The Storm That Turned the Tide

by Sean English

Chapter 11

How Two Families First Met

"So, how was your visit with Petey?" Jesse asked nonchalantly, walking into the bedroom mid-afternoon. By all appearances, the teen was hot and sweaty, having just come in from spending the last couple of hours playing basketball with their neighbor. Removing his sweatshirt, he paused and leaned up against the dresser while turning his attention to his brother.

"It went great!" was Benji's enthusiastic reply. "He brought this Mario Party game over with him, and we stayed up late playing before we fell asleep. Have you seen it? It's where you pick your character, from a list of all kinds, like Yoshi, Mario, Luigi, Toad and so on, and each one has a unique skill, see? And then you sort of battle it out in these arenas-"

"Hold up, shortstop!" Jesse exclaimed, laughing as he held his hands up in protest. "Yes, I know what Mario Party is about! I'm surprised if you didn't… we saw the TV ads and everything for that game back in the summer, remember?"

Benji stopped and thought hard for a few seconds. "You're right, I think we did!" He shook his head. "Sorry, I forgot…"

"That's okay. It sounds like you guys had a lot of fun though," Jesse remarked, to which Benji nodded. "Is that what you did all the while he was here? Just play video games?"

"No…" Benji scoffed. "We watched some cartoons this morning, and then played outside a while. There wasn't a lot to do, though we did find some dirt that wasn't all that muddy, and I got some Hot Wheels cars out. We made a whole playset and everything for a while, with roads and bridges and stuff."

"That sounds pretty awesome," Jesse replied, thinking back to times the two of them had done something similar. Thinking about the little cars, he remarked, "You don't have too many cars though, do you? I know you got some at that benefit, but didn't that package only have like five or six in it? Maybe that's something you should put on your Christmas list this year. I mean, toys kind of come and go as you grow up, but Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars - they kind of stick with you forever. You can always play with those, even when you get to be an old man – like me!"

"That might be a good idea," Benji agreed, and then watched as his brother turned around and pulled out a fresh t-shirt and pair of briefs. "Um, are you planning to take a shower?"

"I thought I might. Why? Have you got something else in mind?" Jesse asked.

"Not really. I just… I thought maybe you and I could, I don't know, do something together, I guess," the young boy replied.

Jesse walked over to the bed and propped himself on the upper mattress, looking over the top rail at his brother. "Bored, huh? We haven't really done much for a while, have we. I'm sorry… sure, we can do something. What do you want to do?"

Benji shrugged. "I don't know. I kind of wish we had our bikes, but – that's not going to happen." He thought briefly before continuing. "How about we see if we can go up to the park for a while? I mean, we could play ball, or catch or something. You got that football at that thing the other night too, remember?"

Jesse cocked his head to one side. "Well, yeah, but we don't have to go to the park to do that, do we? I mean, there's plenty of space out in the back yard here, right?" There was a notable pause in the silence that followed, and Jesse observed a distinct change in his brother's crestfallen expression. "Okay, talk to me. What's up?" he whispered, but Benji maintained his silence. After a moment, Jesse tossed his garments onto the bed beneath, and then climbed the ladder, maneuvering until he was sitting beside his brother. There he sat for a moment, observing that something was going through his brother's head. "Hey, we promised each other, remember? Never to hold back when something is bothering us. So, you still like me, right?"

Benji suddenly scoffed again. "You're my brother, doofus. Of course, I like you! Maybe even more from time to time, too, just a tiny bit anyway."

Jesse laughed and mockingly clutched his hand to his chest. "Whew! At least I don't have to worry about that one!" Benji gave him an annoyed look, prompting his brother to get serious again. "Ben, come on, talk to me little bro. What's going on? What's wrong?"

Benji looked away, but then sighed. "I just… I don't know. I want US to do something Jesse, that's all. It's like, if we go out in the back yard and all, then… You know, Noah might want to come over and join us, and..." The young boy stopped and looked down into his lap, feeling dejected. "I hate myself, kind of. I mean, I know he's your friend and all, and I don't want to, like, get between you two and be a pest or anything. It's just, we used to do stuff together too, remember? Just you and me, and… I kind of miss it, you know?"

Jesse smiled, but started to feel guilty himself as he realized that what his brother was saying was not far off the mark. It seemed that a lot of their time together had changed, being pulled apart since the tornado and dealing with the crazy after effects. A good part of that included Noah becoming more involved with their lives now. "I'm sorry, buddy. I didn't mean for it to hurt your feelings or anything." He sighed. "I guess, I saw someone who kind of needed us, and you're right… I kind of needed a friend, too."

Benji turned his attention back and looked up at his big brother. "I know that, Jesse. I know what it means to you, too. When we lived in our other house, I always had Petey to play with and stuff, just by crossing the road and everything. You didn't really have anyone, unless you count Addison, but… she's a girl, and…"

"I know, yeah. It's not quite the same here now, not like it was there anyway. It's almost like it's reversed, isn't it?" When the youngster nodded in agreement, Jesse sighed. "Listen, you shouldn't hate yourself, or feel bad about being jealous, either. I understand, I really do, and some of it is my fault – I know. It doesn't mean I like you any less though, okay? And yes, I will be happy to go up to the park with you for a while. Just you and me – if Mom or Dad will give us a lift. I'll even go one step further, too: tonight, we'll play and watch TV or anything else you want to do, as late as you want to. Well…" The teen stopped before hastening to add, "That is, as long as Mom or Dad don't get after us."

For the first time since Jesse arrived, his brother finally giggled. "Mom got after me and Petey last night, because we got kind of loud. But - we ended staying up until after midnight, I think." He looked up into the blue eyes that met his own. "Seriously? You're not teasing me, right? Just you and me, the park for a while and all? I'd really like that."

Jesse smiled before pulling the boy into his lap and giving him a quick hug. "Then, that is what we'll do! Is Mom supposed to work tonight?"

"She goes in at three, I think," Benji replied.

Jesse glanced at the clock and then suddenly sat up. "Whoa! We'd better get a move-on then, especially if we want her to drop us off!"

It was just after five when James pulled the truck into the parking lot of Columbia's only city park. The venue was a sizeable plot of land both owned and maintained by the local college, with various areas sectioned off for general public use. In addition, the park also served a variety of other purposes, including a full baseball stadium and football field, surrounded by a track-and-field layout. Many area residents were known to visit the site frequently all year round, mostly to take walks around the sports venue, or relax on the wide, park-like greens. Moreover, many visited especially during the mid-to-late autumn season, as the many-colored leaves were on splendid display and could be enjoyed.

As James parked and shut off the engine, he noted that he had no need to alight from the vehicle. In the distance, he saw two young boys already approaching in the fading twilight, and as they closed in, he noted they were both laughing and cutting up as they hurried along. It gave him a good feeling to see the camaraderie between them, as the two eventually arrived to open the passenger door. "Whew!" Benji announced, climbing in. "Are we glad to see you!" he exclaimed, plopping hard and scooting into the middle of the seat.

James laughed. "I take it you two had a good time?"

"The best!" Benji announced quickly as Jesse settled in beside him and then closed the door. "The water fountains aren't working, and I think we're both as thirsty as a bunch of fish stuck in a desert sandbank!"

Their father laughed heartily at the mental picture that description invoked. "Then I guess we should take those fish and drop them in a nearby pond. I'd offer to stop and let us get something to eat, but your mother has already fixed a bunch of stuff back at the house. Think you can survive until we get home, or do I need to pull over up the road here?"

"We can wait," Jesse replied, but then his brother gave him a dirty look.

"YOU can wait, maybe, but I need something to drink now!" Benji exclaimed. Jesse glanced over at his father and then just shrugged, which made the man laugh out loud again. "Well, then we can take time for a drink first."

