The Storm That Turned the Tide

by Sean English

Chapter 15

Reminders Are Real

Following the night of the big game, classes resumed at a more normal, but slower pace for the rest of the week. After receiving permission from Principal Green, both Jesse and Noah spent time during their first period classes the next morning, cleaning the gymnasium and taking care of the overabundance of litter left behind from the night before. They were not alone, as the school's custodians and a few other choice volunteers chipped in, all clearing the various concession stand trash or performing other, more unpleasant tasks. "Eww…" Noah called out at one point, holding up what appeared to be a dirty diaper that had been carelessly discarded.

The job took the crew the better part of about two hours before finishing. By the time they had neared the end of their task, the gym had undergone a surprising transformation back into the level of normalness they were used to… and not a moment too soon. Regular operations were scheduled to resume by the third period, which was when Phys Ed. classes were set to return to normal. That meant there was very little time for horseplay or conversation, but insofar as Noah and Jesse were concerned, that was okay. Once finished, Noah was duly impressed, especially after having seen the state the gym had been left in after the game. He said something about it to Jesse, causing the teen to stop and look around before shrugging.

"It doesn't really take that long, especially when there's several people helping to do the clean-up and everything. I mean, mostly it just turns out to be a lot of spilled popcorn, or drink cups and wrappers left behind," Jesse observed.

"Or dirty diapers," Noah added, making a face.

"That one, I admit, is… well, unusual to say the least," his friend replied. "I came across a pair of condoms once, though… used ones at that. That was pretty icky, too. Seriously though, I think the worst of it is when someone spills a drink, and the seats or the footboards end up getting all sticky. That's the kind of stuff that's really hard to get off." Jesse nodded and pointed toward one of the custodians. "Even then though, the school has that buffer-thingy like he's using over there, to run over the seats and aisles to scrub it off. It takes a while, but it ends up working most of the time."

It was the first day of December, and although it took a few days to change the various posters, decorations and other festive paraphernalia related to the game into holiday themes, the atmosphere was positive. Most of the decorations were generalized with a non-Christian base, something that actually evoked mixed feelings amongst the student body, staff and teachers. As it was such a rural area, much of the valley was entrenched in beliefs that straddled Catholic, Methodist, and Baptist denominations. There were those, however, who actively pursued their right to exercise a separation of church and government, and then other groups who pursued agendas even more aggressive. Because of them, the end result was made clear regarding the separation of church and state: schools had to treat the holiday in the most generic and non-offensive ways possible - at least for the time being.

The decorations at least were made in good taste, being bright, colorful and cheerful overall, and the low-volume music that now played through all the speakers each morning, simple holiday tunes, quickly established a light-hearted and festive temperament geared for the upcoming holiday. The rivaled game was soon forgotten, with everyone understanding that the team had done its best in the circumstances far from normal. By the end of the week, Simon was walking again, although cautiously, as he was seen to favor one leg over the other. His first two days included the use of a walking stick, but by Friday he was seen making his way on his own again. It was a positive sign, one which reassured everyone that he had only suffered a minor setback, and would be back to playing on the team within a few weeks at most.

The weekend arrived finally, with warmer than common weather giving many in the valley a pleasant surprise. On Friday evening, the boys had just stepped off the school bus and were making their way toward Noah's house, when they were stopped by a delivery truck coming up the driveway. Stepping off into the lawn, the man behind the wheel smiled and waved at the two, then continued on until he reached the road. Once there the vehicle paused, and then turned out, making its way toward town. The two boys watched it disappear before glancing at one another, to which Noah simply shrugged his shoulders before they continued on their way. Reaching the back door, they were surprised to find Jennifer waiting to greet them. "Hello boys! How was school today?"

"Just fine, Mom," Noah replied, hanging his coat on the nearby rack before noticing a rather large parcel sitting on the floor bedside her. "Say, what's in the box? Is it my Christmas gift?" he teased, to which the woman scoffed.

"Afraid not, kiddo. It is, however, supposed to be something I bought for your father for Christmas. Why don't you run into the kitchen and get us a knife to cut this tape with, and then we'll have a quick look-see."

"Sure!" Noah answered, disappearing quickly as Jesse removed his coat and folded it, intending to lay it on the floor underneath those already hung up. Jennifer, however, would not hear of it.

"There's room, honey. Hang your coat up, too," the attractive woman pointed. "You're as much a part of our family as everyone else, so stop being so polite." She smiled as she made that statement, a command no less, but one given with a great deal of warmth.

"Yes ma'am," Jesse replied, complying timidly. Why he still felt he was an outsider, he did not know. He welcomed the open friendship, however, as more than once the woman had gone out of her way to treat him kindly, and with a great deal of respect. By the time he had draped the coat onto the rack, Noah returned with the requested knife, and between them, he and his mother quickly had the box opened at the top. Inside, however, they found yet another box tightly packed. Glancing up, Noah motioned for his friend to grab hold on one end while he reached down for the other. After a little maneuvering, both boys were then able to turn the carton upside down and drop the inner package to the floor.

"Sheesh, this thing is heavy!" Noah proclaimed as the contents hit the floor with a thud. Setting the shipping carton aside, he tried to inspect the inner package. It was, in a word, featureless - except for one end. Scrutinizing it closer, details of the content were spelled out, along with a small picture. "What the heck is it, though?" he added, confused. "The label is so worn off, see? I can't even read the text!"

Jennifer stepped around to look at the panel with her son. "Well, it's supposed to be a bench-top miter saw, like the ones you use in woodworking. The picture, however, does not look promising, does it?"

"You mean, like the kind you cut wood and stuff at angles?" Jesse asked. When the woman nodded, she reached out for the knife and took it from her son. Carefully running it along the top, she was able to open the box so they could all peer at the contents inside. The trio discovered it was one of those products that required some significant assembly before it was usable.

Even so, neither the shape nor contents looked at all like it was a miter saw. "This is definitely NOT what I thought I was ordering, that's for sure," Jennifer remarked, clucking her tongue in dismay. Finding the booklet for the product near the top, she pulled it out and observed the cover. "Nope, this is some kind of a specialized scroll saw, from the looks of things. I wonder who goofed – me ordering the wrong thing, or the company shipping the wrong item?" After a moment, she replaced the booklet and stood. "Noah, see if you can find some shipping tape, okay? I think we need to close all of this back up, at least until I sort out the details of what happened. Then afterwards honey, we need to hide it, too. I don't want your father getting wind of it and thinking this is what he's getting under the tree."

"Sure Mom, but… he doesn't have one of these, does he?" Noah asked as he stood beside her.

"Well, no, but it's not what he's been eyeing for since summer. You know how he is, always complaining about not being able to cut his boards with different angles and all that. That's why I went searching for a miter saw and found this one online. Well, not THIS one, but you know what I mean. THIS one doesn't fit the description at all, I'm afraid," Jennifer explained. Noah nodded his understanding and then disappeared further into the house for a second time. The woman then glanced at their guest and let out a slow breath before smiling. "So, did your day go well, too?"

Jesse half-grinned. "I guess so. I'm sore for some reason, though. We had a kind of hard hour in Phys Ed today." Indeed, they had played basketball once again, only this time their usual group seemed to play more aggressively than common. Jesse had also tried to work on a few running jumps again, and although he had improved, he still had not succeeded with them as well as he had wanted to. Crashing to the floor the first few times had convinced him to back away, but that was before the aches and discomfort had begun to set in. Terry, who had observed the effort and understood what he was doing, told him not to be discouraged. "It takes a little time, and it takes some practice to get it right. From what I can see though, I'd say you're well over halfway there already. I mean, I watched your calf and thigh when you were putting the force behind the jump, and I'd say you were tensing those up good already. Just don't try to over-think it any, and you'll get there soon."

"I hope so… falling down doesn't help my ego very much though, and neither do the bruises" Jesse confessed to him, causing some of the other guys to laugh at him as two boys offered hands and helped pull him to his feet again.

"Well, the remedy for aches and sores sometimes is to just get a nice, good hot bath," Jennifer countered, bringing the teen back to the present. "Noah gets achy sometimes, too, and that always seems to help him quite a bit."

"Yes ma'am, I know. I've done it a few times, too. At least, where we used to live," Jesse admitted, just as Noah returned carrying a shipping tape dispenser. Together, the three of them carefully reassembled and sealed both the inner and outer boxes before Jennifer paused, deep in thought. The woman finally sighed and addressed the two teens again.

"Tell you what, nothing is going to happen before Monday, at least. So, let's see if we can't hide this downstairs in your room, Noah. Would that be okay? Either in your closet, or maybe in the bottom of the linen closet in your bathroom. It should fit there, I think. Just somewhere, at least. You can put a towel over it or something, too, if you think you need to. Your Dad hardly ever goes in there anyway."

"Well, not unless he's in the family room, and don't forget, Alabama and Georgia Tech play tomorrow. You know how he feels about Alabama," Noah reasoned, causing his mother to grunt.

"You're right. One simple bathroom trip might be a little too much to chance overall. Do you think you can hide it in your closet?" Jennifer asked.

"Sure, we'll hide it Mom, I promise," Noah replied, grabbing the box and picking it up. Entering the kitchen, however, the teen ended up setting the box on the table. "Good grief!" he decried, seeking a better grip before they continued.

Jesse grinned as he stepped up beside him. "Come on Sir Weak-a-lot, I'll help," he offered. Noah gave him a baleful look, but then welcomed the assistance. Carefully, both boys carried the box down the steps and into Noah's room. Moving over to the bed, however, Noah suddenly halted and began setting the box down on the carpeted floor. "Thanks for not saying Sir-Wanks-a-lot!"

Jesse burst out laughing, but then shook his head. "Nope, not going to go there…" he intoned.

"I wonder," Noah mused, fully aware that Jesse was now observing him curiously. Raising the bed skirt, Noah started sliding the box underneath. When he saw that it just cleared the rail, he grinned widely. "All right!" When the box was effectively out of sight, the teen then took a seat on the edge of the bed. "Sir Weak-a-lot? Really? How… how dare you!" he teased.

Jesse laughed again. "Well, at least I didn't say Sir Leaks-a-Lot!" he retorted, before leaning forward and tackling his friend back onto the bed. Both boys wrestled for a moment, before Jesse found himself on top, straddling his best friend. Both grew quiet then, observing each other deeply before Noah finally sighed.

