The Storm That Turned the Tide

by Sean English

Chapter 3

What Defines Friendship

James stood and stretched, all the while admiring the work the three of them had just completed. "So, what do you boys think?" he asked, with an unusual lilt in his voice.

"I think it looks super!" Benji cried out, already climbing up the ladder that led to the upper half of the A-framed bed. "When can we get the mattresses? When can we try it out?"

"Tomorrow, I think. That's when your Mom and I are thinking we can all finally move in," the man replied, though laughing. "Most all of the repairs are finished now. Allen and I fired up the furnace earlier, and it works just fine, other than needing a new filter put in it. The refrigerator is supposed to get delivered in the morning, too, so I think we'll have about everything we need to make a go of it this weekend." Glancing at his older son, James paused. "How about you, kiddo? Are you ready to shake the horse's tail and climb aboard?"

Jesse grinned. "Of course!" When he offered nothing more, his father paused.

"Everything okay?" James asked.

"Everything is fine, Dad. Just, like, I can't wait until we get moved in, that's all," Jesse replied. James raised an eyebrow, but did not pursue the topic further. The last couple of days had seen a marked improvement between his sons and Noah, so he wondered if there was an ulterior motive in the statement that he wasn't registering. To him, his son's words and actions were on opposite ends of the pole. Then again, he also considered he might be over-reading into things, so instead, he simply nodded his acceptance.

It was Thursday afternoon, almost a week since the twister had struck the valley. The air outside had turned much cooler as they entered the last week of October, but now gradually warming - at least to a more comfortable level. With three days to go before Halloween, many businesses and houses in the community were gearing up for the event in a bright, spirited fashion. Several themed parties, haunted houses and other fall festivities were being planned for the coming weekend, more than the valley had ever enjoyed before.

Both James and Allen had worked hard the past few days, painting and readying various parts of the rental property so that the McAllisters could move in. Allen was being overly meticulous, James thought, but he had to admit that once done, the place did turn out to be very warm and inviting. New carpet had been installed that morning, not only for the boys' room but also for the hallway, with the addition of new linoleum put down in the kitchen. The latter had been part of Jennifer's mandate after she saw how worn and discolored the previous had been, and how certain areas were totally missing and exposing the flooring underneath, making it unsafe to blindly walk on. James agreed, and had brought a new decorative overhead LED light from the store. Once installed, everyone was amazed at how much brighter and cheerier the room had become. "I never thought of installing one of those for Dad!" Allen observed afterwards, obviously pleased.

When both boys had arrived from school that day, they met their father just bringing in the A-frame bed. As a team, the three had pulled it from the box and assembled it back in their soon-to-be bedroom. After moving it into place, Jesse was pleased at how his toes sank deep into the soft carpet, a thick plush-piled covering similar to what the Cooks had throughout the rest of their basement. Although the room still had a lingering odor of fresh paint, applied to both the various facings and walls, it otherwise provided an overall cozier feel than its previous state. Jesse could not be happier, as he watched Benji bounce about, he knew his brother was probably feeling similarly. Even with the wide dresser his parents had found, both boys still had ample space to do their thing and make the room their own. He briefly wondered if he could get some bean bags, as both he and Benji had grown to like those their neighbor had and used. Oh well, he decided he could add them to his Christmas list, if nothing else.

The three chatted amicably for a moment, with James asking about their adventures at school for the day, which Benji was quite filled with. As all three gathered up their tools, they left the house and crossed the yard again, heading for the Cooks' back door. As they entered, a heavy aroma of food filled the air, whetting the trio's appetite. "Wow!" Benji exclaimed, moving into the kitchen to find both his mother and Mrs. Cook preparing dinner.

Jennifer arched her eyebrow. "What, 'wow'? You knew we were having roast beef tonight! I told you guys last night, remember?" she laughed, reaching out and tweaking the younger boy's nose.

"Hmph…" Benji replied, before cocking his head to the side. "But, even if you told us, can't I still say 'wow'?" He suddenly grinned and avoided her reaching out to him a second time. "Besides, when do we eat? I'm starving!"

Makalah laughed, as she finished pulling dinner rolls from the oven. "As soon as you get washed up, I think!" With that, the younger boy whisked himself away into the hallway and made a beeline straight for the upstairs bathroom.

It was then that James came up behind his wife and engulfed her for a short hug. "Any home-cooked meal deserves a wow, if you ask me!" he whispered into her ear, causing the woman to giggle. Turning to Jesse, he let go and added, "Let's go wash up, son! I'm like your brother, I'm getting hungrier by the second!"

"Well, just so you boys know, it's still going to be about another 10 to 20 minutes. Allen just called and said he was only now leaving the bank," Jennifer informed the group.

Since there was a little time yet remaining after they washed, Jesse excused himself to go downstairs to the bedroom he shared with Noah. Walking inside, he found the other teen at his desk, focusing on a particular section of their math book - something Jesse had rarely seen done in the household. Since the beginning of the week, little else had been exchanged between the two, but the atmosphere had certainly improved. Noah now, at least, acknowledged the other teen most of the time, and no longer seemed to avoid joining in when the families came together at mealtime. There was still an air of mystery, Jesse thought, but for the present, the outright loathing and hostile attitude seemed to have evaporated, which he was grateful for.

As the teen entered the room, Noah looked up before pushing the book back and shaking his head in disgust. "How is it that you get through this stupid stuff so easily?" he breathed in exasperation, before explaining. "We've got that crazy test tomorrow, and I can't make any sense of this poly-whatever-it's-called at all!"

"I don't know," Jesse answered quietly, surprised at the new exchange. "I guess I just, well, you know, do…"

A hint of annoyance crept back into Noah's voice. "Of course, you do. I think you're Garland's favorite class pet," he remarked while stretching, before turning back apologetically. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean that quite the way it came out."

Jesse shrugged it off as he walked over closer to look down at the page. "I have to learn this stuff just like you guys do, Noah. I'm not some brainy geek, you know."

"No, you're not," Noah conceded. "But - you obviously absorb it better than the rest of us!"

Jesse glanced down again at the page the teen was studying before he frowned. "Which ones are you having trouble with?" he asked quietly, scrutinizing the various problems in the section.

"All of them, really!" Noah laughed, but then pointed. "I can get through the first three, maybe four problems there, without much hassle. The next ones though, I don't get the same answers at all like those in the back of the book!"

Jesse stared at the section before raising an eyebrow. "Do you mind if I, like… try one of them? How about number seven?"

Noah looked down at the problem and hesitated, but then thought there was nothing wrong with the idea. He scooted half-way off the chair, giving Jesse a space to sit down next to him. That surprised the other teen to no end, realizing how close they would actually be to one another. He accepted the seat, however, while Noah pulled his scratch pad over. Giving the teen one of his pencils, he remarked, "Go for it…"

Jesse studied the problem briefly before taking the pad and writing the problem down on it, starting at the top of the page. "Well, it's a power equation, right? You know that because it starts with something squared, then.. yeah…" he muttered as he copied it out. "To me, that means you have to re-write it and put everything in order on both sides of the equation, from the biggest expression to the smallest. Like this," he explained, before re-writing the problem using the prescribed logical, descending order.

Immediately, Noah frowned. "Huh? How … how did you see that?"

Jesse thought for a moment. "I don't know, I guess just from practice. Remember, was it last week, or the week before? Mr. Garland was telling us about always rewriting things from the highest order to the lowest, especially before we try to tackle them. It's supposed to make things simpler to read, I think. So here, that's all I did to start, really… I moved this, and then this, and then…" When he saw Noah nod his understanding, Jesse then continued to solve the problem by advancing it to the next level, first simplifying the expression and then reaching a recognizable solution. Once done, both boys checked the back of the book and found it to be the correct answer.

"Shit!" Noah breathed quietly after holding his breath. "That didn't look so bad at all."