A moment later, the truck pulled into a quick-stop market, and the two boys hurriedly climbed out. Once they were inside, Benji looked up. "Fountain?"

"Yeah, fountain drink is best. Come on," Jesse replied, leading the way. Once at the dispenser, he pulled one of the larger cups and filled it half-way with ice, before handing it to Benji and letting him pick the drink. At the register, the teen paid for it while his brother went ahead and returned outside, where their father was patiently waiting.

When Jesse rejoined them, Benji suddenly handed him the cup. "If you want some, you'd better take this," he remarked, followed by a long, deep burp.

"Hey! You've already drunk half of it?" Jesse exclaimed in surprise, before shaking his head.

"Uh huh, I know. Don't complain though, or I'll finish it all!" the young boy replied mischievously. Jesse laughed as they pulled back onto the road and headed toward home. Taking a few sips on the straw, however, he then handed it back to his brother. "Thanks!" Benji exclaimed, accepting the drink.

Once the trio arrived home, they worked together in the kitchen to pull a variety of dishes, left behind by their mother, from the oven. Checking the contents, all were eager to fill their plates and, with only a miniscule amount of warming in the microwave, sit down at the table and dig in to pot-roast, potatoes, carrots and onions. There were also freshly baked rolls and coleslaw to accompany the feast, and none of them hesitated to enjoy it heartily. "MMmm…" Jesse announced at one point. "This is good!"

"And how!" Benji added.

"I agree. Your Mom always does a good job, but sometimes it comes out super good," James commented. "So, what's the plan for you guys tonight? Anything special?"

Benji glanced up with his cheeks bulging, making Jesse laugh. "Careful, chipmunk, don't get choked!" the older boy announced, before turning to their father. "Games, TV, that sort of thing, I guess. Benji wanted to spend a night together, and I owed him, I think."

"Nuh uh, you don't owe me anything," was the resounding retort the youngster informed him. "I just said, I'd like to spend some time with you, that's all."

James leaned back with a smile. "Well, it sounds like a good plan, regardless. I'm thinking I'll turn in early. I didn't sleep all that well last night. I guess I had too much caffeine yesterday, or something anyway. Still, just… don't let the noise get out of hand, that's all. Your Mom won't be in until after midnight, I think."

"We won't, Dad," Jesse replied. They spent the rest of the meal with idle chatter, before getting up to wash the various dishes and put what was left of the food away. Shortly thereafter, the two boys bade their father goodnight, and then headed to their bedroom.

"They must have gone somewhere," Benji observed as they walked in, looking out the window and referring to the fact the Cooks' house appeared empty and lifeless.

"Probably," Jesse replied. He glanced down and saw his underclothes left behind from earlier. "Um, is it okay if I go ahead and get a shower, boss?"

Benji nodded. "Yeah, it's cool," he answered quietly before glancing up. "Um, I don't suppose we could, like, maybe…"

Jesse acquired a knowing look, already understanding what his brother was leading up to. It was a rare thing, really, regardless of the more heightened awareness the two were having over nudity and sex lately. Still, as he thought about it, the teen shrugged. "Yeah, if you want to join me, sure," he whispered. He certainly didn't care, and as he watched Benji jump just then and begin kicking his shoes off with an excited eagerness, he giggled. The young boy suddenly hurried to the dresser and pulled out a pair of underclothes similar to the ones his brother was holding, and then turned around and used his feet to pull the socks off. Just as Jesse finished removing his own, Benji led the way to bathroom, Jesse following close behind.

For the next 20 minutes, they both showered together, giggling quietly at times as the two scrubbed various parts of each other's body. There was no real horseplay, no real naughtiness to speak of – just a simple gathering in a tight space to accomplish their one objective. It was a space more constricted than they had been used to having in the past, as the bathtub here was narrower and not quite as deep. That encouraged much bumping together and maneuvering around, but both worked it out quietly for the most part until they were finally finished. When they stepped out, Jesse took the opportunity to grab a towel and dry his brother off from head to toe. Benji liked that for some reason, and Jesse noted the smiles as he worked all over, until he handed the cloth to his little brother, who took it in order to return the favor. Because he was somewhat taller, Jesse sat down on the toilet seat and waited patiently, giving his brother unobstructed access all over. All the while Benji worked, Jesse couldn't help but note how pleased and happy his little brother seemed to be, and once finished, he even let the boy dress him. He then took his turn, before letting Benji eventually lead them back to their bedroom.

They had no more than entered and closed the door when Benji tackled Jesse onto the bed and crawled on top, straddling and hugging him warmly. "Sheesh! What did I do to deserve this?" Jesse whispered, which Benji pulled back and answered.

"Everything! I mean, you're my brother, right? Isn't that reason enough?" Benji barked, before hugging the bigger boy tightly again. "I like it when we do stuff together, like when you spent time with me today…"

"Yeah, I know, but… I figured I might still be in the doghouse for spending so much time with Noah and all," Jesse whispered. "If all it takes for me to make it up is playing and then getting naked, then…"

Benji lowered a hand and pinched his brother's butt. "Shut up… you know what I meant…" His tone sounded hurt, but it immediately changed as he fell limp into his brothers grasp. "I'm sorry about earlier, though. I don't know, I just… I was feeling lonesome, and I wanted some time with you… for me," the boy whispered. "And then now, you getting in the shower with me, along with everything else today, it's like… like… so cool and all, because it kind of tells me you still love me, and… and…"

"Benji, wait," Jesse whispered, pulling his brother up closer. "Why would you think I didn't love you anymore?"

"I don't know," Benji whispered back, clearly searching for words. "Maybe, I don't know… we just…"

Jesse stared down into his brother's eyes. "Is it the trust thing? I mean, it hasn't been, what, a week since we were naked and doing the fist, remember?" He giggled and then pulled the pillow up closer to support his head, while he continued to hold the smaller body in his arms. "I'm going to always love and trust you, bro. That's the pact we made, a long time ago, remember? It will never change between us, I promise."

Benji smiled weakly. "I hope so," he whispered. "Jess? We'll still do stuff more, right? Just us?"

"Of course, we will. I'm not going to abandon you or anything. We'll still play, horse around together, wrestle, pinch each other's butt-"

"Take showers together?"

The interruption was just barely above a whisper, causing the older bother to pause. "I'll do it with you as long as you want to, Ben. I promise, I'll never be shy with you," he answered softly. "You want to know something, bro? When we cuddle up, or when you sit in my lap, or we play and do things, it… it's special to me. Just as much as seeing you trust me like that, because it makes me feel good inside. You and me, we're like biscuits and gravy, or cookies and milk, you know? We're tight, buddy." He suddenly grinned. "Besides, I figured you've seen my sorry ass enough already as it is, you know? We're sharing a bedroom-"

"It's not a sorry ass, or a goofy willy, Jess. It's you," Benji replied, climbing the rest of the way to stare down happily at his brother. Jesse saw the watery reflection of himself in his brother's face, and was happy to see the boy smiling for a change. "I'm still sorry though. I just… I wanted some time for us, that's all, and now… I'm happy. I feel really, uh… effing happy inside."

Jesse smiled back. "Wow! That was close, the big word," he whispered, teasing.

Benji leaned in. "What? I know what it is and what it means, so yeah, I'm feeling really fucking happy right now." He hugged his brother again, which Jesse returned.

"Well, don't let Mom know, okay? At least for a few years, maybe," Jesse whispered back. "You know, that's all that matters, okay? I want you to be happy, so don't hold out on me again, alright? Tell me when you're feeling lonesome or bored and whatever, especially before you start worrying and everything again."

