The Storm That Turned the Tide

by Sean English

Chapter 17

The Bandit Strikes Again

"Hey, where were you today? Did something happen?"

Noah had just walked over and knocked on the rear door to what was now denoted as the McAllisters' residence, only to find Makalah answering it. After a brief exchange of pleasantries, he quickly inquired if Jesse was okay. Makalah had only smiled and nodded, but offered no explanation, and instead invited the teenager to go on and head to the bedroom where he would find Jesse. Curious, he thanked the woman and then walked away. Entering the boys' bedroom, he found Jesse sitting on the lower bunk of his bed with his knees drawn up and reading a book. When Noah checked the cover, he realized it was the first volume of the Harry Potter series. Glancing up, he saw Jesse's tired smile meet him with an expression of sadness. "Sorry, bro. My parents, well, kind of made me stay home today."

Noah climbed in and sat on the edge of the bed, before kicking off his shoes and turning his back so he could prop against the post opposite his friend. "Well, Mom told me this morning you wouldn't be on the bus, so that's cool - but I didn't know you were going to miss the whole day, though!"

"Really?" Jesse asked. "How did she know?"

"Evidently your Mom called and told her, I guess. So… what happened? Are you okay?" the teen repeated, although this time much more quietly. Once again, he noted the tired expression in his friend's face and body language.

Jesse tagged the page he was on and then set the book down in his lap. As he turned to stare out the nearby window, he hesitated as he acquired a rather pensive expression. He knew that this conversation was eventually coming, and as he had predicted, Noah had wasted no time in coming over after school. Even so, despite his attempts to prepare for it, Jesse found he was still uncertain about how it should be handled. Finally sighing deeply, he held the book up so that his best friend could see the heavily-worn spine, indicating the volume had already been read repeatedly in recent years. "You know, I think we really should get some more of these. I mean, we only have the first two in the series, and Benji keeps talking about wanting to get into them more. This one, it's just about had it, too. I don't think it was a new copy in the box we picked out with odds and ends. Neither is the second book in the series." He looked up at his friend. "Not that I'm complaining any. I don't mind second-hand stuff, but… I try to take care of things, you know? Benji… he can be rough sometimes, but he's getting better, too – even for being just seven years old." The teen paused again, before continuing. "Noah, if I can get some money together sometime, do you think you or your Mom would help me order it somewhere? I've looked them up at Walmart, but you can't get them individually. All they have is those boxed sets, you know – where all seven books are sold in a special case, like, one set. I… I mean, I can't spend $160 for them in hardback, and $85 for paperback is really still pushing it too, I think. For books, anyway…"

Noah sat back, studying his best friend and listening as Jesse deflected the topic, wondering for a moment what was going on. In the meantime, the teen glanced down and observed the book, and realized the question that hung in the air was going unanswered. "Sure, we can. I mean, you know we will. We can find them on Amazon or somewhere… but… but-"

Jesse interrupted with a grunt. "Yeah, I know bro... I didn't answer your question. Sorry…" The teen once again returned to staring out the window briefly, before finally dropping his voice again. "It was because of last night, Noah. I had another one of those dreams, like the one I told you about before. Only this time… it got really bad."

Noah's eyes narrowed. "With Pete? How so?" he whispered, suddenly alert.

Almost a half-minute passed before Jesse finally responded. "It was one of those, yeah, but this time I couldn't wake up from it. I mean, Benji was here and sleeping beside me, and… he woke up to find me, like, sweating, mumbling, kicking the covers – stuff like that. He tried to wake me up though, and when I didn't, then he got scared and went off to get my Mom and Dad."

"Holy crap!" Noah exclaimed, muttering softly. "Seriously? What happened, then?"

Jesse shrugged his shoulders. "Dad tried, but he couldn't wake me up either." He raised his tired eyes to stare deeply into those of his best friend. "You see, Pete was in it like usual, and… and… this time he was out for blood - literally. You, Mom and Dad… all of you were cut and stabbed, and bloody and… it was bad. But then in the dream he finally jumped me and started trying to stab me, I guess. I was fighting with him see, all around the same time my Dad was trying to hold on to me and get me to come out of it. I- I couldn't do it, though." The last was spoken in a whisper, with an expressive sigh of defeat. "Somehow, Mom finally got through to me though. But… like I said, bro… it was… it was…" The teen couldn't finish the sentence, and although he had maintained his composure for the most part, Noah could sense the effort his friend was expending while trying to keep some level of control.