Jesse nodded. "Here, you try number nine then. It looks like it's kind of similar." Noah took back the pencil and tried the problem indicated, quickly reordering the equation just as Jesse had done, before refactoring and solving it. Once again, when they checked the answer against those provided in the back of their book, it was correct.

"I'll be damned," Noah whispered once again, before turning to the other teen and observing him in a new light. They exchanged grins before he came to a decision. "So, do you think after supper tonight, maybe we could do some more of these? I really would like to pass that test tomorrow."

"Sure," Jesse answered, sitting back. "I kind of need to work through some of them too, anyway. He told us he was going to put a theorem of some sort on there, and there's, like, five of them in that chapter alone."

"You're right, he did say that," Noah agreed, but he had already determined he was going to have to skip it. Doing math problems, cranking out equations and answers was one thing. Figuring out the why things worked like they should, in his mind, was something else entirely. "He did say though, he'd probably do it as a bonus question."

Jesse shrugged. "Every point helps sometimes, though."

Noah scoffed. "I doubt you need them. I'll bet you already have straight-As as it is, don't you? Maybe even higher, for all I know!"

Jesse observed his host for a brief moment, his face expressionless, before standing and crossing over to where his new backpack was sitting. From within, he pulled something out and then returned to where Noah was still sitting. "Here," he said, handing over a blue folder to his host. Noah accepted it with a frown, but not before seeing the label on top that referred to their math class. "Go on, open it," Jesse encouraged. Opening it, Noah found it not only contained their last math test, but also several of their quizzes going back to the start of term.

With a start, Noah suddenly stopped when he saw the grades. "Huh? How…?"

Jesse nodded. "Do you see now? I really don't do that much better than the rest of you guys in class, Noah. I'll admit, I think I do some better maybe - but not all THAT much!"

Noah looked down, studying the papers again with a deep frown. In most cases, the other teen made anywhere from low to mid-Bs, which was much lower than he and the others had previously assumed. "I'm sorry. I guess… I guess I just thought…"

"Like some of the others do, I know. You guys think I'm some kind of a brainy geek, right?" Jesse filled in, but was smiling as the other teen nodded. "I wish I was sometimes, honestly, but meh - I'm just me, Noah. I'm nobody special, really. Kind of like some of your friends keep reminding everyone else."

Noah suddenly frowned again, ashamed with himself for being reminded of his own recent attitude. "I'm sorry, Jesse," he whispered. When he looked up though, he was surprised to see the other teen still smiling, which puzzled him. He quietly handed back the folder, before crossing his arms. He wanted to say something, anything really, but he was speechless for the moment.

It was all for the better anyway, he decided, as just then they heard a yell come from upstairs. "Supper's ready," Noah noted softly, to which Jesse nodded. After putting the folder down near his pack, Jesse turned back to his host.

"Are you sure you want to, like, study together and all later?"

"For this?" Noah whispered, indicating the math book that was still opened to the troubling section. "Heck, yeah!" he exclaimed, uncharacteristically grinning himself. Jesse thought it might be the first time he had actually seen his new friend do that. It was infectious, however, because they both ended up giggling as they made their way out of the room. "By the way, just so you know: I don't think you're a geek, or a nerd," Noah offered quietly, causing Jesse to stop at the bottom of the steps. "Goofy sometimes, maybe, but…" the teen added, making Jesse giggle again before shaking his head. He caught the amused expression, and then watched as Noah turned and made his way up the steps.

'Goofy is something I can accept' he thought to himself, suddenly feeling pleased.

Something between them was changing… and it was definitely for the better.

"Well, from what I understand, you guys will probably be moving in tomorrow, right?" Jennifer asked nonchalantly, turning and setting some of the dishes behind her onto the kitchen counter.

"That's the plan. We were going to try for tonight, but without the refrigerator, and without our own mattress which isn't showing up until tomorrow morning, well…" Makalah explained.

"Hmph," Jennifer said, taking her seat back at the table. "I wouldn't care if it was next week, for that matter," she said with a hint of defiance. She looked up and then giggled. "Uh, that didn't quite come out right…" The other three adults laughed.

"Well, at least everything looks like it is shaping up, right?" Allen asked before sitting back and patting his stomach. "I think I overdid it, Jenn."

That caused Jennifer to snort. "You usually do when it comes to roast and potatoes," she muttered.

"Can I help it? You know, it IS my favorite!" her husband replied innocently.

James sat back and relaxed as well. "I have to agree, I think. It was a very fine meal to me, too!"

"It was very good," Makalah added in agreement. "You can invite us over for this any day, as far as I'm concerned!"

Jennifer looked at first one and then the others before relenting, blushing at the praise. "Thank you, I appreciate that." The woman then leaned forward and placed her elbows upon the table. "So, what do you need me to do for tomorrow? Anything?"

"Not really," Makalah answered. "Maybe go grocery shopping with me, if you want to. I'll move what little we have left out of here too, so that it's all out of your way-"

"There is nothing, and I mean NOTHING here in our way!" Jennifer cut her off rather forcefully, before sighing. "I'm sorry, that wasn't called for either, I know. Honestly though, you both annoy me sometimes with the little things like that." She observed her counterpart with a weary smile. "I've said it once, I'll say it again - I have absolutely, totally loved having you guys here with us this week, you know?"

Makalah nodded and returned her smiled. "We have also. I mean, to think we could have been in a shelter all week, while trying to work all this out… I don't think there is anything more we could have ever hoped for out of this arrangement. And the boys, both Benji and Jesse alike, I know they have liked being here."

Allen nodded. "They're good boys, that's for sure." He hesitated briefly before going on. "Say, have you guys noticed? It seems Noah and Jesse are getting along a lot better now, doesn't it?"

"They are, I agree," James replied. "I saw the two actually getting on the bus yesterday morning without the proverbial wall between them. You know, instead of Jesse getting on first, and then 10 to 15 feet behind him Noah following him. They're actually getting on together now. Then you also saw them tonight, actually sitting together here at the table for a change." Previous dinners had seen Noah separated from the McAllister boys as much as possible, while sitting with his parents.

"He actually chatted with us a little tonight, too," Jennifer added. "That… that is something I haven't seen from him in a long, long time." She looked up at the others. "I don't know if I should be hoping, or praying for a miracle or what, but … this is something good, I can tell you. I just hope it keeps up."

Makalah sat back for a moment before she spoke again. "Whatever is happening to Noah, it's changing, and like you, I think it has been a good thing." She glanced sideways to her husband, who was nodding in agreement. "Maybe it'll continue, dear. Like I've said before, just give it a little more time to work itself out."

"I think we understand," Allen spoke up. "It's just hard to have any patience. If you had seen what we've been going through lately these last several months, then… Oh well, I agree though: maybe it IS a good sign. At least, a good beginning."

Jennifer grunted. "I hope so, too, but with you guys moving out tomorrow, I half-expect Noah will drop back into his old, reclusive self. Such a bundle of joy," she added dryly.

"Maybe, but maybe not," James voiced quietly. "We're still going to be next door, right? A simple walk across the lawn is all it takes, especially if you two need anything. Same for the kids, but I suspect they'll work things out for themselves eventually. I really do. Kids are resilient, they always seem to bounce back for the better."

"Well, we'll see, that's for sure…" Allen remarked. With that, the adults went on to other topics.

Most of the school week had been uneventful for Jesse, with life returning to a more normalized pace by Wednesday. He continued to receive well-wishes and other complimentary remarks from his peers, but as time passed, the spectacle of having a storm survivor in their midst gradually begin to fade, and with it, life began returning to normal once again.