Benji nodded. "I will bro, or at least, I'll try to." He then surprised the boy with a kiss on his cheek, before rolling off and sitting up. "So, what do you want to do now?"

Jesse laughed. "Well, are you ready to whoop me on Mario Kart?"

"Whoop you? Huh! I'm going to beat your ass off of you, big time!" the younger boy giggled in return.

Early Sunday morning, Jesse awoke with his usual need to empty his bladder. He groaned softly, recalling in his dream about how he and Noah were interrupted at the worst possible moment. They had gone camping, just the two of them, and although both had spent the evening with a bonfire, food, music and other things, the nightfall had arrived, and they had just entered their tent and zipped it up. Noah had waved a finger, indicating for Jesse to come closer, and had reached out to unbutton his pants. That was when he felt a strange sensation coming from behind his groin, and only seconds later the realization hit him he needed to empty his bladder. Then as his subconscious-self began to register the physical need, it quickly surfaced into the real world.

As the teen lay there, his senses honed in on the fact he was curled up, with a certain seven-year-old spooning in front of him. Thankfully, Jesse did not have a boner just then. That was a discussion he didn't really want to have with his brother right away, though he suspected it would not be long in coming. The curiosity Benji continued to have about their bodies and more, was gradually advancing - especially after their exchange the night before. But as he looked upon the sleeping figure, he still believed that the youngster's inquisitiveness was only in its early stages. He couldn't help but think about a remark Addison had made, now only weeks before, about how a seven-year-old processes subjects like sex, altogether differently to how older teens and adults did. He knew she was right, as he thought back to his own earlier childhood experiences. What made him especially happy in this case, though, was the fact that Benji seemed to be sharing his curiosity and experiences with Jesse alone, and not holding back. Sure, the boy had to be coaxed a little here and there, but as Jesse watched, he relived the same inevitable milestones he had hurdled by himself – all through the eyes of his little brother. That was special to him, and for a moment, it made him want to reach out and hug the youth even closer.

Instead, Jesse reached out and ran his fingers through his brother's soft, silk-like hair. Benji continued to breathe deeply, however, certainly content with his surroundings. Jesse glanced outside their window, and noticed the skies had become overcast. It looked, unfortunately, like another potentially rainy day lie ahead. That was when he sighed and quietly extricated himself by rolling back and climbing from the bed. As his brother continued to sleep, he made his way down the hall and into the bathroom.

When he had finished and started his return, Jesse noticed a light on in the kitchen and, peeking around the doorframe, he saw his father sitting comfortably at the table, reading the local newspaper by himself. Seeing as his mother was nowhere nearby, the teen then slipped into the room silently, before approaching the table and sitting down. "Morning, Dad," he said quietly.

"Well, how are you doing this morning?" was the quiet reply, but the man paused to glance over the top of his paper before continuing. "Sleep good?"

"Yeah, pretty good," Jesse replied, then glanced at the clock. "Wow, it's almost nine? It doesn't look or feel like it…"

"That's probably because of all the low-hanging clouds that moved in overnight. You two picked a good time to go to the park yesterday, I think. It's supposed to get a lot colder again later today, and of course, rain." James grunted and then folded his newspaper, before setting it down on the table. Leaning back, he stretched. "Oh well, rain is rain. It'll taper off eventually… I think it's a good day to feel lazy though, isn't it? Actually, I'm surprised you didn't go back to bed."

Jesse shrugged. "I saw the light on, and you in here, and well, just…"

James chuckled. "Come to make sure no stranger had broken in and was drinking up your dear old Dad's coffee and reading his paper, is that it?" the man teased, but then nodded. "I get it, don't worry."

"Is Mom still in bed?" Jesse asked, after scratching an itch on his thigh.

"Yep, she didn't get in until almost three this morning. Poor dear, I suspect she'll be out of it for a while. The one good thing is that she's off today, so maybe she can catch up on her rest somewhat. Given all the extra hours she's had to do the last couple of weeks, she is totally worn out, I think."

"I understand, yeah," Jesse nodded in agreement. "Um, are you guys getting off for Thanksgiving?"

"Yes, believe it or not, we're both getting off Thursday and Sunday. I have to work most of Friday because of the big Black Friday sale and everything, but your Mom is supposed to only go in Friday afternoon, and then for a while starting Saturday morning. That'll give us all some time to work out the preparations and cooking for the big dinner on Sunday," James explained.

"Are we… are we still inviting the Cooks over?" Jesse inquired, suddenly remembering the original plan.

"You're striking a thousand, I think," James replied, grinning. It was an old reference to baseball, concerning the odds of runs and favorable statistics. Striking a thousand was considered the best, possible score. As much as Jesse was slowly turning out to appreciate the sport, his father was definitely the baseball enthusiast in the family. "Yes, they're coming over on Sunday. Seems they have some family or friends they're going to be visiting on Thursday, which is all well and good. We'll do something here, too, but it won't be very elaborate or anything. It'll just be us four, but I promise we'll do something better than frozen dinners," he teased. "By the way, you boys are off Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, right?"

"Yes, sir," Jesse answered, before stifling a yawn.

"Well, I'm sure you'll find something to amuse yourselves with. I think your mother and I are both on a mid-day shift on Wednesday." He looked thoughtfully out the window. "I don't like leaving you guys alone, at least no more than we have to, but… it's life, I guess. Maybe once we recoup and get beyond the holidays, things will return to normal, and your mother and I won't have to work such mixed-up schedules for a while."

"We'll be fine, Dad, don't worry about us. I promise, I won't drown the rug-rat or anything," Jesse replied, drawing a chuckle form his father before he turned to look around again. "You know, I've got an idea of what you might get Benji for Christmas, if you want to hear about it."

"I'm all ears," his father announced, leaning forward attentively.

"Well, you know how we lost all our toys and everything, and I was thinking about something you and Mom mentioned not long ago. Don't worry about me so much this year, but maybe, I don't know, use some of what you'd spend for me and just get some toys for Benji. Make it look like we're sharing or something, and I'll play with him some and everything, you know? Like, maybe find a bunch of Hot Wheels for example, maybe a few board games or… or even Legos. You know how he likes those, although I know they're not cheap. Maybe even find him a bike, if you can swing that. I mean, part of the reason he wanted to spend time with me yesterday was because after Petey left, he said he was bored and, you know, kind of lonesome. That got me to realizing, there really isn't a lot for us to get into any more like it was before, at least as far as playing with stuff when it's so cold outside, you know? I know, people do with a lot less, but Benji… he hasn't done anything like this before, you know? And I just… I'm thinking more about him, really." He stared into his father's gray eyes humbly. "So, like, don't go and spend a bunch of money or anything on me this year, okay? Just, you know… Take care of Benji and stuff…"

James observed his son closely, an inner sense of pride and emotion building. "Insofar as the suggestion of what to get and all, I couldn't agree more, really. Your mother and I were already thinking about making Christmas this year more of a fun Christmas for you boys. I can't promise something like that, though, when it comes to you, kiddo. You still have to have something, and don't argue that with us, or with me, please." He paused before speaking again. "You know, we're not going to ignore you, son. Don't you have some idea about something you'd like?"

Jesse blushed. "Well, there is one thing I thought of, but I have no idea what they cost or anything." Seeing his father's look of curiosity, he continued. "Noah has these things in his room, called bean bags. They're like, uh, these big cloth and vinyl bags with some kind of beans inside, I guess. We can just sink into them, and use them to sit on the floor, or prop them up on the bed, or… I don't know, you get the idea."