When nothing more was offered, Noah scooted forward, moving over close to Jesse's side before sitting back. He knew the door to the room was open, and realized that Makalah could walk by at any moment. Right now, however, he didn't care about being subtle. Instead, the teen grasped Jesse's hand and held it in his own, letting it fall between them, all the while threading and locking their fingers together. Jesse didn't resist, and as they sat, Noah was at a loss for words about what to say. "So, bad dreams, unhinged nerves… That's why your Mom made you stay home?"

Jesse nodded. "Kind of, I think. She thought I needed the rest, which… I guess I kind of did. I was really exhausted after all that happened."

"I bet you were," Noah agreed. "You even look like it now, I think. So, how… how did Benji take it afterwards? You said he got scared, right? Have you told him about Pete and everything?"

Jesse glanced up and shook his head. "No, not yet. I don't intend to if I can keep from it. I have to say though, he really surprised me. He was scared, but like a lot of things, he kind of shook it off after a bit." The teen then grunted. "The little fart is the one who got me back on my feet, I think."

"He's like that, yeah," Noah smiled knowingly in reply. "Sometimes, I don't think anything really bothers him. Not that I get to see, anyway."

"Yeah," Jesse agreed. "It might seem that way, but trust me – some things do get to him, I know."

Noah understood completely. Leaning in, he bumped shoulders with his friend then. "So… what now? Do you need some s-e-x to vent your frustration or something?" He had meant it as a joke, but when Jesse didn't react, he sighed. "You know I'm kidding, Jess. I just, I don't know what I can do to help…"

Jesse leaned over, resting against Noah as he shifted closer, removing what little space remained between them. "I know, bro. I kind of wish we had done something the other night, though. Once again, me and my fucking emotions, along with my and crazy head got in the way, and… and…"

"Shut the fuck up," Noah whispered, adding emphasis by squeezing his best friend's hand tighter still. "You didn't stop us the other night, okay? We both did, bro. We were tired, and all that crap with the water and everything going on… it's cool, honest. Besides, unless you're planning to go celibate on me or something soon, there'll be plenty of time to still do stuff. You know that."

Jesse turned and smiled at him, finally returning the squeeze back to the hand in his grasp. Noah detected an element of raw emotion, however, and he began to understand the toll it was taking on his friend. This was not the steady, firm, always-knowing-what-to-do Jesse he had met after the storm. Instead, it was a human being, who was experiencing something Noah didn't totally understand, but certainly wanted to. He wished he could get inside of the roller coaster and help his friend find the brakes to slow his wild ride down. Then again though, there were a lot of things Noah wished for, but he was smart enough to know he could only tackle them one at a time, especially when it came to Jesse. The watery eyes made Noah feel helpless, but at least he could be there to listen, if nothing else. "Come here," he whispered again, letting go of his friend's hand and threading his arms around the teen. It was a sincere embrace, and one which Jesse didn't resist as he felt a familiar strength and comfort in that grasp.

It was at that moment Makalah happened to walk by and observed them both. Smiling, she halted and stepped inside the doorway. "Everything okay, kiddo?"

Noah blushed as he let go, but Makalah approached and placed her hand upon Jesse's head, running her fingers through his soft hair. Jesse looked up and smiled at his mother. "I'm fine, Mom... really."

Makalah nodded, before glancing at Noah with a knowing expression. "I guess he told you about his dream this morning."

"Yes ma'am," Noah replied as Jesse rolled to sit up straighter. "He… well, he was telling me how bad it got."

"Well, neither of you boys should dwell on it. It was only a dream, after all. To worry about it, dwell on it, get wrapped up in it – that's only succumbing and giving it power over you, so to speak. Just realize that you're both safe, along with the rest of us. Don't let it ruin your day, alright? It's not worth it, I assure you," the woman offered kindly, which caused Jesse to look up and smile at her even more.

"I won't Mom, I'm okay… honest." In that moment, his mother and Noah actually felt a change for the better in his demeanor.

"Well, you better be. I'm not so sure I'd let you stay home from school for many other excuses, believe me," she added teasingly, before turning and hobbling out the door. They listened for a moment as her footsteps faded away down the hallway.

"Thanks, Noah," Jesse whispered, eventually. "You really are my best-est friend."

"Anytime, Frog-Legs," Noah quipped. It was a new nickname some of their classmates had given his friend in gym, given the way his uncanny jumping abilities were modestly improving. "Um, I don't think your Mom minded me hugging you… do you?"

Jesse snickered. "Of course not, you dope!" He glanced out the door again. "We're close, she knows that. Besides, Noah, it may not be something common, but boys do hug sometimes, you know."

"Maybe, yeah," Noah replied thoughtfully. "At least, brothers do, like you and Benji." When they traded grins, he switched the subject. "So, school tomorrow, right?"