One thing, however, did come about unexpectedly between the two teens. By the time Jesse arrived for his Phys Ed class on Friday afternoon, he saw Noah entering the locker room with a radiant smile. They had just both left their math class, and thus the exam that the teen had been dreading the night before. It had not been as bad as either of them had feared, and Noah was now reaping the rewards at having finally understood the questions better than ever before. The night before, he and Jesse had returned and moved over onto the bed side-by-side, so as to have better room. Both with their math books and tablets opened, they started going through various problems together, in the sections the test was supposed to cover. By watching Jesse go through them, thinking aloud so Noah would understand what he was doing at each stage, it caused the other boy to begin picking up on certain parts of the effort much easier than he had before.

The excitement had started there the night before, but now continued afterwards for the afternoon. Not only had the exam covered mostly what the boys worked through, but the bonus question turned out to be one of the easier theorems as well. Noah had tackled it, feeling much more confident, and by the time the exam was over, he knew he had performed so much better than his previous attempts. When the boys walked out, Jesse had stopped just outside the doorway to wait, and when Noah appeared, the wide, earsplitting grin told the teenager all he needed to know. Smiling himself, he thought there couldn't be a better way for them both heading into the weekend. That was, until they reached their Phys Ed class.

The period began with nothing unusual, as the coach and his assistants, who happened to be two seniors they had all come to know as members of the school's varsity basketball team, split the participants into groups. It was nothing new, really. They were to play basketball that afternoon, engaging altogether in two short, 10-minute periods. Looking around the gymnasium, which had been upgraded in recent years, six goals had been lowered into place, giving ample courts for the class to burn off a lot of excess energy.

Both Noah and Jess ended up on opposite teams, which was slightly unusual, but not unheard of. As it happened, however, Jess ended up on the side that was eventually designated to be the 'skins' group, causing the teen to frown. It was another one of those cases where one side would wear their shirts, while the other side didn't, which helped to distinguish the teams one from another while playing.

Wearily, Jesse started to approach the coach as he had done in the past, his intention being to swap out with someone on the other side. He was already anticipating the usual banter that greeted him while the coach amused himself by teasing the teen, along with the other various players. He would then generally call for a volunteer to swap places, thus further embarrassing the teen because, of course, nobody usually wanted to do so. There were times Jesse believed the coach did it all purposefully as a show, to make the teen further stand out within the crowd, even more so than he already did.

Today, however, Jesse was in for a surprise. He had no more than taken a single step when a low voice sounded in his ear. "Hey, switch sides with me." Before Jesse could turn, he saw Noah rush past him toward his teammates, pulling his t-shirt off in the process to join in. Jesse stood, gaping at the retreating figure in astonishment. No one had ever offered to do that for him before, in all the years he had been going to this school, and the act literally left him speechless. As he continued to stare for several seconds, the coach himself walked by and looked up. "McAllister? Aren't you supposed to be on Team A? If so, then get over there!" the man demanded.

"Uh, yes sir," Jesse replied sheepishly, noting that the coach hadn't picked up on which team was which at that point. Turning, the teen joined the new group. Fortunately, no one gave him a hard time, as well they shouldn't. Although Jessie was not necessarily the athletic type, he could still hold his own on a basketball court, and most of the guys in the class knew it.

The game was played simply enough, with no spectacular feats or events. Both teams pressed each other hard and remained on par with each other score-wise throughout the game. It wasn't until late in the second period that Team B began to gain an edge, outscoring their peers by the end of the game 38 to 34. The group naturally celebrated, but did so in a respectful fashion. Before releasing them, the coach had both teams line up against each other and trade high-fives, announcing that he thought it had been a very good matchup as well.

While in the locker room again, getting dressed prior to their last class of the day, Jesse stole a glance around the room and saw Noah in a far corner. The teen was laughing and joking with some of the guys there, who were on the winning team. It didn't bother Jesse, but it did cause him to pause and reflect for a moment, regarding what had happened. He had his reasons for not wanting to pull his shirt free like the other guys, about which most relished the opportunity to tease him. That day though, obviously Noah had shown he wasn't afraid to do so, but there was something more, too. Jesse was sure the other teen had done it to spare Jesse his usual battle. Why? The evening before, the two had at last come into friendlier terms at least, but this was something he considered to be on a different level altogether, because it involved more than he, himself. It would be something he'd have to think about.

Nothing more was exchanged between them though. When Noah walked by, Jesse happened to be tying his shoes, and as he glanced up, he saw a smile greet him, along with a nod, before the other boy passed. Jesse glanced after him briefly once again, but then returned to finishing his task before going his own way.

"Hey, Cook! Back here!" a familiar voice called out from the back of the bus.

Noah had just stepped on board and, along with most of the other students, was feeling pretty elated for once. It had been a great day actually, given the positive feel he had from taking his math exam, the elation of winning the basketball game, and now the realization it was the last day of the school week. As he looked up to see Pete Haskell waving at him, he started down the aisle of the bus, but pulled up short when he felt something suddenly come into contact with the side of his head. Looking down, he saw a younger boy of around 10 grinning wildly, while holding a water gun in the palm of his hand. "Gotcha!" the boy hissed, before giggling hysterically.

Noah moved his free hand up to wipe at the water that was by now running down to his chin. "Uh, you better not let Bones catch you with that!" he voiced quietly with a smirk, but then let it go. He knew the kid, who came from a large family out toward the north end of the county. He was one of a band of four brothers, always creating mischief of some sort for anybody who they could lure into their traps. Most any other day Noah might have been annoyed, and even retaliated in some way or other. This day however, the teen was feeling rather good, so he just continued on down the aisle. When he finally reached the back of the bus, he slid into the seat next to Pete the Third. "Hey," he announced, and met the offered mid-air knuckles with a bump of his own.

As the drive home began, Pete sat back and started chatting about the usual stuff the group got into. He spoke rapidly, with a certain amount of levity that surprised Noah overall. It was uncharacteristic of the bigger teen, especially noting how the boy would begin one sentence and end it with the subject of another. He wasn't the only one noticing it, either. Linda, who was seated ahead in the next row, turned and give him her own look of surprise, which Pete ignored. Noah shrugged and then pulled his knees up to the seat ahead before sitting back. Pete continued his monologue to no one in particular, but yet at the same time was directing it Noah's direction. Noah would nod every so often, but his mind was definitely elsewhere. So distracted was he that, after a short distance, he glanced to see Pete staring directly at him as if waiting for some sort of response. "I'm sorry, what?" he asked, clearly embarrassed.

"What the fuck, Cook! Haven't you heard anything I just said? Screw you, asshole," the bigger boy replied, but at least he did so with a hearty laugh. A laugh that seemed a bit unnatural to Noah, for some reason.

"Sorry, I was just… never mind," Noah replied, blushing slightly from being caught as non-attentive as he was.

"I mean, fuck man, where is your head at today?" Pete hissed at him, pulling his own legs up to the seat ahead of them, which was a feat. Although not chunky by any term, Pete was definitely beefier and taller, and as the teen's knees dropped into place, they pressed harder against the seat ahead. Noah noticed that Linda had to shift to maintain some level of comfort.

"I don't know… I guess with you. At least somewhat, anyway," Noah replied quietly.

"Me? What the fuck for? What the hell do you have ME on your pea-sized brain for?" Pete asked, suddenly turning his full attention to the boy sitting next to him.

"Oh, I don't know," Noah began to reply, intending to let it go, but after seeing the other boy roll his eyes, he decided to elaborate. "Well, for one thing, you're awfully snappy today, aren't you? I mean, you've been back here with your super-secret conclave thingy going on all week long, right? Ignoring anyone and everything around you. Then today, you try to make like nothing ever happened. I mean, after pushing me, Linda and whoever else away and all, all week long, now you want to be bosom buddies again… just like that? Seems kind of two-faced, doesn't it?"

Pete stared at him, his demeanor rapidly changing to one of both anger and defiance. "What, you think you're something special, you little piece of shit?" he stated in a tone as cold and low as death itself. "Listen pussy-face, who I choose to make my plans with is my fucking business, meat-head! If I don't want you pussies involved, then don't be a fucking crybaby about it!"