"Yes, I've seen them before," James nodded thoughtfully. "I can imagine what you're saying, too. They are kind of convenient too, aren't they? Your mother and I will check into them, how's that? And… don't worry about costs, son. That is for me and your Mom to worry about, alright? If we can't do something, then we just simply can't, and we know you two will understand." He smiled and sat back. "Is that it, though? Anything else?"

"I might like a hoodie, if I can get one. I used to have a couple for cold weather and all, but…" Jesse responded.

James nodded again. "No problems there either, but… give it some more thought, alright? You're not asking for a lot, and I'm used to seeing bigger wish lists from my boys."

Jesse giggled. "I think Benji will still make a good one up for you, Santa," he replied merrily. "As for me, I have everything I need, I think. Family, friends… and food - as long as there's more turkey on the menu. Maybe some ham, too."

"There'll be plenty of that," James scoffed. "You're not the only one who likes turkey and stuffing."

"And cranberry sauce," Jesse added with a grin.

"Yes, and cranberry sauce. I think that was my favorite meal when I was your age," James admitted, before glancing out the window and sighing again. "Speaking of food, do you want some breakfast?"

"Not really," Jesse answered, shaking his head. "In fact, I think I am going to go back to bed for a while. Besides, if we start making a bunch of noise in here, it'll wake Mom up, right?" The teenager then quietly scooted his chair back and stood. Although still in his underwear, his low-lying t-shirt covered most of his groin, so he had no problems stepping over to his father and gave him a brief hug. As he walked away, he added, "Benji and I will eat something later."

James watched him disappear, and then went back to his morning paper.

As Jesse crawled back into bed, the movement woke Benji groggily. Within minutes, the boy rose and made his own trip to the bathroom, before returning and climbing back in under the covers. As he turned his back to his brother, he slid in neatly, and Jesse settled in close before draping his arm over the boy. Both then settled back into a continued, peaceful sleep.

Noah sat back on his bed, staring out the window at what was shaping up to be a blustery day. The rain, which had finally arrived, swept in sheets across the valley, with a significant wind carrying it and other debris haphazardly along. It was not a storm per se, as there were no dark clouds, no excessive gusts to note, and certainly no adverse sleet or hail. It was cold, however, perhaps one competing for the coldest on record thus far for the season.

The teen had pulled his knees up and held them with his arms to his chest. His bedroom was unusually silent at the moment, with no electronics, no lights active to speak of – unless you counted the silent operation of his clock upon the night stand. He had been looking out into the weather and sighing, knowing full well that the oncoming colder months would not improve, now that the warmer season had passed. He didn't mind it initially. Autumn signaled the oncoming holidays, with the Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year dates on the horizon. Come January, although school would still continue as usual, there was always the hope for oncoming snows to entertain them, too. Noah smirked suddenly as he thought about that. Most adults detested snow and the mess it brought, along with icy roads and sub-freezing temperature. Most kids and teenagers, however, enjoyed it – not so much because it generally got them out of school for a day or two, but more so because it provided them a new, different kind of environment to have some fun in.

Noah's head suddenly rose as he noticed something changed in his neighbor's window. He steadily waited, watching carefully before finally making out an older boy his age, who appeared to be wrestling with a youngster somewhat smaller in size. He grinned, surprised at how much he could discern through the deteriorated conditions outside. Ever since Jesse had told him he could make out Noah moving about his room, the teenager had been interested in what he could voyeuristically observe in return, and he was not disappointed. If he could make them out this well now, he wondered how much better it might be in other conditions… or at night.

Noah felt a touch of guilt at that thought, realizing the fact that what he was doing, was peeking into the private life of someone outside his home. He wondered if this ever happened with other kids, teens lucky enough to live close to others like he and Jesse did. If it did, it was very hush-hush, obviously. No one would want to advertise their nosiness, undoubtedly for fear of reprisals. He recalled, however, the stories about Amber and Ethan. Pete had unceremoniously informed all the guys in the group that the two lived practically next door to each other, and because of that closeness, it had spawned a lot of the interaction that led to lots of sex and more, every day after school. Pete the Third had even bragged about how getting it was so easy for some, yet so hard for others. If he could be believed, Pete professed to have done 'it' several times, too. Noah frowned on that thought, though, because Pete's ego was so over-inflated at times, he wasn't all that sure what was true about some of the things he told, and what wasn't.

Noah became startled as he focused on the window again, and suddenly saw both boys were waving at him from across their lawns. Grinning, he waved back, acknowledging that they had finally gotten his attention. Benji stuck his tongue out, making Noah lean in ever closer and reciprocate the action, which appeared to make the boy laugh hysterically. Then for the next few minutes, all three boys began making mock gestures and funny motions, communicating as if they were a bunch of silent monkeys. Eventually both sides settled down, and Jesse moved himself in front of the window, pulling his own knees up and holding them. Noah wasn't sure, but he thought maybe his friend was sending him a message, like 'I saw you doing this'. The teen sighed, but then nodded, which made Jesse smile back at him.

Moments later there was a knock coming from Noah's bedroom door, and he quickly gave his friend a time-out motion and pointed to the door. Jesse understood and then closed his blinds as Noah turned and called out, "Come in."

Jennifer opened and entered then, carrying two steaming mugs of hot chocolate. Crossing the short distance, she handed one to her son, who took it grinning widely. "Thanks, mom!" he whispered.

The woman smiled back and then sat down on the side of the bed. Looking out at the dismal weather, she remarked, "I thought you might like something to warm your insides with."

Noah sampled the rich liquid and nodded. "It's great!" he offered.

The two fell silent for a moment, both watching the rain blowing about in sheets. "Looks like another belly-washer, as your grandpa used to say," Jennifer commented. "Makes it a bleak day to do anything much, doesn't it?"

Noah shrugged. "Yeah, kind of." He sighed. "Would it be too much to ask if I could go over there for a while?"

Jennifer's eyebrows shot up. "What do you mean?"

Noah nodded toward the house across the way. "I mean, hanging out with Jesse and all. We do it a lot lately. Heck, he was just over here Friday and spent the night, remember?"

"So?" Jennifer frowned. "Why, does that bother you or something?"

Noah shook his head. "No, Mom, it's just… I don't know. I guess I'm more afraid it would bother you or Dad. Or Jesse's parents."

Jennifer set her cup of cocoa on the nightstand and then maneuvered herself up beside her son. With a motherly instinct, she wrapped an arm around his shoulders. "Okay, spill it. What's going on in that head of yours? Why would hanging out with your new best friend bother you like that?"

Noah was silent for a time, thinking deeply as he stared out at the rain. Jennifer waited patiently, although she re-adjusted her position to sit more comfortably. When Noah finally spoke again, his voice was low and measured. "Pete, Jimmy, Randy, Will… All of the guys, they always had this thing about watching people who spent so much time together, you know? If it was a guy and a girl, they'd be all for it. If it was girls, they'd just make fun and snicker and everything. But… when guys hung out, then they'd be all agitated like, giving them a hard time, calling them names… you know?" The teen sighed. "I think parents do the same thing, too. Sometimes anyway, when they see their kids spending a lot of time with someone."

Jennifer observed her son thoughtfully. "I'll admit, you're partially right. We do watch a lot of our sons and daughters, especially when they seem to get a little too friendly or cozy. Or when someone much older starts to get too friendly and all. But, honey, you have to realize that every child or teenager is different, and you know now what kind of crap Pete has been brainwashing you with all this time. I'm really sorry, too. Your Dad and I knew he wasn't being the best of influences, but we never knew how bad it was until you told us. If we had, we would have sat down with you way before now and … and at least tried to talk with you. So, anything those guys taught or convinced you of, you should probably only treat with a grain of salt."

