The Storm That Turned the Tide

by Sean English

Chapter 12

The Compassion and Cruelty of Childhood

At the beginning of the Thanksgiving week, the local school board only required students to attend for the first two days, leaving the day before and the day after the holiday closed to allow families time to spend together. That, of course, was not the only reasoning the break prevailed upon the calendar in such a fashion. Aside from the frequent memorable meals many families would enjoy, the day after was notoriously labeled Black Friday, although there was nothing really bleak or 'black' about it. There were also the holiday parades, and other seasonal festivities that marked the occasion. Christmas specials would begin playing on TV, radio stations would re-orient their programs to mix a blend of popular holiday tunes, and the general stress of life seemed to take on a lesser emphasis.

There were still two days of school to get through, however, and as Noah and Jesse boarded their bus that Monday morning, they found Linda and Addison both, once again, together but sitting near where the boys usually took their place. With excited grins, the girls waved them into the seat in front of them, which the two decisively obeyed after a hasty greeting.

"So, weekend go okay?" Linda asked, while both girls rested their arms on the back of the boys' seat.

"Pretty good," Noah replied, but was suddenly becoming suspicious as he noticed the apparent upbeat mood she was having. "What's got you so giddy this morning?" he asked.

"Oh, I don't know, short week for school, maybe, and then Thanksgiving, too. Why, can't I be happy on occasion?" Linda fired back with a giggle.

"Not at seven o'clock, on a Monday morning, on a school bus bound for, well, you know, school," Jesse interjected, causing all four of the teenagers to giggle quietly. The boy sighed. "If you ask me, it's too early, I think…" he quipped good-naturedly, before settling back more comfortably. The four of them chatted amicably for the rest of the journey to the school, before bidding each other farewell and heading toward their lockers.

As Jesse arrived and unlocked his combination, a larger, older teen suddenly appeared at his side, causing him to look up in surprise. "Hey, Simon! How's it going?"

The senior grinned at him and met the offered fist bump. "Going good for a Monday, I think. You?"

"The same," Jesse replied, stuffing his backpack into the locker and extracting the book he needed for his first class. "What's up?"

"Not a lot, although I wondered if you might have a minute sometime to come down to the supply room? Just for a minute is all. I've got something down there you might be interested in," Simon replied, grinning. "Trust me, it'll be worth your while, I promise."

Jesse's curiosity was intrigued. "Sure, how about right after homeroom? You usually keep it open for a few minutes then anyway, right?"

"Awesome, yeah… I'll wait for you!" Simon announced, all the while stepping back and away. "See you then!" Jesse watched him turn and quickly disappear in the crowd beginning to fill the hallway.

After homeroom, Jesse hurried out as quickly as he could, swiftly making his way down the hallway to the floor below where the supply office was. As he rounded the last corner, he saw the door still open, and inside he spotted Simon waiting there patiently. When Jesse walked in, the senior grinned. "Ah! Just in time, too!"

Jesse laughed. "Okay, what's all the mystery about?"

Simon grinned and then pulled two packages from underneath the counter and set them on top. "I heard you and your friend are going to start helping out with the basketball program and stuff again. What was his name? Noah?"

Jesse nodded. "Yeah, Noah Cook," he replied, before turning his attention to the packages.

"Well, Coach Stevens said to get these and give you each a team hoodie. I saw Noah with you one day last week, and it kind of looked like you two might be about the same size. Then, while I was digging around Friday afternoon, I came across these back here on the shelf."

"Really?" Jesse replied with a grin, picking up one of the pullovers. Carrying the deep royal blue and white school colors, the hoodie was embroidered with their school's Indians' logo surrounded by red highlights. "Can I take it out?"

"Sure!" Simon said, reaching out and grasping the package and, seconds later, he extracted the hoodie and handed it over. "Try it on, let's see if it fits," he encouraged. Jesse grinned and set his books upon the counter, before stepping further inside and away from the door, out of plain view from the hallway. He quickly removed his sweater and donned the garment, as Simon stepped around and approached, eyeing the fit for good measure. "Looks like it's just what the doctor ordered, doesn't it? Or maybe in this instance, the seamstress, or the coach."

"Yeah, it fits great!" Jesse declared, then with a wide grin he thanked the older boy. "Um, how much do I need to owe you?"

"That's the cool part, Jesse. Nothing, nada, zilch. Noah's too. I was told to get you one of these, not to sell you one," Simon informed him. "Besides, the school has an account for stuff like this, so it's all good. Will you be seeing Noah later today? If so, you can take his to him, too."

"Well, yeah, okay," Jesse replied, but paused. "Are you sure though? I mean, I thought even those on the team had to buy their own uniforms and stuff, right?"

Simon nodded. "Uniforms, yes, but everyone gets one of these, compliments of the county school board, along with a set of workout sweats and t-shirt. They're kind of a package deal, really – although, like I said, I only found these. I don't know when we'll get any more of the other items in. When we do though, you and Noah will be welcome to them."

"Oh… okay. Well, then… thanks man, I really appreciate it!" Jesse replied.

"Hey, no problem. You need anything else, then you know where to find me, alright?" Simon responded, holding a fist mid-air again, which Jesse gladly bumped.

Jesse left the hoodie on for the rest of the morning, and following lunch, he waited outside the door before math class, waiting for his friend to get there. A short time later, Noah came along and, seeing the new hoodie on his friend, raised both eyebrows. "Hey, where did you get that?" he asked in surprise.

Jesse grinned and then pulled out the second one from behind. "Same place I got yours," he replied, then laughed out loud after seeing his friend's expression, which once again changed through several various states. "It seems we're both going to be a part of the basketball team, so they gave us matching hoodies to wear."

"No shit? Awesome!" Noah exclaimed quietly, taking the package. Glancing first at its contents, then casting his eyes upon his friend again, he nodded in approval. "Not bad, it looks good on you, I think."

Jesse shrugged. "It fits nice, although I ended up taking my other shirt off earlier in the bathroom. I kind of got hot wearing them both."

"I can understand that, yeah. I bet its perfect for wearing in the gym, though!" Noah suddenly handed his books to Jesse. "Take these to my desk, will ya? I'm gonna duck in the bathroom and pull mine on."

Jesse nodded, then turned into the room while Noah disappeared. Moments later, just as the tardy bell rung, the teen re-appeared grinning ear-to-ear as he, like his best friend, was now wearing his own hoodie. No one else around them paid much attention as to why the two boys were grinning so much, but as Noah folded and stored his original shirt out of the way, the class turned its attention to the next section of their math book.

On the bus ride home, however, Linda did notice. "Hey, where did you two get the cool-looking hoodies?"

Jesse explained about picking them up that morning, after which Noah added, "I got mine right after lunch."

"That's kind of cool, I think!" the girl exclaimed. "They look good on you both, too! So, when do you start with the team?"

"Next Monday, I think," Jesse replied, then explained the timetable Mr. Green had laid out to begin after the holidays. He then glanced around. "Is Addison not here?"

"Nope, she just spent the night with me again last night. That's why she was on the bus this morning."

Wrinkling his nose, Noah piped up. "I'm glad you two are good friends. She's really nice." He glanced at her and then added in a lower tone, "Almost as nice as you, I think!"

Linda drew back a few inches, before smiling. "Why, thank you, Noah! I didn't think you cared!"

Noah blushed, but then shrugged. "I've always cared, Linda. I know, I haven't shown it very well, but… I have. Especially since we gave, err, butt-face the slip."

Linda nodded, giggling at the near-expletive. "I know what you mean, yeah, although I think 'Mr. De-balled' is my new nickname for him. Still, it's sweet of you, and yes – Addison and I have been friends for a long time. I guess you've just never seen us around each other very much."

Noah grunted. "Maybe. I mean, it might have to do with you both being sophomores too, right? Me and Jesse, we're just the lowly freshman around here. You know, bottom-of-the-totem-pole brats."

