The Storm That Turned the Tide

by Sean English

Chapter 13

Giving Thanks

Noah awoke the next morning to a brightly lit room. Outside, the sun was shining intermittently with only a partially clouded sky, which was not unusual for a late November day. Its beaming rays created an atmosphere of cheerfulness in his room. It was quiet, not at all that surprising given it was the beginning of the weekend. Unless his parents had some special project that they had planned to be involved with, they were the type, like Noah himself, to take advantage of a lazy morning and sleep later than usual.

As his senses focused, the teen glanced around his room and, perhaps for the first time, regarded it with a real appreciative expression. After thinking seriously regarding their next-door neighbors, listening to Jesse try and explain that their life was not as prosperous as some people, had made Noah take notice. He knew that his space was somewhat larger than what most kids, yet alone teenagers, were afforded to have at home. Being the only child of their family, initially he had resided in a smaller room upstairs until only a few years before. That was when his parents designed and finished out the basement as it was now, and had set a space apart for him while planning the new family room. He did not take for granted that he was luckier than most; it simply was what it just was. However, there were a few times, especially in recent weeks, when he had started to pause and reflect on it. When he turned and looked out of his window to observe the house next door, he recalled times when his grandfather had lived and that the man always instructed him to be humbled at having parents who were both smart and careful with things of value. Recalling that now, caused the teenager to shake his head, because he knew he had failed to do that for some time now – at least until the storm. He glanced at the house one last time, and thought about how, as of now, instead of by one person, it was occupied by four - and Noah knew the McAllisters were living in tighter quarters than the house was originally designed for – and living from one paycheck to the next, while trying to rebuild their lives. He began to sense the ominous cloud that must be hanging over them, and wished for once, he could help them.

At least, that was Noah's present perception. The two-story house, built more than 40 years ago, had housed Noah's grandparents and their three kids - all at a time when having an abundance of space was not necessarily a priority. Older farmhouses were known more for their simplicity, and although some people had added on or remodeled some of them at various stages – the sheer simplicity still showed through. Noah's Dad and two siblings had grown up in that house with their parents, for most of their lives. The upstairs housed a single bedroom with one small window on the side - where his Dad and uncle had stayed until they left home. Noah recalled seeing it once, before it had been closed off. It was a narrow room, small and hot during the summer, as it had only minimal insulation being up next to the roof. Winters were cold, but not to the extreme one might have thought. The heat from the downstairs wood stove, according to what he heard, easily drifted up through the stairs and vents. As long as they kept the bedroom door open, it never seemed overly 'cold', by nature.

Noah suddenly smiled, as he remembered his Dad telling him plenty of stories about life back in those days, especially about how he and his brother had lived in that small space during the summer. Often the two would just be in their underwear, or go stark naked at the peak of the season, which Noah thought was amusing to no end. Not that he ever envisioned or had a desire to envision his own Dad in his birthday suit, but it just went without saying how the two had gotten along that way. Noah wondered if it was the kind of trust between them that he and Jesse had found with each other. He didn't know, but as the stories went, that had caused issues at times with his aunt, who happened to have the downstairs bedroom all to herself - the one which Jesse and Benji now shared. As the story went, she and some of her friends would sneak up the stairs at times, hoping to catch her brothers in the buff, and supposedly they succeeded more than once. Jennifer had found the tales amusing, wondering how true the details were, but then Allen would only grin. Once, however, the man confided to Noah that he and his brother had stripped purposefully more than once, with the intention to either to freak the girls out, or tease their sister - or both. All Noah could say was that it must have been an interesting family dynamic at times, and he voiced that once to his Dad, who simply winked and nodded in total agreement.

When Allen and his siblings had grown and moved away, the room was then no longer required, and leaving it open to heat or more proved more costly than it was worth. It took a year before he convinced his Dad that the room really should be shut off, as the boards in the flooring by that time were bending and wearing out in places, and the walls with their various woodwork had succumbed to years of intense temperature and moisture changes, making them no better off. At first Noah's Grandpa was doubtful, but it wasn't long before their mother suffered a stroke and died. It was in the aftermath that Allen finally convinced his Dad that having the room was not only unsafe for him, but for others as well. So, with the help of his brother, the steps were enclosed with a new wall, leaving only an access hatch in case of emergency. It had remained that way ever since, his Grandfather eventually aging and growing weaker as time passed on.

Noah yawned and stretched, before pushing the covers back and rolling to an upright position. He recalled how Jesse and his family suddenly come into their lives after the storm, and how he had so wanted to push them away. He didn't care about the fact they had lost everything, including practically the clothes on their back. Their home, cars or vehicles, their lives had been totally shattered by the freak tornado that came out of nowhere. That was Noah's greatest sorrow though, because he was being truly an ass, and he knew it. He just didn't know how much of one until later. At the time, Noah considered this room as his space, and his alone. He didn't want to have to share it, especially with a kid he didn't really know, who was already considered totally weird to start with - at least in the traditional sense. To top that, there was the younger brother, someone not even close to puberty, and who would probably be hanging around them all, but especially him, like a pimple on his ass. That thought caused Noah to grunt, because the teen really had expected Benji to be as rambunctious and untamed as that age often suggested. He was pleasantly surprised, however, at how it had turned out to be just the opposite. In fact, a lot of the things the teenager had worried about between the two brothers, had ended up being far different than he expected. Despite his sour, self-centered attitude, Noah had suddenly been thrust into watching and learning about another, different kind of family dynamic he had never opened his eyes to before.

Despite the fact that Noah had chastised himself every bit for being the way he was, that dynamic turned into something the teenager ended up being very happy about.

From the moment he and Jesse had their first real confrontation, then on to the flag of surrender, and then in the days that followed - Noah had begun to see there wasn't anything abnormal about either of the boys who shared first his room, and then his grandfather's place. When he had stilled himself long enough to watch and listen, Jesse spoke about things Noah had never realized - not only things about building friendships, but learning about the different kinds of trust that went along with it. Initially, he thought it was goofy and overly melodramatic, but then as time progressed, Noah began to finally understand. When he did, a whole different world opened up before him, and gave him a different take on life itself. He learned he wasn't so alone in the world, as being a boy with his feelings, along with his fears of being gay. In their own way, the McAllisters coming into his life had done something for him that paralleled what Makalah and James had done for his parents, before he was born. He smiled at that thought. Never having heard the story his mother had imparted to him, made him listen with keen interest, and see how much had been so similar in his parents' needs at the time, and the McAllisters need now. The brothers though, had taught him humility and respect, not just for others, but for himself. That was the gift Jesse had given him, ultimately saving him from a life that was moving rapidly in the wrong direction.

Yawning a second time, Noah finally stood and made his way to the bathroom, where he relieved his bladder in the customary way. Moving to the sink and washing his hands, he decided to splash water in his face, the coldness reviving him abruptly. He paused, however, after taking a closer look at himself in the mirror. What he saw made him grunt aloud with annoyance. The evening before, after the boys had arrived home from the parade and parted ways, Jennifer had enlisted Noah's help to put out various holiday decorations around the house. Noah had obliged, not because of duty, but because it was the first time in a long while that he actually felt a bit of the upcoming holiday cheer seeping inside of him. In doing so, however, he had thought nothing of all the loose, abundant glitter that was sprinkled about on the various Santa figurines, reindeer or other items. Now, he saw that quite a bit of it had made its way into his hair, forehead and cheeks. Glancing down at his hands and arms, he found several sparkling specks had clung to him there as well.

Sighing, the teenager stripped, dropping his garments into the clothes hamper. Activating the shower, he waited for the water to warm and then stepped in to rinse off. For good measure, he also shampooed his hair, hoping it would loosen it sufficiently and rid himself of the flecks there. He was in no particular hurry though, as he nonchalantly took his time while thinking about the evening ahead. He hoped his mother would let him go over to Jesse's for the night. He wanted to spend time with his best friend again, even if it meant putting up with Benji, too. Maybe they couldn't get as kinky as the last few times had worked out, but Noah didn't honestly care. Although they had gone shopping and to the parade only the day before, the teen found he really wanted to get together again. Given the cold weather snap they were experiencing, it was certainly more desirable than spending the time alone.

Noah glanced at the drain beneath his feet and grunted one last time, seeing several sparkling flecks reflecting back against the overhead light. Maneuvering the showerhead, he successfully washed most of them down the outlet before turning the water off. He paused abruptly thereafter, chastising himself for not already getting a towel out, but then sighed as he knew there was nothing that he could really do about it otherwise. Carefully, he stepped from the shower and opened the linen closet, extracting one quickly before returning and stepping inside the shower again to dry off.

Twenty minutes later, the teenager, dressed casually, made his way upstairs and found his mother had just gotten up herself. When he entered and took a seat at the counter, Jennifer was in the process of cooking a pot of oatmeal. "Hey, hey! How is sleepyhead doing this morning?"

Noah observed her with a certain level of annoyance. "Mom, it's not that late. Only…" He paused and leaned to one side, stretching so he could see the clock on the stove. "See? It's not even 9:30 yet!"

Jennifer laughed before nodding. "I know, that's what surprises me the most. You used to want to sleep in till noon, if your father or I would let you," she remarked, before turning to him. "On top of that, you've even showered already. You got a hot date or something today?"

Noah rolled his eyes. "MMMooommmm…!" he murmured, but he knew she was only teasing him. "No, it's called wash-away-the-glitter day."

Jennifer suddenly stopped with a frown, thinking quickly. "That's right, you set out most of the Fabriché decorations, didn't you?" Her expression changed then as she suddenly giggled. "I bet you got quite a bit of a dusting of it on you, too, didn't you!"

"Kind of, yeah," Noah agreed.