"I have," Noah whispered, sinking back into her embrace. "It's hard sometimes, still. I mean, Pete wasn't always like he is now, and Linda, well… she helped me some. Thing is, though, I've learned about a lot of things now, for the better."

"I know you have," Jennifer whispered into his ear, hugging him even closer as they slowly rocked back and forth. "Jesse has been good to you, really, as much as you've been good for each other as close friends. Still, you're going to find that life has a lot of ups and downs, kiddo, and who knows – there is a whole new world opening up to you now. A world where you'll have to navigate and figure things out for yourself again, but you know what? I have a lot of confidence you're going to do just fine, and that you're going to have the right people by your side, besides dear old Mom and Dad, to help you get through it." She then nodded toward the window and the house across the lawn. "Just like Jesse and his family. Those are good people, son. Your father and I have known them for a long, long time."

Noah looked up with curiosity. "Really? How did you guys ever meet up?"

Jennifer smiled. "It's a long story, but the gist of it goes back to when your father and I married and moved into this apartment complex. We had been there for a little more than a year, I think, when one winter there was this really big ice-storm and all, and he went missing. You see, when we got married, he insisted I finish my schooling first, and then he would follow – because neither of us could really afford for us both to go to classes at the same time."

"I remember you telling me about that once, yeah," Noah commented. "When you graduated and got a job, I think, he then went and finished his degree. Right?"

"Yep, you got it. Your father was about a year into college when we met, and then he stopped so I could get my degree, before he picked it back up and finished. You see, he worked for a bakery, driving a delivery truck and distributing breads, buns and what have you throughout the whole region here. On some days he had a short route, one that would take maybe, oh, four or five hours to finish. Others though, he had these long routes that went out into different parts of the state. He'd always get up about three in the morning, every weekday, just so he could get all the stuff delivered to the groceries, quick stops or what have you, as early as he could get it done. It wasn't bad pay, really, but like I've told you before, back then things were harder for us. Especially with me still in school and all, and being newlyweds."

Jennifer paused and took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. "So, one of those nights in February, we had this big ice-storm come up, followed by probably one of the coldest spells we had ever had around here. Your father though, he still started out like usual, because that was his job. I didn't think anything that much about it, because I knew your father was a careful driver, see. He'd been out in snow, ice and some of the worst conditions you could probably imagine before, really, and had always come back safe and sound. Heck, he even taught me how to drive in the stuff, starting before we even got married. He was good, see? So, anyway, he took off to do his thing, but the next day, your father didn't come home. I'd already had a call from his boss, asking if maybe he had driven the van on home or something, but he hadn't. We decided he was just delayed because of the weather, see? But as it got later into the afternoon, that's when some of us started making calls around to some of the stops on his route. Turns out, while he had stopped at most of them, there were others he had never showed up at. Those places just figured it was because of the weather, so they didn't think much of it right away, see."

"Now, picture this honey: Makalah and James lived in the apartment right across from us back then. They had married the summer before, and although we didn't really know them, we'd all met in the stairwell a few times. You can imagine how it went - we'd always greeted each other and had a little chit-chat - but that was about the extent of it. That night though, when your father was missing, I was on the balcony outside, worried, crying, praying… really just falling apart, if you want to know the truth. The Sheriff finally put out a radio call, but no one reported anything, anywhere. Jesse's mom, you see, came in from one of those obscenely long shifts she works sometimes down at the hospital, and she found me on the outside balcony like I said. I couldn't even talk at first, you know? We had met a few times, but I didn't know those people, not really. That was going to change though, and change really quick. You see, your friend's mother had to coax it out of me, but I finally ended up getting it out, telling her everything about what was happening, and why I was so scared and everything. Well, James had come home at some point, from whatever job he had at the time, and when he listened and got the details, he started getting on the phone with your father's boss. Between the two of them, they started making more calls and isolated where, like, between the last store your father made it to, and the next one that he didn't. Then he got in his truck and headed out."

Jennifer paused, her mind retreating into her memories of long ago. "Makalah, see, never left me, honey. Here she was, ragged and beat and worn out, but she wouldn't leave me. And James, he never gave up looking, after it was turning so dark and all, the temperature falling that evening into the single digits. In fact, even though the Sheriff and his deputies got involved, it wasn't they who found your father, but instead it was James, who happened to come upon something out of pure, blind luck. As it turned out, your Dad had hit upon and slid over some ice somewhere near a pond, or a lake or something, and lost control of his van. It had tumbled over into a steep bank, down a hill, see. When James found it, it was upside down, beat up and mostly submerged in a huge puddle of water that had iced over. They told me later that James dived into the water and went looking inside, but he didn't find your father. So, he gets out of the water and starts trying to move around, freezing probably from being wet and all, you know? But he did it, and kept on going until he ran into a house where some people lived nearby."

"Wow!" Noah whispered, startled hearing this tale for the first time.

Jennifer nodded. "So, anyway, it was getting late in the evening, but James came upon one house, where he banged on the door and woke up this man and his wife. At first, they said no - they hadn't seen anything all day, but then as James was thanking them and getting ready to leave, the man's wife started talking about how their dog had been barking at the barn all afternoon, and hearing about your Dad, they started wondering. They were both elderly, see, and really were just living the way some older country folk do. You know, go to bed early and get up before the crack of dawn. Kind of like your Grandpa used to do next door," she explained, but with a hint of amusement. "Anyway, James and the man ended up going down to his barn and checking it out. That's when they found your Dad, honey. He was unconscious and nearly… nearly dead." Jennifer's voice nearly broke on the last.

"Crap!" Noah whispered, feeling his mother's anguish.

Jennifer nodded. "Like I said, he… he almost died. We don't know how he didn't really, given the shape he was found in. You see, he had been in that ice-cold water for who knows how long, but somehow pulled himself out of it. Later, we learned from him that he saw the old barn and house, and that he tried making his way up there, but couldn't because it was on a steep-like hill. Somehow, he did manage to crawl to the barn before he passed out." The woman paused, thinking back. "Noah, you have to understand honey, I was… I was a wreck. I wish I had had better senses about me, but… I don't have an excuse, it was just… hard. It was like, everything in my world turned upside down. Makalah stayed with me for days after that, after James got the ambulance there and they rushed your father to the emergency room. He was in bad shape, enough so they transferred him to Louisville to one of those specialty centers. Like I said, I… I was, I guess you could say I was alone. We reached out to your dad's brother, but he was in the Army then, and there was no way he could come in from wherever he was stationed at the time. And then, there's your Dad's sister who lived out in Texas at the time. She did come stay for a few days, but she had to drive and it took her a couple of days to arrive. You see? I'm not proud of it, but… when I had nobody, I still had Makalah - and let me tell you, she would not leave me for one minute."

Noah glanced out at the older house next door again. "I think I understand," he whispered.

"She took a few days off from work and stayed beside me during the whole ordeal until your aunt arrived, and then picked right up again after your aunt left to go back home. Your father, he went into cardiac arrest more than once, from the exposure and all, and I was certain I was going to lose him. But, after about three days in intensive care, he miraculously came out of his coma and woke up." A tear dropped along the woman's cheek, which she slowly wiped away. Before she spoke again, she pointed at the other house. "You see though, those two never stopped. Your father had to have a lot of physical therapy and special treatments for a long time, and James was the one who was always there, helping and making sure he got his rides or what have you to clinics, the doctor, to other places he needed to go when I couldn't do it. And… and they bought groceries for us, cooked meals, cleaned things up, you name it - they helped us get things straightened out, at least until I could get my head screwed back on."

"What about Aunt Vonda?" Noah asked quietly, referring to his father's sister. "She didn't come back anymore?"