"I want to, bro. I really want to do something, but…"

Jesse shook his head. "I know, don't worry about it. Your bedroom door is open, and… your mom…"

Noah nodded. "She'll probably bring us a snack down here after a bit, knowing her." He glanced at his clock. "Plus, we were running late today on the bus. It won't be long before your brother gets home, right?"

Jesse sighed, but after glancing at the nearby clock, he nodded before stretching out and folding his arms on top of Noah's chest. For a moment at least, the two lay there with their noses only inches apart. "Yeah," he whispered. After a moment, he added, "So, can I stay tonight? Or do we need to wait…"

Noah grimaced. "Not tonight, but maybe tomorrow night. Aren't we all supposed to go to Louisville tomorrow and see some kind of play? I thought maybe, well…"

"Yep, 'A Christmas Carol'. Your Dad got tickets for us all, some way," Jesse replied nodding. "I think it'll be fun. I mean, we'll eat somewhere, and maybe do some shopping. Mom gave me and Benji each a $20 bill last night, so we won't be quite so, uh, 'poor' I guess, hanging out with you this time."

Noah frowned. "I've never thought of you guys as being poor, Jess," he replied softly. "I'm sorry if I ever, like, made you feel that way, but…"

"You didn't," Jesse replied. "You've been super to me and Ben, and your parents have already earned their Good Samaritan trophy for the year, I think, with my parents. Maybe even the decade." He shifted slightly, before continuing. "I don't know Noah, just… it's like I've told you before, it feels better when I don't have to feel like I depend on anyone for stuff, you know? We're not really poor, just… being careful right now, that's all. Dad told me some stuff the other night, see. Since the tornado, we're all still kind of just treading on pins and needles for a little while."

Noah smiled. "Well, Mr. Careful, don't worry about me, okay? I have some money stashed away; plus, a whole savings account I could tap into if I needed to. I promise, you're never going to bother or hurt me, not in that way."

"You have a savings account?" Jesse asked, his eyebrows raised in surprise. As quickly as the thought hit him, however, his expression evolved into a knowing look. "What am I saying? Of course, you do. I mean, your father works at the bank, right? So…"

Noah laughed, but nodded in agreement. "I don't have a lot in it, really. Maybe seven or eight hundred, I mean. Dad started it for me a couple of years ago, to save up for a car when I get my license. Every once in a while, I'll earn something here or there, and give him part of it to deposit. Plus, he and Mom add a few dollars every so often, too." He glanced toward his dresser. "I've also got around a hundred dollars in cash stashed away over there. You know, in case I, like, ever need or want it for something."

"Cool," Jesse murmured. "That's really… good, I think."

Noah saw the passive expression and shrugged. "It's okay. You don't see me spend a lot of it, though. I mean, look around, Jesse. I have what I need for the most part, plus – I've got you and Benji now, too. What more could I really ask for?" He spoke the last in a whisper, but Jesse understood the sentiment.

"I know I couldn't ask for more," the teen whispered back, before glancing at the door and finding both it, and the room beyond, clear. Stretching forward, he gave his best friend a quick kiss on the lips, before pulling back with a smile. Noah returned the smile, but before he could respond, they both suddenly heard footsteps overhead approaching and descending the stairs.

Jesse quickly rolled away with a grunt and, just as Noah had predicted, seconds later his mother entered the room with two sodas and generous helpings of more banana-nut bread, which she promptly handed over. "Sorry boys, we're out of milk, so I'm afraid bread and sodas will have to do for now." She looked around. "Did you get that box put away?" she asked. Noah nodded and raised the bed skirt, showing her the end of the box stowed underneath. "Oh, that'll certainly work!" she remarked. Stretching, she added, "By the way, I checked the order on the computer. I did order the right thing, it seems; they just so happened to ship the wrong item. I'll call them Monday morning and get it straightened out."

"Cool," Noah replied, before taking a big bite of the delicious bread.

Jennifer turned to leave, but not without stopping and addressing their guest. "There's a slice of bread for Benji on the edge of the table upstairs. Don't forget to take it to him, okay?"

"Sure Mrs. Cook, and thanks!" Jesse replied. As she left the room, both boys plopped down into the set of bean bags at the foot of the bed, enjoying their snack. "Your Mom makes the best breads like this I've ever eaten!" He looked up at one point. "No wonder you learned how to bake so well, too!"

Noah laughed. "I guess so," he replied before shrugging. "I kind of just got bored once, on one of those cold, rainy afternoons, I think. So, I saw something on TV that looked interesting and decided to give it a try. Afterwards, it just sort of became a hobby."

"Well, I'm not complaining!" Jesse declared, taking another bite.

"Some guys would, though. Being a cook, they think it's all girls work, or sissy stuff," Noah remarked.

"Then they can go fuck themselves," Jesse smirked, his voice lowered. "Lots of guys can cook, Noah, and they aren't mama's boys, or sissy-like either. Heck, Mr. Moore, down at the auto shop Dad goes to - he's cooked plenty of hams, casseroles, and all kinds of stuff before. And you know how gruff-looking he is!"

Noah laughed. "Yeah, he has that biker-gangster appearance, for sure!"

Jesse nodded. "I agree. Not sure what got him into cooking and baking or whatever, other than he may have just had to learn. His wife started getting bad a few years ago. You know, Alzheimer's or something like that, I think."

"Yeah, I know. We know him, too," Noah whispered. When he finished his snack, he sat up. "Be right back, I've got to make use of Sir Leaks-a-Lot's leaky room."

Jesse spluttered through his nose at the remark, causing them both to laugh, before Noah rose and made his way into the bathroom, though once again without closing the door. Jesse glanced up into the mirror, and could plainly see Noah's back as he stepped in front of the toilet and did his business. He smiled at himself, and was still doing so when his friend returned a moment later.

"What?" Noah asked, returning to his previous place on the bean bag.

"Nothing," Jesse replied, but even as he turned his attention to finishing his drink, he saw the persisting inquisitive look upon the other teen's face. "I just… it's one of those things again. You didn't close the bathroom door, and… I saw you in the mirror, and…"

Noah scoffed. "You didn't see anything, Jess – but if you had I still wouldn't have cared. You know that by now, don't you?" he replied softly.

Jesse, however, began to feel guilty, although he had a difficult moment trying to pinpoint why. Noah seemed to observe the inner struggle, and decidedly crawled over to sit beside his friend. "Hey, what's up in there? Are you okay?" he asked with concern.

They both shared the moment that followed in silence as Jesse ended up leaning back and relaxing against Noah's shoulder. "I'm sorry," the teen finally whispered in response. "I think, I don't know, my emotions have just been all over the place lately, and… it's something I'm still trying to figure out why and all."

"I admit, you do seem off a little lately, but…" Noah started, but let the thought trail away.

"Yeah, I know. Ever since we kind of found each other like we did, and I mean really found each other, it's like I'm on this roller coaster and everything."

Noah studied briefly before sighing. "Maybe I should ask if you can spend the night tonight. I know I you wanted to and all."

Jesse shook his head quietly. "No, I agree with you. Tomorrow night would be a lot better and all, I think. Plus, if we're late enough, Benji might fall asleep on the way back, and then we won't have to deal with him wanting to come over, too."

Noah shrugged. "I wouldn't care if he did, though. He could sleep in the floor, or on the couch out in the den. We'd still get the bed to ourselves and could, you know, do something - just the two of us."

Jesse smiled. "Maybe, but… Honestly? I kind of like our alone time together, you know? We don't have to be so careful and everything then. Except, that is, to make sure your blinds are closed."

"Oh? Did I leave them open again?" Noah asked, amused.

"Yeah, Tuesday night," Jesse whispered. "Only, it wasn't me who saw you first."

Noah grinned. "So, Benji likes playing Peeping Tom, too, huh?"

Jesse giggled. "I don't think he did it on purpose, to be honest. It was kind of by accident, but when I got out of the shower and made it back to our room, he had the lights and everything off so he could watch you. We both watched you drying off and walking around the room, pulling on your t-shirt and stuff."

"Did he get an eye-full?" Noah asked, still amused.

"Um, let's just say we saw the distinct outlines okay. Not so much in the details, because, well, it is what, 30-yards or so between us? But yeah… he could make out some, uh, private areas." Jesse grunted. "I tried to play it off, telling him I knew I wasn't so much to look at anymore."

Noah reached down and pinched his friend, hard. "Don't ever say that! Not to me, anyway!"

Jesse rolled his eyes and grunted. "Don't worry, he got after me, too." He paused, but then nodded as he lowered his voice again. "Same for me, Noah. I'd never get tired of being with or around you, or watching, or… or… any of that stuff, I promise."

"I hope so," Noah replied in kind. "So, was he okay afterwards?"

"Oh, yeah, he was fine." Jesse paused for a moment, before sighing. "There's something Simon told me the other night at the game, about him and his brothers. It was something that kind of surprised me, but at the same time, it sort of made me feel a lot better about how I treat Benji and all. Something I've kind of been telling you all along, too."

"Really? What was it?" Noah asked softly.

"Well, it's about the curiosity part. Believe it or not, he said he thought there was nothing wrong with being curious, and that everybody is curious at one point or another - even among guys. It's how he treats it all when he's around his brothers, and he doesn't care if he's skinned with them or not. You know, naked," Jesse whispered.

Noah rolled his eyes briefly. "I know what skinned means, Jess," he whispered, but then snuggled in a little closer.

"I'm sorry," Jesse replied, blushing. "Anyway, that night we were watching you, that's kind of what I told Ben, and that he didn't need to worry any about it with you. I mean, you and I both knew he's just curious, and that there was really nothing wrong with it - other than he was watching you without you knowing about it, I mean."

Noah nodded. "Good boy," he whispered, before stretching out and giving his best friend a kiss on the nose. "You know, I have to admit something, too. Ever since you taught that to me, about what trust means and all, I've taken it to heart pretty much. It explains so much about how I was feeling before, you know, the skating rink thing, and… even afterwards. If there is anything I could wish for, it would to go back and hear something like that a lot sooner, because well, it might have made things turn out differently. Who knows, Jesse, maybe we could have become friends a lot sooner, too." He stared deep into the eyes that met him back. "I don't know, I just believe in it now. I can't tell you how much better it has made me feel, just being able to understand it, really. I mean, it helps me sleep better at night, and… just, other things, I guess. I've got you to thank for that, bro. You've taught me a lot of things, you know?"