"Probably no worse than your father used to get, though. I did try to shake a lot of it out last year before we put them away, but… it may take another round or two before they truly get any better. Of course, we could take the vacuum to them, I guess, but honestly, I don't want them to totally de-glittered, you know?" Jennifer commented, all the while removing the saucepan from the burner. "Do you want some oatmeal this morning?"

Noah nodded. "Yeah, if you've got enough."

"I do. Your father went in to work early, so it's just you and me for a while right now. What do you want to go with it, besides toast?" Jennifer asked.

"Um, just some brown sugar I guess," Noah replied. While his mother went about pouring the hot porridge-like concoction into two serving bowls, the teen thought about something else before breaking the silence. "Uh, Mom? Can I ask you something?"

"Sure, shoot."

"Well, you know how we went shopping and everything yesterday, and how Jesse and Benji got the toaster over and all. When I first told Jesse about what you were going to do, he got really uneasy. I mean, he was kind of unsure about going along with it, you know? I mean, I don't know, I guess it just kind of made me wonder about, well…" Noah paused, studying quickly before shrugging. "I don't know, maybe I wasn't wondering so much as just trying to understand, that's all."

Surprisingly, Jennifer nodded as she joined him at the counter with their food. She was silent for a moment, as she grabbed both milk and orange juice from the refrigerator. When she sat the containers down, however, she turned to observe her son. "That's one thing I guess I didn't tell you about so much the other day, did I? You see, James and Makalah didn't come from the kind of backgrounds you've been used to, honey. They've had to fight and scrape for almost everything they've made, for themselves, their kids - everything, pretty much from the beginning. You see, when people are so used to making their own way, and getting to the point they don't have to depend on anyone else, it becomes a way of life for them, for the most part. I mean, your father and I were almost the same way, but we had your grandfather, and we had a little bit of help along the way too, from others. James and Makalah though, they had very little if any, so they kind of see the world more cautiously than some of us do. Living that way gets into their bones I think, and makes it harder for them to see outside of their world."

Noah thought about that for a few seconds, but then his shoulders dropped. "But… you and Dad got through to them when the tornado struck, didn't you?" It was not so much a question he asked, but a statement of fact. "I kind of see your point, though."

Jennifer smiled. "Yes, we did. Don't get me wrong, every family will see things differently, and there is nothing, NOTHING wrong with it. I'm just saying I understand where you're coming from, at least a part of the way. Those people have helped not only your father and me, but a lot of other people, too - in huge ways. They have always given their time and anything they can spare while helping people, much like the other day when I told you about what they did for us. Now, the tables are turned, I guess. After the storm and they lost everything, they still didn't want to depend on people, but this was one time they didn't have a lot of choice. Your father and I sort of made sure they understood that, and its why we continue to be there for them even now, and will probably be sticking it out with them for a while yet to come." She pulled a covered container over and popped the lid, revealing a stash of dark brown sugar inside. "I wouldn't worry about it, though. It's just something that gets ingrained in their nature, more or less. What we did yesterday, that wasn't much honey - not that much at all."

"I'm not so sure, at least in their eyes…" Noah then quieted, spooning and mixing the sweet substance into his oatmeal before tentatively taking a bite. "Pretty good, Mom. Way better than the instant stuff," he complimented.

Jennifer scoffed. "You already know I don't like that instant oatmeal crap you can get. Oh, I mean it's okay if you're in a big hurry, but these that you cook up are a lot better all the way around." She looked upon her son thoughtfully. "In our eyes, it isn't so much because we can easily afford to help out, honey. Not very many people could, or would, in circumstances like what they're going through. I guess in their eyes, we're better off financially now than we were 15-years ago, see? But… but I don't think of it that way. With your father and I both working, we've had the winds of good fortune breezing along at our backs for a while. They did, too, at least for a while - but it's all gone now. That's why they're having to rebuild their lives again, and it's not an impossible job – but it is a very slow-moving one. Does that make sense? You see, they lost everything honey… can you imagine what it must be like to go through that and try to start again from scratch?" The woman paused and sighed. "All of them, I imagine, from Benji and Jesse to Makalah and James, are concerned or scared at least a little bit, because they have to feel their way out again. But you know something? I truly believe they'll do fine. They just have to be patient, and be willing to let us and others help them out a bit." Noah nodded, making her smile and reach out to thread her fingers through his silk-like hair. "Tell me, do you want to get Jesse and Benji something for Christmas? Your Dad and I are planning on giving you a little shopping money, although probably not until next week. I just didn't have it to spare yesterday, or I would have already done it."

"I'd like to, yeah," Noah smiled. "I mean, it doesn't have to be anything much, but… yeah."

Jennifer nodded. "I understand. Be thinking about it, anyway. So, what's the big plan for the day?" she asked, changing the subject.

"I have no idea," Noah replied, shrugging. "I thought about getting together with Jesse again, maybe even spending the night - if it was okay with you guys. Other than that, though… there just isn't a whole lot to do when it's so cold outside like this."

"I agree, it does put a damper on things. As to spending the night, it's okay with me, but maybe you ought to let him run that by Makalah first. She's planning a dinner for all of us tomorrow, so she might not want an extra mouth to worry about with things rolling all over the place this evening and in the morning." Jennifer then became thoughtful. "That reminds me, would you be interested in making some more of those yeast rolls that you do? We could offer to take them over, and I could make a casserole or two as well. You know, to sort of help out."

"Sure thing!" Noah replied. "Um, we need some supplies, though. I think I used up all the yeast the last time I made some. Oh, and we need some buttermilk, too."

Jennifer smiled. "Well then, let's you and I finish breakfast here, and then what say we take stock of what's in the pantry. Then, if you want, we'll make ourselves a quick trip down to the supermarket, okay?"

Noah smiled and gave his mother a partial hug in agreement, something that pleased the woman immensely.

At about the time Noah and his mother were finishing their breakfast, Jesse awoke. Like his friend, he stretched and lay in the bed for a moment, before crawling out and making the way through his usual morning rituals. Once completed, however, he found a note attached to the bathroom mirror from his mother, addressed to him. Reading, he found specific instructions on several things she needed him to do for her that morning, none of which were overly complicated, but all were to help her prepare for the next day's dinner. Washing his hands, he then headed for the kitchen with the note, and for the next half-hour, the teen embarked on his list, taking time to read and follow the directions he was given. They included such tasks as pulling the turkey from the refrigerator and placing it into a sink filled with lukewarm water. Other tasks included pulling out frozen vegetables and items from the freezer so they could thaw, and chasing down the crock-pot – which took some time in itself – then cleaning and setting it up for use.

He was just re-checking what items were left, when a disheveled mop-topped head showed up at the entrance to the hallway. "What'cha doing?" the small voice asked, obviously not yet fully awake as he yawned, before at least entering the room and sauntering up to his brother's side.

"Mom needed some things done before she gets home later," Jesse replied. "I was just trying to get it all sorted out."

"Oh," Benji replied simply, and then shivered. Like his big brother, he was clad in only his underwear and a t-shirt, and although the space around them was itself lukewarm, there was a stark difference between it and the warmth their bed had provided just minutes before. "So, that's why you didn't come back to bed," he remarked nonchalantly, before another shiver cascaded through him. Seeing the chill, Jesse stepped closer and put an arm around the youngster, all the while checking his list again. Benji leaned in close, but found his brother was not all that much warmer than the rest of the room, so he sighed and eventually pulled away, choosing instead to pull a chair out from the table and sitting down. "Did she leave us any breakfast?" he asked.

Jesse glanced at him as he put a note down. "There's bacon in the microwave, but that's all I've found so far. Do you want some scrambled eggs to go with it?"

"Yes, please, if you will," the young boy replied. Jesse nodded and set about pulling a skillet from the cabinet. It was the one dish the teen knew reasonably well enough how to fix without issue, and Benji knew it. "Can we add a slice of cheese, too?"

"If we have any, sure. Take a look in the refrigerator and see, okay? While you're there, get the eggs and some butter out, too," Jesse added, before pulling a loaf of bread from the pantry and extracting four slices. After re-closing and returning it, he then slipped the bread into the toaster; all the while Benji set the remaining ingredients on the counter. "Why don't you go get us some sweat bottoms, buddy? I'm like you, it's cool in here."

"You don't have to ask me twice," the youngster replied, before taking off.

Minutes later, the teen had two plates ready, containing the requested cheesy scrambled eggs, along with the bacon and toast. "No milk or juice though, little buddy," he announced sadly, setting the plates on the table. Benji nodded as two glasses of cold iced water were set down instead, as his brother joined him. "We're even out of hot cocoa mix, so this is the best we can do for right now."

"That's okay," Benji replied, then started digging in. "Mmm, you did good again," he complimented. Both ate quietly for a moment until they finished, at which point the young boy sat back and rubbed his belly. "So, are we doing anything special today?"

"Not really. It's too cold outside, and I think I just saw Noah leave out with his Mom while we were sitting down to eat," Jesse answered.

Benji nodded, then started looking around the room. "Jess, I thought of something last night. I mean, I wish we had thought of it sooner, and I don't know if we can even do it, really… but…"

"Really? What's up?" Jesse replied, curiously.

"Well, you've noticed how bare the walls are and everything, right? Like, Mom used to have all those pictures and stuff in the old house, some of us, some of, well… you know… just things, I guess," Benji mused. "So, I was thinking, maybe we should have done that for Mom instead. You know, have our picture taken and all. It would be a cool Christmas thingy to give her and Dad, right?"

"Whoa…" Jesse asked, frowning but thinking rapidly. "A picture…"

"Yeah, you know, of us. You and me, like, getting our picture made and everything and then blowing it up," the young boy explained.

Jesse thought about it for a few seconds before smiling broadly. "You little stinker! That's a fantastic idea, Ben!"

Benji giggled, but then his shoulders dropped. "Well, the only thing is, we've already got them that oven thingy now. Besides, I have no idea what it would cost anyway, maybe more than what we had."