"Well, like I said, she stayed about a week or so the first time, but once your father was alright and we got him moved back down here, she couldn't stay. Not that I blame her, or anyone else, you know. She had a job, and back then, they were not going to let anyone off indefinitely like that without a whole lot of grief. She did call a lot, to keep up with us and to try and console me, but… it was the best she could do." His mother sighed, but then smiled. "This is why your father and I wanted to help the McAllisters out so much, honey. It wasn't a charity case like you kind of said, and it wasn't your father and I just being good Samaritans. There was a time when both Makalah and James put so much on the line for us, and for your grandfather, too. He went through a spell right around then when he fell and broke his leg back then, so he was in no shape to help us, due to that and his own health problems. He was already having signs of dementia, and only keeping up with a limited number of things as it was, see. There… there just wasn't any family to speak of for your father or me, and we didn't really have that many friends – good, close friends. At least, until James and Makalah became a part of us, together. They didn't have much, but I'm telling you, what they did have was priceless in the way it helped us out. You have no idea, seriously, at how much they did for us back then - almost 15 years ago. That was a time I really needed someone, to help me regain my sanity, and those two were there for us. They were like our guardian angels in disguise, to tell the truth."

"Wow," Noah whispered again.

Jennifer giggled finally. "I know, yeah. But… there is one thing that came out of it that was good, for us, meaning your father and me."

"What was that?" Noah asked.

She leaned in conspiratorially and whispered, "That was when we made you." Pulling back, she saw him blush, which made her hug him ever closer. "It's true. I guess that was about the time they made Jesse, too. You see? It all washed out in the end, and we recovered. I eventually finished school and went to teaching at the college, and your father was able to work on his degree after that, too. Even while he was recovering and getting back on his feet, he was able to get started again with a night class or two, to offset the boredom. Within a year, first you and then Jesse came into our world a few months later."

"What happened afterwards? I mean, when did we move here and all?" Noah asked.

"Well, your Dad got a job at the bank before he graduated, and after he got his degree in finance, we both started having a little better income and all. We paid James and Makalah back for a lot of little loans they made us and all, too – although, you'd never believe how hard it was to get them to take it. It's like I said, they did so much, in little ways for us, you know? Anyway, before long, your grandfather deeded us this property to build a house on, about the same time the McAllisters found the house that they bought. Your Dad got involved, and made it veritably a deal they couldn't turn down. It was the least we could do, see? But we each moved eventually, and I guess that's how we kind of grew apart, separated and all. Oh, we've stayed friends all this time, don't get me wrong. Rebecca was born a few years later, but then she… she didn't make it. You were about four at the time, I think, so I doubt you'll remember that one."

Noah shook his head. "I don't, but Jesse told me he had a sister that died a few weeks after she was born."

"That was her," Jennifer nodded. "That hit them hard, although I think Makalah handled it better than most would. It just, you know, it wasn't meant to be, but it devastated them. It was already hard for them to conceive as it was, to make a baby, I mean. I think after that happened though, they gave up on having any more kids at all, until Benji surprised them."

Noah grinned. "Really?"

"Yes," his mother whispered, then suddenly poked her son in the side. "Anyway, we sort of grew apart a little, because we each had our own families to take care of there for a while, but we never stopped being there for each other. Do you understand now? For a short while, that family, or at least James and Makalah, were all your father and I had. That's why when the tornado hit, we couldn't help but want to give something back to them. Not because it was such a good thing to do, but because we had to do it, Noah. Even though it meant hampering you, we… we had to, honey."

"Don't worry Mom, I understand that now," Noah murmured quietly, turning and giving his mother a full embrace. "I wish I had understood then, but… I was too much of an asshole to realize it." He looked out the window again. "I think Dad tried to tell me about it that first night, but… I wouldn't listen. I wish I had, though."

Jennifer hugged him back. "Well, asshole or not, and I'm still not very fond of that word by the way… things have changed, and now you know." She held him briefly and then pushed away so she could stare deeply into his eyes. "Alright, now it's your turn. What the heck does Jesse being here Friday night and yesterday have to do with hanging out too much?" When he didn't immediately reply, she sighed. "Listen, if you want to go and spend time, I'm all for it. It's good you have a firm friend, and especially so that you have that friend in Jesse. Just always remember something for me, please: no matter how close or best-friendly you two get, always remember you still have a family over here which loves you and wants you to be happy. Just remember to spend some time with us, too, which as far as I'm concerned, you have been doing just fine." She nodded out the window. "So, if you want to go over there, or have them come over here, then… just make sure you wear something warm. And, I don't know, maybe wait until this cloud passes over and gives you a little break."

"Seriously?" Noah whispered. "You think it's alright?"

"It's better than being cooped up in here all afternoon, isn't it?" She glanced at the clock. "It's only a little after two. Tell you what, give me a few minutes, I have a bunch of cupcakes baking in the oven upstairs. Let me fix a few of them up and you can take them over with you."

Noah leaned in again. "Mom, I love you!" he whispered, hugging her tightly.

Jennifer laughed. "Well, I'm glad at least somebody does!" she teased.

"Wait a minute! You can't do that… can you?" Benji exclaimed, then let out a breath in frustration. "Not again!"

Noah laughed, after moving the marble back to the starting home position. He sat on the floor with the two McAllister brothers, all three of them gathered around the Aggravation board game he had brought along. "Sorry peanut, you've got to start this one again."

"How does anyone even get to WIN at this game?" Benji complained, studying the board as Jesse grinned and reached out for the die, ready to take the next turn.

"Huh," the older brother announced. "Finally met your match, have we?"

Benji looked up and stuck his tongue out. "Just you wait, turtle-bait!" he announced, and then re-oriented himself, stretching out on the floor until he faced the board, head propped with his hands. They had been surprised to hear the doorbell and, upon answering, finding the teenager carrying the board game and a basket of cupcakes. After they settled in, the last two hours or more had been spent with the board game, with the TV on above them, but turned low. Outside continued to be a blustery late afternoon, but the rains had begun easing off by then, leaving only the cold winds to deal with.

It wasn't long before they were interrupted by Makalah, who stuck her head through the open doorway. "You boys hungry yet? I've got some homemade pizza in the oven, if you're interested."

"Oh boy, are we!" Benji explained, springing to his feet. The others joined him as the foursome then made their way into the kitchen, to find James already sitting at the table.

"About time you three musketeers showed up! I thought I was going to get half of that pizza just for myself!" he teased, as they pulled out chairs. The table was already spread with plates, drinks and more. In less than a minute, Makalah joined them with a sheet pan, topped with a cheesy confection mixed with meats and various vegetables.

"I hope you like it, Noah. We've always been partial to supreme pizzas when we make them here at home," Makalah offered as she set the hot dish baking dish down on a pair of pot holders. "Careful, the pan is hot!"

"Mom puts everything on pizzas sometimes, like lots of sausage, beef, peppers, onions… the works, with loads of cheese," Jesse added.

Noah nodded. "They're okay, as long they don't have mushrooms."

"No worries there," James piped up. "I'm allergic to most mushrooms, so you won't find them on this one."

After cutting out huge squares, she subdivided each and placed the food in their plates, which her family then readily attacked. Noah first took a tentative bite, and then grinned. "Hey! This IS pretty good!"

Makalah, obviously pleased, nodded. "Thank you."

After a few bites, Noah looked up at the woman. "Thanks for not kicking me back home tonight, too."

The odd remark caught the woman off guard. "What do you mean? You're welcome over here anytime you want to come, Noah. Well, almost anytime. I'd like to be awake and not gone to bed," Makalah teased him, which made the others laugh. "Seriously though, I don't think we have any problem with you being around, especially as close as we are living together now."