"Just like you've taught me a lot, too," Jesse replied with a smile. "It even makes me miss you more sometimes, too. Sometimes it's a good thing, but others it makes me a little sad, too. I know that means something, but I think that's a part of why I'm on this thing, this roller-coaster part with my feelings and everything, trying to figure it all out."

Noah smiled. "Are you sure? Because, you know… I'll help, in any way that I can. You just have to help me enough, so that I can know how to help you."

"Yeah, that's kind of how it has to work, isn't it?" Jesse replied, teasing.

"I guess so," Noah relented, but wasn't fazed by the response. "Seriously, Jess… you understand, right?"

"Yeah, I do," was the soft reply. Both boys once again fell silent for a moment, each lost in their own thoughts, until Noah decided to change the subject.

"So, I've kind of been wondering about something," he started. When Jesse raised an eyebrow, Noah settled in again by drawing the two nearer once more. "How did you know? I mean, how did you know in the beginning that you liked boys?" he whispered. "You told me it was years ago and all, but… how did you know?"

Jesse frowned, thinking back across his past to try and find an answer. "I'm not sure, really. I mean, like you, I kind of discovered jacking off and everything, but I think I knew even before that happened. I… well, I think I've always kind of wondered about guys, you know – like how they looked and everything underneath." The teen suddenly blushed. "I know, that makes me almost sound like a weirdo or something, right? To… to stare at someone between their legs and… and wonder what they'd look like, without… without…"

Noah shook his head. "Not to me, it doesn't," he whispered. "I would do that sometimes, too. I even did it with girls in our class, too, but not as much as I wondered about guys."

Jesse's eyebrow rose again. "Really? Me, too!" He paused and then nodded, as if agreeing to some unknown thought. "We'd go to PE in fourth and fifth grade, and change in the locker room and all. Guys would horse around in their underwear a lot, but nothing beyond that, really." He then grimaced. "The first couple of times we started changing clothes in front of everybody else, I was sort of scared. You know, changing clothes and all, but… it didn't take me long to shake that off."

"Yeah, I know what you mean, that's the way it was with me, too. My first time, there were a bunch of guys around that kind of teased me, saying I looked like a skeleton or something. It – well, it kind of bothered me at first, but then… Dad told me something one night that kind of change my attitude about it."

"Really? What did he say?" Jesse asked curiously.

"Well, he said I shouldn't worry so much - because sure, everyone can see me, but in return I could also see all of them," Noah replied. "He was right, too. I might have been a skinny runt, but there were others there, too, who were skinny and tall, or short and bigger around and all. He told me I shouldn't worry so much about how I looked to them, knowing they all would look like something to me in return. It was kind of weird, but it made a lot of sense the more I thought about it."

Jesse smiled. "Makes a lot of sense to me, too."

"So, do you think maybe that's when you started, like, wondering?" Noah asked, his voice barely above a whisper.

"Kind of," Jesse replied. "I remember seeing some things, like… some guys had bigger underwear, or underwear that was worn, like thin or clingy. Not exactly see through, mind you, but you know what I mean. And… a lot of times they had gaps in the legs and all, and it wasn't hard to sneak a peek when they were sitting down. You could maybe see their balls or something, or the outline of their thingy. That kind of made me even more curious, and… I guess as I got older, I started imagining other things. Later on, that's how I also found out about guys getting hairs down there, too. Before then, I never knew that even happened to guys, you know? I mean, I caught a glimpse of one kid who had hairs hanging out through the gaps and all, and I thought 'Whoa!'" He returned his glance to Noah. "Then, I don't know, maybe the latter part of sixth grade or something, I sort of discovered jacking off and everything. The other guys were talking about it before then, but I never really understood at first, until I was just doing it one night. I was in the bathtub, and… you know, rubbing down there and feeling good and all… and then it happened. And when it happened, I wasn't thinking about girls like they all said they were doing, see? I was thinking about… well…"

"About guys, like me," Noah whispered. "Like I was doing."

Jesse nodded. "Yeah. I'll tell you something else, too: when I, like, peaked the first time, it scared the hell out of me, because I thought I had done something wrong, or like, horribly bad or something. I don't think I got the courage up for a couple of weeks before I did it again, you know? But that time, that's when it was, I don't know, not as scary, and well, you know the rest."

"Really? Same here!" Noah hissed, thinking back. "Mine was so intense, it was like I thought my balls were going to fall off or something. I mean, they ached for a whole two-days like, I think, and I got really scared for a while I'd done something bad. I don't think I waited that long before doing it again, though… but, I didn't do it right away at least, I know that for sure. Probably just a few days or something."

Jesse grunted. "I don't know about other guys, but I suspect it was the same way for a bunch of us."

Noah smiled before relaxing again. "That is so cool, Jesse. I mean it, too. Not because of the sex so much, but just because, well, finding out you were so much like me in the beginning. Honest, it's really kind of cool knowing that I wasn't alone in feeling or finding out things like that."

"Was anything really different for you?" Jesse whispered.

"Um, not really, except for the timing, I guess. I didn't jack off for the first time until I was, I don't know, middle of seventh grade maybe. Like you, guys talked about it all the time, but I was too bashful to ask anyone to explain it to me. I had to kind of discover it on my own, too."

Jesse nodded again. "Yeah. It might have been nice to learn sooner, or if we could have learned together, but meh… it worked out okay like it did."

"Yeah, it did," Noah agreed, whispering again. "Like you said, sometimes I just kind of got curious, you know?" The teen then leaned in closer and whispered, "Thanks, Jess."

Jesse smiled. "Any time, bro. I've got nothing to hide, I promise."

"I know you don't," Noah whispered back, before giving his friend a brief hug.

Jesse returned the embrace, before glancing at the clock again and sighing. "I guess I better get going. Benji will be home in about 10 minutes or so." With that, he slowly made his way to his feet, before extending a hand to Noah and helping him up, too. "So, tomorrow night, right?"

"Yep, plan on it. I'll make sure it's okay with Mom later," was the ready reply. Noah then stepped over to his bedside and opened the drawer to his nightstand. "By the way, I've got something for you," he remarked, before pulling out his iPad and handing it to his friend. Jesse looked at him puzzled, so he explained. "Why don't you take it tonight? I think the signal here is strong enough to reach over there, so you and Benji can maybe have some fun. Just be careful – Dad has some kind of protection on it and on our router, so don't try to go to a porn site or anything… okay?"

"But… you use this every night, don't you?" Jesse asked, his confusion even more apparent as he stared at the tablet.

"Almost, but not always. It's… look, its fully charged, and I know you guys don't get to play around much with something like this, so… take it for a night, okay? Please, I want you to. There's games and stuff on there, and… I wrote something for you, too. Just, make sure you're the only one who opens it if you find it, okay? It's a text file… for your eyes only."

Jesse scrutinized the other teen before accepting the device. "You're sure?" he whispered, to which his friend nodded.

"Absolutely. Besides, I'm going to be doing something with Dad tonight, so I won't be needing it, I promise."

Jesse surprised his friend with a fist bump that then turned into a brief hug. "Thanks bro, I promise – I'll take care of it." Without another word, the teen then turned and headed for the door before disappearing, Noah watching after him.

"You've got to be kidding me! No Way!" Benji exclaimed, as he watched his brother pull the iPad from his backpack.

Jesse observed his little brother with a bit of trepidation. "Yes way, but… it's only for the night, Short-Stuff. We have to absolutely, positively, no exception to the rule – take care of it. Understand?"

Benji's shoulders sank, as a crestfallen expression surfaced. "So, you're saying I can't play with it, aren't you?"

Jesse scoffed. "No, of course not! I wouldn't do that to you!" He sighed and then sat down on the edge of the bed. "Listen, tonight, you and me can sit here and play all we want. I just want to make sure we take care of it until I give it back tomorrow, okay? If we do that much, then maybe we can make sure we don't have any, uh, accidents, you know?"

Benji looked up at him curiously. "Okay, I guess that's a good compromise. Why did he loan it to you, though? Didn't he, like, listen to that thing or something almost every night when we were staying with them?"

"I honestly don't know," Jesse replied. "I asked him, but… he said he knew we didn't have anything like this to play around with, and he wanted us to have some fun for a change." The teen smiled. "But, honestly? I think he wanted to do it for us, me and you both, just because."

Benji stared briefly and then nodded. "You know, maybe we should think about getting him something for Christmas, too. You know, something that says thanks for stuff like this and all." Surprisingly, the younger boy sighed deeply. "But then again, there goes the money thing… Maybe we need to go rob a bank or something, you know?"

Jesse laughed. "You think they'd lock up two brothers who only went to steal $40 or $50? That might fix all our problems, at least for the near term, wouldn't it?"

Benji grinned, but then bumped shoulders with his older brother. "Just saying, Jess…"

Jesse glanced down at his little brother with surprise, and once again felt the kid never ceased to amaze him. "We'll work on it, yeah. I don't know how, but we'll think of something."

Benji nodded and then stood up. "You go ahead first, if you want to. I'm gonna go watch some cartoons. Then later, once you figure the fun stuff out, you and me can play together or something."

"Really? Are you sure?" Jesse breathed, but when his brother nodded, he accepted the opportunity. "Well, okay, you've got a deal!" Benji grinned and then climbed the side ladder to the upper bunk before turning on the TV. The next thing Jesse knew was that his brother was lost in another world, one comprised of TV make-believe.

Climbing to his own feet, Jesse announced, "I'll be back in a few. I need to go stink up the bathroom." It was another one of those little catch phrases the two had gotten used to, and as Benji gave him a thumbs up, Jesse left the room carrying the tablet with him. Once behind the closed door of the bathroom, he activated the exhaust fan and quickly situated himself on the toilet.

The teenager turned on the tablet without issue, and even signed in using the keycode Noah had gave him. Once the screen-display lit up with all the icons for applications, he found it was not an easy task figuring the device out from there. He started with the first screen, or page, methodically selecting and launching each one to see what appeared. He had watched his best friend often enough to know how to back out of the screens, and how to close out groups of the apps at a time, so he wasn't totally without some understanding of how it worked. Some of the apps he opened were games, ranging from think tanks to puzzles, arcade shooters and more. He noted a few of the simple looking ones, thinking they would be good to share with his brother later, but then continued backing out and going through the enormous collection Noah had seemingly amassed. He found a music library, and a collection of videos that had been saved at one time or another.