Surprised at the outburst, Noah felt his own anger begin to rise. He stared briefly at the other teen before falling back. "Whatever…" he announced, intending to just ignore the boy. He might have succeeded too, if Linda had not suddenly turned around and popped her head over the seat, frowning at them both.

"Don't listen to him, Noah. If you haven't figured it out yet, this piece of shit is just high, although I have no fucking clue as to what he's on!" the girl admonished. "Donna told me just a few minutes ago that he was even pulled out of class last period, all because he couldn't stop laughing at Mr. Wheeler and everyone else."

Noah glanced at Pete and decided he had to agree. This wasn't the Pete he knew, and as each moment progressed, it was getting uglier. The younger teen decided then to sit up straighter, dropping his knees and feet back to the floor of the bus. It was a move, however, that caused Pete's complexion to change into a deep red hue, as his attitude turned even nastier. "I'm warning you, prick, you move your ass from here and I swear meat-head, hells bells will castrate you so fucking bad, you'll be shooting blanks for the rest of your fucking life!" the teen hissed dangerously. His eyes were wild, and his face displayed nothing short of madness.

"What the hell? Fuck you, Pete!" Noah whispered, deciding he was done taking this abuse. It was something he had never permitted anyone to get away with, including Pete or his friends, and he was certainly not going to entertain it now. Grabbing his sports bag, he made ready to stand up, ignoring the threat until a vice-like grip suddenly clamped onto his arm.

"Do you think I'm kidding, Cook!" Pete shouted aloud this time, causing several heads to turn around them and observe the scene. "You'd better think about what you're doing, man, because I do solemnly swear that your life will become and outright living HELL, if you don't sit your ass right back down here and now!" As if that wasn't enough, the beefy boy also turned to Linda and, without missing a beat, accosted her. "You, too, bitch! Turn around! I've got nothing for you back here, unless you want to take some of my real man-meat and wiggle it up inside your whoring cunt!"

How the situation had escalated so darkly in such a short time, Noah had no idea. Hearing Pete address the girl in such derogatory terms, however, reignited the uncommon level of anger he was feeling inside. He drew his arm back, readying to lash out and throw a punch at the bigger boy, when his forearm was suddenly grabbed. Glancing back, Linda had reached over the seat and, with a surprising amount of strength, effectively held him back.

She wasn't paying any direct attention to Noah, however, as she rose and softly uttered a single syllable toward Pete: "No."

After only a slight hesitation, Noah obeyed and withdrew his arm, which the girl relaxed and let go of. Pete, watching them both, then started laughing hysterically. "Yeah, better do what your bitch tells you, boy! I sure wouldn't want to see you getting fucked over before your pretty weekend begins!"

It was those last remarks, spoken rather loudly, that moved several people around them to begin whistling and uttering various catcalls, egging them on for a fight. Before Noah could respond, however, Linda obliged the crowd suddenly and without warning. In a lightning-like move, the girl slapped Pete hard across his cheek, its sting echoing crisply through the air. It was as if the pop of a gun had gone off, and Pete's head turned abruptly from the follow-through effect. So gruesome was the impact, the noise carried all the way up front of the bus, causing the driver to quickly slam on the brakes of the bus. Peering through his rear-view mirror, he roared loudly, "What in thunderation is going on back there?"

Linda continued to stare at Pete for only seconds, before she turned around and made eye contact with the driver. "Pete decided to mouth off rather ugly, Bones, so I showed him what happens to idiots when their mouth needs to be unplugged from the toilet water," she replied. Several people burst out laughing, both young and old, as they turned their attention to bear on the group at the rear of the bus. She ignored them, however, and instead collected her books before standing up. She quickly moved forward several rows to a newly emptied seat, before plopping down next to the outside window. At first, Noah just watched her along with everyone else, but when the girl turned and locked her gaze with him, there was no question that it was an open invitation. Noah glanced at Pete one last time, saw the livid rage that was building, and then decided he wasn't going to turn her down. Standing with his sports bag in hand, the younger teen quickly followed until he reached the seat and joined her.

Mr. Bones watched the scene unfold, curious about what had happened. As he watched, it definitely looked like the Haskell boy was glowing red from some sort of humiliation, especially on the one side of his face. The driver knew the kid was a bit of a loud-mouth, and it was not the first time he had been called out and run into trouble. Grunting, the driver let go of the brake and they continued on. The boy must have crossed a proverbial line, he figured, and for once got what was coming to him. Since the instigator had moved, and both parties were effectively out of immediate danger, there was little more the driver could have done anyway. He did find it curious though, when he saw the Cook boy get up and join the girl.

Noah sat quietly next to his friend, the entire experience now beginning register as his adrenalin started to withdraw. As his own anger and annoyance diminished, another state of mind began to take over that shook him to his roots. He knew he had been somewhat flippant with his initial response to the older boy, but in no way did he imagine it would trigger the utter meltdown they all witnessed. Was he wrong, though? Was it another one of his off-the-mouth responses, the kind that seemed to have gotten him into so much trouble lately, that brought this about?

Noah didn't know, but despite his best efforts to remain calm, he failed miserably. He began to moderately shake in his hands, something he did NOT want Pete the Third or anyone else see him doing. Pete's reaction exposed a raw nerve in his personality, one which outright frightened Noah to his inner core. At one point, he gripped the sports bag in his lap tightly, while lowering his other hand to the seat between himself and Linda to push against, adjusting to a more comfortable position. Before he retrieved it, however, he felt the touch of another hand descend on top of his own and hold firmly. When he stole a glance in her direction, Noah realized something else as Linda's warm grasp enveloped his own: she was shaking almost as much as he was, though both were trying not to show it. He found a comfort in that fact, as so did she, because both began to relax simultaneously. When he felt he could finally trust his voice, he whispered only a single word to her: "Sorry."

Linda seemed to scoff before she replied. "Yeah, you seem to be sorry about a lot of things, lately," she whispered, but then turned and locked her gaze with him once more, smiling warmly. "It's okay, though, because sometimes they're worth everything to some people." She then leaned in close. "You didn't do anything wrong. That fucking butt-head was being an ass, and we both know it."

As tears threatened to well up, Noah knew he was about to totally lose it then. Tears of relief, certainly, but also… something else that was indescribable. At least, he was until Linda suddenly squeezed his hand reassuringly and held it. It was a simple gesture, but one he welcomed at that moment because it helped calm him down considerably. He flipped his hand over, and she obliged by locking fingers with him. That was rare for anyone who was not dating, really, but the two were sharing a tender moment with each other. Nothing more was said between them for the rest of the trip home, but having that bit of encouragement helped Noah keep himself in check. When they neared his house, he finally leaned over and whispered one last thing to the girl: "Thanks, for everything. I really owe you," he croaked, but still with a sincere conviction that she did not miss. Her response was to smile back and squeeze his hand one last time before letting it go. As the teen started to stand, he purposefully kept himself facing forward, though fully aware of the many eyes that were boring into him. Making his way towards the front, he and Jesse departed the bus when it rolled to a stop.

From the end of the driveway, Noah walked rapidly toward the house, looking neither right nor left, all the while quickly leaving Jesse behind. He didn't want to talk to anyone just then, knowing Jesse would probably be just as curious as everyone else on board about what had happened. As the bus pulled away, Noah knew the two of them were still mending a fence, but both boys also understood they had not built any real friendship to speak of, at least not yet. As Jesse watched his host retreat, however, he couldn't help having his own mixed feelings regarding what he had witnessed. He had heard the slap, and turned quickly along with everyone else. He saw the three teens in the back become a focal point of attention, and watched as Noah and the girl changed seats. That was enough to drive curiosity alone, but Jesse had also glimpsed Noah's expression. Something was definitely amiss, and it was eating at his classmate in a way that wasn't normal.