Ideas began swirling through Jesse's head at that moment. "Don't count it out, though. Maybe I can come up with something and we can still get to do it." He grinned as he observed his brother. "I'm serious, that is an awesome idea, little bro! I'm glad you thought of it! Hey, maybe we don't have to worry about the studio stuff so much, either."

"How so?" Benji asked, curious.

"Well, if the Cooks have a good camera, or I can get one of the guys at school to do it… maybe we can arrange to just do it all by ourselves. How would that sound?"

"Do you think it would be as good as, you know, like the studio and stuff?" Benji asked.

"I have no idea, but that's something we can try and find out, just to see, you know? If it doesn't work out, then there's no harm done, really. Like you said, we have the toaster oven already."

Benji became thoughtful. "You know, we could take it and just get our money back, too."

Jesse hesitated, but then shook his head. "We can't do that. Mrs. Cook gave that to us so we could do something nice yesterday. If we take it back, it might hurt her feelings, and believe me – I don't want to do that, given how nice she has been to you and me, you know?" He then giggled. "Seriously though, let me have a few days. I might figure something out."

"Okay," Benji replied, but then let out a huge sigh. "Well, if you don't have any plans, I think I'm going to go watch cartoons."

"Okay, go ahead. I might even join you, after I get these dishes up and everything," Jesse replied.

After lunch, the boys heard the rear door opened on the porch, immediately followed by a familiar voice calling out, "Jesse? Benji? Help, please!"

Both boys hurried through the kitchen to find their mother stopped in the open doorway, her arms filled with bags of groceries challenging her to make it inside with the last few steps. Grabbing bags, both boys relieved her of her burden and set them onto the kitchen table. "Any more?" Jesse asked.

"Yes, two or three, I think, in the back seat," Makalah replied breathlessly, as she plopped down in a nearby chair. Jesse left the house, but returned shortly with the remaining bags in hand, which he added to the collection. "So," Makalah finally spoke again, after catching her breath. "How is my dynamic duo doing this afternoon?"

"We're great," Benji announced, sliding up beside her. "Jesse didn't drown me, and I didn't bury him alive anywhere."

"Well, that's good," Makalah replied, laughing. "Not that I think either of you are quite up to snuff to doing stuff like that. What have you been up to, though?"

"Mostly watching cartoons and TV. I got the turkey set up like you asked, and that casserole thingy. Oh, and Jennifer called; she wants you to call her back when you get in," Jesse chimed in.

"Okay, good. Well, help me put this stuff away, and then I'll give her a ring. Are you planning to be around for a while? I could use some help with getting some other things ready for tomorrow."

"Sure, Mom," Jesse replied.

It was pushing after four that afternoon before James arrived home. He met and greeted his family with a grunt, apologizing to them. "Sorry guys, the store got really backed up today. I couldn't leave out like I planned to do."

"It's okay, Jesse and I got the worst of everything ready," Makalah answered. She sat back tiredly, looking on as she ran her fingers through her hair. "In fact, the only thing we've got to worry about right now is some supper, I think."

James paused and pulled his wallet out before thumbing through it. "I think I could spring for some burgers and tots again, if you like. I know that seems to be what we're having a lot of lately, but…"

"It's alright, Dad," Jesse interjected. "We don't mind." James smiled and glanced at his wife.

Makalah's shoulders sank, but then she nodded in agreement. "It would be kind of nice to not have to worry with any supper in the midst of all this other stuff."

James walked over and gave his wife a kiss on her forehead. "Then, don't. I just need a few minutes to run out here and do it," he spoke softly, feeling her exhaustion and the tenseness in his arms as he gave her a hug. Without another word, he let her go and turned to Jesse. "Want to join me, son?"

"Sure," Jesse piped up. "Just give me a minute to put on some shoes." With that, he quickly disappeared, but returned only a moment later to follow his father outside.

As the duo pulled from the driveway, out onto the road, Jesse observed his father and the utter exhaustion etched into his features. "Long day, Dad?"

"Yes, very long," was the soft reply.

Jesse stared out at the landscape as it rolled by before he continued. "Is it okay if I ask you about something?"

James glanced sideways toward him. "Of course, it is! What's on your mind?"

It was almost a full minute before the teen spoke again. "Is there anything, like, I can do that would help you and Mom out?"

James, surprised by the sudden turn of the conversation, pulled up to a crossroad and stopped, waiting for the red light to turn green. "As in…?"

"I don't know, I was just thinking. I know we're not doing so great on money, and… We all went out to eat Thursday, and, like just now, you had to go through your wallet and everything to find money for tonight, right? I mean, maybe I could have fixed us some supper, or-"

"Okay, hold up, son," his father implored, though smiling. With the traffic light turning green, he pulled out onto the highway and headed toward town before he spoke again. He thought about the question, and then breathed deeply. The two of them had sort of been down this path before, and he thought perhaps it was as good a time as any to come clean. He glanced at his son, realizing just how much the boy had grown and matured in the last year alone, and somehow that put him at ease. "Listen carefully, okay? What I'm going to tell you, you can't repeat to anyone. Not to your brother, not to your best friend, Noah, or even to your mother, alright?" When Jesse nodded, he took a deep breath. "So, maybe I should start by explaining how your Mom and I budget things, just so you get a feel for it first. The way I've always done it for us as a family, we've had two categories overall - one we use for living expenses, and the other one for bigger stuff. Now, the living expenses more or less come out of my pocket and what I make. They include groceries, gas, eating out, and what have you. Make sense?" When Jesse nodded, the man continued. "The bigger stuff gets taken out of both your Mom's and my paychecks. Not as much for me, because she makes a little better money-wise than I do, but that part doesn't matter. We divide things up and we keep tabs on everything together. Follow me so far?"

Jesse nodded again, but the questioning look he returned made James scoff. "No, that's not the big secret. Just hear me out. I knew about Thursday night long before we ended up doing it, son. It wasn't a huge bill, and it was kind of taken care of before we even walked into the restaurant, so don't worry about it. See, I used a gift card for a part of it, that we got at that benefit. It didn't cover the whole bill, but it was pretty close and all. So, all the better right? My point is, while we're all on the living side, we're okay. Your mother and I make plenty of money to handle that stuff. This dinner for tomorrow, it put a little extra on us somewhat, considering our normal bills, see? But we've already explained why we're doing it, right? Jennifer and Allen have done a lot for us as a family, and this is just a little something we wanted to do and try to say thank you for all of that."

Jesse frowned. "But…"

"I know, I know. You've been hearing and seeing your mother and me talk about some things. I've tried to keep it away from you, really, because I don't think it's something you or your brother should worry about. But the truth is, things have been happening on that larger scale budget that aren't… well, haven't been very good. For one thing, we had insurance on the house and all, remember? Well, it turns out that we didn't have the kind of insurance I thought we had, and I'm having to pick a fight with the company as best as I can. So much so that I had to see a lawyer Tuesday morning, and I've been to the bank a few times, too. I won't lie to you - it's not turning out very pretty."

"But… what IS happening, Dad? Why?" Jesse asked, as the truck pulled into the diner. "Can't you, like, at least tell me that much?"

James parked the truck and then turned the motor off. "Of course, I can tell you Jesse. It's just… well, it's complicated son, because there are several pieces that even I have trouble wrapping my head around completely. The bottom line though, is that it seems the insurance company is trying to both depreciate and devalue everything we had, mostly to the point its worth only pennies on the dollar. At least, that's what it feels like. That means that if we had something valued at, say, a dollar, they only want to settle for around half of that… or less. Like, that TV we just bought last year and gave almost $600 for? They only want to count about $150 toward it. We don't have a sales receipt for the original purchase see, so they just arbitrarily placed a value on it at the bottom of the range they could apply. Then, there's the value of the house itself – they won't even cover rebuilding it. Another way to look at it, they're taking what we owed to the bank, our mortgage, and cutting it to a fraction of the original value."

"What?!" Jesse gasped in surprised, understanding completely. "That's crazy!"

"I know, that was my reaction, too. Between you and me, it's not even enough to pay off the bank note, meaning the mortgage will still fall short something on the order of about $37,000, give or take a few dollars," James explained quietly.

Jesse's face was suddenly sickened. "But, Dad… why?"

James was silent for a moment before he sighed. "I don't know son, other than we're thinking they're trying to pull the wool over our eyes. You know, tie the whole thing up in red tape so they can get out of having to pay for anything. They claim our contract was different than the one I thought we were paying on, and full of all the exceptions and rules that favor them, not us. The thing is, we have no proof of that, because all of our records, everything, went out with the storm. Without our copy of the original policy, then we have no proof of what the specifics were in that contract. I think they know that, and they're trying to take advantage of it. That's why I went to see the lawyer, you see? If I can't find some way to fight it, then we'll get nothing back for anything we had of value. That means the house itself, the contents - all of it."

"What will… what will we do then?" the teen asked quietly.

James shrugged. "Well, it just means I'll have to take out a loan and spend the next five to ten years paying the bank back for the difference. It's not too horrible son, but… it does mean your mother and I won't be able to rebuild or do anything for a while, if I have to take on that kind of responsibility. It'll keep us from doing anything else, otherwise."

"Shit!" Jesse exclaimed, under his breath, but clearly audible.

James suddenly laughed. "That just about sums it up, buddy. Oh, there's some more little bits here and there, but that's the sum of what we're going through now. This is what you've caught your mother and me talking about so quietly." He glanced thoughtfully at his son. "Surely you understand now, I haven't told you anything because, well… it's not for you to have to worry about kiddo. I mean it, I'm trusting you Jesse. There is a part of that, about the lawyer and all, I haven't even told your mother about yet, okay? I'm not worried about her finding out, it's just that I want to exhaust everything in my power first, and see where this goes. It'll be one less thing she'll have to worry about with the holidays coming up, understand?"