Linda laughed but then leaned in and put an arm around the boy, pulling Noah close so she could whisper into his ear. "Yeah, but do you want to know something? You're far from being a brat, at least to me."

Jesse, who couldn't help but overhear the exchange, nodded in agreement. "That's kind of what I tell him, in… um… certain ways, I guess," he whispered, but then blushed at realizing it was supposed to have been a private exchange.

Linda giggled nonetheless, before changing direction and leaning in to Jesse's ear. "Then keep doing it. He'll believe it, one of these days."

As the girl pulled back, Noah gave them both a questioning look. "Huh?" he asked, but shook his head when Jesse shrugged. "Don't go telling him my deep dark secrets, girl," he admonished Linda, obviously not overhearing their exchange.

"What secrets? I don't know any secrets! Do you, Jesse? He never tells me anything!" she shot right back, making them all giggle. Jesse gave Noah a knowing grin, but then refrained from answering.

That night, Noah joined his friend for another study session, something that was becoming more regular as time continued to pass. Their parents didn't seem to mind, especially when they saw how much Noah's math grade had been improving, and that it even helped Jesse think through his own problems better than ever. The two had only made their way through about half the problems, before Noah finally reared back and stretched. "Sheesh, why did Mr. Garland have to give us homework tonight anyway?" he complained.

Jesse, stretched out upon the bed above him, laughed. "Because he's a teacher, I guess. Maybe it's because he knows we won't look at this stuff again for a whole week."

"Maybe," Noah replied, then sighed before picking up his book. "Problem 20 doesn't look at all like any of the others. Have you got to it yet?"

Jesse looked up. "I'm on number 26, so yeah, I think I have." He saw Noah roll his eyes, but shrugged. "Sorry, I thought you were further along, too."

"No, I got hung up on the previous one until I realized it had to be re-factored first," Noah answered. He glanced around. "By the way, where's shortstop at?"

"Dad made him go to the store with him to get a few groceries. It's just you and me here right now," Jesse replied.

Noah, surprised, suddenly wheeled about and faced his friend. "Really?" he whispered. "And… you're going to let an opportunity like this go to waste? We're alone!"

Jesse laughed, but then pushed his book back out of the way. Grasping hold of Noah by the shirt, he pulled the teen in close until he had crawled on top. Jesse then inserted his fingers beneath the back of his friend's new hoodie, finding the warmth and silky touch of bared skin underneath. "No way," he whispered, although he blushed. "I just thought we'd get through the homework first, that's all."

Noah looked upon the face that met him and started to roll his eyes, but then thought better of it. "Come here," he whispered, and both boys embraced as warmly as they could manage, relaxing and breathing each other in. There was a certain level of intimacy in their moment, one which left them both contented. "This is so… awesome. Just this, you and me… you know?"

"Yeah," Jesse replied, his eyes closed. They flexed with each other, squirming and shifting at times, until eventually they fell and rolled up side-by-side. At one point, Jesse's notebook and text poked at them, so he took time to lay them on the floor, out of the way. When he brought his head back up, he noticed Noah had kicked off his shoes and was in the process of wrapping his legs around Jesse.

"Don't worry, I'm not going to try anything naughty," his friend whispered, as they once again held each other. Jesse did lean in eventually and give his friend a light kiss on his lips, which made Noah smile. "I take it you still love me then, right? At least a little bit?"

Jesse scoffed. "It's only been three nights, Noah… sheesh!"

Noah laughed. "So? Just checking, that's all. Maybe three nights between us, but… uh, I've still had some horny moments since then, too, if you know what I mean," he whispered.

Jesse looked on for a moment, but then slipped his hand down to Noah's waist. "Yeah, I've made a few messes, too," he whispered back. Entering with little resistance, he inserted his fingertips inside the front of his friend's sweatpants and briefs as Noah sucked in his gut. Pushing down inside, Jesse found the expected patch of silky public hairs surrounding a softened little Noah, which was snuggled atop a set of testicles. "Does this show you anything, about my still loving you?" Jesse asked, his smile disarming his friend completely.

Noah moved his head closer. "Oh, heck yeah, but… you don't have to, you know," he whispered.

"I know I don't, but… I want to. Besides, this tells me that you still trust me back," the teen replied. He wiggled his fingers briefly, engaging with the boy-ness that belonged to his friend, but then slowly pulled his hand back outside. He knew it was something he needed to do, especially given how Noah was beginning to change and fill out underneath. It was something he knew they needed to avoid if possible.

"MMmmmmm…." Noah murmured before letting go a huge sigh. "Jesse, when something feels that good, how can I ever not trust you?"

Surprisingly, Jesse giggled. "I guess you can't, because neither can I." He leaned in and kissed Noah again, lightly across his lips, lingering for the contact. When his friend started to part his lips, however, Jesse broke away and leaned back. "We can't. I mean, don't get me wrong, I want to - I really WANT to - but, if we start Frenching and making out, then that usually leads to us really getting worked up, and if we do that, we'll have to get naked, and if we get naked…"

Noah sighed, but nodded his understanding. "We'd start getting kinky, I know. I get it, sorry. I wasn't thinking," he replied, a certain amount of disappointment edging its way into his voice.

Jesse smiled at him. "I'll get kinky with you anytime you want, bro, just… we have to kind of be safe about it, that's all. I don't know how soon Dad and Benji will get back, and Mom, she's supposed to be getting off work really soon, if she hasn't already." He suddenly became bashful. "That's why I didn't, like… earlier…"

"Okay, okay! I understand, honest!" Noah whispered before embracing his friend again. "So, let's just lay here for a few minutes, okay?"

A few minutes was actually all it turned out to be, as before long they both heard the back door suddenly being opened, followed by two chattering voices as they entered. Noah grinned before he pulled off. "I'm gonna go pee, okay?" he whispered. Jesse nodded and, while his friend was gone, he took a few seconds to right the bed covers and bring back his school materials. He had just settled in when Benji hurried through the door.

"Hey turtle-butt! Where's Noah?" the young boy asked.

Jesse nodded in the direction of the bathroom. "Went to pee, I think."

Benji suddenly got a wicked-looking grin on his face and hurried from the room. The next thing Jesse heard was his little brother suddenly pounding on the bathroom door, laughing loudly. "Shit!" a somewhat muffled voice exclaimed, followed by Benji yelling out, "Score!" before returning back to the room.

Jesse shook his head, clearly aware the prank his brother had pulled on their guest was nothing short of one they had pulled on each other many times before. Catching someone unexpectedly, especially in mid-stream, and watching the panic and surprise that followed was often hilarious. As he grinned, he heard that same muffled voice as before, call out, "Just you wait, Benji! You little turd!" The laughter that followed, however, told them Noah was far from angry.

In fact, when Noah stepped back into the room, he moved swiftly to grab the smaller boy up and turn him upside down. Moving over to the bed, Noah worked until he had hooked Benji's feet inside the upper rail of the bed, leaving him hanging there with shrieks of laughter. "Whee!" Benji exclaimed, his shirt falling toward the floor, exposing his entire mid-belly to the room. That was when Noah closed in and put his lips all over that exposed belly, blowing raspberries left and right, while using one arm to make sure the boy did not slip and fall prematurely. Jesse laughed, watching the exchange and noting how totally helpless his brother was, hanging there and suffering the tickling-like 'punishment' Noah was giving him.

After a short period, Noah finally stopped and dropped, bringing his face down to Benji's level. "That was cruel," he murmured, which made Benji laugh even more.

"Yeah, b-but this w-was more f-fun!" the boy admitted when he had caught his breath. He tried to stretch his arms back against the lower bunk, and then out to the floor, before he gave up. "Um, I need help to get down, though."

Noah grunted and thought about teasing him more, but then decided against it. He stood and lifted the smaller boy's feet clear of the bed-rail, before flipping his body around and setting him on the bed, the young boy squealing all the while. Glancing at Jesse, Noah asked, "Is that… normal? What he did to me back there?" he asked with a sly look.

Jesse only shrugged. "We've done all kinds of goofy things before."