When Jesse made it inside, he debated whether he should pursue the other teen or leave him alone. Noah had already disappeared somewhere in the distance ahead of him, but Jesse heard a door shut from the direction of the basement. Otherwise, as the silence enveloped him, there seemed to be no one else present in the house, so he quietly continued and descended the stairs. At least superficially, it afforded himself and Noah some privacy for the moment, and as Jesse reached the bottom, he turned sharply and approached the bedroom door. Half-way expecting the door to be locked, he was surprised when he was able to turn the knob and see it swing inward. Stepping through, he found the room empty and practically untouched, other than for the presence of a sports bag tossed haphazardly onto the bed. Jesse paused again, wondering if he was making a mistake. That is, until he noticed the bathroom door was shut, and he heard a sound coming from within.

Jesse quietly approached, though he knew full well the dilemma the situation presented. Should he enter the room or not? Bathrooms were the one place of privacy most humans of all ages observed, regardless of intent. Jesse couldn't decide at first, so he eventually chose to knock, before he announced himself softly. "Noah? It's me, Jesse. Hey man, are you okay?" When he heard no reply, he relented and thought perhaps it would be better if he just backed away. That is, until once again he heard a very weak sob escape from within. Pressing his ear closer, he then heard the other teenager inside more clearly, as if he were fighting a losing battle with tears that overwhelmed him.

As the anguish grew more profound, Jesse changed his mind. Turning the knob, he again found the door unlocked, so he pushed it open to find the room in almost total darkness. After a few seconds, however, his eyes adjusted and he could make out Noah sitting on the toilet, with his head in his hands. Whether he detected the intrusion or not, Jesse was unsure, but as the teen continued to sit there unmoving. Jesse thought there was no question that his friend's emotions were getting the best of him. Slowly, he walked over and sank to his knees beside him. "Noah?" he whispered cautiously.

Noah had heard him enter, had even wanted to turn and yell at the boy to get out. For some reason though, he found he couldn't do it. His voice was gone, and his sense of presence was out of sync with the world around him. At that moment, the teen had little idea as to where he was or how he even got there. When he did recognize the room, he suddenly felt an incredible curtain of shame descend upon him, especially having been found like this. When Jesse did not move, Noah considered once again lashing out, but then stopped once he finally looked up and saw the concern that met him. He asked himself again, why was it that he had felt so awkward about this kid, only to finally figure out it wasn't the kid who was awkward, but Noah himself. Jesse had done nothing to him, other than giving him the space Noah demanded from the start. As those thoughts came to the forefront, Noah suddenly started to lose it again. That was when he felt the arm drape around his shoulders, and then someone pulling on him. He didn't have the time to care anymore about who it was, or what was happening just then. As he succumbed, however, he found a warmness that engulfed him, and so he started to unload for a second time, this time into the depths of Jesse's shoulder.

Jesse held the teen, likening the moment back to times past when he had held Benji. They were not so different really, especially when his brother would get hurt and lose himself into whatever fears or pain that plagued him. The only difference now was the larger body, and the anguish that was somehow magnified in the moment. Jesse thought once again about the strange differences between himself and Noah, even the fragile truce they had both made only days before. Listening though, to the torment that expressed itself so freely, made Jesse set aside that uncertainty, as he hugged the other boy he held in his arms. "Shhh…" he whispered, trying to soothe the silent anguish that coursed throughout Noah's body. Jesse could feel the trembling as each sob escaped, and it created a feeling of sorrow within him. He wished there was something more he could do.

After a brief moment, Noah gradually began to regain control. He didn't let go, however, instead sinking into the other's arms gently. There was a comfort he found there for some reason, and he nurtured it until the sobs finally subsided. Even when he pulled back, Noah only reached toward the roll of toilet paper and, after tearing some tissue away, used it to blow his nose. Despite his initial efforts, his sinuses were still overtly congested, so he repeated the performance for a second time. Once completed, he gazed at the boy by his side, who had by now shifted back to provide some space. Noah stared, his eyes reddened and swollen, with a feeling of both confusion and bewilderment. This boy had come to his rescue so freely, seeking him out without any reservation it seemed. Despite being the brunt of Noah's unfair treatment the previous weekend, he still came, and that made Noah feel… strange. He sat there, uncertain what he should say or even think, as a sinus-induced headache started to work its way forward and grasp hold. What he did know, however, was that he suddenly felt very tired, and it showed as his shoulders drooped in defeat.

When Jesse observed the change, he slowly stood up and helped pull the other boy toward him. Without a word, Noah obeyed while the other teen took hold of his hands and guided him back into the bedroom, before leading him over to the bed. "Here," Jesse finally whispered. "Lie down for a bit, okay? You'll feel better afterwards, I promise."

Noah did not hesitate, but instead reached out and crawled on top of the covers. He didn't care about anything else at the moment it seemed, as he scooted himself onto his usual side and pulled his pillow to him. In an unusual move, Jesse sat down at the foot and pulled Noah's tennis shoes off, before dragging a blanket that lay nearby, and covering the teen up in the cooled space. He listened, but in no time, the teen heard the rhythmic sound of breathing that turned slow and steady, indicating that Noah had dropped off into a light slumber. He never knew that Jesse had sat by his side for several minutes, watching him closely.

Nor did the teen ever hear the door to the bedroom open and shut, when Jesse finally stood and made his way out.

"Are you sure you don't mind sharing this room… with me?"

Jesse had entered their new residence deep in thought, having come from leaving Noah only minutes before. The teenager was initially distracted, only speaking minimally to both the two ladies presently busy in the kitchen, going through various boxes of items to be sorted. As he headed back into what was to be his and Benji's bedroom, he found not only the new mattresses had been brought in, but they had also been adorned with an odd assortment of fresh sheets and quilts. They looked inviting, and Jesse was surprised to see Benji already there, having climbed the ladder to test out his upper level. Jesse dropped his backpack by the door and then tumbled onto the bigger area underneath. It was as comfortable as he could have imagined, and testing it outright, he found he had plenty of space, too. It was then, after a brief silence had ensued, he heard his brother's small voice call down to him with the curious question.

"Of course, I don't mind!" he replied, looking up to see the youth leaning over the side and watching him. "Why do you ask that? Is there something wrong?"

"No!" Benji replied quickly, before blushing. He then pulled back, and within seconds, he was descending the ladder to the floor. When he stepped off, he moved in to stretch out beside his bigger brother. They lay in silence for a moment, side-by-side, each lost in their own thoughts, until Jesse finally turned to face the smaller body beside him. "So, how come you're home so early?" he asked.

"Meh, Mom came and got me after lunch today. I wasn't feeling so good, really," was the quiet reply.

Jesse accepted that, but as his sibling fell silent again, he sensed something else going on. "Out with it, what's got you thinking so heavily up there?" he asked, lightly poking the boy's forehead as he spoke. "What is it? Puppy got your tongue?"

Benji giggled, but fell silent once again until he scooted closer, nuzzling in against his sibling. "I don't know, Jess, I just… We've always had our separate space and everything, like Mom said, and… and this is as big a thing for you as it is for me, you know?"

'Whoa!' Jesse thought to himself. Pretty heavy thinking to be coming from a seven-year-old. "So, you think I won't like being in the same room with you or something, is that it? Or, are you afraid I might see you naked a lot more now, or something like that?" he teased.

Benji scoffed. "Why would that bother me?" the youngster replied in a matter-of-fact tone. "We've already been naked around each other plenty of times, doofus!" he added, but then grew quieter. "Like I said, I just got to thinking about it, that's all. I mean, I like that we're still going to be together, but… I know you're getting older, and you like having your privacy and stuff, too... right? Mom has already warned me about giving you some space and everything, you know?"

That comment piqued Jesse's curiosity even further, taking his mind off other things for the moment. "Oh? I wonder why she would say that?" He observed his brother closely, especially as the smaller one turned and locked eyes with him. "I don't care, Ben. Honest, you have nothing to worry about. We'll be fine. Besides, it'll only be until Mom and Dad build another house, or we buy one or something, right? It's just for a little while, see. Then things may change all the way around again, you know?"