After a few moments of browsing though, he launched an application that was different to the rest, and after studying it he realized it was a word processor of some sort. Recalling what Noah had said earlier, he quickly figured out how to open a file, and once enacted, sure enough there was only one document to choose from, appropriately titled 'For Jesse'. Tapping the icon, it opened and expanded into the screen, displaying a letter, which Jesse began to read in earnest.

Hi Jesse!

So, you figured it out this far, right? I mean, you wouldn't be reading this otherwise, if you hadn't. Yeah, dumb logic, like DUH, right? It's okay, because even though I'm still kind of catching up with stuff, I know it's just you reading this. Right? I hope so, because I don't want Benji to find the things I'm gonna say in here, okay?

So, you're probably wondering what I am going to say, right? Nothing dirty or naughty, I promise, and not mushy either. I just thought maybe something like this would be fun, in a way. The game the other night was cool, don't you think? It was nothing like what I expected it would be, hanging with the guys and all. I've always gotten along with them in Phys Ed, but… I never knew who to trust, or if I could even trust them, you know? Not OUR way of trust bro, just… you know – guys in general.

Oh, there is one little thing I can tell you about: Remember the girl, and the skating rink and everything? Well, I was out with Mom at the store the other night, and she was there. I almost didn't recognize her, and when I did, my jaw must have dropped to the floor, you know? You should have seen her, Jess - big makeup on her face, frizzled hair and bunched up weird-like and all… Oh, and her clothes – short denim mini-skirt, and I do mean really SHORT. There was a time or two, the way she was jumping around and laughing with her friends and all, no way could you NOT have seen her girl panties and everything underneath! That's how short her skirt was, and I remember thinking about how cold it was outside, and she was wearing something like what most would wear in the summer. Good grief! Some guys would have probably popped a boner on the spot if they were around and seeing what I saw, but meh… I didn't think it was all that great. Oh, and she had a denim jacket too, that was covered in all kinds of stickers and buttons and what have you. The thing was, she looked to me like she could have been a hooker, you know? LOL - For all I know, she probably is! The worst part though, was seeing that she had this piercing in her nose, with like, diamond studs on both sides or something. Ugh!

You know, I am glad of what happened that day at the skating rink, even though it put me in a spiral for over a year. The way I see it, if something had actually happened between us, I know now I would have regretted it for the rest of my life – especially after seeing her the other night. Besides, if anything HAD happened, I probably wouldn't be here today, and I wouldn't have had you to end up being my best friend. Honest, I'm glad everything turned out the way it did, because I'm a lot happier now. I mean, I'm not alone anymore, Jess. How can that not make me feel happier? You can take that to the bank, bro.

So, anyway, this is what I wanted you to find. There's a game on here called StarKiller too, one that you and Benji should like. It's one of those you can use to take turns and play against each other. Also, don't forget and test out the internet link, too. See if you can piggy back off the connection at our house. If you can, I think we need to work on finding you a used iPad, or at least a tablet of some kind. Seriously – I know the newer ones are pretty expensive, but you'd be surprised about the mini-iPads, or even some of the older ones, going for around $150 or so. Think about it this way – if you had one, then we could sit in bed at night and text each other, and do video chats if we wanted to, or even play some games. Point is, there are a lot of things we could do together, when we can't be together at your place or mine, you know?

Okay, that's it. Jesse, thanks for being my friend, okay? No - my best-est friend! Yeah, I know, I said I wouldn't write anything mushy, but heck, for once I don't care. Sue me if you want! LOL I'll only be a little mushy though, I guess. I mean, you know what I'm feeling anyway, and I'm betting pretty good what you feel, too! So, my last request – close this letter and delete it (just put the finger on the icon until an option menu pops up, then select delete). That way, nobody will ever find it by accident, okay? :o)

Lots of hugs, bro, and see you tomorrow!-Noah

Jesse could not help but smile. He had heard stories from his mother about exchanging notes and letters when they were in school – a common thing in a generation long before the present. Today, for most teens, it had all evolved into texting and social media – a medium which Jesse was not yet old enough to get into. No, old enough wasn't quite the right term. He had already proven himself responsible and mature enough, he knew, but in terms of family finances, it was a different story altogether. Those thoughts made the teen slump his shoulders, but not because of wishes or desires for his own part. Sure, he liked the idea Noah suggested at maybe finding a used tablet somewhere, but he feared that would be impossible. Recalling what his father had told him recently, Jesse was instead left with a greater desire of wishing he could do something – anything – to help his parents out.

As he was leaving the bathroom, the teen followed his instructions and deleted the letter, but not before he read it again for a second, even a third time altogether. Upon entering the bedroom again, he stopped short as he glanced at Benji and suddenly recalled another conversation the two had recently about Christmas, and a gift idea for their parents. "Hey, Benji!" he exclaimed softly, walking up to the edge of the bed and peering over the rail.

"Yeah?" his brother responded, but his attention was still distracted by the TV.

"Remember when you had that idea about having our picture made, and giving it to Mom and Dad for Christmas?" Jesse asked.

That was enough to pull Benji's attention away and turn to his brother. "Yeah, why?"

"Well, we didn't have the money before, really… but now we both have $20 each, right? I don't think it would take a whole $40, especially if we can get someone to take the pics and then we get them blown up or whatever by ourselves. The point is though, now we can do it! So, are you still game?" Jesse asked with a smile.

Benji grinned widely. "You bet I am!" The boy suddenly sat up in his bed. "Especially if you think we'll still have some left over! Who can we get to do it?"

Jesse only had to think for a few seconds. "Listen, if you'll promise to stay put and not get into anything for a few minutes, I'll run over and ask Mrs. Cook about it. She might know someone, I'm sure of it."

The younger brother nodded. "I'll be okay, I promise. Unless I just get down to go pee, I'll stay right here."

"Awesome!" Jesse replied, feeling more upbeat now than he had for a while. He quickly slipped his tennis shoes back on and headed for the door. "I'll be back in about 10-minutes or so!"

Within a minute of leaving the house, he was knocking on the back door of the Cooks' residence again, where Jennifer answered this time with a look of surprise. "Whoa, long time no see! Did you forget and leave something behind?" she asked, just as Noah rushed up behind her.

Jesse, however, shook his head. "No ma'am. This time, I was actually coming over and hoping to ask you about something. Can I come in for a minute?"

The woman stood aside as Jesse entered, and then shut the door before turning to face the teen. She stood expectantly to hear what all the commotion was about. "It's kind of simple," Jesse started, but paused as he looked up and saw the curiosity on both her and Noah's face. "I- I'm almost afraid to ask this, because I know you've already given us money to buy Mom and Dad a present last week. But, Benji… he had this idea kind of hit the other day, and… well, we both just got a little money from Mom and Dad, and… and…"

"It's all right, take a breath and let it out. What was his idea about?" Jennifer asked encouragingly.

"Well," Jesse replied, after taking a few seconds to for his breathing to settle down. "Mom and Dad lost, I mean, when the tornado hit, we all really lost a lot of things, including a bunch of stuff Mom and Dad had on the walls, and the tables and places. You know, like pictures of me and Benji, or the family and stuff, see? So, right now, Benji had this idea that maybe we could get some made of us for Christmas, you know? Just me, then him, and then maybe the both of us together, and frame some of them, or put them in a book, or… something. See?"

"I think that's a wonderful idea!" Jennifer exclaimed, smiling widely. "They would both love that a lot, I know!"

"We thought they might, too, but… see, when the idea popped up, we didn't have any money to spend, so we kind of let it go, for the time being anyway. Now though, we do have a little, and… well, would you, I mean, do you know anyone who might take them for us? Between me and Benji, we have $40 right now. I might can lean on Dad for a few bucks more, but… honest, do you think that would be enough?"

"Oh yeah," Noah remarked, his first words spoken since his friend had arrived. He looked at his mother. "What about you doing it, Mom? With Dad's big camera and all, couldn't you maybe take them?" He turned back to Jesse. "Mom has taken wedding pictures before for some people, especially in the family or for people at church."

Jennifer thought about it. "Well, all I really did was take outdoor pictures, though. Really, though, I guess I could do something like that again for sure. But… I think what they would really want is something more like studio pictures, son. To do those, we'd really need to find someone else that is set up for that." She studied for a few seconds, but then smiled widely again. "I do know someone who will probably make them for you, though. I'll give him a call in a little bit, or rather, I'll have Allen give the man a call later tonight. They know each other better, I think."

"Really?" Jesse asked, his enthusiasm showing. "And… do you think we can get it for… you know… for the money we have?"

Jennifer laughed. "I'm certain an arrangement can be made, don't worry about it. The man usually does a Christmas special this time of year anyway for some of the local churches, so I'm sure he'll work something out for you two. Let's see what we find out first though, and then I'll get back with you, okay? Also, between the four of us, we'll try to do something one afternoon next week too, when the weather cooperates and your parents are working their day shifts. Maybe you can get dressed up and we can go up to the city park for a few minutes before they get home. I don't mean super dressy, but you know – put on some nice jeans and sweaters or something. There's a lot of pines and evergreens up there, so it won't look all that barren. How does that sound?"

Jesse stared at the woman briefly with amazement, but eventually nodded. "Only… I mean, I don't care if you take some of us, just… the money, and getting them printed and everything…"

"It won't cost that much at all," Jennifer finished for him. "You see, what Noah was referring to is that we have a digital SLR. It's a type of camera that does all kinds of things, but it's all electronic. That means it doesn't use film, and you get all the results on your computer when they're done. So, all in all, it'll only costs us some time and effort. Then, if any of them should be good enough to blow up or print, well, Walmart is just on the other side of town, and the last time I checked, a 5x7 was only priced like 90-some cents, and 8x10's sold for less than a couple of bucks each. That ought to be inexpensive enough for you, hmm?" The woman then laughed merrily. "Still, don't worry about it Jesse, it'll all work out fine. I promise."

Jesse, relieved, suddenly stepped forward and gave the woman a warm, well-deserved embrace. "Thanks, Mrs. Cook. You're one of the best!"