Jesse nodded slowly. "Yeah, I understand, Dad." He fell silent for a moment before speaking again. "Is this why they haven't cleared off the old place yet? You know, bull-dozed it like they did the other houses?"

"Yep, I'm afraid so. That deal, the one where we heard how the State was supposed to put disaster funds and everything in place to handle the cleanup? The expense ended up being pushed instead onto the insurance companies, for whatever reason. Everyone else's insurance took care of it for them, but not for ours. Each contract was for around $15,000, and when the crew that was out there found out our insurance wasn't ponying up, they left our place alone."

"You mean, $15,000 to… to…" Jesse shook his head. "Isn't that, I don't know, kind of expensive for just bulldozing something away?"

"Well, it's a little extreme, but… when you have insurance paying the bills, contractors can charge pretty much what they want. Don't forget, too, that probably includes hauling away the debris and everything with it. It's still a lot though, I agree." James sighed. "So, now you know what's going on behind the scenes, son. It's not horrible, Jesse, but… it's thrown us a few curves and potholes into the road, that's for sure." He studied the teen briefly. "Now, any regrets that I've told you?"

"No way, Dad," Jesse replied clearly, which did not go unnoticed by his father.

"Listen, it'll all wash out eventually. The only thing I have to personally worry about, right now, is paying the lawyer. I figure I'll have to dip into what little savings we have left to get that done, but… it will get done. I'm confident about that, so don't let any of this stuff worry you, okay?" James instructed.

Jesse sat back and regarded his father with a knowing expression. "But, Dad… you're worried. I see it in your eyes, and in your face. Every night when you come home, you're always exhausted. The only difference is, maybe now I can understand why." He paused, thinking. "If I understand right, you're saying we really are, like, starting from zero again." He looked upon his father and saw that weariness in his eyes yet again as the man nodded. "I'm sorry," Jesse whispered. "I wish I could help, in some way, you know?"

"What? Why?" James asked. "Jesse, this isn't your problem, okay? We just have to ride it out for a little while, and then everything will be fine, you'll see. You hear me, right? Your mother and I will make all of this work out in the end, I promise. There is none of it - nada, zilch - that puts any responsibility on your shoulders whatsoever. This…" The man paused and then smiled. "This is life, son. People can try and beat you down over it, but you know what? It's just everyday living. You face it, you conquer it, and then you go on to the next problem, that's all."

It was several seconds before the teenager nodded. "I understand, Dad." He sighed. "Thanks, though. Thanks for telling me. I really wanted to know, but…"

"I don't give you enough credit sometimes, Jesse," his father interrupted. "I know you can understand things far better than I would expect a lot of teenagers do. I'm quite proud of that fact, but at the same time it makes me want to protect you even more. There are just some things like this that you don't need to worry about, things you shouldn't have to see or hear. Seriously, the world gets crazy around us, and sometimes as much as parents want to shield that craziness from their kids, we realize how impossible it is to do it all. Like those boys you took on in school the other day. You faced something totally out in left field on which you had to make some decisions, and let me tell you, after what Harland told me, and everything else I've heard? I'm so very happy for you. I'm happy I've got a son with such a level head on his shoulders. It is all a parent could ask for, really. Just… always try to follow your instinct, son. Let everything else work out on its own."

"Is that what you're doing?" Jesse asked, almost whispering.

"Oh yes," James replied, and then even laughed again, although tiredly. "You know, sometimes parents don't have all the answers, kiddo. I know you and your brother, like most other kids, look to us to give you answers for everything right or wrong in the world, but sometimes… we have to feel our way through things that happen just the same as you do. And me? All I have sometimes is my instinct, period. If it's wrong, well, so be it - I'll learn from it and try to do better, but I always go on. It's all anyone can do, really." He smiled at Jesse. "So, please, keep it quiet for a few days at least, okay? I promise, I'll let you in on how it's turning out, at least when there's anything significant to tell, I promise. Otherwise, just be a teenager. You know, you asked if there was anything you could do right now, to help? There is, just… help your brother when and where you can, and keep doing what you do best - which is being our son. Okay? Enjoy life - go out, get dirty and muddy, goof off, kiss some girls, whatever you teenagers do these days - all that stuff. Everything else will fall in place, and soon enough. Don't let the hardships of money weigh you down… it's not worth it, I promise you. I don't worry about the end result, I just – I'm trying to make sure the end comes up fair, like it was supposed to do anyway. We may have to cut a few corners for a bit, but it won't be that bad. It'll only have to be for a little while, at most."

"Okay Dad, I'll try," Jesse replied, his tone lighter.

"Good. Oh, by the way, that money stuff goes for your allowance, too. Give me another couple of weeks, but I should be able to start it back up again before long."

Jesse shook his head. "I don't want it, Dad. Keep it."

James cocked his head to the side. "Now, don't go acting like all that again! I'm telling you son… I won't hear of it!" The man grunted. "Seriously, it comes from that everyday living side of the budget, and it's not going to hurt us any in the long run. It's like I said, getting setup, working around Christmas that's coming on, and then this dinner we're doing tomorrow - I admit, it's kind of threw me a bit of a tight curve, but that's all. We'll recover from it all just fine, and when we do, then there won't be a lot of looking back to what things were like before the storm. Now, I can't promise to give you any back-pay, but..."

Jesse looked into the man's eyes, his own filled with emotion. "Keep it, Dad, please? If you give it to me, I'm just going to give it back to you anyway. I don't want it, I promise." His voice was pleading almost, enough so that James took note in the change in his son right then.

Reaching out, he unbuckled Jesse's seat belt and grabbed hold of one his son's belt loops. Gently coaxing, the man pulled Jesse in close until he could put his arm around him with a tender embrace. "Shh…" he whispered soothingly. Although Jesse did not outright cry, he was certainly wrestling with an onslaught of emotions just then, which James did not mind in the slightest, other than for the fact he didn't think the boy should be worrying so much in the first place. In his mind, enough had been said and understood already, so he smiled instead. "Listen, I say let's not argue about this anymore right, okay? It's really not that big of a deal, I promise." They sat for a moment before he unclasped the boy in his embrace. "We'll talk more in a few days, alright? But for now, how about we bust this joint for four orders of tots, and four deluxe cheeseburgers to go for supper? What do you say?"

Jesse smiled. "Sure, other than make Benji's burger without all the added stuff."

James laughed. "Oh, don't I know it! 'Pickles? Why did you get mine with pickles?!'" he mimicked in as small of a voice that he could muster.

It made Jesse laugh. "'And onions? Do I look like an onion-lover to you?'" He shook his head and then gave his father a quick hug. When they separated, the teen was still laughing, which at the moment, was a very sweet sound to the older man's ears. They glanced at one another, and then made their way out and into the diner.

The McAllisters had just finished their evening dinner when there came a knock at the back door. Benji, being the closest, sprang from his seat quickly and opened it, finding Noah standing outside shifting from one foot to the other, toting his gym bag at his side. "C-Come on, it's c-cold out here!" the newcomer complained, as Benji unlocked the storm door and let the teen come inside.

"Jess, Noah's here!" Benji called out, before ushering their friend inside. As he closed the door, Jesse appeared in the inner doorway with a grin.

"You look nice and frosty!" Jesse teased as he led the way back into their inner sanctum, where his parents greeted the teen. "Um, I'm afraid I kind of forgot about this, since we've been so busy today and everything," the teen announced sheepishly, but his mother smiled at him instead.

"Jennifer and I talked earlier, and I knew he was coming over, so no harm done. Besides, I think he's going to help fix us some more of those yeast rolls in the morning, right?"

"Yes ma'am," Noah replied with a toothy grin. "I've actually already mixed them up today, and left them covered on our countertop so they'll rise up overnight. They should be good and fluffy by the time we put them in the oven."

"Your Dad was telling me you liked to cook and bake things. I'm curious, what sparked your interest in that? Do you cook other things, too?" James asked, pushing back from the table and stretching.

Noah shrugged. "I don't know, really. I just, I think I read a book or something to start with, about these young chefs and people. Then there's that show that comes on the FOX network, about kids that cook. One night they were making yeast rolls, and that sort of got me interested. I've done some other things, too."

"Well, good for you. I remember those rolls you made all of us not that long ago, they were really tasty," Makalah remarked.

After a few more pleasantries and exchanges, the boys left for the bedroom, where Jesse turned on his guest with a grin. "Baking? I remember someone said you made the dinner rolls, but I didn't know you were into it more than that!"

Noah shrugged. "Rolls, cookies, lasagna, omelets… stuff like that. I don't know, I kind of found it interesting is all."

"Make me some cookies sometime, then," Benji interjected.

"Okay, one batch of chocolate-chip cookies on order," Noah replied, kicking off his shoes and setting them near the door. "So, what do you guys want to get into? Anything special?"

Jesse stepped over to the closet and pulled out a Monopoly game box. "This is the only board game we've got, for now anyway. How about we give it a round while we watch some Christmas specials? I think Benji is wanting to see Charlie Brown and Frosty tonight, which should…" He hesitated while stepping around to see the clock. "They start in about a half-hour or so."

Noah nodded. "Sounds good," he replied, which was followed by Benji with an excited 'Yea!'

The evening was then filled with a combination of fun and laughter, with the TV playing in the background. Eventually, after the holiday episodes were aired, the group tired of their game. From the beginning, it did not take long for the game-play to become one-sided, with Benji quickly catching the luck of the die. After these landed him in the right places at the right time, the young boy quickly indebted the older teens heavily to him, something Noah found hard to believe so easily. "Does he always do this?" he asked Jesse. "Always get so lucky?"

"Not really," the teen replied. "Most of the time, it takes a while for any of us to get anywhere. Sometimes though, he does get the high road, and then other times I get it. Mom is the one we have to watch out for when she plays - it is uncanny how she gobbles up all the properties and everything!"