"Yeah, I'm expecting it. Why?" Jesse asked.

"Well, there's another pep rally tomorrow afternoon, and then we play Boyle County tomorrow night. Coach asked me today if you and I were planning to be around," Noah explained.

That seemed to lift Jesse's spirits considerably. "Oh wow, heck yeah! That should be fun!"

Noah laughed. "Well, I thought so, too. It's still a mix of work and fun, but yeah, mostly fun…" He glanced about. "So, do you want to play some video games for a bit or something, at least until Benji gets home?"

Jesse smiled, then worked his way over to pick up the controllers for them and turn the game console on.

Noah stayed for dinner with the McAllisters that evening, and afterwards helped Jesse catch up with their math homework. Benji, in his usual energetic fashion, attached himself figuratively to their guest, hanging out with the teen at every opportunity. Jesse gave his brother a smug look on more than one occasion, but didn't really mind it overall. His brother was building his own, albeit different relationship with Noah, one that was creating a bond between just them all by itself. It still did not keep the older brother from shaking his head at times though, and interceding at others while the evening progressed. "Sheesh, Ben, give the poor guy a break!" he hissed, laughing as his brother tackled their guest at one point and began tickling him under the arms.

Noah laughed as well, but turned the tables on his opponent quickly. He rolled the youth up in such a way that he was pinned completely beneath the bigger teen, immobilizing both arms and legs. As Noah grinned from on top, however, both of the older boys suddenly detected a familiar, atrocious odor drift by them. "You little turd, eww, gross!" Noah exclaimed, letting go and backing quickly away. "Did you HAVE to go and fart just now? You STINK!" he complained, all the while pushing Benji over and retreating further away. The younger of the two McAllisters cackled with delight. Afterwards, Benji turned and began launching a second round of mischief, but Noah suddenly raised both arms in defense. "Stop! I need a break anyway! Seriously, I've got to go pee!" he hissed.

Benji giggled even more, before rolling to sit back on his feet. "My farts make you have to pee? Really? You're not just making an excuse-"

Noah gave him an annoyed look. "No, I really have to go, and if you end up sitting on my gut again, I'm likely to pop and start squirting it out! Which, then you'd have a bigger problem – because I might make YOU have to change ME for once!" That remark even drew a giggle from Jesse, who was off in the corner watching them both. Noah stuck his tongue out at his friend before making to rise up, but the angle was awkward. Their guest quickly fell back to the floor once again. Benji, still dubious, hopped up and offered their guest a hand, which the teenager gladly accepted.

"Need any help in there? I take it you still know how to do it," Benji whispered, giggling even more before it turned into a bigger laugh. "But - I still don't think you've really gotta go! You just didn't like me winning the battle!"

"What, you mean with your biological warfare?" Noah teased, but then hesitated. With a smug expression, he glanced at Jesse, who simply sat complacently while waiting to see what was going to happen next. He had not heard his little brother be so bold before, and the remark actually surprised him. He shrugged, letting Noah understand that it was new territory for them all.

That's when Noah suddenly grinned and then grasped Benji by the hand, before turning and pulling the younger boy out the door with him. Jesse leaned over just enough so he could peer down the hallway, where he watched the two disappear into the bathroom with the door closing shut behind them. Initially Jesse heard nothing but silence, but seconds later he could make out subdued giggles as the sound of water streaming and hitting the toilet bowl grew louder. Shaking his head, he grinned as the anticipated flush eventually followed. A moment later, the two eventually returned with Benji grinning from ear to ear. When they were inside, the youth toppled onto the lower bunk of the bed while Noah took a seat in the floor next to his best friend, looking smug.

At first, aside from Benji's ceaseless giggling, an air of silence enveloped them. When Jesse and Noah finally glanced at each other, however, they both broke down and lost it, laughing hard at what had just happened. Benji eventually got up and approached them both, before crawling up into their laps and lying back against them both. When they had become more subdued, Noah finally spoke in a hushed voice. "So, how about it? Cat got your tongue? Are you going to say something at least?"

Benji reared his head back with a lopsided grin. "That was sssoooooo COOL!" he whispered, making Noah blush.

Jesse finally put both arms around his little brother and held him closer, although he shifted slightly so that a certain tailbone was less prominently pressed against him. "So, fess up - how was it cool? Did you get to see his boy-parts or something?" he finally asked.

Benji, however, turned to his brother with an expression of annoyance. "Not exactly." He glanced at Noah and then shrugged. "Well, maybe just the end of his, you know… a little bit, I mean," he replied, before lowering his voice to a whisper. "It looked kind of funny, though, you know?"