Noah sat down. "Oh yeah? Like what?"

Benji crawled over and plopped himself beside their guest. "Like the shower-water-thingy, for one."

"Oh no," Jesse groaned, before cracking up.

Benji grinned, but then explained. "It's like, when you take a shower, but someone gets a glass or… or something filled with cold water, and they pour it on you when you least expect it!"

Noah face turned into a horrified expression. "No way!" When both Jesse and Benji began giggling, the teen shook his head. "Damn! You guys are mean, then!"

"Sometimes, yeah," Jesse admitted. "It's all just goofy-fun stuff, though." He gave his friend a sly look. "You'll learn some of them, I bet."

Noah laughed, but then shook his head. "Damn!" he whispered again, before reaching for his notepad. "So, are you going to show me what you did with problem 20, and help me catch up?" He looked down at Benji just then. "Sorry squirt, we still have a little more homework to get done."

Benji began rolling his way out of the bed. "That's okay. Dad bought some ice cream bars… I'm gonna go see if I can go get us some."

The next day at the beginning of their gym class, both Noah and Jesse were walking onto the floor after having changed out, when someone sidled up to them. "Hey!"

Noah recognized the teen right away. "Hey, Jacob, how's it going?"

Jacob nodded. "Good, I think. Some of us guys are aiming for that basketball goal down in the corner over there, when coach finishes roll call. You two want to join us? It'll make a full team of five on both sides and all."

Jesse glanced at his friend before answering. "Sure, why not?"

There was a time when such an inquiry might have surprised him, but things had been changing recently. Jesse noted that on the bus, in the hallways, even in the classrooms, many of his peers were now a lot friendlier and more pleasant to get along with than before. Several engaged him in conversations, or such like now in gym classes, where he and Noah were both being invited to participate with the other guys more often. At least, Jesse thought, he himself was. Noah, on the other hand, had always been popular enough in Phys Ed to team up with any of the other groups. Now, sometimes outright, but others in more subtle ways, it seemed the guys were beginning to include Jesse, too.

Jesse and Noah joined in then, for the day had already been declared one of free activity, although still requiring physical activity. It wasn't unheard of before, as some days the coaches didn't care as long as students were participating in something together. For Jesse, Noah and this group that had gathered, the two teams of five began an all-out quest for dominance. Fortunately, the boys let Noah and Jesse join in on the same side, and thanks to the increased practicing the two had already been doing on their own, both played practically as well as the others.

It wasn't long before one of the boys on the opposite team stood dumbfounded, after a particularly long sequence which ended with Jesse out-jumping the teen some 12-feet from the goal, flat-footed, and blocking a high-arching shot. "How the hell can you keep doing that?" he exclaimed, making the others laugh.

"I don't know," Jesse replied meekly, shrugging.

"Do you know how high you can reach jumping like that?" another member of the team asked. When Jesse shook his head 'no', the boy stepped back. "Come down here under the goal, and try to jump and touch the rim."

Jesse thought about it quickly, but then did as requested. The others gathered around as he established his footing, and then with a single effort, gathered all his strength and leaped up, stretching his right arm and hand to the sky, and coming to a very short space of touching the rim.

"Holy, shit!" Jacob murmured as Jesse returned to the floor. "You were only, like, an inch or two from the rim!" He then stepped closer. "Do it again," he requested, and when Jesse obliged, Jacob shook his head with disbelief. "What can you do with a running jump?"

Sadly, Jesse's countenance changed. "Not so good, really. I've never been able to run and jump the way I see a lot of you guys do."

Another boy, Aaron, approached. "Have you ever tried? I mean, has anyone ever tried to show you how to do it and all?"

"Not really, no," Jesse answered. Then, for the next ten minutes, several of the other players started working with him, showing him their steps and how they did it. Noah got in on the act, too, although he admittedly didn't do anywhere as well as the others seemed to do. Jesse tried to follow their instructions and tips, and he did improve a little, but in the end the results were rather lackluster. That is, until one of the guys approached up close.

"Is it okay if I touch you?" Terry asked. "I mean, understand: I want to show you something I think might make a difference, but I'm going to have to grab the back of your thigh, just below your ass, so you can feel how loose the muscle is when you're trying to do the jump, get it?" Jesse, his curiosity piquing, nodded. Terry then struck a pose before continuing. "Now, you're right-handed, I think, so bend forward as if you're going to make a run and jump. Forget the goal, forget having a basketball in your hand … forget about everything except the jump itself. You're going to do it in three steps." After Jesse mimicked the boy, the other teen reached in onto the bottom of Jesse's thigh, fairly close to the back of his crotch, before gripping the muscle and giving it a squeeze. "Okay, that's not really bad since we're just setting up. I expected it to be looser, but you've tensed up pretty good. As you take your first step though, notice how there's no real tightness in it lengthwise. Count your first step, moving forward with your right leg, but not putting any push behind your thigh. One…" Jesse took a step. "That's it, see how it feels different now where I'm squeezing? Now, take your next step, two…" Terry held his hand in place, but was squeezing the underside of the leg more firmly as Jesse progressed. "Stop and hold up a second… See? Feel the difference? Right now, that muscle doesn't even feel like it's getting ready for any kind of a real push off. I mean, it feels about like a running muscle is all." He stopped suddenly and rotated. "Here, if you're not afraid to, grab my thigh and feel how my muscle is tight and ready to spring."

Jesse obliged and suddenly became more interested as he felt the difference, which then made Terry turn back and resume their previous position. "Okay, so now your last step is where you will actually make the jump. This time though, lock the muscle down and put all your weight behind on this leg, right where I'm gripping you. That weight is what your muscle has to overcome, see? We know you've got the power and thrust in your legs; you wouldn't be able to flat-foot it if you didn't! I think the deal, though, is that you have to translate it into your running stride without relaxing it, that's all. So, now, do it, back up and start again, but this time take the third step, and without coming back onto the floor or anything, use it to propel that weight you've got cocked up into your jump. You launch yourself upward at the middle and end of it." Jesse did as he was instructed, and although he did not make it very high into the jump, he could definitely feel there was a difference in how this rotation changed everything.

"Wow!" he exclaimed, getting excited before turning around and doing it again. Three or four tries later, he had definitely improved in the effort.

Terry nodded, grinning. "You see it, don't you? And you feel it, too. That's the kind of conditioning you need to learn in order to make running jumps, and eventually dunks." The teen then turned to Noah. "How about you? Are you game to try it?"

Noah hesitated only briefly. "Yeah, sure, I'm game." Terry then repeated the performance with similar instructions, and Noah himself had to admit he had a different sensation in his legs after a couple of tries. "You think that's all there is to it?" he asked the other boys.

"Just about," Travis said aloud as he approached. "I've got one last thing to add," the teen started, but then blushed. "Although it's going to sound totally weird, maybe even perverted. Like Tery said, you have to kind of condition your whole, you know, not just your abdomen, but your hips, your lower, ah, places and all too, like your crotch, before you make the leap." Grinning sheepishly, he lowered his voice. "So, one way to do that is to clench your butt muscles as you begin making the transition. I know, it sounds goofy and it's kind of a hard thing to master all at once, but if you time it right while you're pushing off from the run, you'll end up channeling that momentum into an upward thrust. I mean, most normal people can't hardly jump eight feet without running, see? You can almost jump 10-feet flat-footed from the floor! What you've got to do though, in order to change it, is make everything tighten up while you transition into the jump itself. That's what Terry is trying to tell you. So, if you can kind of clench your butt together while you're running, you'll see why it feels different, but then you'll also notice how it pulls all those muscles together." Some of the guys around them nodded, although a couple started snickering, which made the teen blush before shrugging it off. "It's something a coach told me about once, and I have to admit, once I figured it out for my part, it made it a lot easier to learn. I can't quite dunk the goal yet, but I do come pretty close to it."