"I'm just lucky tonight because you're here!" Benji quipped with a wide Cheshire-cat-like smile.

Noah grunted. "Somehow, I think you're always lucky, for some reason or another." Before long, both he and Jesse surrendered, to a very jubilant boy who pumped his fist into the air more than once. After the trio put the game away, they then switched to playing video games. There were still only two controllers, the original that came with the system and the additional one Noah had found and given them, so they each still had to take turns in differing pairs. "We've got to see about getting you another one of these," Noah remarked at one point, handing his over to Benji.

"Already planning it. I think Benji added it to his Christmas list, so we'll see how it goes," Jesse replied. At the moment, he was sitting on one side of this friend while Benji was snuggled up close on the other, effectively sandwiching Noah in the middle. As the evening wore on, however, it became obvious the youngest of the three was getting tired and sleepy. Eventually Jesse glanced up at the clock and saw that it was already just past eleven. He waited a bit, letting his brother get in a few last rounds of game-play, before he stood and walked out the door. Following the quick bathroom trip, Jesse noted that the rest of the house was already dark and silent. Quietly returning, he then closed their bedroom door before turning to his brother. "Okay, shortstop. You know the drill."

"AAwww…" Benji replied, but just as quickly he ended up yawning. Without even putting up an argument, he handed his controller to Noah. "Can I at least watch you guys play some more?"

"Sure, but from your own bed," Jesse announced. "That way I don't have to grunt lifting you up and tucking you in later." Benji nodded and climbed to his feet before shucking his sweat pants. Noah and Jesse both watched him climb the ladder to the upper bed and crawl in under the covers. Jesse even approached and made sure the covers were adequate, before giving his brother an affectionate squeeze. Benji smiled at him in response before pulling his pillow up so he could relax and watch the TV. Before sitting down, Jesse glanced at Noah and then removed his own socks and jeans, before switching to a short-sleeved t-shirt and sitting back in the floor. Grinning, Noah followed the same practice, fully aware that both brothers were watching him - Jesse doing so nonchalantly, but Benji with renewed interest. Only months before he would have been extremely shy about it, but not anymore – at least, not with these two. As he sat back down next to Jesse, his friend pulled a blanket off the lower bed and draped it over them both before game-play resumed. The only difference this time, however, was that both teens huddled close together, feeling contented at the renewed intimacy.

Some half-hour later, both teens heard a light snoring sound above them, and Jesse climbed to his feet to find Benji had finally succumbed to the night. With an arm hanging over the side, there was a sweet expression upon his face, it made Jesse smile. "He's out, like a light," he whispered down toward Noah. "Are you ready to call it a night, too?" he asked. When Noah nodded, he smiled and reached over to turn both the game and TV off, drowning the room in sudden darkness. Both boys then quietly crawled into Jesse's bed and pulled up the covers. The moon was shining brightly through their window to the world, and once their vision had adjusted, both lay upon Jesse's single pillow staring at each other. After a moment, Jesse brought a finger up to his lips to forewarn his friend, before sitting up and removing his t-shirt. As Noah watched, his friend then went through a few motions under the covers, before pulling out his briefs and setting them on the window sill. With raised eyebrows, he stilled himself and waited, but when Noah didn't move, he grasped his friend's hand and pulled it down into his crotch, where Noah felt the raging boner waiting there. There was no mistaking his total nakedness then, and finally Noah sheepishly sat up and followed suit. Once he added his own garments to those of his friend, they both suddenly found themselves scooting closer and embracing deeply.

Jesse moaned ever so softly, the feeling of holding Noah up close once more being so satisfying. Their naked intimacy was something he had been waiting for a long time, or so it seemed. Both intertwined their arms and legs together again, their chests and midsections meeting as one. Both had engorged boners, and snuggling them together side-by-side created an extra-sensitive acknowledgement that their trust was still as strong as ever. "For a second there, I thought maybe you didn't want to… you know…" he whispered.

"No, I wanted to, just… I was waiting to see what you did first," Noah whispered back, before pushing his groin in further. Their desire was just as great as it had always been, and as Jesse grasped his friend's backside, his hand went down over Noah's butt and pulled. Noah let a sigh escape as well, while grinding in. "I missed this," he whispered, ever so softly. "Fuck, I'm ssooo hard, like you…"

Jesse pulled back before moving his lips near Noah's ear. "Then, make sure you don't make too much noise," he whispered. Seeing Noah's eyebrows arch, he smiled and pulled away before tucking his head under the covers. Noah watched and felt the movement as Jesse quietly made his way down toward the crotch. When his friend suddenly swallowed Noah's manhood fully inside, the warm wetness created another new sensation that made Noah grow yet even harder as he shut his eyes tightly. Not only was Jesse sucking him, but the teen then proceeded to use his lips and mouth to move up and down, all the while grasping his friend's scrotum gently underneath. Noah suddenly found himself being pushed onto his back, and as he complied, Jesse went to work for the next minute or more, giving his friend the best blow-job he knew how, given his limited experience. He wanted to suck, to absorb the fragrance and feel the sense of accomplishment in his mouth. More than once, Noah had to sigh deeply and grip the covers in order to contain his growing need to not gasp or twist about. "Ohh, mmaannn…" he whispered at one point, but although his loins were aching for a release, he somehow maintained a semblance of control in light of the attack going on down below.

Jesse finally slowed and with one, last super-suctioning grip, pulled off underneath before making his way back to the pillow. Before arriving, however, he stopped at his friend's navel and tongued at it momentarily, making Noah squirm even more at the ticklish endeavor. Then he moved north to Noah's nipples and playfully nibbled on each, while taking a hand and grasping the fattened rod below and holding on to it for Noah firmly. He finally brought his head out from underneath and up to the pillow again. As he stared into the face of his friend, an amusing expression appeared. Both were grinning and contemplating their own thoughts, before Jesse finally leaned in to whisper yet again. "Why didn't you cum? Was it not good enough to make you give it up?"

Noah rolled his eyes in surprise. "Fuck, are you kidding? It was awesome! I … I just didn't, you know, think you'd want me to… in your mouth, and… and…"

Jesse reached up and touched a finger to Noah's nose, then down on his lips. "Of course, I wanted you to, doofus! I told you, I'm not afraid - especially if I'm going to get all your good stuff while it's fresh and everything!" With that he gave a disarming grin and then pulled back. Before he disappeared inside the covers again, however, he whispered once more. "Do it, Noah, in my mouth…" he encouraged, before disappearing. Seconds later, Noah felt his testicles being attacked again by a warm mouth and tongue all around, before it quickly trailed northward and descended on his manhood for a second time. Noah closed his eyes, sighing both deeply and uncontrollably. He didn't want to contemplate anything else now, except for how good it felt. He could feel the stimulation as before, only this time with a renewed fever, and it began causing a tingling sensation to build behind his navel. As if in a trance, he was lost in the frenzy that overtook him, and it did not take long for him to reach a point of no return. Jesse could feel the tension building, too, as he started taking his tongue and licking all across the end, giving the tip extra attention. He also started to move faster, grasping the base of his friend's shaft once again, only this time to pump the hardened and expanding rod deeper into his mouth. Within seconds Noah lost control, and Jesse was euphoric, as he slowed his motions while a series of eruptions began to charge forth. Hitting the back of his throat, Jesse knew Noah wasn't holding anything back then, as he slowly thrust forward at the climax of his orgasm. Jesse tried to take it in completely, but found he couldn't do it due to its massive girth. Instead, he had to pull off part of the way in order to prevent being gagged by the onslaught of cum that reached him. Noah instinctively sucked his gut in, but then let it back out, all the while gasping as his breathing became erratic. It felt like he had exploded, but yet at the same time, the feeling connected deep within his loins and throughout his whole crotch. It was a powerful force, driven by an aching but satisfying need, pushing itself out of his body into something awaiting it with an equal need. All too soon, however, it began to recede, and that caused him to whimper, wishing it would have stayed – even if only for a little while longer.

When Jesse felt his friend finishing and coming down from his high, he slowly pulled free again. Sampling the semen, he was satisfied yet again at how it seemed to contain all of Noah's essence, and as he swallowed, he nuzzled his nose all around Noah's groin – through the pubic hair, around the testicles and more, before finally resurfacing back onto the pillow again. There he lay, rubbing his friend's genitals softly with the fingertips of his hand, feeling the silkiness there. He watched his friend return from the mountaintop he had just scaled, and it made him smile knowing Noah must have reached a pretty awesome high. The change in facial expressions alone was worth the show, he thought, mixing from one of pure satisfaction interchangeably with one of peace and surprise. Noah's breathing also de-escalated into a more normalized rhythm, and it wasn't long before he opened his eyes to stare back in wonder. "Wow," he finally whispered.

Jesse nodded, before leaning in again. "I'm glad you liked it."

"Liked it? I fucking loved it!" Noah whispered back, ever so softly. Glancing up, he was happy to see the Benji's arm was still hanging in the same position as before. "I didn't expect, I mean, I didn't really think we could do anything, you know, that extensive! Not like this, anyway... not with him up there."

Jesse shrugged. "He's a hard sleeper, once he goes under, and like I told you before - he doesn't hear the best." He sighed and then snuggled up close. "So, tell me, was it really that good? Because from down there, you seemed to really like doing it in my mouth."

Noah wrapped his arms around Jesse again and hugged him fiercely. "You have no idea, Jess," he whispered back. "It's no wonder guys are always talking about how they wish their girlfriends would give them lip service. It's like, a whole different world from jacking off, you know?" They lay side-by-side, enjoying the comfort of each other, with Noah fully aware of the boner still poking him in his midriff. He knew what he needed to do, or rather what he wanted to do then, and he had no reservations about it at all now. After another moment, he slowly pushed Jesse onto his back, and then readied to move under the cover. Jesse, however, grasped and stopped the teen.