"I'm curious though, why did you say that?" James broke in.

Noah sat back, the hint of a blush appearing. "I just, I don't want to be a pest, that's all."

"You're not," Jesse offered quietly, at which his mother glanced at him and then nodded in agreement.

"You're not a pest young man, but I promise you, if it ever becomes a problem, we'll let you know. Until then, don't worry about that kind of stuff," the kind woman added.

"Hear, hear," James added, before reaching for the crushed-pepper shaker. "You ever use this stuff?" he asked, changing the subject. "It's not super-hot peppers, but it does add some spice to life."

"I know, but no thank you. I don't mind spicy Chinese food most of the time, but that's about my limit," Noah replied.

"Really?" Jesse piped up with an eyebrow raised. "I thought I saw you use some hot sauce at that Mexican place."

Noah thought for a second, but then nodded sheepishly. "Yeah, I did, sorry. Only a little on some of the ground beef dishes, though." That made the rest of the family laugh.

When the boys' returned to the bedroom, Jesse pulled his friend to the side and spoke to him curiously. "What was that all about? You know, what you said in there, about being a pest or something?"

Noah grimaced. "Nothing, really. I just…" He looked deeply into the eyes watching him, and noted that Benji was watching him curiously as well. "I was kind of down in the dumps today, that's all. I didn't want to rub any of it off on you guys, though. I mean, I don't know about you, but I'm trying to put a little time between us being together so much., You know, so we're not, like, spending every other night either here or at my house." He looked down at Benji. "Besides, I can't claim you all the time. Benji would get mad at me, wouldn't you squirt?"

Benji stole a quick glance at his brother, realizing that statement had hit a little too close to home. Jesse closed the bedroom door and then pulled Noah over to his bed where the two sat down. He was about to say something, when Benji approached and stopped him. "I don't care," the boy announced. "Just as long as … you know, you don't steal my brother from me."

Both older boys looked out upon the younger one with surprise. "I wouldn't… I mean, no," Noah started, but then stopped, confused. "Huh?"

Jesse giggled before reaching out and taking hold of his brother and dragging him into his lap. Afterwards, he turned his attention to his best friend. "Benji kind of had a lonesome moment yesterday, that's all," Jesse explained. "He was just wanting some time with me, weren't you buddy?" When Benji nodded, he squirmed as Jesse tickled him along his side, but after a few seconds, stopped and just held on. "So, when you and I got finished yesterday afternoon, me and doofus here went up to the park and we spent the evening together. It's no big deal, but… you get it, right?"

Noah frowned. "Benji, I would never, ever try to take Jesse away from you. He'd kill me anyway, you know?"

Benji smiled, and with a quick glance at his brother, decided to move over into Noah's lap. The teen, surprised, barely got hold of him before he rolled out into the floor, and if it wasn't for Jesse giving him a hand by grabbing his brother's legs, that might have well been the result. "I know you wouldn't," the younger boy announced quietly, grasping hold of Noah and hanging on. "It's like Jess said, I think I just got lonely. Even though Petey was here, after he left it just… I don't know."

Noah smiled. "That's the way I feel sometimes now. Before, I'd just go to my room and curl up, maybe listen to music or something. Or… just sit. That's what you two caught me doing earlier today. No real reason other than, I guess I was feeling kind of lonesome, too."

Jesse leaned over and bumped shoulders with his friend. "We thought about calling you, you know. We didn't do much either, just listen to the rain and wind, watched some cartoons and stuff." He sighed. "Our parents, they're not going to get mad at us Noah, for being around each other and stuff. There are times we kind of do things as a family, but other than that? Nah. Some parents might worry about things like that, but ours don't."

Noah smiled. "Mom kind of told me the same thing, yeah. It's like I said, I was just being weird, I guess. It hit me and, I don't know…"

"Did something happen to you maybe, some other time?" Benji asked. Noah stared down at the grey-blue eyes that met him.

"I don't know, I think maybe Pete said something once, about how he and Jimmy were always hanging out, and then one day his Dad made Jimmy go home. Something about they were spending too much time together, I think," Noah offered timidly.

Jesse grunted. "Well, maybe he saw the kind of influence Jimmy was having on him or something, or…"

"Or maybe he really did want them to take a break or something, for other reasons, like hanging around too much," Noah followed through with.

Jesse shrugged. "Maybe, but you know something? That's their problem, Noah, it's not our problem – unless our parents tell us so, so don't worry about it, bro."

"Yeah, don't worry about it, bro," Benji followed, whispering. "Just don't try and steal my brother from me, otherwise I'll have to make you pay."

"What? Make me pay?" Noah replied, grinning, before he started in on the younger boy, tickling and digging in under his arms and ribs. Benji shrieked with laughter, and for the next few minutes, squirmed and tackled not only their guest, but dragged Jesse into the battle, too. It was only the second outright session of its kind to happen in the last few days, but Benji did not give in. He had both boys wrestling with him and each other, in the bed and floor, as it turned into a three-way mêlée of laughter and fun.

This was what Noah needed, and as he realized it, he ended up hugging the smaller body close at times. Benji could feel the change in places, but his spirited youthfulness was not ready to quite end their fun. Eventually, however, the three were becoming breathless and ready for a break. After two attempts to bring his young brother's feistiness under control and failing, Jesse wrapped up his legs at one point and cried out, "Good grief, doofus, time-out!"

Benji giggled, as he was presently being lifted up into Noah's arms, who was making his own attempt to slow the pace down. "Okay, okay!" he snickered, but then went completely limp. "Besides, I'm about to pee my pants anyway!"

"So?" Noah whispered. "You've got clean replacements in that drawer over there, right?"

Benji laughed aloud, squirming but realizing he was wrapped up tightly this time. He glanced up at Noah. "Yeah, right. You'd have to change me, though, and I doubt you'd do it, anyway," he stated in a matter-of-fact tone.

Noah looked at Jesse with his eyebrows raised, and the older brother simply shrugged. "Don't look at me. He's old enough to know what he's saying," the teen announced, before turning to his brother. "Careful though, Ben, you might be surprised at what Noah would or would not do."

Benji stared at them both and then laughed again. There was a slight hesitancy, however, before he dropped his voice and looked back upon their guest. "I dare you," he whispered, before following with, "I even double dare you."

"Whoa," Jesse whispered, then pulled his brother even further toward him. Glancing up, he nodded at Noah. "You, kind sir, may have the honors if you want them."

"You're not kidding, are you?" Noah asked, but once he saw Jesse shake his head, he grinned and reached out. In no time, he unsnapped Benji's jeans and unzipped them. Giggling profusely, the smaller boy tried to move away, but the older teen had grabbed hold with one hand, as he threatened to pull them down with his other. 'What am I doing?" he suddenly thought to himself, pausing as he looked down at the grin that met him. There was an openness in the face, not unlike what he had come to see in recent weeks. "Um… are you sure about this?"

Benji giggled again and looked back to his brother. "See? I told you he wouldn't do it," he whispered before looking up at Noah again. "Yes, I'm sure. I trust you. The question is, will you really do it?"

Noah gave him a sly grin, and then reached out and swiftly pulled both the jeans and briefs off the boy, causing him to cackle with delight. "Does that answer you?" Noah whispered, all the while pushing and working them further down and off, especially with Jesse giving him a little assistance along the way. Benji had stopped resisting by now, though, as he lay completely bottomless in the older boys' laps.

Noah stopped and took a few seconds to stare down at the boy's hairless groin. They had sort of been here before, but not as purposefully as was now. Benji realized it, too, as his penis began to stretch and stiffen. Noah could not help but grin at the uncircumcised boyhood that grew and pointed almost directly at him. "Not bad for a squirt, I think," he whispered.