"He's actually right about that," Terry commented, stepping close again. "But, uh, don't worry - no one here is going to grab your ass, I promise." That brought a quick round of chuckles from the others. "Did you feel what I was trying to tell you about your muscle and all? Did it make sense why I, uh, you know, grabbed the back of your leg?"

"Yeah, I did…" Jesse confessed. "And don't worry, I didn't think anything bad of it."

The teen nodded with a half-smile. "It's one of those things you don't realize, I think, unless you kind of get a feel behind it. I had a physical therapist that showed me something like that once." Terry stopped and lowered his voice one last time. "Seriously man, I know it sounds a little out there, but just park it in the back of your head. It took me a while to get it, but when I did, it started making a big difference in the way I play my game. I don't always get high enough, but there's been a few times I've dunked the ball. Master it, and you might get enough distance out of it so you can do it yourself. Maybe even end up doing it like they do in college, or in the pros."

"Or like Rigdon," one of the other boys chimed in.

Travis nodded. "Yeah, Tim's a senior this year, and he can slam dunk the ball with the best of them. Kyle Graham is another one."

"No way!" Jesse uttered in a hushed voice.

"Yes way, believe it or not. I mean seriously, if you can flat-foot almost to the rim, think what you could do with a bunch of added momentum. It takes a bit of practice, though, so don't be surprised if you don't learn to do it overnight," Terry commented.

Jesse nodded. "Okay, I'll try to keep it in mind then. Thanks guys." The group surrounded him and then all offered a central mid-air fist bump as a team, one which both he and Noah accepted with pride.

While they were changing back into their regular clothes, Terry sauntered over into the corner where Noah and Jesse were now pulling on their shoes. "You know, I should apologize for that out there. I don't think we intended for it to get that, ah, methodical."

Both boys returned his grin, while Jesse shrugged. "I thought it was really cool, myself. I didn't know there was such a science behind it all."

"I knew there was a science," Noah added, "but I've never heard anyone explain it to me anywhere like that."

Terry nodded. "I'm not surprised, really, but it's all good." He glanced between both. "Sorry I got so close to no-mans-land, too," he offered, his voice barely above a whisper.

Jesse shrugged it off. "You told me what you were going to do, so no sweat. I wasn't worried." Noah added his agreement. They chatted another minute or so, then all three bumped fists in mid-air and made their way out toward their final class of the day.

"So, what are the plans for tomorrow?" Jesse asked, settling in to his seat while the bus pulled from the parking lot to make its daily route toward home.

"Mom said we're leaving early afternoon tomorrow to go to Nashville. We're going down to spend the night with my Aunt Vonda and her husband and have Thanksgiving dinner with them Thursday," Noah replied, a hint of disappointment in his voice. "It'll be boring, for sure."

Jesse glanced at the landscape sliding by before he shrugged. "Maybe, but… you'll survive. I don't think we're doing anything special. Mom and Dad have to work a while tomorrow, but then they're supposed to be off on Thursday. Benji and I will probably get wrapped up in something."

"What about tonight? Want to play some more Aggravation? Or, we could play Monopoly or something else, too…" Noah asked.

"I don't know, really. I mean, I want to say yeah, but with Dad home and this being one of those short weeks, I probably should wait and see what we're getting into," Jesse replied. He then turned and grinned at his friend. "We will otherwise though, if you want too."

"Heck yeah! I wouldn't have asked if I didn't want to, you know!" Noah commented, rolling his eyes. "My place or yours?"

"Doesn't matter. Might be better at yours, if you don't want Benji getting mixed up with us," Jesse admitted.

Noah shrugged. "I wouldn't care. He hasn't bugged me yet, so far anyway." He glanced up and leaned in. "We've said it before, he's pretty cool… for a half-pint, anyway."

Jesse suddenly snorted and then began giggling. "Oh… my… gawd! Listen, do me a favor… no, actually do yourself a favor! Never, ever call him that while he's around!" When he saw the look of curiosity, he explained. "Have you ever watched a TV series called 'Little House on the Prairie'? It's about a family living somewhere in the Midwest, like in the mid-to-late 1800's, living on a farm of some sort, I think."

Noah shook his head. "I don't think so, although I think I've heard about a book or something with that title."

Jesse settled back. "There is, yeah – a whole series of them, I think. Anyway, they made a TV show about the family and all, and Mom loves to watch that series, and some other older shows like it. I guess that was the TV she grew up with or something. Anyway, that family had two young girls, and one of them, the youngest, was named Laura Ingalls, but her Dad always called her by a nickname, 'half-pint'. Well, Dad made that mistake with Benji once, not that long ago back in the summer, I think. If you think you've seen my brother get wild, then watch out… he laid into Dad for hours about that one! He wasn't no stinking girl, and he was far from being little anymore, and… and…" Jesse laughed again. "You should have heard and seen it, really. Dad had to suffer through that business for almost a whole week! Ben shut down on him, wouldn't talk to him or anything. You know, gave him the cold shoulder treatment and all. It really got him going!"

Noah grinned. "I didn't think anything fazed him like that, given all the nicknames we've been calling him," he remarked, making Jesse scoff.

"Not a lot of stuff does, but there are a few things, yeah…" Jesse replied, still giggling from the memories. "Mostly, just don't infer anything that can trigger or associate him with being a girl. He HATES that stuff!"

"I'll try to remember it, then," Noah commented. He quiet for a moment, before he spoke again. "Jess, can I ask you something? Kind of personal?"

Jesse glanced at him. "Sure, what's up?"

"Did you ever, like, care for… you know, girls?" Noah whispered.

Jesse relaxed and leaned in closer to his friend, thinking momentarily before he responded. "Yeah, sometimes," he whispered back. "I mean, for a while, I had a crush on our neighbor, Addison, but please – don't tell her that, okay? It was just, I don't know, puppy love I guess, because she was older and more mature, that kind of thing. I really liked her though, and I still do - as a friend. She was one of the few that I thought of as being kind of cool, for a girl I mean." He turned and smiled. "She always has been."

Noah nodded. "There's a girl or two I count among my closest friends, too. I…" He hesitated, but then decided he really had nothing to hide. "Remember what I told you, about kind of getting in with Pete's group and all? Linda was in there, too, and for a little while in the beginning, I kind of had a crush on her. She would flirt with me sometimes, you know, just goofy stuff. She still does every once in a while, but meh. I never, like, got worked up about her. I mean-"

"I know what you're saying, bro," Jesse interrupted him, his voice soft between them. "Linda is pretty nice, too, I think. But, honestly, I think you're like me… when it comes to, you know, down here," he paused and inconspicuously pointed toward his groin. "When it comes to down there, nothing really ever happened, did it?" When Noah shook his head, Jesse smiled. "See? That's the same way it was for me. You might say that's why I always figured I was, you know… the other way."

Noah couldn't help but smile. "Same here. It's what drove me for so long, hating everything and almost everyone around me for it, though."

Jesse bumped shoulders with his friend. "It's okay, though. I always figured I'd have to leave home before I'd ever really find someone to like, hang out with, you know… love and do things like we do. Finding you, though…" His voice tapered off though, the meaning fully understood between them both.

"Can I ask you something else?" Noah whispered. Seeing the nod, he turned his eyes down. "When did you suspect anything, about me? Or did you never really suspect, like, before the night I told you everything?"

"That's a good question," Jesse acknowledged, thinking briefly. "I don't think I really suspected anything for a while. I mean, we started cuddling and everything, but there was nothing wrong with that as far as I was concerned. Though, looking back, perhaps neither of us realized what was going on deep down inside yet. You know, as long as we were both comfortable with it and all, I thought it was just kind of nice, because not only did you need someone, but I did too, in a way. I mean… you kind of needed a shoulder and someone to listen and hold you, and I needed to feel, I don't know, that I just wasn't so alone, with only a little brother to clinging to me." He smiled then. "Noah, when you started trusting me, even just a little, it kind of opened up my feelings a lot on the inside, too. I mean, we all have problems, bro, whether we'll admit to them or not. I never expected you to start, like, trusting me as much like you did though, see? Especially after the way we kind of got started off together." He sighed. "But I think, I don't know, maybe that last night before the 'talk' as you call it, when we really, uh, kind of bared ourselves and all and held each other and everything? I might have suspected something then, but… I don't know if I thought of it turning out the way it did or not. Especially with what we ended up doing later on."