"Noah, you don't need to do what I did, okay? I was just… you know, doing it for you. You don't have to… have to go down on me at all, especially in the way that I did. And… you don't have to stay either, I mean, down on me if I cum. Understand?"

"Shut the fuck up, Jesse," Noah replied quietly, but Jesse still held onto his friend.

"I'm serious, but… um, there's something else, too. I have to warn you, I… like, I haven't had a shower today, either. I – I don't know bro, it might be kind of, you know, not the best… down there and all," he whispered, and even with the whispering, Noah detected a hint of embarrassment, as if his friend were blushing.

"So what? Let me worry about it. Besides, maybe you won't need a shower after I get through," was the reply, before Noah leaned up and gave his best friend a soft kiss on his lips. He then moved quickly before Jesse could invent any more excuses. He found the long, uncircumcised member in the darkness easily enough, following a stronger scent than usual to its source, but nevertheless it did not deter him from his purpose. If anything, as he swallowed the longer shaft inside, he found it to be slightly more intoxicating, especially once he used his tongue to push back the extra skin at the tip and get inside and taste it. "MMmmm…" he moaned softly, before bringing his hand into play, holding the rigidity of the shaft as he pushed the skin back further. He worked his way slower than his friend had with him, but the effect was accelerating Jesse's restless state as he spread his legs as far as he could.

Jesse could feel when his glans became exposed, and was helpless at the vibrations the warm lips and wet tongue were giving him. Their actions sent spasms of electricity coursing from his head to his toes that made him suck in his gut more than once. 'Oh my God!' he thought to himself. He had wanted to suck someone for a long time, but had barely ever consider the effect of what it might feel like being on the receiving end. Now, caught up in the lust and hunger, he was in for a surprise. Noah did not retreat, even though he could feel the changes already rapidly shaping up. For an instant, he considered backing off and finishing his friend with a simple hand job, but he quickly pushed the thought aside. He wanted this, for some reason, because the more he thought about it, the more he desired not only returning the favor, but also seeking some sense of resolution to his own curiosity. It was a wicked act, he thought, to even be going down on each other like they were. Between them both, though, the act itself was born of trust and a complete surrender to the willingness of sucking each other off, where the benefits far outweighed what they had ever dreamed of.

As Noah moved up and down, he could feel the tightness change, as well as the cock he was sucking on strengthen even further as it throbbed. He heard Jesse grunt, and seconds later as the skin drew and stretched itself back tightly, under the forward-growing and thrusting force of a never-been-fuller erection, Noah was rewarded. Jesse let go from deep within his loins, erupting with what felt like huge streams of his essence, right into Noah's waiting and gaping mouth. He could feel each release, as if it tracked throughout his entire crotch, from inside his testicles and up to the tip of his elongated shaft. It might have been the strongest orgasm Jesse had had yet, and that was saying something, considering his and Noah's recent exploits only a week before. Toward the end of his orgasm, the teen stretched his toes forward as his whole body was reaching for some unknown precipice. It bundled into a rigidity uncommon for most, but then collapsed immediately afterwards into helplessness, totally spent against the covers.

Noah felt the entire exchange, and as he pulled off, he smiled before plowing his own nose through the pubic hairs that surrounding his friend's base. As Jesse had done to him, he found it curiously soothing and personal in the time that followed, and now on the giving end, he understood why. Seconds later, however, he retreated to Jesse's belly, right below his navel and blew a short, quiet raspberry before returning to the pillow. Once his sight adjusted to the lighter ambiance, he moved in to drape a leg over Jesse's body as he hugged his friend close. It didn't take long, however, before he made out Jesse's head already turning to face him with a contented smile. They both lay there, watching each other as Jesse's breathing eventually returned to a more normal pace. Before long, Jesse finally rolled inward so that the two came to restore the intimacy of their earlier embrace. "Wow," he finally whispered, breaking the silence and confessing to what he felt inside. "You were right..."

Noah grinned. "See? Fuck, yeah! Now you see why I told you it was so awesome."

"Uh-huh, yeah," Jesse whispered back. It was another moment before he spoke again. "Can I ask you something?"

"Sure," Noah whispered back.

"Did you… were you… I mean, were you waiting this week as much as I was, hoping we'd get to, you know, do something at least?" Jesse whispered.

Noah pulled at the other boy even tighter within his grasp. "Jesse, I've been waiting all week. I mean, like I told you, I wasn't thinking we'd even get to do this tonight, especially with the little beaver up there, but man…"

Jesse nodded. "Me, too." He hesitated, then kissed Noah softly on the lips. "I'm glad, because if it had only been me, then…"

"It wasn't just you, I promise. On my heart, remember? Besides, remember what I told you the other day on the bus, about hugging the stuffing out of you if I could? I meant it," Noah replied softly. "It's not quite the same, I know, but… you understood, at least, didn't you?"

"Yeah, I did. You know something? I'm glad," Jesse repeated before kissing Noah again, just as softly and tenderly as ever. When he finally pulled back, there was a change in his expression, which was more of a boyish nature now. "So, tell me, what did you think?"

"What, me sucking you off all the way?" Noah asked, and when Jesse nodded, he grunted. "It was… I don't know, amazingly different, but a good kind of different. I… I have a confession to make. I uh, I like your dick, I think."

Jesse giggled quietly. "That's the way it was for me, too. I know, I've tasted you before, and your cum - but tonight, it even seemed like it was even more different than the first time," Jesse confessed. "I don't regret it, though. None… I liked doing it, and I'm glad you, like, could enjoy doing that in my mouth." He paused briefly before asking, "So, what about my cum?"

Noah relaxed for a moment before replying. "I thought it was kind of like you said. You know, kind of like watery blobs, but nutty tasting too, in a weird sort of way," Noah acknowledged. "It was cool though, and like you, I didn't regret it, either." Leaning in, he whispered into his friend's ear. "I'd suck you off anytime, Jesse. I liked it that much."

Jesse smiled before laying his head back upon the pillow. "Man, when I erupted, it felt like I was on fire or something. I don't know if I've ever cummed harder, you know? It was at least up there with some of our best." He sighed. "I didn't want it to end…"

"That's the way it was for me, too. Oh, and by the way, you didn't stink or anything," Noah added.

"Really? That's… surprising…" Jesse mused.

"I told you, it was fine. I mean, it was, um, maybe a stronger smell and all, but … it was you, okay? I didn't think it was bad at all. Heck…" He paused and grinned wickedly. "It might have even made you tastier!"

Jesse snorted suddenly, but then caught himself looking upward. Benji was still snoring lightly, still zonked out to the world, which made the teen breathe a sigh of relief. "Well, as long as you don't try to bite me off or anything…" He let the thought trail as Noah suddenly hid his face in the pillow, giggling. When he looked back up, he decided to crawl on top of Jesse, until he could look down into the eyes that were watching him back. Both their groins were soft by then, rubbing up against each other as Noah intentionally wiggled until they were sandwiched side by side. It felt awesome, he thought, just to do that, even flaccid as they were.

"Hey, Jess?" he whispered. "Thank you… for everything."

Jess thought of teasing him, or making some sort of a smart response in return, but Noah's expression was one of contentment. He thought back briefly to where they had started, and considered how far they had come – including the fact Noah was straddling him now. He could feel their boy parts snuggled against each other, and he, too, thought it was truly an awesome feeling. Neither cared though, because there was that one thing that had brought them together, that one undeniable trust, and it made Jesse feel really happy on the inside. "You're welcome, bro," he whispered back, then wrapped his arms own and legs around the body and held on tightly, as if trying to pass something from himself into the boy whom he had fallen in love with.

Noah, feeling the same way, nuzzled in and returned the hug for several minutes, before finally rolling off. They were getting sleepy then, but he glanced at their clothes in the window sill, still untouched since first placing them there. "Do we need to, uh…"

Jesse shook his head. "Not now," he whispered. "I want to hold onto you for a while, bro. Besides, I'll take care of us before Benji wakes up in the morning, I promise." When Noah nodded, Jesse turned on his side. "Come here," he whispered, before spooning up into Noah's back and buttocks. Though his willy found the folds of his friend's crack inviting as he cuddled in, Jesse whispered, "I promise, I'm not going to pork you, okay? I… just…"

Noah scooted back even closer. "Shh, I don't care, Jess." He grabbed his friend's hand from behind and closed it around upon his chest, hugging it close as he settled in to a peaceful state. He truly didn't care about the properness of it anymore. They were gay, or at least bi, whatever that might mean down the road. Noah had no more fear of what it implied, as long as he had Jesse to share the journey with. If they wanted to try going all the way sometime, he didn't want to be the reason not to. Until then, he welcomed feeling Little Jesse snuggled up firm as it was, along with the rest of Jesse cuddling, too.

Because in his heart, he loved his newly found brother. That was his last thought for the night, before they both drifted off to sleep.

Jesse awoke early the next morning as expected, with the need to empty his bladder. It was the one piece of clockwork the teenager could count on being mostly consistent. It was as if some internal mechanism were counting the hours, his biological needs having their own internal alarms that set themselves to go off within a certain hour or so, and as he opened his eyes and glanced at the clock, he saw it was right on time at just half past six. Glancing toward the window, he couldn't see the moon anymore, but knew it was still high above them, its radiant beams continuing to fill the valley. Behind him, Noah was not yet awake, his steady and rhythmic breathing making only the slightest of sound in the room.

Jesse reached out and found their underwear and t-shirt right where they had left them. Taking his, the teen then carefully extracted himself from under the covers until he could sit up and move over to the edge of the bed. He quickly slipped his garments on and made his way out of the bedroom as inconspicuously as he could. Behind him, no one seemed to stir.