Surprised, she hugged him back. "Well, thanks, but this is not that much, Jesse. It just takes knowing the right people is all."

"Still, thanks ma'am. I- You've all been good to us, and we know it. I don't know how we would have made it after the tornado, without the three of you giving us a hand like you did," Jesse mused softly while pulling back. His eyes were moist, but he had his smile back again. "I need to get back to stay with Benji, especially before Mom gets home, but I wanted to come and talk to you first while I could."

Jennifer nodded in understanding. "Okay, then scoot. We'll try to let you know tomorrow what we find out," she added, but then cast a sidelong glance at her son. "If not before."

"Tomorrow is fine," Jesse laughed, before turning and offering a fist bump with his friend, which was well met. Then, without another word, the teen left quickly, leaving Noah and his mother standing, looking onward.

"Mom? If it does cost more, I'll contribute toward it, okay? You know I have some money downstairs…" Noah offered quietly.

Surprised, Jennifer placed an arm around her son's shoulders, but then shook her head. "It won't. Mr. Spilling usually does those holiday sittings for like $30-35, and your father and I will take care of anything that we do up at the park," she stated. Looking down, she smiled at him. "Thanks for offering, though. Are you still planning to work on that idea you had, for the two of them?"

Noah smiled. "Oh yeah! Dad said he would bring in some of the materials tonight, and that we could work on it in turns."

Jennifer laughed. "That sounds like an awesome plan!"

Saturday arrived with the morning temperatures a pleasant low-50s, with forecasters promising highs in the upper 60s by mid-afternoon. It would be an almost spring-like day near the outset of winter, and many people planned to take advantage of it – especially since the following day was predicted to return to a more seasonable, colder environment. Both of the McAllister brothers were set to a list of chores, helping out both inside and around the house. While going about various tasks, the two had changed out of their long-sleeved thermal shirts to cooler, more summer-like t-shirts early on as the day warmed.

Eventually the time arrived to get ready for their planned evening with the Cooks. Following a brief shower, Benji was suddenly dismayed when he saw the clothes his mother had laid out for him. The heavy, long-sleeved button-up was far more attuned to the winter season, rather than the actual weather.

"Aww, Mom," the young boy called out as his mother walked by their door. "Can't I wear something less… less… I don't know, less fancy?"

"What do you mean, less fancy? You mean a t-shirt or something?" Makalah asked amusedly, as she back-tracked and stepped into the room.

"No, just less… I don't know, something not so hot, I guess. I mean, it's hot outside now as it is!" Benji whined, the disappointment clearly lacing his reply.

Just then, James poked his head in the doorway, having overheard the end of the conversation. As he glanced at the clothes laid out, he sympathized with his younger son immediately. "I'm afraid he's right, dear. That long-sleeved shirt will probably make him melt before half of the evening is over. It'll probably stay pretty warm this evening, or at least until after midnight. That's when they're talking like it could get stormy, with that cold front starting to move through."

Makalah glanced at her husband and then sighed. She walked over to the boys' closet and began rummaging through it. "I understand that, but… Neither of these two really has anything very spring- or summer-like that's… well, nice clothes, if you catch my drift. Other than t-shirts, it's hard to find anything short-sleeved or lightweight until spring rolls around, you know?" As the others looked on, she rummaged a bit longer, but eventually shook her head. "I don't care if you boys wear some of those nicer-looking jeans, honey, but… you and your brother both don't have any short-sleeved polos or anything."

James leaned against the doorframe. "Why don't we call next door. Maybe Noah will have something Ben can get into. We already know he and Jesse have shared before, so that might help us out for this once. What do you think?"

"I hate having to do that, but honestly, it might be the best idea, at least for now," Makalah conceded. Before she could say anything else, however, James was suddenly by her side, wrapping his wife in his arms around from behind.

"It will be fine, honey – don't fret over it. We're doing better now, putting things put back together… you know that. We'll work on some more of this as we go along," he consoled her.

Makalah took her husband's arms and held them closer with her own. "I know, I know. It's like you tell me, we can't expect to do everything at once, can we?" Her smile showed, however, that she appreciated the moment.

"Absolutely," James responded, before giving her a kiss on the cheek. When she turned around and leaned in for a more direct kiss, Benji sighed and threw his arms up.

"I'll be… I don't know, poking Jesse to get out of the shower or something…" the boy stated, and then quickly left the room while his parents enjoyed their short moment together. When he walked down the hall, he stopped at the bathroom door and listened. When there were little to no sounds coming from within, he knocked. "Hey, froggy long legs, can I come in? I need to pee!" He then heard a muffled affirmative coming from inside, so Benji opened the door and walked in, shutting it behind him.

Once inside, Benji found a somewhat wet Jesse standing at the sink and brushing his teeth, with nothing on but the towel wrapped around his waist. Given the unkempt and ruffled state of this hair, Benji assumed he must have just attempted to dry it, though it had not yet been combed or brushed. As the older teen glanced down in the mirror at his younger brother, he remarked, "I thought you just peed before I came in here."

"I did," Benji replied quietly, before lowering the seat top and sitting down on the toilet. "I just said that to get out of our room a minute. Mom and Dad were about to suck face and get all gushy."

Jesse laughed, then turned and rinsed his mouth clear of the toothpaste. "Well, you'll probably want to be sucking face before long, too, so… don't knock it until you've tried it."

Benji looked up at him with a mock expression of disgust. "Eww, no… not like that! Not with… with… tongues and all!"

Again, Jesse giggled as he pulled a brush from the vanity and started to work with his hair. "Well, you'll see."

That caused the younger boy to stop and look on with an expression of curiosity. "Have you done it?" he whispered.

Jesse hesitated before replying. There had only been a few times that he had stretched the truth in the span of their growing up together, and mostly for Benji's benefit. The youngster's obsessive, natural curiosity was something Jesse loved so much, but there were times when that inquisitiveness put the older brother in an uncomfortable position. This was one of those moments, compounded with the fact that, even though his answer was truthfully yes, he didn't know if he could, or should, admit that right now – or that his experience had been with his best friend. "Um, yeah, a little," he finally whispered, then noted in the mirror how his little brother's eyes widened. "Don't tell anyone though, please?" Jesse added, his voice on the verge of pleading. "I don't want to have to explain it to Mom or Dad, okay?"

"I won't, I swear," Benji answered him. "Can I ask who with, though? Is it anyone I know?"

Jesse squirmed internally, now even more uncertain about what he should do. He took his time and finished with his hair, then put the brush away before turning to his younger brother. "Um, I'd rather not say, at least not now." He saw the look of disappointment that began to show, so he reached out and picked his brother up, before pivoting and sitting himself on the toilet seat and pulling Benji back into his lap. "Listen to me, I love you, and I trust you – you know that, okay? And… if you really want to know, then okay – I'll take the chance and tell you. But Ben, you have to realize something first. Sometimes it's just better if you don't always get or have the answers to everything – especially about things that are happening or going on around you."

"But… why?" Benji whispered, looking deeper into his brother's eyes. That look made Jesse feel even more guilty, and all he could do was think about the fact that they had always shared everything so easily between them before. He decided he would make one last attempt - but if it failed, he knew he would have to give in. The look that met him told him he couldn't shatter that trust which had been built so tightly, for so long.

"Because, well… it's like sex, bro. There are some things about it that you probably don't want, or need to hear about really, at least not until you're a little older, you know? You know I will answer anything you ask me, but I don't always tell you every little detail, right? I just tell you what you want to know about, because that's the way it should be," Jesse explained. "It's kind of like letting you learn about stuff at your own pace, see? It's the same thing for me. I mean, I don't know everything, but I figure sometimes it's for my own good that it is that way. Understand? Like, when Mom and Dad won't talk to me about their money stuff, or the things about Grandma or Grandpa that we used to think sounded so funny and all. So, it's probably for my own good in a way, because I'm still not old enough to appreciate and respect the kind of things, like what Mom and Dad had to face. Does that make sense?"

Benji nodded after a moment. "Yeah, kind of…" He looked up into his brother's eyes again, seeking something else then. "So, would you tell me if I guessed who it was?"

Jesse smiled, realizing that his brother was looking for some kind of compromise, and he appreciated that. "I might, as long as you give me some more time first."

"Will you promise?" Benji whispered. Jesse wrapped him warmly in his arms, before taking Benji's hand and pressing it, palm first, upon his chest.

"I promise you, on my heart, and I will even swear a pinkie promise, that yes – give it some time, and if you still want to know, you won't even have to guess. I'll just tell you outright. How's that?"

"Okay, good enough," was the small reply, before he pulled back and glanced up again. This time, however, the curiosity had returned. "What is it like, though? I mean, kisses I get, but… sucking on someone's tongue, or sticking your tongue into someone else's mouth? EEwww!"

Jesse giggled. "You'll find out, I promise. When it happens though, do me a favor – come and tell me all about it, okay? Then we'll compare notes and everything." He made a rare move and pinched his brother on the butt, then very lightly poked a finger into the boy's groin. "Same for here. When things start to happen, let me know if you want to, and we'll talk about it all you want, as much as you want."

"Seriously?" Benji's eyebrows shot up. "You… you won't tease me, or tell me to shut up, or-"

"When have I EVER done that with you? Huh?" Jesse asked, frowning.

Immediately, Benji dropped his face and stared downward. "I'm sorry," he whispered.

"It's okay, but… why ask me that, huh? I thought you knew me better than that by now?" Jesse whispered, before putting his lips to Benji's ears. "Didn't we just jack off together a few weeks ago? Wasn't that kind of up close and personal and everything?"

"Yeah, it was awesome," Benji croaked before sighing deeply. "I don't know. I mean, Petey has asked his brother stuff, and… and he tells h-him to…" He couldn't finish the sentence, but he didn't need to. Jesse understood.

"I don't care, bro, what you come to me with. I swear to you, on my heart, I will never, ever tell you to shut up or fuck off," Jesse whispered.

Benji reacted to the language with surprise. "Really? That's exactly what Petey's brother says to him, just like that. He tells Petey to 'fuck off'… At least, according to Petey anyway."