"How come?" Noah asked.

"I don't know… I mean, I read in a book somewhere about how guys can get curious and stuff, like Benji is with me now. And I know some guys will hold their little brothers and sisters, too. Mom always told us, me and Benji, that holding and hugging a kid was like experiencing a little slice of Heaven, because it always makes you feel so good on the inside and all, especially when it just comes out of the blue. You know, unexpected like."

Jesse sighed before he continued. "But, what we did, what we were doing, it wasn't just curiosity, you know? I mean, we felt something for each other, and not just physically, either. We both got something out of cuddling up that went way beyond that," Jesse explained. "I don't know if I can explain it any better than that, Noah. It's just, I felt something, like I told you, on the inside. I knew better by then not only that I could trust you, but I could trust you with my heart."

Noah smiled, but fell quiet briefly before he could speak again, although this time with a hint of emotion in his voice. "You know, I'd hug you right now if I could," he whispered. "I would really squeeze the stuffing out of you if I could get away with it."

Jesse laughed. "If you did that, you'd have to push it all back in," he replied teasingly. He then pushed his hand into the seat between them, and waited for Noah to do the same, their gym bag and backpack secluding the space. Grasping, they both locked fingers before Noah looked up and smiled.

"I would, in a heartbeat, just for you," the teen whispered.

Jesse scoffed, but then nodded. "I know you would, just like I would for you." He paused before adding, "You okay?"

"Oh hell, Jesse, I am so way much better than okay, it's unreal," was the response. Noah fell quiet then, and they rode the rest of the way home, lost in their own thoughts.

None of the boys were able to reunite again, however, until much later. That night and part of the next day, the McAllister family spent time giving the house a deep cleaning, something Makalah had been unable to find the time for since returning to work. Although no one would tell from the appearance of the uncluttered spaces, carpets and upholstery were steam cleaned and straightened, as well as much dusting throughout the living space. Rugs were taken outside and shaken or beaten, walls were washed in places, countertops in both the bathrooms and kitchen were scrubbed hard, and other tasks were performed that went well above and beyond the usual everyday attention.

Both Jesse and Benji were caught up in the activities with their parents, thus forgoing any opportunities to get together before Noah had to leave with his parents. Interspersed throughout the afternoon while their parents worked on Wednesday, both boys took breaks to watch TV or play video games, but were mostly charged with finishing various chores that kept them occupied. When first Makalah, and then James, arrived home Wednesday evening, both were impressed and pleased at the outcome, and let the boys know it from the outset. A light supper was prepared of hot soup and sandwiches, and soon both boys turned in early, watching a movie before falling fast asleep.

Thanksgiving Day arrived with more than one surprise after breakfast. It appeared that the evening before, James had brought in several packages of holiday lights to use outdoors, and as he unveiled them, both Jesse's and Benji's faces lit up. "Wow! Are we going to put these up?" Benji asked.

"No, we'll hire the National Guard to do it for us!" their father teased, then grinned and ruffled his son's hair. "Of course, we are! And right now, I think. That is, if you boys are game!" All four family members then eagerly got involved, and for the next three hours or more, spent the early afternoon hanging various strands around shrubbery, fixing others on the gutters, and basically decorating the front of the house with a dazzling array of festive colors for the upcoming holiday season. In the end, they plugged them in and walked out into the front yard to view their day's handiwork. With the overcast skies dampening the late afternoon sunlight, it was easy enough for them to review and make a few corrections in places they had overlooked. Once done, James unplugged the set and announced he would bring in timers the next day that would control the festive exhibition.

After they returned to the house, Makalah shooed both boys off for another shower, advising them to be quick and to dress warmly. "Why, where are we going?" Benji asked curiously.

"Well, remember the Christmas lights that were up around that lake in Elizabethtown? You know, we drove around it last year… Your father and I thought we'd do it again, and maybe splurge on some dinner while we're at it," Makalah explained. She saw the excitement building in his eyes before chuckling. "Now, go on, both of you! And don't dawdle - we need to get going soon."

"How soon is soon?" Jesse asked, as he climbed to his feet.

"Um, I think there's enough time for you each to get ready," their mother replied. Satisfied, the two boys made their way through the hall and to their bedroom. In Jesse's mind, his mother left no question as to the urgency, but yet still allowed time for both to simply get ready.

"You go first," Jesse offered, which Benji nodded as they both began to pick out fresh clothes.

"You could join me, if you wanted," Benji whispered, but Jesse shook his head.

"Not this time, little bro. Mom said we'd each have time, so we don't want to push it, I think. Just, uh, save me some hot water, okay?" Jesse replied.

Benji grinned, but then nodded as he hurried out of the room. "Back in a flash, or I'll get a rash!" he called out. Indeed, ten minutes later the boy returned, all the while drying his head with a towel. "It's all yours."

Jesse headed out, and before long was in the midst of taking his own shower. He was trying to be quick, and as such was distracted to the point he never heard or saw the door to the bathroom open. While shampooing his hair, he suddenly sensed when the shower curtain was being pulled back, but before he could react, a sudden splash of cold water hit him all along his side, followed by wild laughter as the curtain fell back into place and the door suddenly slammed shut. "Ah!" he cried out, then grinned. "I'll get you, you little bugger! That was COLD!" He quickly turned his side into the warmer water stream and let it flow, quickly soothing the affected area, before he finally rinsed the shampoo away and finished his shower.

When he returned to their bedroom, he was dripping wet with nothing but his towel draped around him. He found his brother laughing uncontrollably, burrowing into the corner of the room beside their closet. Jesse closed the door and grinned evilly as he turned to approach the boy, thinking a little rough-housing and tickling might be in order, but instead he saw his brother's towel lying on the floor between them, and thus he picked it up. Using it on his own head and hair, it was slowly becoming obvious nothing was going to immediately happen. Benji looked him over, puzzled. "Aren't you gonna like, get me, or something?"

Jesse grinned. "Maybe later, but not now." He did walk over and successfully pick his brother up, before carting him to the bottom bunk of their bed. "You can stay here though, while I get dressed, so I know I won't get any more surprises out of you." He saw the gleam in his brother's eye, so he stopped. "That was COLD, you little fart! Where did you get the water anyway?"

Benji snickered. "From the refrigerator. It was just a full glass, though."

Jesse shook his head and then pulled his towel off and used it to quickly dry himself, Benji sitting there and watching him the whole time. As he donned a pair of briefs and t-shirt, he noticed that his brother was already practically finished himself, short of any shoes. Seeing the familiar pair by the door, Jesse picked them up and tossed them over. "Here, do something besides ogling my ugly, naked ass for a change," he whispered. Benji giggled, but then set about his task.

Minutes later, both emerged from their room to find their father had just finished getting ready himself. He looked upon his sons approvingly. "You fellas look pretty smart, I think. Say, what was all the yelling about a while ago?"

Benji started giggling again, making Jesse roll his eyes. "It was nothing Dad, just goofing around."

James shook his head and laughed. "Well, with you two, that's nothing new." Minutes later, Makalah appeared, and the family made their way out to their van.

The 50-minute drive to Elizabethtown took the family through a series of back-roads and highways that they rarely traveled. In many ways the trip made Jesse realize even more how urbanized their valley and township really was, at least geographically in the State. The trip was without incident, however, and once they arrived, the boys were pleased to see their parents pull into a Cracker Barrel restaurant for dinner. Although it was not a sensational niche, the chain provided a lot of variety of country platters and plates, and upon entering, they discovered the availability of special holiday meals being offered, focused around the traditional turkey, stuffing, ham and a collection of side dishes. When Benji heard this, he squealed with delight – causing his father to give the boy a look. "Stop squealing like a girl so much!" he protested, but then grinned when his son punched at him on his butt. There was an excitement to be had, and he was not going to dampen anyone's spirits any more than he had to. The only problem was the fact it seemed others had similar ideas, too, as the restaurant was packed. The McAllisters ended up waiting some time before getting a table, but once started, the group ate heartily.