Upon his return, Jesse noted that Benji was now hugging the backside of the bed, with part of his covers pulled tight. Jesse realized then that the room was overly cool, and upon inspection, he discovered that Benji had dropped his jeans over the air vent the night before, thus blocking the warm air that would have eventually balanced out the coolness in the room. Silently, he moved them to the side and immediately felt a flow of warmer air already start to rise from underneath. Satisfied, the teen then approached the edge of the bed, where he extended an arm and pulled an additional blanket up over his brother. Benji stirred only slightly, but he grasped the added cover and huddled it in close around his neck before quieting again. Within seconds, Jesse detected the deep breathing he had become accustomed to and knew his brother was still fast asleep.

Jesse sat down on the edge of the bed then, pausing to look upon his best friend. From looks alone, no one could tell anything different than at any other time when they were together. They were two teenagers, two boys simply making the best of life around them, and having a little fun along the way. Jesse reached out again and grabbed the remaining garments, before quietly pushing their own covers away. In the pale moonlight, Jesse glanced at his friend's crotch, contented to find it as normal as Jesse would have expected to find it. He slipped Noah's briefs on him, causing the teen to stir enough and lift his hips, allowing his friend to finish the job. While Jesse rolled the t-shirt up, Noah opened his eyes briefly but seemed to understand. The teen extended his arms, and once it was pulled over his head, he rolled just enough so that Jesse's efforts were successful. As the shirt was pulled into place, his friend uttered a quiet "Thanks" ever so softly, before rolling toward the wall and making room once again. Jesse slid in behind him and pulled the covers over them both, before spooning in and relishing the warmth that was still there. Both drifted back into a light sleep afterwards.

Some two hours later, both teens awoke to the sound of a loud crash coming from the kitchen. Jesse, instantly alert, jumped up and pulled on a pair of sweats hanging nearby, before opening the door and rushing out. Benji, also awakened, descended his ladder halfway before jumping to the floor and following his big brother, not bothering to deal with leggings of any kind. Noah listened initially, but when he heard a lot of muttering and low-voices in the distance, he decided he, too, should investigate. Knowing where Jesse kept most of his house-bound clothes, the teen found a pair of sweats easily enough and borrowed a set, pulling the bottoms on before hurrying from the room.

Once Noah arrived in the kitchen, he saw both James and Jesse trying to pick Makalah up from the floor and set her into one of the chairs at the table. It was not an easy task, as the woman winced sharply when she applied any weight onto her right ankle. Benji, standing off to the side, looked on with concern and was uncertain as to what he could or should do. Noah, however, quickly glanced around the kitchen and rapidly surmised what must have happened. A large roasting pan was sitting on the floor, not far from the oven, whose door was swung down and open at the moment, releasing its heat into the house. Although it looked as if the large turkey, intended for the day's dinner, was still inside the pan and safely intact, much of the liquid and drippings had splashed in all directions once the pan hit the floor. The teen then took stock of where he was and saw a towel nearby, which he immediately picked up and began carefully approaching the table.

Jesse saw his friend coming and quickly reached out, taking the towel and using it to wipe down his mother's arms and legs. Red welts could be seen where the skin had been burned superficially from the hot liquid, and the teen was making a quick case of wiping as much of the burning liquid away as he could detect. Makalah's face was shrouded with both pain and embarrassment, as she tried to hoist herself further up into the chair, but finding it difficult to maintain. "I think I've twisted myself up," she finally confessed in defeat as Jesse finished, causing James to step up closer. She grabbed onto his belt for leverage, but then winced. "My hip hurts where I fell on it, and my ankle isn't much for the better."

Without preamble, James then picked his wife up and started to carry her into the living room. "Benji, go get the pillows off our bed, and quickly, son," he announced. Quick as a flash, the young boy was off and running, returning only seconds later with two large pillows in his arms, which he dumped onto the couch quickly as his father bent over to lay Makalah into place. "Here now, that's it…" he said soothingly, as Makalah pushed herself into a semi-reclining position, but with tears beginning to flow from her eyes. "SSShhhh, it's okay honey." He observed how she paid attention to her wrist and then added, "Do you think you broke anything? I saw you holding your wrist a moment ago…"

Makalah shook her head. "I don't think so, it just feels sprained is all." The woman then successfully twisted her foot in different directions, but not without pain at times. "Same for my ankle, I think, though it hurts like the dickens!" She stopped then and lay back, staring at her husband briefly, before glancing about and seeing the trio of boys standing nearby. She quietly reached for Benji and pulled him in with her, giving him a warm embrace and holding him close. The moment finally caught up to her though, as she realized what had happened. Without warning, she suddenly burst into tears again, causing James to move in again and kneel down beside her, and the young boy to hug her all the harder.

"It's okay, Mom," they could all hear Benji whispering to her, but for some reason it made his mother cry all the harder.

Jesse and Noah stood aside for a moment, looking on helplessly until the woman glanced at them. Just as suddenly as she had started, however, she stopped and recomposed herself, all the while wiping at her eyes. "Shit!" she breathed, but no one dared to admonish her just then.

"It's alright, honey. You're safe, and at the moment that's all that matters," James quietly consoled her. "What happened, anyway?"

Totally embarrassed, Makalah blushed while jerking her thumb toward the kitchen. "I was pulling the turkey out to check and baste it, and I noticed the rack was about to give away. You know, it's not the best of oven doors, and I was afraid if it did break, the door might not be able to sustain the extra weight. So, I picked it up with some potholders, thinking I'd just set the pan upon the stove, but… but it was heavier than I realized. I… I ended up taking a step back… right into the garbage can, I think. I don't know, from there I- I just lost my balance and went down, noisily and hard."

"Oh, is that all?" James whispered, but he was teasing her and she knew it. Sliding back onto the pillow, she sighed heavily.

"I know, it was stupid of me. Just… let me rest for a few minutes, and then we'll see if I can't get back to it," she announced tiredly.

"Oh no, you're not going back to anything right now," James declared, but not unkindly. "You're not able to even stand on that ankle as it is, honey. That, and that wrist should probably have some ice packed around it, too." He then observed her defeated look and smiled. "Besides, you're exhausted, and who can really blame you? I so wish you had got me up so I could help you as it is. Anyway, why don't you just let us finish this bit, okay?"

Makalah scoffed. "Since when have you ever cooked a full turkey dinner like this before?"

James grinned, glancing around. "Never, but guess what? There's a first time for everything, right boys?" When a resounding chorus went up in agreement, he looked kindly upon his wife again. "Right now, just rest. We'll go get things sorted out and cleaned up, then we'll get all of your advice on what to do, at every step of the way where we need to, okay?" He turned to Benji. "Why don't you go get some pajama bottoms on and then see if you can make up a couple of ice packs for your mother, hmm?"

"Sure, but… how?" the young boy asked.

"It's easy enough," Jesse interjected. "Get some zip-lock baggies and fill them with ice. They're in the pantry on the bottom shelf, remember? Once you fill them about half-full, take them out on the porch and find Dad's hammer. Bang it on the blocks, you know, crush them up inside and all. Then lastly, get a couple of towels to wrap around the bags before you bring them to Mom."

James nodded in agreement, smiling. "See? We'll figure all this out, don't you worry about a thing. We have an aspiring cook, and a teenager who can certainly do more than boil water and make eggs," he added with a wink. Then, with a softer tone that was barely audible, he turned to his wife and added, "We've got this."

Makalah stared briefly before finally nodding. "There should be some more chicken or turkey broth in the pantry. Pour it in something and heat it up in the microwave, then add it to the turkey and get that monster back into the oven. Make sure the bag gets sealed up again, and then let it cook, I don't know, maybe a couple of hours or a little longer, since the oven has to have a chance to heat back up again. That'll do for starters."

"Got it!" James declared, rising to his feet again. "Jesse, you've got clean-up duty, son. Grab some towels from the hamper in the bathroom if you want, and wipe down wherever you find the spills. Then when you're done, gather up and put all the dirty towels in the washer and get it going. You, Noah," the man instructed, hesitating only slightly. "Do you know how to peel potatoes and get them on the stove to boil?"

Noah nodded. "Yes sir," he declared with a voice of self-assuredness. "Mashed?" When the man nodded, the teen began moving. "Then leave that to me. Also, once I get that going, I'll head over to the house and get Mom to work on finishing the rolls up for us."

"Sounds like a plan to get started," James declared as they sprang into action. Once inside the kitchen, they found Benji already there and pulling a chair over to the refrigerator.

"Here, let me help with that," Noah announced, taking both baggies from him and quickly half-filling each with several cubes of ice. Handing it back, he asked, "The only thing Jesse didn't tell you was to go ahead and put the baggies in the towels first. before you start banging on them. That'll keep the hammer from breaking the plastic open. Understand?"

When the youngster nodded, James pointedly glanced at his son. "You know what to do afterwards, right?" he asked quietly.

Benji nodded. "Take care of Mom, yeah, I know. Wrap the bags, bust the ice, and make Mom behave like a good little girl… right?"

James chuckled, but nodded as he reached out and tussled the young boy's hair. "That you do!" he declared under his breath. When the boy was out of sight, however, the man turned to Noah and spoke again, keeping his voice low. "We can handle most of this, but when you go home, ask your mother if she could come over and give us a hand when those rolls are done, okay? I have no idea what to do about this… this broccoli casserole, and there's supposed to be a pie or two around here somewhere, but I haven't seen them yet."

Noah shook his head. "If I understand it right, the pies are over at our house. Mom was going to fix them along with another dish of some kind. I'll tell her though, I promise."

"Good enough. Potatoes and fresh corn, those are your top priorities, okay? There are some green beans already started in the crock-pot over there, too, so you and Jesse only have to keep an eye on them. They should be tender and ready for serving all on their own, when the time comes to get them out. The only thing is, we need to make sure Makalah added the onions and seasoning to it."

The man paused as he watched Jesse walk over and inspect the device through its lid, before shaking his head. "I don't think so, Dad. At least, there's no onions that I can see."