Jesse understood the implication right away, recalling his own initial reaction at seeing Noah for the first time. "His is a little different yeah, not like us. It's called being circumcised."

"What does that mean?" the boy asked, curiously.

"It means after I was born, they cut the extra skin off the end of my… uh, my willie," Noah provided for him. He was uncertain exactly which terminology he should use, but he saw Benji's expression and knew the boy understood. The teen then looked up at Jesse. "I take it he's, like… you know?"

"Like me, yeah," Jesse answered. Benji suddenly squealed, but then stopped and covered his mouth with his hand. "Oops! Uh, sorry…"

"It's okay," Noah replied, reaching out and pulling the hand loose. "Haven't you seen anyone, you know, like me before? Even at school?"

Benji shook his head emphatically. "Nope. Just Jessie," he admitted. An awkward silence followed, with Benji glancing between both of the older boys before sighing deeply. "Okay, I guess the magic moment is over with then. Don't worry, I get it."

Jesse laughed out loud, and then shook his head. "You're a mess, squirt."

Noah observed them both with both confusion and amusement. "What… am I missing something here?"

"You don't want to know," Benji piped up quickly. "It's nothing, just… me being a goof-ball."

"I doubt that," Noah replied. Grabbing the youth, he then pulled Benji over into his lap. "I take it something devious is going on inside that head of yours, isn't it? Something probably naughty?"

Benji laughed, but then glanced at his brother. They locked their gaze with one another before Jesse sighed. "I think he's hoping you'll still play strip poker with him sometime, like you talked about before. That way, he'll have the chance to see all of you."

"OOhhhh… so that's what this is about," Noah mused in a coy voice. "I would have thought you saw plenty that night in my bedroom window, you know?"

"What? JJeessseeee… you told him!" Benji pouted, then slumped his shoulders dejectedly.

Noah giggled. "It's okay, I didn't care," he soothed, but when the younger boy did not cheer up, he took a different approach. "So, strip poker, huh? You think you really want to do that? I mean, your brother and me, we're a lot older than you, you know, and we… we're, uh…"

"Different down there, yeah, I know. You're all hairy and have got bigger bananas," Benji whispered back, but then screwed up his face. "I don't… I mean, I know it's not, like, being with girls and all, but… I just… I mean…"

Noah leaned in and whispered. "You're curious, is that it?"

Benji turned sharply to search the teen's expression before slowly nodding in amazement. "Kind of, yeah. I mean… I don't know what I mean!" he ended up, exasperated. "How did you know, though?"

Noah hugged him anyway. "Because I get curious sometimes, too. Look, it's cool, so don't worry about it. I kind of already promised you, didn't I? That ought to tell you I don't care if I skin with you around. Just… don't make fun of me, okay?"

"Huh? Why would I make fun of you?" Benji asked curiously.

"Because he's different, remember?" Jesse finally spoke up. "Isn't that what you were just saying? He knows we're both, uh, bigger and older and everything. He doesn't want to freak you out, get it?"

"Oh, yeah… duh!" Benji chided himself. Then turning back to Noah, he raised both eyebrows. "I don't care, really, and I promise you won't freak me out. I mean, we're all boys, right?" He paused, still searching Noah's expression. "Are you serious, though? You'll… you would… I mean… with me?"

Noah frowned. "Why don't you believe me, Short-Stuff?" When Benji hesitated, the teen continued. "Look, don't you know you're like the little brother I don't have? I mean, I've got Jesse over there as someone my age, but you - you're my little bro, too. That means I trust you, get it? I would play poker with you, or some other goofball game maybe, just because you're you." When he saw the youth's eyes grow wide, Noah laughed quietly. "Sheesh, don't act so surprised! Good grief! Just… always remember it has to be at a good time, that's all."

"But… honest? With m-me?" Benji whispered.

"Of course, with you! Why not? I'm cool with you, I promise - no matter what your brother says about you!" Noah teased, winking all the same.

Benji scoffed. "Knowing Jesse, I doubt he says anything about me," he said knowingly.

Noah shrugged. "You might be surprised," he added in a low, conspiratorial tone.

Benji's expression changed to one of relief and smiles then. "I'm really glad then. You're kind of like another big brother to me, too!" he offered, before reaching out and wrapping both arms around Noah's neck, hugging him hard.

"Gr, ugh, mphf!" Noah exclaimed, before gasping, "Don't kill me! Not yet, anyway! A dead corpse can't skin with you then, unless you're going to be the funeral home guy!"