"Well, that's them. We're different, and I for one am very glad of what we have together. Like I said, I swear to you, on my heart and everything we have together as brothers, I will never, ever tell you to do that. I might tell you to wait sometimes, if it's like, not a good place or time to talk about something, and you'll have to do that - wait, I mean. At least until we get off somewhere alone, in back here in our room or somewhere that we can talk, like, just the two of us. But yeah, bro – I will never, ever intentionally push you away." Jesse meant it too, and Benji could tell how serious the moment had become. The young boy reached his arms around his brother's naked chest and sides and hugged him tightly.

"I'm gonna make you keep that promise, bro," he whispered, before pulling back and, for the second time in recent history, surprised Jesse with another kiss on his cheek. Then as if nothing had happened, the boy climbed out of Jesse's lap and stood up, so the teen followed and stood as well. In the process, however, the towel slipped and fell to the floor, and Benji could not help but once again notice his brother's nakedness standing so close. Like so many times before, he reached out and pushed his fingers lightly through the pubic bush there, but then sighed.

Jesse giggled, however, knowing fully well what his brother was thinking. "Just you wait, you'll start getting them in a few years, and then you'll have to start letting me feel yours like that!"

Benji looked up with a grin. "If and when I get hairs like you, you'll be the first to see and find out, I promise!"

Jesse picked up the towel then and re-wrapped himself. "Go see if they're still in our room. I don't really like parading around in front of them with just a towel on, you know." As his brother nodded and opened the door, Jesse breathed a sigh of relief. At least for the moment, he had dodged a bullet. He would, he knew, eventually have to spill the beans, but he didn't dread it. Their relationship was built on complete trust, beyond what a lot of families had. He realized that especially given what Ben had just told him about Petey and his older brother. They apparently didn't have the trust, or the same kind of closeness, that he and Benji shared.

It was the one thing Jesse hoped – and prayed – would never falter between them.

"What did you boys think of the Christmas play?"

Jennifer and Makalah were presently sitting in the seats immediately behind their husbands in the Cooks' sport utility vehicle. All three boys however, were squeezed into the back row, and although somewhat crowded, they didn't seem to mind. They found that if Jesse and Noah sat next to one another, they could both hold Benji comfortably in their laps – something the younger boy seem to really enjoy. It also helped that the seven-year-old, as Jesse predicted, had grown tired from the evening, so as he lay crosswise it wasn't long before he fell asleep leaning back against his brother.

"It wasn't bad, kind of different at least," Noah admitted quietly, to which Jesse nodded in agreement.

"It certainly wasn't the same as seeing it at the movies, or on TV. Well, except for Tiny Tim, anyway," Jesse added, drawing giggles and smiles from both of their mothers.

"I know what you mean. They must have had some difficulty finding someone to fit the part this year," Jennifer remarked. Just then, she noted that Makalah was attempting to stretch the leg with her injured ankle out. "Is it bothering you very much?"

Makalah glanced at her and grimaced. "Well, not too bad, but it does seem to be getting sore again. You'd think it would be healing better by now. I'm not sure what the deal is…"

"Well, don't forget, you've been up and about on it a lot this week. Including a certain basketball game that you probably should not have gone out to see," Jennifer shot back before following with a big sigh. She unbuckled her seat belt and leaned forward, gently pressing her fingers around the area. "Yep, it's still swollen if you ask me. If it doesn't go down any by Monday, I think you should probably get it x-rayed, just in case. You certainly don't want any torn or bruised ligaments giving you grief throughout the holidays."

"You're probably right," Makalah murmured in agreement. Just then, James turned around from the passenger seat to address them both.

"What was that? Did I hear your ankle is hurting again?" When he saw his wife nodding, James clucked his tongue. "I've been telling you to watch it this week, you know. You can't seem to fathom the idea of keeping it propped up, though. That's for your own good, you know."

"That's what I was just telling her," Jennifer spoke up, before gently grasping her friend's leg and settling it further up along the aisle between the seats ahead of them. "There, at least you can stretch out for a bit. We'll be home in another, what Allen, 80 or 90 minutes or so?" she asked, returning to her own seat and re-buckling her seatbelt.

"Something like that, yeah," the man called back in reply. "Maybe a little less."

Makalah sighed. "I really don't need to be missing any more work, though. We were already understaffed enough as it is, and me missing this week, well…"

"They'll do fine for a few more days. Besides, think about it: if they find nothing wrong, that just means you've got nothing to worry about, and they may even let you come back to work sooner, right?" James interjected, smiling at her before turning his attention forward again.

Some time passed as Allen navigated the various roads and eventually turned onto the final road that would lead them home. They had only made it a short distance, however, when topping a rise Allen slowed and leaned forward. "What in the world…? What do you make of that, James?" the man murmured. In the distance, a large assortment of vehicles could be seen along both sides of the road parked at an angle, many with their headlights lighting up the fields and other houses beyond. In addition, a growing number of individuals could be made out moving through the fields with flashlights crossing back and forth in front of them.

James grunted in surprise. "If you ask me, it looks like come kind of a manhunt or something." As they drew closer, he suddenly sat up straighter. "Those are State Police cruisers in our driveways, aren't they? Along with some of the Sheriff's deputies, I think!"

Jennifer sat forward with a frown. "But… why? Who on Earth would they be looking…?"

As Allen approached within 30-yards of their turnoff, he was stopped by a semi-barricade comprised of law enforcement vehicles. Almost immediately they were approached by one of the nearby officers, and when Allen rolled his window down, he suddenly grinned. "Hey there, Phil Turner, isn't it? What's up?"

The deputy grinned. "Hello Mr. Cook! How goes it?" was the swift reply, before the deputy peered inside to see the group. "You folks have been out tonight, it looks like!"

"Yes, we went up to Louisville to see a Christmas play and have some dinner," Allen explained, before waving out the window. "Can you tell us what's going on here?"

"Sure thing… We had a report a couple of hours ago that Pete Haskell, the younger one, was spotted in town. Then a little while later, someone reported spotting him down in this area. As you know, he's wanted for questioning, and he has a few other warrants out, too," Phil informed them. "When the Sheriff got the word, he put out an all-call for help and put together this little search party. I think some of the boys pulled into your driveway when they found you weren't home. Sorry about that."

Allen nodded. "That's okay, it makes sense, at least. I didn't realize Pete was missing, to be honest. I take it there's been no luck so far?"

"We found an abandoned vehicle up the road. It's being dusted and checked out, but someone said it looked like one they had seen around the area before. Several think it might be one the teenagers used to drive around a bit," Phil voiced as he leaned against the vehicle. "As to missing, yeah… the boy got away from some of us before we even got him to the detention center. He's been missing since."

The two families both sat in utter silence, contemplating that information. Jesse, however, had sat up straighter and somewhat more stiffly when he heard the explanation, which did not go unnoticed by his best friend. Pete the Third, wanted for questioning, enough so that a massive manhunt was now underway in a joint operation of both local and State police. That seemed peculiar, but certainly not unbelievable. If the teen was believed to be nearby, then at the late hour perhaps it did call for some cooperative involvement. Jennifer happened at that moment to glance back, and was startled to find the older teens sitting forward on edge with intense expressions. "What's wrong, boys?" she asked quietly, but was still heard by the rest of the group. Both Makalah and James turned back to also observe the scene.

Jesse, for some reason, found he couldn't speak. He had opened his mouth twice to find no words forthcoming, so he finally closed it and just looked onward with a grim expression of self-frustration. After their parents coaxed them a little further, however, Noah spoke up. "Um… you do know whom he's talking a-about, right? That's Pete, as in-"

"The boy Jesse had a row with at school, right?" Allen suddenly called back. "The one who came over a couple of times, and was at the pizza parlor the other night?" When Noah nodded, the group heard the officer, still standing outside Allen's window, grunt in surprise.

"Oh? So… that maybe fits, then. I heard about that incident at the school. I don't know if the Sheriff has made that connection or not, though. Am I right, about how some kid put an older teenager and some of his cronies in their place, up at the high school? It was one of your boys, then?"

"My oldest son, Jesse, yes," James called out in reply, calmly answering the man. Phil stood up just a little straighter then, contemplating that revelation.

"I need to let the Sheriff know, then. Listen, give me a couple of minutes, and I'll see if we can't get some of those vehicles moved and let you guys get into your driveway at least," the deputy announced.

"Just one driveway will do, Phil. Maybe that second one there if possible, that's all we need, if we can," Allen informed him. The deputy nodded, giving them all a thumbs-up gesture as he walked away. Everyone in the van watched as the man approached and spoke to a group of other officers gathered together not far away.

The conversation that followed was not without looks of interest from several in the assembly. As they kept glancing in their direction, eventually it began to annoy Jennifer. "Come on people, we're not in a circus for crying out loud!"

As if by some telepathic intuition, they then watched as one of the lawmen broke off from the group and headed up the road. Along the way, he motioned to another individual, and both proceeded to the Cooks' driveway directly. Afterwards, only minutes later, the families sighed with relief when they saw two of the vehicles back out, thus clearing the way for them to finally enter. Deputy Turner had been watching, and once the driveway was vacant, he motioned for Allen to go ahead.

When they reached the house, however, another vehicle happened to turn in and follow them down the driveway. It parked behind the group, and as the families began exiting, a man also stepped out and approached. "Hello folks, I'm Sheriff Hunt, Adair County Law Enforcement," he greeted them kindly. He waited until the men had exited and approached, all the while Jennifer helped Makalah from their vehicle. "If I understood Phil correctly, he said one of your boys had a run-in with Pete Haskell up at the school here a few weeks back. Is that true?"

"Yes, it was my son who had an altercation up in the lunchroom," James replied before sticking out his hand and introducing himself.

Sheriff Hunt looked on in surprise before smiling widely. "You're the one that runs the Ace Hardware store, right?"

"Well, some say I run it, yeah. The franchise belongs to Charles Stout, but…" James replied modestly.

"I understand what you mean. Old man Stout is getting up there in years, I know, but yeah - I recognize you now!" He glanced at Allen. "I'll bet your name is Cook, isn't it?"

Allen laughed. "Jim Hunt, you very well know who I am, for goodness sake!"

The Sheriff laughed. "Well, yeah, I do recognize you. You've helped me and the wife a few times in recent years, even closed out on our home a few years back. Although to be honest, I wasn't too sure of the name. Too many damned people in this county to keep up with all the faces and names at any given time!" He grunted, but then gave them both a sly smile. "However, I have to admit, the name on the mailbox back there did give me a clue."