"Well, then one of you probably need to do that so they get tender and cook for a while, too. Also, when Jesse gets finished cleaning up, he can start brewing us all up some iced tea. He's done that plenty of times before, so no problem, right?"

"Sure Dad, I'll take care of it and these beans," the teenager replied.

James then approached and observed the dinner list, which was currently attached to the refrigerator door. "I have to admit, she's got deviled eggs on here, and that is one item I haven't got a clue on how to prepare them. Maybe I can get your Mom to help me figure that out, along with the turkey gravy and stuffing. Otherwise, this actually doesn't look too bad. Makalah has already made up most of the salads and things, from the looks of it."

"Deviled eggs aren't that bad, I can probably do most of that too, as long as you don't want them to look fancy or anything," Noah piped up, causing Jesse to glance his way, obviously impressed, before turning back to his father.

"Is there anything else you want me to do when I get done, then?" Jesse asked, reading through his mother's list with his father.

"Well, I don't know right now, but I'm sure there will be plenty of things to work on, especially when we start setting the table. Until then, maybe you can just team up with Noah for a while. Who knows, maybe you'll learn a little more about cooking, hmm?" The man glanced around, nodding again. "See, boys? We've got this! Everything will work out just fine," the man declared.

A little over an hour later, the back door suddenly opened and Jennifer worked herself inside carrying two heavy-looking dishes. "Noah?" she called out, prompting the teen to hurry and relieve her of one of them. After they both sat the dishes on the countertop, Jennifer immediately made her way into the living room, where she found Makalah half-reclined, trying to sit in such a way she could peer into the kitchen better. "Oh my, no - no - no!" Jennifer declared, quickly making her host slide back into a more comfortable position. "If you hurt your hip, you don't need any undue pressure on it for a while!" The woman then clucked her tongue before giggling at the sight of the woman, sprawled and disheveled in her housecoat. "What some people will do to get out of cooking…!" she teased, causing the other woman to give her a knowing look, though still blushing deeply.

"I'm know it, I'm a klutz..."

Jennifer laughed before kneeling down and taking the woman by the hand and holding it fondly. "Accidents happen, my dear. The question of the moment, however, is how are you doing?"

"Somewhat better, I think. My ankle hurts, and this wrist is still being awfully tender, but the ice packs Ben keeps putting on them are doing quite the trick." Makalah nodded toward the activity in the kitchen. "Not too sure about things in there, though," she added in a lowered tone.

Jennifer nodded before standing. "Well, 'in there' will be going fantastic, you'll see." With that she smiled at Benji, who was seated next to his mother and looking at a comic book, before turning and heading back into what Noah had already coined as being the 'war room'. Walking up to James, she paused. "Okay, what do we need to do here?"

"Surprisingly, not a lot. You have the pies, I heard?" James asked.

"Allen is watching them, and will bring them over when they're done. Are we still having turkey? What about stuffing, or dressing, or whatever you guys call it?" Over the next few minutes, the two had a discussion, taking an assessment of where things were at, causing Jennifer to eventually raise both eyebrows, impressed. "Really? This… this is awesome, fellas!" She looked around. "Okay, I'll take care of the stuffing, and the turkey gravy once we get it out of the oven. That sweet potato casserole I brought in needs to be warmed is all, so really – there's not that much left to do, from the looks of things. Why don't you boys start clearing the table off so we can set this stuff out. Just put the cold stuff out first; we'll keep the other closer to the stove in here until we're ready. That way it'll hopefully stay warmer, alright?"

With Jennifer's welcomed assistance, it was not long before the table was cleared. She sent Noah back to their house to collect a tablecloth and napkins, all the while directing Jesse to start taking up various vegetables and readying them for the dinner. As the noon hour arrived, so did Allen, returning with Noah and carrying a basket filled with fresh baked rolls and pies. Within minutes, the tablecloth was in place, and the dishes, plates and silverware were placed around, along with a splendor of food. Jennifer checked the turkey and declared it finished, so once she had it removed from the pan, she and James both proceeded to slice the bird before it was moved to the table.

Finally seeing the end in sight, James stood tall and asked the boys to change into something other than their sweats, with which they quickly complied as the man made his way into the living room. There, he found Makalah still feeling sheepish over the entire incident, but she welcomed him lifting her cleanly from the couch as before, and moving her into the bedroom. Before long, he returned, Makalah now having changed into a comfortable set of clothes more suitable. In the meantime, Allen and Jennifer both had arranged to bring in the recliner, and set it near the end of the table after repositioning some of the furniture. Once Makalah was set upon the cushions, she propped her foot on a pillow that Benji had brought along, and then smiled at how delicious everything looked to have turned out. "Maybe I should be a klutz more often," she whispered, before having a towel playfully tossed at her by her husband. Moments later, all three boys had returned, and then everyone sat down, pulling themselves up to the table.

There was a silence that enveloped the two families, as James looked around before reaching out and taking his wife's hand, holding it close. His first glance at her expressed a deep fondness, something she returned directly as she squeezed and conveyed her own emotions in that moment, before he returned his attention to the rest of the families seated. "I don't know how each of you feel about today, or this gathering, really. It's kind of a first for us in a long, long while – too long, to be honest. I for one though, am very, very proud that you three joined the four of us. We've had a storied history together, no one can doubt, but our friendship… it seems to grow stronger every time we come together. This year is no exception, as you've helped us in ways no one can count or even describe, I think." He paused, before clearing his throat. "I wonder though, if you'll indulge me to do something a little bit different than most people would do today. Like I said, we haven't done a dinner like this before, not really, but… there is something that has been on my mind all morning. You see, normally we'd ask you, Allen, as our guest, to offer up a blessing, but… if it's alright, I think I'd like to ask Jesse to do it." Allen smiled widely and nodded, but when James saw the surprised look on his son's face, his voice softened further. "Jesse, I have every bit the confidence in you son, as I would anyone else sitting at this table. I know you'll do fine, so, how about it, hmm?"

Jesse stared into his father's eyes, seemingly paralyzed, until everyone around the table reached out and joined hands. With Benji on his right, and Noah on his left, he felt both squeeze their grips encouragingly, and so the teen bowed his head. What should he say, he wondered? He had no idea, really, but he understood what it was about, and what this moment meant to his whole family. To both of their families, or so it felt. "Um, Dear Lord, thank you. Thanks for our food, thanks for our families, thanks for our friends, and for everything they mean to us. Thank you for my little brother, and the laughs he gives us, and for his heart. Thank you for my parents, who watch out for us every day. Thank you for my best friend, and letting us be as close as we are. And thank you too, for Mr. and Mrs. Cook, so that they might be blessed for everything too, that they have done and keep doing for us. But most of all, thank you for letting us come together again as one family, if even for just a little while. Amen."

"Amen!" the others offered up around the table. They say in life we will always come to a crossroads, where there is a first time for everything. Jesse's offering was met with smiles and words of 'well done'. He blushed, thinking he should have done better, but his father rose and stepped around the table, coming up beside his son before kneeling and giving him a warm embrace. "Well done, kiddo," the man whispered.

The conversation turned lively then, with the food being passed from one to another as they filled their plates. James assisted his wife, getting Makalah the things she desired. Laughter ensued, with plenty of teasing, stories of other noteworthy moments from the past, and predictions of things yet to come. They ate until they were stuffed, and then they sat back and talked some more. More than once, Jesse glanced at Noah, and saw both amusement and wonder in his friend's eyes. It made him feel content and happy. Benji, often expected to up and leave and go watch cartoons or some other distraction, never left the table other than to visit the bathroom. That was a testament to something in itself, Jesse was certain, but he didn't worry about it now.

When the group finally stood, getting the dishes up, putting food away and general cleaning took no time at all. Several bowls and paper plates were brought around, to divide the leftovers between both families. When finished, it was mid-afternoon, and as the adults returned to the living room, the boys retreated to the bedroom and started playing video games. There was a point when Benji inserted himself between the two teens, causing Jesse's eyebrows to rise. "Hey, you had him all last night, let me have at him at least for a little while, doofus!" the young boy complained, making his brother laugh. Noah put his arm around the smaller boy and pulled him in close, where he remained until Mr. and Mrs. Cook announced they should be getting back.

Before climbing to his feet, however, Noah leaned in and smothered the smaller boy within his arms, pulling him inside and nuzzling the boy's neck. Benji responded in kind, holding tightly and not wanting to let go. Eventually, Noah pulled up and whispered something into his ear, and Jesse saw his brother nod his head and back away. With a sniff and hurried wiping of his eyes, Benji calmly got up and exited the room.

As Jesse watched him go, Noah slid up close and then attempted to mimic his moment with his best friend, but found it awkward given Jesse's bigger size and presence. They did embrace, however, just as warmly as the two ever had done before. "I just asked him if I could give you a hug too, before I go, that's all," he explained, before pulling back. "Thanks for what you said at the table today. We love you guys, but you know I love you and Benji, too. Our way."

Jesse smiled. "Yeah, our way." He grasped the hand held out for him, hooking thumbs and holding it solidly. "Thanks for being so good to Ben, too. I think you have both his trust and his heart."

Noah smiled. "No, you have his heart, Jess. I'm just the next-door neighbor, I think. Maybe the good guy, at least, since I know he trusts me. That makes him pretty cool, for a midget."

"I heard that!" a voice called as the boy returned through the door, a smile on his face. "I'll take midget any day, until I get as big as you two." He glanced down at Noah. "Of course, I trust you, doofus!" he declared with a whisper, and offered a mid-air fist, which the teen happily returned.

"Don't worry Short-Stuff," Jesse announced, accepting his brother's hand and pulling himself to his feet. "It won't be very long at all before you'll probably end up taller than us both!" Both boys then looked down at Noah and offered him hands, which he accepted as they pulled him to his feet.

"So, school tomorrow?" Noah asked, collecting his things.

"You bet!" Jesse replied happily.

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