meaning you've already learned and done it since kindergarten, but each new base has different rules in how you add, subtract and more..." As usual, Alex found the topic riveting, and saw that many of the other kids in class were mesmerized as well.

When the bell rang for dismissal, Mr. Richardson waved for Alex to come over. "So, you've done these things before? I noticed you were able to figure out a lot of the answers pretty quickly."

Alex blushed. "Sorry, sir. Yeah, a lot of this relates to computer math, how processors and memory and everything work together. I've done a lot of it before with my Dad, and even helped him debug some computer code and programs he was working on, too."

"Again, you're absolutely right. I must say, son ... I'm impressed." The praise caused Alex to blush even deeper, which his teacher did not let go unchecked. "I do not mean that negatively, you know. I was just thinking, maybe we should see about letting you get out of here, so you're not bored or anything."

"No!" the teen exclaimed, rather loudly before he brought his voice back down to a more normal state. "It's not that, Mr. Richardson. I just... I like it in here. I'm still learning stuff from you, though maybe differently. Actually, I find it kind of fun, too, especially some of the stuff we do!"

Mr. Richardson observed the teen closely before slowly nodding. "I'm not going to send you anywhere, Alex. You can stay as long as you like, but you have to make me a solemn promise, from your gut, and stick to it."

"Yes, sir?" Alex asked, hesitantly.

"If you ever start finding yourself getting jaded, or feeling that some of this is beneath you, academically speaking, you'll talk to me. Mind you, son... and forgive me, I shouldn't call you that. It's just an old habit that comes with my age, I'm afraid. Still, mind you that most of these kids in here haven't had any type of math outside of basic Algebra, and maybe some Trigonometry. They're only now beginning to see where different bases, formulas and deductions can take them, along with the need for understanding why certain mathematical laws are important."

"Me, too, sir... and it's okay, I don't mind being called 'son', not like that anyway," Alex replied with a smile. "Honestly? I already know you're going to get into stuff I don't know a lot about. Calculus for one - I understand how to find approximations and things, but not without using things like differential equations and so forth. So, I'm not worried about getting bored or anything, I promise. If it's ever too, uh, whatever you called it, I'll let you know. You have my word."

Mr. Richardson then nodded. "Okay, that's good enough for me. Have a good rest of your day then."

At lunchtime, he and Brett were once again joined by Steven and Greg. As they set their trays down upon the table, Steven circled around the end and approached Alex, lifting a hand and catching Alex's in return, grasping and beaming. "Hey, good to see you back, man! That must have been a heck of a cold, or flu, or something! Especially if it took you out of action for the whole week!"

Alex laughed. "It was something, yeah," was all he replied, but evidently it was good enough as the four boys sat down. Greg took a bite of his chicken sandwich and then made a face. "Ugh, it's cold!"

Brett nodded. "Yeah, sometimes that's the way they serve them. Cook them early in the morning and hand them out cold by lunch time."

"Well," Steven grunted, pushing his plate back already. "I'm with Greg on this one, that's not that good at all." The teen then proceeded to pull a banana from the tray and peel it. "So, you're doing okay now, promise?"

Alex grinned. "I'm fine, Steven, I promise. Thanks for asking."

Steven shrugged. "Just making sure, man. I think we kind of missed you around here last week and all. Brett was mopping the floors with his chin being down all week, and-"

"Don't believe him, Alex," Brett interrupted good-naturedly. "Me, I'm not sure I would trust him any further than you can piss."

That brought a hearty round of laughs amongst all four of them, including from Greg who, as he was taking a drink at the time, suddenly spurted it through his nose. "Damn!" he hissed, grasping for his napkin and, not finding it, accepted one instead from Alex. "Where did you get that one from?" he wondered aloud.

Brett only shrugged, but Steven leaned in toward Alex. "Okay, maybe not THAT bad, but... he did miss you. We all did, man."

Alex suddenly felt rather light-headed at that moment, as he observed the other three. They were telling him, in their own way, that they cared at least, which made him feel exceptionally good. "Well, I do trust you as far as I can pee, at least. And I can pee pretty far sometimes," he added, teasing. Brett rolled his eyes, then giggled before bumping shoulders with his friend.

Alex thought about that exchange all afternoon, and the feeling it left him with was one of buoyancy. For some reason, it felt good having such friends.

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