Lastly, once they left the restaurant the family found darkness had settled over the area, leaving only a hint of the lingering sunset off to the West. After they all climbed aboard, James pulled from the parking lot and the family made their way into the inner-parts of the township, navigating until the aforementioned lake was upon their horizon. The next 45-minutes were then spent, driving slowly through one of the biggest outdoor exhibitions of holiday lights, music and sound in the entire State. Companies and groups from all over had decorated various scenes, using all types of lighting and materials to create backdrops of Santa, Rudolph and other fairy tales in splendor, as well as depictions of the Nativity, which reminded many onlookers of the reason for the season. Soft holiday music played in the background throughout the entire drive, and it was heart-warming to see and feel the changes the oncoming season was expected to bring.

Eventually, the McAllisters headed home, and by the time they pulled into their driveway, it was just before nine. It had been a long, but wildly fulfilling day for them all, something Jesse had not seen for a long time. Each of them had already started feeling the effects of their large supper, and with the long drive that followed, a certain stiffness had set in with the exhaustion. It was enough so that once inside, James held the boys up. "Hey, just so you two know, I won't be in until probably late afternoon tomorrow, and your Mom has to work from five until two."

"So, your Dad is telling you that you'll be on your own again. So, please - don't destroy the place, alright? We just gave it a good cleaning, remember?" Makalah added, smiling at them.

"I promise not to drown Jesse or anything. Besides, I'd have nowhere to hide the body," Benji stated. Before Jesse had time to react, however, the young boy looked up at his mother. "Hey Mom, can Noah come over, or we go over there tomorrow then?"

"I don't see why not, just … keep it tame, alright? Don't get too wild with anything," Makalah replied, and then kissed both boys on their forehead before wishing them goodnight. The foursome then broke up, the boys headed for their room while their parents did the same thing.

"You want to do anything tonight?" Benji asked, although one could tell his usual enthusiasm was lacking, especially when he yawned immediately afterwards.

"Not unless you just want to. There might be a movie or something on TV we could watch though," Jesse replied.

"That sounds good to me, especially if we can watch it together," the younger brother replied, yawning yet again. Jesse understood the implied remark, and smiled at how it seemed the two were getting to make cuddling more habitual as of late. He suspected, however, that Benji was going to be fast asleep, and soon.

"Sure, we can, little buddy," he whispered, before adding, "Besides, I think I owe you for the ice water today."

Benji groaned. "Get me back some other time, okay? At least when we're not so tired," he whispered, before leaning in and propping himself against the bigger teen while he kicked his shoes off.

Jesse sighed and then picked his brother up, placing him on the bed. Once there, he pulled Benji's socks off, and reached for his jeans. Quickly stripping them away, he did the same with his brother's sweater and shirt, leaving him in just his underwear. He thought of playing a prank, but decided against it as the day's adventures started to catch up with him as well. Instead, he found a sleeping shirt nearby and pulled it over Benji's head, taking his time as he pulled it down the small, slender body. "Okay, you've paid your bounty for now, but NEXT time… Watch out! I'm likely to pack some ice down in your underwear around that hot dog of yours," he whispered.

"Awww…" Benji whispered, before giggling. "I figured you'd go all out or something!" he whined, but then giggled again as he screwed his face up. "Ice? Sheesh - that would be COLD, though!" He then fell silent as he watched Jesse undress in front of him. The bigger teen turned on the TV and then climbed in next to his brother, where they then situated themselves up close where they could still see the screen without any obstructions.

"I did go all out, little bro," Jesse finally whispered back into his ear. "I just didn't strip you naked," he added, before wrapping the boy in his arms and rearranging the pillow for them both to share.

"You know I wouldn't have cared," Benji whispered.

"Yeah, I know," Jesse replied, giving him a brief hug, before moving down and blowing a raspberry on his bare belly button. Once again, Benji giggled insanely, but then ended up hugging his brother's neck close when he stretched back out. Jesse then used the remote, flipping through the channels until they came upon a Disney holiday movie. Once agreed, they both settled back as close as always.

Sometime later, Jesse happened to notice something strange in his peripheral vision, and once he turned, he noticed the wall opposite the bedroom's single window was lighting up before suddenly returning to normal. Raising his head, he found his brother had already fallen asleep as expected, so Jesse carefully extricated himself before rolling to peer out the window. As he searched for the source, he suddenly made out that Noah was in his window, which made him smile. In his friend's hand was a flashlight, which he chose once again to beam in their direction again. Jesse saw a similar, though less powerful flashlight sitting nearby, and reached out to grab it. He returned the signal, and thought he could make out Noah grinning with pleasure. Jesse then waved, which Noah returned enthusiastically.

Jesse had no personal media device of any type that could be used to reach out with, and although he and his best friend had collaborated on many things before, neither of them had yet come up with a better way of signaling between them. The two-way radios which Noah had found easily enough weeks before, had been old with heavily-corroded battery compartments, making them practically unusable. Given their situation, the only option the two had was basically to wave, which made Jesse sad. He would have loved to be able to chat, or something, right then. Instead, he smiled wistfully, realizing they had been separated now for over two days, and although he had been busy, he still felt a tinge of longing to be back together yet again.

Noah had been feeling the same way when he had initiated the attempt. He could tell the TV was on in the brothers' room, and as such reached out for the flashlight as a trial and error. After putting it away, he somehow adjusted his lamp so that it threw more light on him in the window, making the figure appear relatively clear. Jesse, realizing what his friend had done, looked around his immediate area, but knew there was little he could do in return – especially with his little brother at his side, sleeping peacefully. Sadly, Jesse turned his hands up as in surrender, before using them both to point down at the young boy beside him. He knew Noah wouldn't be able to see the younger brother, but he hoped the message made it across. Surprisingly, Noah seemed to understand, as the teen made an emphatic nod with a thumbs up gesture.

Jesse then watched as his best friend rose upon his knees in front of the window and pushed in close. At first, Jesse was amused, thinking his friend was just showing off himself wearing only a t-shirt and tightly clinging briefs. But after a few seconds, he realized Noah was making a series of gestures, slowly and deliberately, with his arms and hands. Before long, Jesse began to understand the signals were actually a series of letters. He thus waved frantically and held up a single finger, which Noah recognized and he paused. Then, Jesse slipped a notebook from his backpack and opened it to a blank page, and showed it in the window along with a pencil. Noah understood, and then started over again from the beginning. During the next few minutes, Jesse worked out most of the letters, and grinned when he finally recognized the single word: 'tomorrow'.

Jesse nodded emphatically to his friend and gave him two thumbs-up signals, which made Noah do an exaggerated act of fainting while falling back onto his bed. Jesse giggled, bowing his head and trying to look as sorry as he could imply, which in turn made Noah seemingly crack up on his side. When he returned his attention, however, he quieted and gave Jesse his own two thumbs-up, which underlined that all was finally understood. Moments later, Noah waved at him and then turned out his light, plunging his room into darkness. Jesse sighed and turned back, crawling back under the covers and wrapping his little brother up snuggly. He turned off the TV, and lay there thinking about the exchange and how cool it had turned out. Obviously, Noah was having similar feelings to those he had, and in some odd way, it made him feel better.

As Jesse snuggled with the smaller form he held, Benji hugged the arms in place. Whether the boy had woken or not was immaterial, because within minutes, Jesse fell fast asleep.

"You know, that was really cool last night. I just, I wish we had some kind of a system or something where we could chat better," Jesse mused, as he stretched his legs out in the floor.

"Yeah, I know. I wish Dad's radios had worked; they would have been almost perfect I think, especially since they had headphone jacks and all," the other teen replied. He made a quick turn with his car on the screen, before sending banana peels out and striking Jesse's car from behind.