"Yeah, I know," Benji nodded, turning back to stare at the bottom of the bed above them. "I just don't, like, want to be a pest or anything. I don't want to make you mad at me."

Jesse giggled, still not knowing where this was coming from or going. "Look, I'm not going to get mad at you! Why would I? What is it that makes you think I will?" When he didn't get an answer right away, Jesse pulled his brother in closer and embraced him snugly. "Come on, out with it… what's going on in that little brain of yours?"

Surprisingly, the youth giggled. "As much as yours has going on inside of it, I think. I mean, I might be little, but hey, I I'm not that dumb!"

The remark surprised Jesse. "I know you're not dumb! Have I ever said you were dumb?" he intoned, quietly. He hesitated, however, realizing suddenly that his little brother might actually be trying to tell him something already. Especially if he would just hold up and listen for the moment. As it turned out, he was right. Benji turned into him again and then blushed before he continued.

"You know, you can still do that thing and all you do, if you want. I won't care," the younger boy whispered. With a look of puzzlement, Jesse still had no idea what his brother was talking about. That is, until Benji suddenly pushed his hand down onto his brother's crotch and made a fist, before making a few familiar jerking motions. "This, bro. I've seen you do it. Like I said, I'm not dumb…"

Jesse suddenly blushed as the realization hit him, before laughing out loud. "Oh, you have, have you?" he whispered back, before shaking his head grinning. "And just WHEN have you done that? Seen me do it, I mean?"

Benji returned the grin before turning away. "Um, I don't know, a couple of times, I guess. One time I walked in on you while you were in the shower. I mean, I had to pee, bad, but… I saw you doing that behind the curtain. I watched for a couple of seconds and all, but then, well, I just closed the door and went out behind the old shed we used to have."

Jesse studied his little brother for a moment. There was no sense denying it, he thought. "Okay, so? When else?"

It was then Benji slumped his shoulders. "I… I wasn't spying bro, honest!"

Jesse giggled. "Oh? Go on, tell me…" he encouraged, noting the embarrassment that met him.

It was a full minute before Benji finally sighed. "Well, once when you were still in bed, I… I just, I saw the covers moving and… and… I just knew." The smaller boy frowned. "Honest Jess, I really wasn't trying to spy on you, and I… I just…"

Jesse thought for a moment. His little brother was going all out to confess something he could have just kept in secret, and that made Jesse love him even more. They had always had a tight bond between them, and he was proud of it. Reaching up, he gently tugged on the youth's chin, turning it back so that they could observe each other again. "It's okay, honest. I don't care if you saw me, just … don't ever tell Mom and Dad this stuff, okay? Please?"

Benji nodded. "I wouldn't do that, Jess," he whispered.

Jesse looked down upon him and smiled. "Tell me something. Do you, like, know what it's all about and everything?"

"I think so," Benji replied, still whispering. "I mean, I know it's called jerking off, or that's what Petey told me anyway. He has a cousin who has been, uh, showing him, or telling him about stuff, I guess."

"Yeah, he's right," Jesse nodded. He knew Petey was a little less than a year older than Benji, but they were both at about the age Jesse had been when he started overhearing and learning things in school. "Does it bother you, though?" he asked. This was a serious conversation between them, perhaps for the first time, regarding real sex. The two had talked before at other times about a lot of things, but it usually just involved their bodies and how they were similar, or different. Jesse found that his brother had a natural curiosity was all, and he thought it was kind of cool. It was also the one reason he didn't mind being around his brother in any state of undress, because he knew Benji's curiosity was nothing more than that. This time, however, they were definitely in new territory, so Jesse wanted to be careful.

"No," Benji answered, before smiling. "I figure it has to be something good, or you wouldn't do it, right?"

Jesse giggled. "It is, and it's something you'll be doing before long, I bet. You'll discover it all, and then you'll probably be kicking my ass for not telling you about it any sooner."

That caused a pair of eyebrows to reach high into the younger boy's forehead. "Really? Why can't you tell me now, then?" he whispered.

Jesse thought about it, but then shook his head. "I can't. Soon, I promise I'll explain it to you, okay? Right now, let's at least get through the next few days, or couple of weeks. We've all got stuff going down, you know? And… I have to see something else through, too, before… well…"

Benji was clearly disappointed, however. "Aw, Jess… Is it because it's about sex?"

Jesse giggled. "Well, kind of, yeah, but there's a lot more going on right now, okay?" He hugged his brother closer. "Listen, when we do this, it's more about having the time to just us, more than anything else, and… just that, I guess. I promise though, I'll tell you everything about it, and anything else you want to know, too. Just… not now, okay?" He saw the disappointment lingering still, so he leaned in closer. "Promise me something, will you? Promise me you still trust me, on the inside. I mean, you know how much that means to us, right?"

Benji frowned. "Yeah, I do, but… you already know I trust you!" he whispered.

Jesse leaned in and gave his little brother a kiss on his forehead. "Yeah, I do, just like I trust you. It's why I love you to the moon and back, you know? I love having you as my little brother."

Benji smiled. "Ditto! I love you, too, for being my big brother." The youth sighed, but relented. "You promise though, right?" When Jesse nodded, he sighed. "Okay, I'll trust you to tell me about it then, but make it soon, okay? I don't want Petey telling me something that's just a bunch of bullshit, and me not knowing it's a bunch of bullshit!"

Jesse laughed. "Why, what has he told you already?"

"He says when you make it stiff, you know, make your willy hard and all, then boys pump it so they can blow up their muscles and everything when you get older. Like your strength and everything, the way Popeye does when he eats his spinach," Benji answered, matter-of-factly. Jesse lost it then, laughing hard, and pulling his brother in tight for one of those rare, more intimate hugs that they sometimes shared. He buried his mouth into Benji's shoulder to muffle the sound, and after only a slight hesitation, Benji started giggling with him.

When Jesse finally calmed down, Benji pulled his head back. "So, that WAS bullshit… right?" he asked, his voice still a bare whisper, but the grin on the youth's face reflected his amusement all the same.

"Oh, yeah!" Jesse whispered back. He chuckled some more before adding, "Oh my gosh, that is sssoooo stupidly hilarious! I promise, it's nothing like that, not even close!" He paused before whispering into his brother's ear again. "I think we're going to have this conversation a lot sooner than later!"

"Good! Don't make me wait too long!" Benji replied and then pulled himself away to climb out of the bed, but not before turning back and whispering, "Thanks, bro." With that, he launched himself on top of Jesse and gave him a super-sized hug, before climbing out of the bed again.

There was a certain sincerity about the exchange that humbled Jesse as he just nodded, and then watched Benji disappear into the hallway.

Both the McAllisters and the Cooks were kept busy that evening and well into the next day, as more bedroom furniture and mattresses arrived, along with other odd pieces of furniture that James brought in. In addition, the elder McAllisters took take time out to meet with insurance adjustors, who had finally started the process of getting on with their claim. It was interesting to note, because their own claim had seemed to be lagging behind others who had also been hit by the storm. On that Saturday morning, as the family drove by one of the homes that had been struck, they were surprised to see it was already being leveled by a bulldozer and crew.

Jesse and Benji helped with what little they could throughout the day, but they also spent time in their room in an attempt to settle in. Noah had not been seen since the evening before, but Jennifer had informed them all that the teen had fallen ill with a bad cold. Jesse could not help but turn and observe the house next door, at times wondering how well Noah was doing, but there was little he could do at the moment. It wasn't until the middle of the afternoon when Noah finally appeared, but even then, he looked less than stellar. Jesse watched with concern, but their eyes only met once in the interim, and Noah seemed determined to avoid any sort of immediate reunion between them. With a certain sadness, Jesse let it go for the time being. He figured if the boy wanted to talk, he would do so in his own time.