"I can understand that," Allen offered in lieu of letting the man off the hook while James peered on merrily.

Afterwards, Sheriff Hunt became serious again. "Now, you… McAllister, I recall that incident at the school quite well. We went up to the high school the next day, on a Saturday I believe it was, and found some drugs in that kid's locker. What's his name, the principal, Green I think it is… He told me all about the scuffle from the day before." The man became thoughtful before lowering his voice. "That certainly puts a different spin on this, boys. It might explain why the truck is so close by, too."

"How far away is it, Sheriff?" James asked in low in tone. From the corner of his eye, he saw both Noah and Jesse begin to approach, having finally exited the vehicle. He was grateful to see that Benji had headed off with the women inside, but he couldn't focus any attention on them at the moment. He turned slightly to Jesse and gave the teen a slight shake of his head. Jesse, though reluctant, got the message right away. Reaching out, he got Noah's attention and both turned back toward the house and disappearing around the corner. Sheriff Hunt, also noting their approach, waited until the teens were out of sight before he spoke again.

"Oh, it's about a mile down that way, after you turn onto Mount Carmel road. It was almost hidden, pulled into the entrance of one of those fields over there. I don't think we would have even caught on to it being there, except one of the old farmers over there had a cow get loose, and he was trying to get it out of the road before it got hurt. That's when he came across it and called it in to us," the man explained, before pausing and becoming thoughtful. "I guess this is really a dumb question, but do you think Pete Haskell knows where your boys live?"

"I guarantee it," Allen answered. "My son, Noah, was friends with the group that run around with him for a while, and there were a few times Pete would ride the bus home to stay with friends near here. At least, before he disappeared."

Sheriff Hunt's eyes lit up. "So, he has other friends along this route? Do you think your son could fill us in on who they might be?"

"I'm sure he'll talk with you, but… how helpful that will be, I'm not sure," Allen replied. As the group turned and started for the house, however, the teenagers suddenly reappeared from around the corner and approached them quickly, both with looks of apprehension. "What is it, Noah?" Allen asked.

"You'd better come see this," his son replied, with Jesse nodding emphatically beside him. The two then turned back, leading the trio of adults into the back yard. As soon as they approached the rear door, however, Allen suddenly stopped as he felt the soft ground beneath him.

"What in the world…?" he began, but then jerked his head up toward the back wall. In the distance, all of them noted the outdoor spigot was opened, and water was rushing out in full force. The back lawn it seemed, for several yards around the faucet and leading away, was thoroughly soaked with both various puddles and streams of water. "Crap!" he muttered under his breath, suddenly springing forward toward the tap. Both the Sheriff and James followed right behind, looking onward with grim expressions. Arriving at the faucet, however, the group saw the knob to turn the water off was clearly missing. Looking about, there was no sign of it to be seen.

"That looks like vandalism, if you ask me," the Sheriff commented while wading forward and kneeling down in the pooled puddle to look closer. After a few seconds, he glanced up. "Do you have a master turn off valve somewhere, or is this coming from a well? Either way, you might want to try and shut off the main valves."

Allen started moving away, but not before calling back to them. "I'll get to it. James, you probably ought to check on yours next door."

"Right you are!" James declared, turning and giving both teenagers a glance, which Jesse understood implicitly.

"Come on," the teen beckoned to Noah, before both boys hurriedly waded out of the soggy area and started across the lawn.

Sheriff Hunt stood again. "That valve stem appears to have been broken off using blunt force, like with a hammer or something. Vandalism, no doubt, and given what you just told me, I also wouldn't doubt it was done by the Haskell kid." He looked along the back wall of the house and then shook his head. "Not sure how one can deal with this, either. If that cold front makes it through by morning, all of this is likely to freeze. With it pooled up against the foundation, that might spell some trouble."

James rose to his full height. "Maybe not; I mean, the yard slopes away here, so if it does freeze, at least it shouldn't be pushing up against the blocks." The men stood there in silence, lost in their own thoughts. A moment passed and then both watched as the water began to taper off before stopping altogether. "Looks like Allen found the main valves," James ventured.

"It does, I agree," Sheriff Hunt replied, just as the teenagers reappeared, running back across the lawn to rejoin them.

"Dad," Jesse began. "Same at our place, although it looks like it might be a lot worse, I think. You know, more water over there!"

"Really?" James replied, before immediately springing into action. He and Sheriff Hunt followed the boys as they quickly retraced their steps once again. As they approached, James uttered a small cry, "Shit!" It looked as if the yard there had substantially more standing water across much of the area. Here, the lawn was somewhat more level than that of the Cooks, thus the pools leading up to the back of the house were more extensive. The man glanced about quickly, and then started toward the front of the house at a semi-run. "Stay here!" he commanded when he saw Jesse begin to follow.

By the time he returned, Allen had joined the gathering. A light shone brightly from one of the nearby utility poles, revealing grim faces all around. "I'm sorry fellas. I guess if we had thought of it, we could have searched the premises better when we arrived. We might have discovered this a lot sooner," Sheriff Hunt offered before continuing. "Although I have no idea about the ground saturation between both houses, just from the appearance, it looks as if your water here has been on quite a bit longer."

James looked up at the house as a thought occurred to him. "I wouldn't doubt it, really. Say, have any of your men searched around here?" he asked quietly.

"There's one way to find out," the Sheriff responded quickly, before picking up his radio and calling out to his crew. Within a minute, it was ascertained that only the outbuildings had been searched. "Judd, Turner, Phillips – all of you get over here, and be quick about it!" he ordered.

Upon arrival, the four officers, along with the two teens and their fathers, made a quick search surrounding the houses and then inside. No forced entry was observed, and none of the windows seemed to be disturbed. Once inside, no one was found lurking or hiding, which made them all breathe a sigh of relief. When they had entered the Cooks' residence, both women looked up in surprise as Allen smiled at them grimly. "Just searching and making sure honey, that's all." Both Jennifer and Makalah nodded silently while the officials conducted their search. Once done, the deputies quickly exited, but not before thanking the ladies.

Once outside, Sheriff Hunt approached Allen and James. "Okay, you're safe, so there shouldn't be any problems now. Just so you know, I'm leaving a deputy out here for the rest of the night. I suspect Haskell is long gone already, but just in case, the deputy will watch out for anything that seems amiss. I myself will be back in the morning, probably around ten or so, with a photographer to document all this that's happened. I'll also get the water company to send out a repair crew, or a plumber, and get those faucets replaced so you can get your water turned back on."

"Will they do that?" Allen asked. "It'll be a Sunday, and they usually say their responsibility stops at the main feed anyway, I think."

"Most of the time, yes, but they'll do it for this, since it's the mark of vandalism that has left you both with no amount of excess water to account for. The city has people on contract for this type of emergency work, and you can usually submit the bill to your insurance. If they give you any problems though, just let me know," Sheriff Hunt explained. "Like I said, this was done to annoy you, but I fear it could have longer repercussions. I'm already feeling the wind pick up somewhat, and those clouds rolling in from the northwest can only mean one thing, really."

"Yes, rains and colder weather," James voiced in reply. He stuck out his hand again. "Thank you, Sheriff. We appreciate everything." Allen expressed similar gratitude, and then the man left. "So, I guess we'll have to just wait until morning before we can do anything."

"Afraid so. We've got a few gallons of water, just jugs mainly, set aside for emergencies. If you need one-" Allen began, but James stopped him, shaking his head.

"We do as well, but thanks anyway." He turned to Jesse, who was standing quietly beside him with Noah only a few feet away. He could see an unmistakable amount of tension within the teen's stance, and a face that was even more apprehensive. The man understood the unspoken thoughts that must be running through his son's head, and he was not without compassion. "There's nothing more to be done now, son. Say, why don't you go in and stay with Noah tonight, or at least let him come over and stay with you? Would you like that?"

Although it had already been arranged, Jesse still slowly looked up at his father and silently nodded. "Thanks," he whispered, just as his father placed an arm around his shoulders and squeezed.

Noah approached then, stepping in close. "Come on, Jess, let's go. I've got sleeping clothes you can fit into." With a quick glance at his father, who nodded his own approval, the teen took Jesse by the elbow and began to guide him toward the house again. He felt nervous himself, unsettled even, but somehow the teen felt the situation had affected his best friend even worse. Jesse's steps were awkward, almost directionless at first, and Noah wanted nothing more than to just get them both inside and away from everything.

"Jess, are you, like, gonna be okay?"

Both Noah and Jesse had entered the house just as Jennifer was helping Makalah out. After giving her son a quick word that she'd return in a moment, Jesse gave his mother a brief hug as she returned a kiss goodnight. Then quietly, the two made their way downstairs and into Noah's room. Closing the doors and blinds, both made their way to the bed, exhausted not only from the day's activities, but also the events that had happened upon their return. With a glance together, almost as if they each read the other's mind, both then proceeded to quietly undress. Noah handed his friend a long t-shirt to pull on before donning one for himself, and then just as silently, with only the lamp from the nightstand providing subdued illumination throughout the room, both climbed onto the bed. Scooting to the middle, each lay back against a single bean bag that Noah had pulled up into place, sharing the space and rolling inward to support together.

It was a full minute before Jesse finally sighed and, realizing he had yet to respond, the teen slowly raised his knee and let it fall in place against his friend. In the continuing silence, the teen moved and silently rubbed his foot up and down, eventually extending it out to 'play' with Noah's foot, which his friend happily rubbed in return. It was then Jesse sighed again, but it was a sound laced with nervousness. Noah was beginning to worry then, mostly because even though he had his own feelings in the matter, his best friend certainly seemed to be taking the situation harder. "I'm sorry," he finally whispered, causing Jesse to come out of his reverie for the moment.