"You little turd!" Jesse exclaimed quietly, laughing as the video game made him stop and reset onto the racetrack for the umpteenth time. "I know what you mean, though. I was up at the hardware store with Dad a few days ago, and I happen to look at some new ones they had on display. They're not cheap, though, like $50 bucks apiece, I think."

"Really? That is… yeah… more money than I can pull together very quick," Noah mused.

"Me neither. Last night," Jesse continued, "wasn't half-bad, but man, it sure took me a minute to realize what the heck you were doing at the end!"

Noah scoffed. "I didn't know if you were going to figure it out or not!"

"At first, I thought you were trying to show off to me," Jesse whispered, giggling.

"How so? Oh, you mean me and my fabulously well-endowed body, is that it?" Noah giggled. "Sorry bro, not that time. By the way, how well did you see me and all, especially after I pulled the blinds up?"

"Really good, actually. I just – sorry, it took me a minute to figure out that you were really making letters and all, instead of… yeah." Jesse sighed. "It still took me a few seconds, though. That first one, it looked like a timeout and all, so I was here sitting here thinking, 'okay, what does he want a timeout for?' I'm thinking, with all the others and everything, how the heck did that fit, you know? Then when you got to the 'O' and 'R', it started making more sense. That's when it just clicked. The timeout was actually a 'T', then the 'O' and so on…"

"Well, it worked at least." Noah shrugged. "Honestly though, I was just trying to be goofy for the most part. It was kind of boring and all after we got home."

"I noticed you guys got home a little after we did, I think. How long of a drive is it to your aunt's house?" Jesse asked. "It was in Nashville, right?"

"Yeah. A couple of hours, I guess, maybe a little more. It wasn't all the way into Nashville, but instead kind of up on the north side, so that helped," Noah replied, as he came upon Jesse from behind again in the video game. This time, however, his best friend was waiting for him, and easily jumped out of the way as the banana peels shot out harmlessly, this time passing by untouched. "Aww," Noah mused, grinning.

"Not this time, buddy!" Jesse whispered, and then purposefully slowed to let Noah pass. Just as he went by, Jesse turned loose his trio of turtle shells, thus hitting the other vehicle not just once, but twice. He laughed then, before surging ahead and easily crossing the finish line seconds later. "Got ya!"

Noah laughed too, but shook his head. "Yeah, yeah… That was pretty wicked, I admit."

"So," Jesse started, but then hesitated. "Is your Mom still taking us to Walmart later? Oh, and are we going to the parade, too?"

"Oh, yeah to both. She just wanted to wait for the bigger crowds to thin out some this morning. She's already gone shopping once earlier, but then came back home looking all frazzled about the time I woke up," Noah replied. "She said it was a madhouse out there, which – it usually is."

"I know. Dad always says they get overrun down at the hardware store and all," Jesse nodded.

"Everybody does the day after Thanksgiving," Noah commented, setting his controller down. "The stores do, anyway. She's taking us though, so we supposedly get an opportunity to do some Christmas shopping on our own, if we want to. You know, buy something for our parents or anybody else."

Jesse nodded, but turned to stare out the window. "Are you, like, going to buy something for your parents?"

"Yep, although I have no idea what it will be yet. Plus, there'll be the added problem of getting it home without them knowing what it is, too," Noah responded. "I'll probably just look for some kind of idea or two, then arrange some way to get it later. Maybe your Mom or Dad might help me out."

Jesse rolled his eyes. "Of course, they will, you know that!" he then set back and became thoughtful.

As Noah observed him curiously, he finally broke the silence. "Uh, what's wrong?"

Jesse suddenly started, before smiling and turning back. "Nothing. Absolutely nothing. When do we go?"

Noah glanced at the clock. "I think we're supposed to head over in about a half-hour or so." Glancing around, he raised his eyebrow. "By the way, where's our runt?"

Jesse jerked his head in the direction of the living room. "Watching cartoons. He decided you and I needed some alone time, too."

"You've got to be kidding me!" Noah laughed, and then shook his head. "That little booger! I think I'm beginning to like him more and more every day!" He arched both eyebrows, and lowered his voice to just above a whisper. "So, do you think it would be alright if I get him a Christmas present, too? Nobody will mind it, right?"

Jesse nodded. "As far as I'm concerned, you can do anything you want, Noah. But… don't get me anything, okay? We talked about this the other day, remember? I've already got what I want, and that's my best friend, right here, being next to me. Besides, I'm not so sure I'd get much money right now to do anything for anyone as it is, so…"

"How bad is it?" Noah whispered, when the other boy had fallen silent again. He already knew it was touchy subject for the family, but he also knew his friend would tell him. Sure enough, Jesse turned and observed him for a few seconds before settling back with another deep sigh.

"I don't know, really. I just know Dad is having a hard time with the insurance people, and although that benefit thingy, you guys, and some other people have been a big help, he's still got a lot of pressure on him right now. I think he's worried, to be honest, but he won't tell us anything. I just… I don't really know a lot more than that. He and Mom are keeping it pretty hush-hush between them."

"Sounds… tight," Noah mused. "I am sorry, but… if there's anything I can do, let me know, okay? As far as you and me, I have a little money – not a lot, but if it'll help any…"

"It's okay," Jesse replied with a smile. "We're going to be okay - I know we are. It's just the time of year and everything, and having to deal with so many things we don't know, I guess. But we'll be fine, I'm sure." Although his tone was upbeat, Noah could detect that his friend might not be as convinced of it as he let on.

"Listen," Noah began again. "I think Mom is planning to give you and Benji a little money when we go out - just you two, so you'll have a little something to spend and all." Noah stopped when he saw his friend about to protest. Slipping his arm around Jesse's waist, he tried to head off the protest. "Jess, trust me - I understand, okay? But… I think in a way she knows that all you guys are still, like, catching up and recovering, okay? This… it's kind of a way she's stepping in to help, but without looking like she's stepping in to help - or at least something like that. She's helping you two, so your parents don't really have to step up to the plate and all. Get it?"

"But…" Jesse started, but Noah squeezed him gently.

"No buts, okay? Don't worry about it. It's not like she's going to give you guys a whole bunch of cash, but meh, whatever it is, it'll be something at least that'll help. Just look around and try and find something, okay? At least for your Mom and Dad, maybe even Benji, too – although we don't have to buy his today. I mean, if we just find something and tell Mom about it, then maybe she can go back later. Or, maybe Dad can take me back over there and I'll get it." Noah leaned in a little closer. "Please, Jesse, just… trust me about this, okay?"

"But…" Jesse sighed. "I'm not too sure Dad is going to like it." He sighed. "You have to understand something, Noah. We've given each other gifts and things like that before and all, but… we never made a big deal out of that side of Christmas before, at least not for the gifting part like some people do. We've always done the lights, the food, the church – all that stuff, but… It's just… I don't know, it's just hard to explain." The change in mood did not escape Noah's attention.

"But… why? It's not like, I don't know, some big charity thing - it's just us. It's just… it's Christmas, Jess!" Noah whispered. "For this, it's just you, me and the runt in there, okay?"

Jesse looked up into the eyes that met him, as if searching for something, but then he finally smiled in defeat. "Okay, I'll drop it. I mean, me and Benji usually try to do something for Mom and Dad in some way or another, so yeah… I guess that'll work. I admit, it doesn't otherwise look like we're going to get to do it this year, so maybe… we'll see." He sighed deeply. "I'm sorry, bro. I'm really not trying to be a sourpuss or anything." With that, the boy sat up straighter. "Um, half-an-hour, huh? I guess we better get changed into some better clothes then."

Noah giggled. "Maybe, yeah. Those sweats have a hole in the back, right over the middle of your ass, I think."

"Yeah, I know. Something got caught in the washing machine, like a nail or something, and it ended up ripping some of our clothes. Dad found it, but of course by then it was too late." Jesse then stood and stretched, before silently making his way over to their dresser and pulling out some fresh replacements, not only for himself, but for his little brother as well. "Be right back," he announced to his friend before disappearing, taking Benji's change with him.