As the evening approached, the adults brought out lawn chairs and relaxed in what was turning out weather-wise to be a reasonable setting. Forecasters were warning of an overnight cold-front approaching, and as the four of them sat, they could see distant clouds beginning to make their way into the valley. Benji had left to spend the night with his buddy near their old residence, leaving Jesse behind basically alone. Initially the teen tried to watch some TV, but without cable or satellite, the choices were minimal. Eventually, he turned the unit off and went outside to join his parents. It was about that time when Noah suddenly appeared, too, having crossed the yard from his own house. Jennifer raised an eyebrow, as it was a rare moment for her son to join and sit with them. After asking if he felt any better, the teen only shrugged. "I guess so. Either that, or I'm too lonesome. I mean, I came out here to be with you guys, right?"

The group laughed at the weak attempt of humor, and even Allen remarked, "You must really be sick then!" He said it jokingly, but extended a hand onto the teenager's shoulder, which elicited a waning smile in return. After several minutes, however, another surprise awaited them. Noah caught Jesse's attention and made a motion, jerking his head away toward the house. Jesse readily climbed to his feet, and as the teens started walking unceremoniously around the corner and toward the front of the house, all four of the seated adults watched them as they departed. "That is… unusual," Allen commented once they disappeared.

"Very," Jennifer added. Even Makalah and James were surprised, but altogether pleased.

When both boys were some distance away and rounding out of sight, Noah glanced up and pointed toward a huge oak tree about half-way up the edge of the lawn. "You know, I used to spend a lot of hours in that tree when my Grandpa was alive and still living here. There's even a set of wooden pieces on the other side that he put on, just so it would make it easier for me to climb up to that first limb. Have you seen them yet?"

Jesse glanced and shook his head, before the two walked over to the tree and looked up. Finding the pieces still securely fastened, Noah reached out and started to climb upward. "Come on," he announced without pretense, surprising Jesse, but who followed him without any hesitation. After climbing a short way, Jesse was surprised again as they made it to a platform that had been fastened into place. It was a small one, constructed with what appeared to be deck lumber, but fashioned basically large enough for two people to sit comfortably.

"Not bad! I hadn't noticed this yet!" Jesse announced as they settled in.

"It's kind of a cool place. At least, no one sees you or even knows about it, really. Well, at least not until all the leaves fall off, but even then, you have to be looking hard to find this," Noah commented, patting the boards with his hand. "It's really quiet up here too, even from most of the road noise."

"I can see that, yeah," Jesse replied quietly. Although the other teen seemed relaxed, it was a state Jesse was unused to observing. He glanced behind him and saw a limb rising up into the higher branches of the tree, so he turned to where he could lean back against it, before taking up his observation of Noah again. "So, feeling better?"

Noah grunted. "To which of my problems are you asking?" he murmured, but then sighed and leaned back himself very close to where the other teen did, relaxing. "As far as being sick, I have to admit that I did have a bad night, with a stuffy nose and throat irritating me. I think I've still got some congestion too, but Mom gave me some medicine, and I think it's getting better now."

"Well, that's good, then," Jesse replied, before pulling his hands up behind his head.

Noah watched him for a moment before sighing. "I guess you want to know about the other, too," he stated softly, but was surprised when he saw the other teen shrug.

"Not unless you want to talk about it. I mean, yeah, I won't lie - I'm curious, but… honestly? I kind of figure it's your private stuff, and I don't want to be nosy. I sort of figured if you wanted to talk about it, you would, that's all," Jesse explained. He spoke softly, trying to find a middle ground that Noah would judge to be sincere.

Noah, however, frowned. "Honestly?" He turned to face the other teen. "I don't get you, really. Any other kid would be all over me, or be out there making fun of me for being such a cry-baby, you know? A wuss…"

At those words, Jesse frowned, too. "You're not a wuss, Noah. I thought you knew though, I'm not just any other kid. I'm just me," he explained, before taking a deep breath. "And as to making fun of you, why would I do that? You were hurting, okay? I assume from whatever went down on the bus yesterday, because I know after math and Phys Ed you were pretty chipper. So, whatever happened, it got to you. And... as for me and when we got home, well… I was, like, I was just trying to help, that's all."

"You did," Noah confessed outright, but could not help feel in awe of the other boy. "You're right, I guess. I just…" He hesitated, looking up into the branches above, many of which still sported a vast array of multi-colored leaves clinging on for dear life. As one detached itself from a limb and fell toward them, he watched it approach and come to rest on his lap before he spoke again. "It's just hard, Jesse, when… when someone you thought was your friend, just turns on you like Pete did on me yesterday. He didn't just turn on me, but he did things, said some things, and it… it…" Noah stopped, sighing deeply. The thoughts were still disturbing enough that emotions began to surface again.

"It hurt, yeah," Jesse whispered, finishing the thought for him.

Noah nodded. "You know, honestly, it's like my whole life is turning upside down on me again sometimes, and I don't … I'm just, I get so fucking confused now, I don't know what to do anymore. I mean, trying to understand people, trying to figure things out for myself, all of that, it just gets confusing… and, well…" He suddenly stopped, surprised at himself. He had just readily confessed a part of himself to someone, out of nowhere, something which at one time he would have never believed possible. He looked up to see Jesse was still watching him with a look of concern, and that made Noah smile. Somehow, the teen suddenly felt more at ease.

"Noah, I'm…" Jesse started, hesitating only slightly. "I know I'm not someone close with you or anything, but… Just know I'm always willing to listen, you know? I'm serious, if you ever want to talk about it, I'm here. You don't have to be alone, okay? You CAN talk with people. Even if not me, you still have your friends and… and..."

"Yeah, right," Noah scoffed sarcastically, but then turned apologetic. "I didn't mean for that to sound so snarky. I understand what you're saying, but…" He stopped and sighed. "Jesse, I don't think I have that many friends left anymore. It seems like I keep losing a lot of them, especially lately, no matter what I do."

"You're wrong," Jesse replied quietly. "You have one here, in me. You haven't lost me. In fact, you never have."

Noah made a face. "How can you say that? After the way I treated you and everything? How can you, like, even want to be around me?" He glanced around their space. "Even right now, up here? With me?"

"Oh, I don't know…" Jesse replied with a smile. "Maybe it's because someone swapped sides with me playing basketball yesterday, or made a funny, awesome kind of truce with me the other night. Maybe it's because someone suddenly started treating me like a human being, and not like some plague or disease, you know?" He paused before lowering his voice. "Or, maybe it's because I saw that same someone hurting yesterday, and when I tried to be there for him, he didn't shove me away, or tell me to get the hell out of his bathroom… or to go fuck myself."

Noah raised both eyebrows in response as he studied Jesse's expression, before shaking his head again. "Don't swear, Jesse. It… doesn't fit you."

The teen laughed. "So? It doesn't really fit you either, but you still do it," Jesse replied with a grin. "I'm not ignorant, you know. And I do swear sometimes… you just don't hear it very much, that's all."

Noah smiled, but then paused in deep thought. "I think I've known it all along, in some way. You've never crossed me, or been mean or anything. Nothing like I have been to you. But then, I fell apart yesterday, and… and…"

Jesse sat up. "You know, my Gramps always said that being a man doesn't mean you don't have feelings, or that you can't be hurt. Like I said, sometimes people just need somebody, whether or not they'll admit to it or not is their choice, but it doesn't keep them from needing a friend." He leaned in closer. "Listen Noah, about yesterday - don't sweat what happened, okay? I was glad I came in and sat with you, really. I'm also glad you didn't push me away, because… well… you needed someone, even for only a little bit, and…"

"Yeah, and you were there, I know," Noah whispered. "You know something? In some stupid, idiotic way, I'm actually glad you were." He looked up into the eyes that met him. "I admit it, of all the people around here, I'm glad it was you, really." Jesse smiled and reached out, offering a fist bump which Noah met in mid-air, but both held it momentarily. "I owe you, and I owe you big time. You don't know how much it meant to me, really." Then, following a deep breath, he added, "And for once, I can say you're wrong about something else. You implied you weren't close to me, like as being a friend and all, but… you are, Jesse. Every day, I'm beginning to see it. We're getting closer every day."