Benji grinned goofily, appreciating being the center of attention for the moment. "Jesse's willy is a lot bigger, though," he whispered, his tone stating again the obvious.

Jesse blushed, but then Noah grinned. "Yeah, well, to be honest, I've already kind of found out," he whispered back, surprising the younger boy.

"Whoa, seriously?" Benji asked, then settled back and totally relaxed. "Cool! Has he seen you, too?"

Noah hesitated only for a second before nodding. "Yeah," he whispered back. The young boy rose up just enough to glance at his brother, but then lay back again and giggled.

Jesse reached out and with the tip of his index finger, touched Benji's hardened shaft along the top, before bending the rod downward back toward his toes. "I told you little brother, yours will get big too, before you know it."

"Yeah, I know. That's what you've told me, anyway," Benji replied.

Jesse smiled at him, but then glanced up at Noah and nodded toward the nearby dresser. "Second drawer down, right side."

Noah understood, and was actually thankful for the break. He gently lifted the boy from his lap and set him off onto the bed, before climbing out and opening the designated drawer. Inside he found a stack of briefs, along with a set of sweatpants, which he pulled out. "Are these okay?" he asked, turning to show them his choices.

Both brothers nodded, so Noah returned and, with little effort, arranged the briefs so he could slip them over Benji's feet. With a little help from Jesse, he pulled them up into place but paused at the groin one last time. Grinning, he leaned over and made a big show of blowing his breath across the tip, which made Benji giggle insanely because he thought it was too funny. Noah giggled too but then finished the job, before quickly working the sweatpants on and pulling them up into place. Once this was completed, Benji pulled himself up to sit between the older boys, before he leaned in and gave Noah a fierce hug. "Thanks, little buddy, I think," the teen whispered in surprise.

"It's all good," Benji replied, before pulling back and looking up mischievously into the older boy's eyes. "Now, you owe me, sometime."

"Whoa, wait a minute Benji, Noah might not-" Jesse started, but Noah cut him off.

"I will, sometime, if you want. I promise," he announced. Grunting, he added, "Who knows, maybe we'll play one of those card games sometime. You know, like strip poker or something."

Benji squealed and then launched himself even tighter around Noah's neck, effectively knocking him over. "Alright!" he exclaimed. They laughed and wrestled briefly, until the young boy suddenly sat up and scrambled out of the bed. He ran out the door and seconds later, the two teens heard the bathroom door shut quickly.

Jesse looked over and rolled his eyes. "He does that sometimes," he commented, before turning over next to his friend and stretching out. "You know, you didn't have to do that."

Noah shrugged. "It made him happy," he replied nonchalantly, but then looked up. "Was it too much, though? Maybe I shouldn't have..."

Jesse scoffed. "Are you kidding, after a double dare? If you had held out any longer, it would have turned into a double- or triple-dog dare next, knowing him." He reached an arm over Noah's side and held him loosely. "You did fine, Noah. He wanted to do that, and I've told you before, if he trusts you - and I know he does - then it's all cool. It's the same way with me and him, with what little we do. As long as he wants to, then… what can I really say? I like my little brother, you know?"

"Yeah, I hear you," Noah replied and then sighed, looking toward the door. "I trust him, too, Jess. I'm not afraid, honest." Turning back, he smiled at his best friend. "You know, I love you guys. I really do."

Jesse moved in and gave the teen a full embrace just then, holding him close. "I guess we can say we do, too. You already know I do." He glanced at the partially opened door to the hall, and decided to take a chance. Leaning in, he gave Noah a soft kiss on the lips, before pulling back. Both stared at the other until they were suddenly grinning, which developed into a set of giggles before outright laughter. Jesse finally sat up. "Hey, how late can you stay?"

"I don't know, um, another hour or so, I guess," Noah answered after glancing at the clock. Jesse nodded and then started searching for the marbles they had lost track of during the scuffle, and then getting the game board and pieces put away. Afterwards, he crawled over to the stack of video games and pulled out Mario Kart again, raising both eyebrows toward his friend. Noah grinned and nodded, and before long they were arranging the space where all three could join in.

"Too bad we only have two controllers, though," Jesse remarked, and then made a mental note to have Benji add that to his Christmas Wish list.

Before either could react, however, Benji suddenly re-entered the bedroom. Seeing the change and setup, he clapped excitedly. "Oh, wow! Who's ready to get their butt handed to them this time?"

"You!" Noah declared, tossing him his controller. Benji wheeled around and took a seat – directly between the two brothers. Noah smiled, but then remarked, "BUT - you have to beat your brother first, before you can get to me!"

Benji turned back with a glance, a wicked smile stretching from one ear to the other. "Huh! You better get ready then!"

Glancing over, Noah saw Jesse actually blushing. "Ruh roh, shaggy, what am I getting into here?" he whispered, but both brothers laughed aloud and started playing.

"Was I okay, Jess? Tonight, I mean, with Noah?" the small voice asked, rolling in tightly with his brother once again.

Makalah had just come in and left, giving them both a kiss goodnight and turning the remaining light out. Benji had waited for a moment, before leaning over the side. Jesse saw him and in answering the unspoken question, he pulled the cover back to make room. The youngest of the brothers quickly slipped down the ladder and crawled in beside his sibling, who pulled him in close.

"You did just fine, little bro," Jesse whispered.

"You tried to warn me though, and-"

"Shh," Jesse crooned, shushing the boy quickly. "Listen, what I'm willing to do with you, being naked or with our willies or such, that's between me and you, okay? Just don't assume that anyone else will think and feel the same way. What you and I have, it's special and all, but not everyone is, like, as open about things like that - even in other families. Get it?"

"Yeah, I understand," Benji replied softly, before rolling onto his back, draping a leg over his brother's in the process. "You know, I didn't expect him to take my dare."

Jesse giggled. "I guess you learned though, some guys ARE more willing than others when it comes to stuff like that." He looked on in amusement. "Noah was okay with it, though, and with you. It's like I've told you, he's changed, and I think he's learning an awful lot about what real friends are like now. The ones he had before-"

"Were assholes and jerks, I know," Benji finished the sentence for him. "He'll never replace you Jess, not in a hundred thousand million years… but, it is kind of nice to have another brother around for a while, isn't it?"

"Yeah," Jesse whispered, but not before hugging his brother again. "Even if for just a while, he is."

"How long, well…?" Benji asked.

"Oh, we'll all be friends and brothers for a long time, Ben, until we grow old and get married and… stuff like that," Jesse explained.

"Oh, I get it, yeah," the small voice replied, but then shrugged. "But that'll be a long, long time from now, so who cares, right?"

Jesse giggled, wishing the simplest of outlooks were true, even if it were from the mind of a seven-year-old. He did agree, though – why worry about something a long way off from now. "You know, just be careful about playing strip poker, little buddy. You're really good at cards, but… some of us might be better."

Benji laughed. "I don't care, it'll be fun!" He lowered his voice. "Have you actually seen him, then? Like he told me?" When Jesse nodded, he lowered it even more. "Is he, like you?"

"How do you mean? Is his willie as big as mine is?"

"Yeah, is he?" Benji asked in a whisper.

Jesse hesitated, but then wrapped both arms around his brother and leaned into his ear. "No, he's bigger. He has a fat one," he breathed, making Benji giggle.

Both lay there for a moment, before Benji sighed. "You know something doofus?" The boy rolled over and wrapped his brother up tightly, and never said another word. Jesse could feel both the love and trust, and he hoped he was giving it back, because his heart had swelled with a pride rarely experienced just then. Although the two adjusted slightly after a moment, both fell once again into a deep, peaceful sleep.

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