Moments later Jesse returned empty-handed, and then proceeded to strip to his briefs. Noah watched him nonchalantly, thinking little of it given how comfortable they had become with each other by now. Still, while stretching for yet a second time, Jesse leaned sideways as he yawned, drawing the entire length of his body taut and leaving an image his friend could not dismiss easily. It was then Noah reached up and poked the other teen in his navel, before giggling. "You dope!" he teased, whispering.

Jesse only shrugged. "At least I'm just your dope," he retorted back with a grin. He pulled on a lightweight t-shirt, followed by the new hoodie he had obtained from school that week. Then he approached and sat down on the edge of the bed, taking advantage of the elevated height to pull on a pair of socks, followed by his jeans. As he was finishing, Noah finally moved up to sit by him.

"You're my dope, maybe, but you're my best friend, too." He offered a fist-bump between them, which Jesse met happily, but who also leaned in bumped shoulders with him.

"Mine, too. So, come on, let's make sure Benji's getting ready and then head on over to your house," he replied softly, standing and offering his friend a hand up, which Noah readily accepted.

"Hey, Jesse! Come here and look at this!" The small voice that called out caught the attention of the older teens, who looked up and about to find what direction it had originated from. "Over here!" it repeated, and within seconds Jesse finally identified that his brother was only a couple of aisles away.

Finding Benji was not the immediate problem, however, but rather it was getting to him. Although the massive crowds from earlier that day had dissipated, the store had filled the main aisles with platforms and other displays, highlighting all of their seasonal sale items as advertised. Many of these blocked the side aisles, and both teens had to maneuver their way through a maze of packages and people before they could end up standing next to the boy. "How the heck did you get over here?" Noah asked in bewilderment.

Benji just shrugged. "I'm smaller than you, I guess." He pointed a short distance away. "Besides, your Mom is just over there, so I wasn't getting too far away."

"See that you don't, and you'll be okay. Now, what did you want to show me?" Jesse remarked quietly.

Benji grabbed his hand and pulled him down the current aisle about 15 feet and stopped before a display. "We used to have one of these, right? What do you think? Maybe get it for both Mom and Dad together? We should have enough money, right?"

Jesse stepped forward and pulled up the box, impressed. They had picked up several kitchen tools and devices already, but they had not yet replenished the loss of their toaster oven. "Hey, not a bad idea, squirt! How much is it?"

"It says $38.99 on this thingy here, but for today only. It's normally $59.97." The young boy looked up. "I know, we got $20 each, but if we put it together…"

Jesse nodded. "Yeah, close enough. Deal!" he declared, giving his brother a high-five. "Maybe Mrs. Cook will give us an extra dollar or two to cover the sales tax."

"She won't have to," Noah announced, pulling a folded pack of bills from his front pocket and handing a five-dollar bill to them. "Just give me back what's left. That should cover it."

Benji suddenly launched himself and gave the teen a quick hug, right in the middle of the store with several people standing around. A few women nearby looked on with a chuckle, but otherwise ignored the trio. "Thanks Noah!" the youngster exclaimed, as Jesse turned around and proceeded to look for Jennifer again before joining her. Arriving, he deposited the somewhat large box into her shopping cart. Benji explained what they were doing, which quickly received her approval.

After glancing at her watch, she turned her attention to Noah. "I've got one more thing I'm going to look for really quick, before I head up and get in line."

"That's cool, Mom, we'll watch for you. Is it okay if I go look for some of those cookies Aunt Vonda had the other day, and maybe get some?" her son asked.

Jennifer grinned. "Make it two packages if you find them," she replied, before wheeling her shopping cart in the opposite direction. All three boys started trying to move toward the grocery side of the store then.

"What kind of cookies?" Benji asked eventually, as they turned into the appropriate aisle.

"They're peanut butter and chocolate, dipped in fudge. Those things were awesome!" Noah explained. After searching for several minutes, however, the trio came up empty and decided to instead make their way to the registers. Just as they were leaving the aisle, however, Jesse happened to look up on the high shelf, before he stopped and pointed. "Were they like those?"

Noah's face lit up. "OOhhh yyeessss! That's them!!" When they found they couldn't reach them, however, Jesse picked up his little brother and set him squarely upon his shoulders, making the young boy squeal with delight. From that vantage point, the younger boy stretched and easily grabbed two of the targeted packages before passing them down. As they made their way to the front of the store, Jesse allowed his brother to stay in place, riding through the mass of people still walking through the aisles. The trio eventually found Jennifer waiting for them in line, so they all joined her and moved slowly toward the checkout. Although it took another 20 minutes, the group finally departed the store, considering the trip successful.

The parade was, as usual, just a light display, not as bright or effective as it could have been if held in the later hours of the evening. Some area residents, however, especially the elderly patrons, had complained about the late hour in recent years, thus prompting the city council to set the route and time for earlier in the day. Regardless, several local clubs, including some from their high school, participated along with marching bands from both their own and the nearby Taylor County high school. The police, fire departments, Lions clubs and more marched or rode on floats, together with horses or other decoratively dressed displays, along with varying clowns and smaller people dressed as elves – all throwing candies and the like into the crowds for both young and old. The parade lasted a good half-hour before it finally ended with Santa riding on the last float, waving and cheering with the toddlers and children who waved back and called out to him frantically.

Jesse could remember when, not that long ago, Benji had included himself among them. When it came to the aspects and magic of Christmas, Jesse had had a fantastic time playing his part for his little brother. There was an excitement in Benji's keen eyes, along with an abundant jubilance that stirred all of them deep down. For himself, when Jesse reached the age of discovery, it was a sadness and a hurt that took him a long while to get over. The older boys at school took away that one part of his childhood far too soon. The last few years had reintroduced it to a certain degree, all though watching the magic unfold in Benji's eyes. Jesse played his part well, however, keeping the faith and belief alive for him, and in turn, for himself – at least for a little while.

The teen suddenly rubbed his eyes and put a smile on, just as he saw his brother hurriedly trying to join them. He had been near the front of the row on the other side of the street, running about to collect as much candy as he could. When he approached, he suddenly pulled his hands from his pockets. "See? I didn't do too bad!" he exclaimed, quite happy with himself for collecting quite a bit of loot.

That's when Noah stepped up and looked it over before pulling out a sucker from within. Before Benji could protest, however, the teen emptied the content from his other hand into the boy's collection. "Is that worth a trade?" he asked slyly.

"Oh, heck yeah!" Benji replied, enthused. He even became more excited when Jesse added his own few pieces into the collection as well, causing it to overflow with bits falling to the street. All three laughed then, as the two taller boys suddenly bent down to pick up the dropped pieces, with the promise to give them to him later once they found a bag or something.

It was on the way home, however, that Noah whispered a question into Jesse's ear. The two were in the middle row, Benji having opted to ride beside Mrs. Cook in front. Jesse glanced at his friend, and then shook his head. "He's suspecting something, I know, but I don't think it has gotten very far yet," he whispered in return, as softly as he felt he could get away with in their enclosed space. Noah accepted the answer, but then sat in silence for the rest of the ride home. He listened to his mother and Benji conversing a lot about Christmas, Santa and more from the front seats, but a sadness began to envelop him.

It continued to turn into a somber evening for the two older boys. Once home, Noah forced a smile as he sneaked up behind Benji and gave the boy a warm, meaningful hug. Benji had no idea why, but he melted into the embrace, enjoying the closeness from the other teen for the moment, before breaking away and taking off. He wanted to show his mother the cache of candies he had collected from the parade, as well as prepare to watch a series of holidays specials due to be broadcast that night. Jesse and Noah exchanged knowing glances then, before bumping fists. "Tomorrow?" Noah whispered.

"Try and stop me," Jesse answered. "Hey, maybe you can spend the night with me, if you want?"

"That would be… awesome!"

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