Jesse smiled, but was uncertain what to say after that. It was Noah who then sat back again and took the initiative. "You know, the problem is that I've never really taken the time to get to know you. People like our friends at school and all, they kind of have this thing about you, this opinion, I guess. I'm sorry, it… I think I let some of it rub off on me, without first getting to know you better for myself. That was wrong, I know, but like I told you… I'm going through some stuff now, and well… I don't always think the clearest all the time, you know?"

Jesse also leaned back again and relaxed. "I think I can understand that. I mean, I know I'm kind of the quiet type and all anyway."

Noah, however, shook his head. "It's more than that, though. Some people…" He stopped, not certain he wanted to move in the direction he started, so he steered past the most recent events and took the conversation elsewhere. "It's like what I told you the other day, some people don't like to think they're dumb. Like in our math class. There's that, and then there's the thing in gym, about you not liking to take your shirt off and all when we're playing teams."

Jesse frowned. "But, as far as math goes… I showed you, I'm-"

"I know, Jesse, okay?" Noah interrupted, cutting the teen off. "Yeah, you showed me, and I believe you, but… no one else really knows what I know now, do they? They just hear Mr. Garland always harping on you about knowing how to do this or that already, and… and… you get the idea, right? That's what everyone else hears, too. They don't know what you showed me and all, and because you're so freaking quiet and everything, how could they know otherwise?" When Jesse nodded, Noah dropped his voice again. "And… what is it about you and going without your shirt anyway? You know, when we're on teams? I mean, not that I'm around you that much, but I think you change in the locker room and all like the rest of us, don't you? It's not that different out on the floor, is it?"

Jesse blushed and looked away. It was a moment before he replied, but when he did, he turned back. "It's just… it's like a personal thing, that's all. My Gramps and Dad, they kind of think, or at least taught me anyway, that it's never something someone should do outright like that." He made a face, before explaining. "It's like, you never ask girls to go topless and all, right? Yeah, I know why, but still, just think about it: why should guys have that right and not girls? It's kind of an equality thing, I think. Plus, there's another reason too, at least there was for my Grandpa. Gramps, he was always kind of bashful about it. I mean, he was a kind of chubby person, you know? Not skinny or anything, and he had, uh, like big moobs. You know, man-boobs and all. It was more of an image thing for him, I guess."

Noah paused, before nodding. "Well, it's becoming a kind of image thing for you, too, and guess what? You're not big at all, no more than I am anyway! The guys, they see that and wonder about you and all, thinking you're some kind of a religious nut or something, or worse. Like, they think you're afraid to show your nips, or your belly or whatever, and amongst guys, that makes you seem, I don't know, kind of weird I guess."

"I guess I can see that," was Jesse's only response after a moment.

"I'm not saying it's wrong, okay? It's not… but when you do stuff like that, it's the kind of thing that gets around, and it sets you apart from the rest, really, and… and… people start to get opinions." Noah stopped, thinking quickly before going on. "I don't know man, I mean, I know you're not all that afraid. I've seen you change shirts and stuff a couple of times just this week, in front of me and all, and like I said, there's the locker room, too. There's no difference between us, not physically anyway."

"Yeah, but… those are all different, though," Jesse replied, sighing. "At school, we kind of have to, so why buck the system, right? And here at home, well, I just didn't mind whether you saw me or not." He shrugged. "I'm not shy, Noah, not really. I admit, I don't have anyone around me other than Benji who sees me skinned, but… I'm really not that shy or anything. It's just… I don't know, I guess I kind of see it as being different when I'm out on the floor, where everybody and anybody can see me, including guys and girls. That, and well… I'm just kind of careful, that's all." He grunted. "At least, I'm not afraid of you, if that makes any sense."

"It does, it makes a lot of sense, really," Noah whispered. A silence fell between them as Noah studied his new friend with something akin to admiration, before he spoke again. "Do you think I could ask you about something else then?"

Jesse laughed. "You can ask me anything you want to, always," he replied, making Noah half-smile to himself.

"Are you sure? Because, well, you know - I can probably come up with some pretty big ones, sometimes," Noah announced.

Jesse laughed even harder. "I doubt they can be any worse than the ones that Benji comes up with! And believe me, THOSE are not always the easiest!" he quipped, then sat forward again, waiting. "Sure, go on."

"Well," Noah started, before sitting forward, closer to the other teen once again. "I- I want us to be friends, Jesse. I really do, if you'll let me. I'm… I am trying to do better, and I will do so even more from here on out. No conditions, no rules but just one, and that's the one where you still have to be patient with me. I've told you before, I'm working through some stuff, but… I've made a lot of mistakes. A LOT of mistakes, believe me! I just, I don't want to make ignoring you and whatever, be one of them anymore. Does that make any sense? I want… I want…"

When the silence was there again, Jesse smiled. "It makes a lot of sense, Noah. So, here's your answer: We ARE friends, I promise." With that he held his hand out with his little finger extended, which Noah thought was funny. It was a gesture that most people learned as kids, but surprisingly, it still had an impact. He reached out in like manner, hooking his own pinky and holding it tight. He was surprised, however, when Jesse changed and ended up wrapping his fingers around Noah's wrist, hooking their thumbs together. "I'll make you a deal, for a change. I'll be patient, as long as you know that you can talk to me about anything, anywhere, anytime… and I'll promise to always listen, if nothing else. Deal?"

Noah scoffed, recalling his own truce made earlier that week. "That's… that's all you want?"

"Yep!" Jesse then laughed again. Seeing the surprise, he relented. "Listen to me: I trust you, and I really mean that. There's nothing you've done to me that's as bad as you keep thinking it is, as far as I'm concerned. Besides, I've got no reason not to trust you, really… you know? That… well, you'll understand someday if not now - it means everything to me, especially when it comes to choosing my friends."

"I already understand it, I think… I- I still don't think I deserve it, but…" Noah looked deep into the eyes that met his own, and he thought there was a sincerity there he wasn't used to seeing in his other friends. Something about Jesse made him feel at ease, and Noah welcomed it openly. They held their grip with each other for a long time, Noah keeping just as firm a hold as his new friend returned to him. Something about the gesture made him draw a renewed strength, and at the same time feel a measurable amount of tenderness and respect between them. "Thanks," he finally whispered, and for the second time in just as many days, Jesse simply nodded. He knew what he was doing, and what he was telling the other teen was the truth. In his mind, Noah really needed a friend right now, and for the right reasons, and Jesse was going to do his best to be there for him. He wasn't sure what Noah was holding back from the equation, but eventually he hoped the other teen would tell him, or at least work it out on his own. In the meantime, however, he felt happy inside, and he saw that Noah looked equally as pleased.

After a moment, Noah finally changed the subject. "So, am I the only one getting kind of cold up here?"

Jesse giggled and let go. "Well, you're the one in a short-sleeved shirt! And to think you've been sick this morning… probably not a good combination!" He looked down to the ground and over toward the house. "Um, do you want to come in and see our room? I've got to warn you though, there isn't really much to do right now. I mean, we don't have a TV, or any kind of video games or anything like you do."

"Really?" Noah raised his eyebrows, but then shrugged. "That's okay, though. I wouldn't mind taking a look, at least." He started for the edge. "Say, they're having a haunted house thing over at the National Guard building tonight. Want to go check it out?"

Jesse paused. "Are you sure you're up for it?"

"Oh, yeah," Noah replied. "Right now, I think I could swim an ocean. I want… no, honestly? I need to get out… I really need to get away and do something different for a while."

Jesse grinned. "Well, as long as we can talk someone into taking us over there, then sure!"

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