"For what?" When he didn't get an immediate answer, Jesse smiled more reassuringly. "Noah, you've got nothing to be sorry about, I promise. I'm… I'm just glad I'm here, that we're here, you know? I'm just, I don't know, kind of unwinding, I guess." Noah nodded in response, feeling a little better at least, as both boys settled in closer for several minutes. Jesse eventually reached out, taking Noah in his arms and holding onto his friend, hugging him close and letting his hand run loosely in places all along Noah's chest and abdomen. Just feeling the trust and loyalty his friend afforded him calmed his nerves considerably. Although they were clad in only their underwear and t-shirts, something Jesse could have easily done without, he didn't mind it for a change. Their intimacy had become so second-nature to them, and it was still just as comforting as it had always been. Jesse did let his hand slide momentarily on his friend's crotch, but it was more of just a passing gesture, one enjoyed without any overture to actual sex. "I'm the one who should be sorry, Noah," he finally spoke again. "It's kind of a crappy answer I gave you, and I know it. No, I'm not feeling the best, but… I'll be fine. Like I told you yesterday, I honestly have no real idea why I'm so out of it anymore. These last few weeks, I feel like I'm becoming more of an emotional wreck than anything else. There have been so many highs and lows, and… and everything else that has been happening in between, it's… I don't know, like a roller coaster at times, you know?"

Noah thought about that for a moment before he replied, his voice barely above a whisper. "That's what you told me, yeah. Jesse, d-does it have, like, anything to do with us? You and me, being… you know?"

Jesse looked up and smiled at his best friend. "It has nothing to do between us, I promise."

Noah wasn't fully convinced. "Even… you know…"

Jesse shook his head, and this time snuggled closer, letting his hand find Noah's groin once again and insert inside the briefs there, before lightly coming to rest. There was nothing hidden from him, and he had no shame in feeling what was there, and he knew Noah could feel his touch, too. "See? I promise you, on my heart. This has nothing, NOTHING to do with any of it." He leaned in and whisper directly into Noah's ear. "Besides, even though this is kind of the fun stuff, it's also a part of what built our trust and love, remember? I swear to you, I'm fine with us being just us, and that includes us jacking off, feeling around, sucking, or – all of it, okay?"

Noah relaxed then and nodded. "Then… what is it Jess? If it's not us, then…"

"I… I just…" Jesse paused to consider before going on. "I don't know how to explain it, really. This stuff with Pete has got me all out of sorts right now, I think. I mean, with my dreams, and…"

Noah suddenly became more alert. "Dreams? What kind of dreams?"

Jesse hesitated only briefly before he answered. "Ever since that day at lunch, you know, when the guys told us about Pete not being found yet… I guess I've been jumpy. I mean, I've been kind of having weird thoughts, and… I don't know, dreams too, about Pete coming back and showing up and… and…"

"And… what? Come on, you know you can tell me," Noah coaxed quietly.

Jesse, however, shrugged. "Stupid stuff, really. Like, showing up at home holding a big knife, with blood already dripping from it, and…" The teen suddenly paused, but not without shuddering. "See? Just stupid stuff, like I said. It's… it's just unnerved me more than anything else. Then even more so, with all this that's going on outside? Tonight? I mean… It's like dad said… 'Shit'!"

Noah observed Jesse closely before responding. "It's okay, though. I admit, I got a little unsettled by it, too. Maybe not as much as you, but… yeah." He paused for a moment. "Is that all? Is that it?"

Jesse knew what his friend was asking. "That, and… I don't know, I'm just, I get all these butterflies inside now, any time we're around anyone else and there's, like sex or stuff involved." He pulled back and stared off into the distance. "No, not sex, but… you know. I never thought guys were as free around other guys and stuff, you know? Some would flip out, I know, but it seems like some really don't care if you see them naked or not. At least, Simon didn't the other night." He blushed. "We had, um, some problems getting his clothes changed, when we were getting his uniform off and everything."

Noah grunted. "I'm not surprised, really… but, go on, bro," he whispered, waiting.

"I don't know, Noah… I always thought it was such a taboo thing, you know? The way you hear some guys rag on about it, it's just… I don't know, it makes me feel funny and everything, and that confuses me sometimes." He turned back to look into Noah's eyes again. "I always had my way of thinking about it, you know? But, until you came along, I figured I was just on my own and everything. You know, I was kind of being dumb, I guess."

"No, you are not dumb, nor have you ever been. I told you how I felt about being alone and everything, remember?" Noah whispered. "It's not that different, really. I just, I never could explain how I felt either, or about the kind of things that were happening to me on the inside. That's where you helped me the most, because once I could understand and sort of explain them, then… well…"

"Yeah, I know. But, Noah, have you ever thought about whether I might be wrong?" Jesse whispered, suddenly realizing he had hit upon a crucial point. "I mean, what if I'm wrong about how I feel, about Benji and how close he and I get and everything? Or about… us?"

"No," Noah replied emphatically. "I don't believe it's wrong about us, or your little brother, because I know that what I feel inside is like you when we're together. And… and your hand on my dick just now? That told me that you still trust me, and all the way, too," Noah whispered back. "And as to the rest? I remember someone telling me something once, about living in the here and now, and believing in something – believing in someone's heart the most. I believe in your heart, Jesse, and so do a lot of other people now. They know you from the inside - I doubt as much as I do, or maybe Benji - but they know you now. You're not wrong. If you were, then a lot of people would be lined up otherwise, ready to make our life more miserable than ever. See? Doesn't that make some kind of sense?"

Jesse gazed for a long time at his friend before he finally answered. "How did you get to be so smart again?" he whispered, a tear escaping down his cheek. Noah was right, he thought, but Jesse had never seen it that way before. He had been wrapped up in so much of the other things that had been happening, he had forgotten to take a step back and look at the bigger picture, including himself. That was what Noah had just put into perspective, in his own way, and it caused the teen's heart to skip a beat. "I believe in your heart, too, you know," he added, before stretching in and kissing his friend softly on the lips.

Noah smiled. "I only wish you had talked it me about it sooner. I could have kicked your ass a little quicker, you know?"

Jesse giggled, then dropped his head into his friend's chest, embarrassed. "I- I couldn't Noah. I'm sorry but, it's just, things happen so fast, and…"

"Shut up and kiss me again," Noah said softly, wrapping his arms and pulling the boy in closer. "I was only teasing, anyway. About the ass-kicking, not the kiss…"

Jesse turned up and the two came together once again, except this time for much longer. They both gave little kisses here and there on the nose and the lips, before giving in and going deeper for a moment. Moments later, however, it was Jesse who finally pulled back and blushed. "I'm sorry, I guess I…" When he couldn't finish, he gently ground their groins together. Noah smiled, noting that not only did his friend not have an erection, but neither did he himself.

"For what? Jesse, I told you - we don't have to mess around every time we get together, do we?" he whispered, which made Jesse smile again as he sank onto his friend again.

"I know, but… it just feels so … so awesome when we're like this, you know? Boners or no boners…" He paused a moment before continuing. "I've always had mood swings, but lately… you know, I'm not sure what I would do if I didn't have you to talk to." He sighed. "I thought I was just being lame, you know? Then the dreams started, and everything felt so real, and…"

"I get it, Jess. I really do, but… nothing has actually happened like it has in your dreams. Besides, it's okay to be a little afraid, you know that, and-"

Jesse immediately began shaking his head. "Afraid? You mean, me being afraid of Pete? No… I've faced him before, and I'll do it again a hundred times over if I have to. I'm not afraid of him, I promise… but, I am afraid for my brother, for my family… even for you," he admitted quietly. "I don't know why, but it's just… it's getting to me, I think. Then to see how he got so close tonight and… you know?"

"Don't be afraid for me either, Jess. I mean, I can take care of myself – maybe not as neatly as you did that day at school, but… I'm not a puny Earthling!" Noah replied, teasing. It made his friend laugh.

"I know that, trust me. You're all male, 100% boy, someone I can hold, hug and squeeze, and… and…"

When the teen didn't continue, Noah wrapped his best friend up in his arms and legs, hugging him closely. "Hug and squeeze anywhere all you want - as long it isn't my balls. They're kind of sensitive to that stuff, you know?" he whispered, causing Jesse to giggle in his grasp.

"Yeah, mine are, too…" Jesse hugged back, but then at one point raised up so he could look directly at his friend again. "I love you, you know? I don't say it very often, but I do. Just like in your letter to me, you're my best-est friend, and… and…" Jesse spoke, trying to break the silence.

"So? You know I love you, too," Noah whispered back. Another moment passed before he could feel Jesse pushing gently away. When he drew back, he could see the smile in the eyes alone that stared deep into his own. "Like you said, I know that it's kind of hard to say it when we're out anywhere, but… but in here, I'm not afraid. You know how I feel, and I know how you feel, too."

"I know you do," Jesse whispered back. They stared at each other a moment, before Noah smiled and sat up. Removing his t-shirt, he then leaned out to the nightstand and turned the lamp off, plunging the room into darkness. Jesse then felt a pair of hands grasp the hem of his own t-shirt and tug, so the teen complied by raising his arms and letting his friend remove it from him. As their eyes adjusted to the darkness, each could see the other sitting still and waiting, facing each other.

"You know, we still don't have to do anything, right? We could just, like, cuddle up with one another," Noah whispered.

That was when Jesse smiled and leaned in, giving Noah another soft kiss on his lips once more, before breaking and whispering into his ear. "It's up to you, but … I admit, I don't know if I'll be very much fun to be with tonight."

It was Noah's turn to scoff this time. "Jess – you're always fun to be with it." Pausing only slightly, he then gently pushed the other teen back onto the bed, before pulling the covers back and removing Jesse's briefs from him, leaving him totally naked. In the darkness, with only the dim nightlight illuminating from the side wall, Noah could make out the fact his friend was still nowhere in an aroused state. It didn't faze him in the slightest as he suddenly rocked back and removed his own underwear. Then he moved forward to lie next to the other boy and pull the covers up and over them. As they rolled toward each other, their intimacy felt good. "Like I said, we don't need to do anything tonight, I promise, so long as I know I still have your trust," Noah whispered.

"You'll always have my trust, Noah… always," Jesse whimpered, relaxing in Noah's embrace. "I would do this, with you, any night. Every... single… night… if we could get away with it." He paused, then went on. "I confess though, last night, I had to wait for Benji to fall asleep, but then… I did 'it' again, you know? I was, like, thinking of you, of us…" He grunted. "and, yeah, I made another one of those messes, bro. A huge mess…"

Noah felt a heartstring thrum within his chest, followed with a feeling of pride. "I did, too," he whispered back, which made them both giggle at each other.

Jesse sighed as he looked up. "You know, I meant that, Noah. I would do this with you every night, if I could. Sex or no sex, just… us."

Noah smiled as he settled in beside him. "I would, too." Nothing more was said, as they both soon fell asleep.

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