Benji giggled, but then let go and backed away before standing up. "Okay, you two can have some time together now, too," he said, and without another word, the younger brother climbed the ladder to his upper bunk. Once there, he found the TV remote and, changing the channel, was soon absorbed in an episode of Scooby Doo.

Both of the older teenagers glanced at each other in amusement, before Jesse leaned in. "You know, I think you just made his day. Probably even more than that, maybe even for the rest of the year! I mean, what you just did… it was better than any Christmas present would ever do!"

"Are you kidding? I think he just made my day, too," Noah whispered back. "This whole night has been cool, Jess. Maybe a little annoying, but meh, still cool. It… I don't know, it felt good inside, you know? I'm not so sure about the sex stuff though, with him I mean, but…" he breathed. "To be honest, I'm kind of taking my cues from you. Oh, and just so you know, he told it like it was about being in the bathroom while ago. He stood off to the side and kind of behind me a little while I did my business. He didn't try to, like, really peek at me any at all."

That caused Jesse to giggle and shake his head. "Noah, I don't care, honest. I know you two have your own relationship. I promise, I know you - you're not going to mess up with him, so it won't bother me." He glanced up and then became thoughtful. "It's like I've told you before, he's not really into sex like… sex, you know? I still think he's just curious, especially when it comes to pubes," Jesse explained. "He finds mine kind of, I don't know, really interesting… I guess." He sat back against the wall and relaxed. "You know, Benji is a little like I was at first. I mean, kind of just wondering how different people can be, and all of that. The only thing is, he's a couple of years younger than when I started to first notice things. To me that's not so much of a bad thing. I don't know if I've ever told you or not, but it's one of the reasons I love him so much, even as a brother, because he has that… I don't know, that kind of innocence and wide-eyed wonder about him and all."

"Yeah, I understand. Outside of tonight, he's not wild like some twerps his age are," Noah mused. "There for a while though…"

Jesse laughed. "There for a while, uh, yeah! But you already know by now, he doesn't get that hyper very often. When he does, it's usually either super-fun to watch him, or super-annoying to just get out of the way."

Noah looked onward before lowering his voice again. "He really can't hear us, can he?"

Again, Jesse shook his head. "No. If he could, he'd already be back down here. Remember? His hearing is not the greatest in the world." Noah nodded, understanding.

"Then, innocence or not, he is pretty cool - to be no older than he is," Noah agreed. "Thanks… for sharing him with me." Jesse glanced to his side and smiled, before leaning over and bumping shoulders with his best friend.

A half hour later, as it was nearing eight, a call came from Noah's mother telling him he should probably be heading back. Reluctantly, he gathered himself and pulled on his shoes. "So, tomorrow night, right? Mom said she would pick us up after the game. So, unless we stay after school, we only need to work out a ride up there."

Jesse nodded. "Dad is off tomorrow, I'll ask him and then let you know in the morning. Deal?"

On Tuesday morning, Jesse left the house and walked toward the end of the driveway, where he saw Noah had already arrived and was waiting for him. Usually, the two would watch each other's house and try to set out about the same time, but this morning Makalah had held Jesse back, making sure he knew to call her if he needed to come home - for any reason.

The night before, Sheriff Hunt had called right after Noah left, but only to inform the family there had been no further developments in finding Pete Haskell III. There had been, however, unusual news concerning the hunter they all encountered on Sunday morning. The man had, at some point, gathered a few things into a backpack before setting off further along the trail. As the Sheriff's deputies attempted to follow, however, they both quickly lost sight of him. Both deputies searched the area for over an hour with no luck, before deciding to return to the campsite. They decided to stake out the site for a few hours, but eventually gave up on the idea of the man returning as the evening began to approach. They took a few pictures and then left. "I sent Phil back out there this morning, but from what he could tell the site was still relatively undisturbed. So, our dear Tom Bush just upped and disappeared. By the way, I also checked with store management. Walmart doesn't have a Fred Moore working for them, and they have no record of giving anyone permission to park a vehicle there for any length of time like Mr. Bush stated. So, early this morning, we went over and did an inventory in the back lots – it seemed all of the remaining vehicles were accounted for, too."

"Great, another mystery I guess," Jesse had muttered under his breath before heading to bed.

As he approached the mailbox, however, he pulled up short when he saw Noah wearing the team hoodie. "Aww… crap!" he uttered, before glancing at his watch. Quickly handing his books over to the teen, he began running back toward the house, leaving Noah to stare after him in confusion. Jesse had no time to explain, however, as he could hear the roar of the school bus engine somewhere off in the distance. Reaching the house, the teen rushed inside and quickly found his own team hoodie. Removing his current one, he began pulling on the replacement, all the while whisking his way back outside. "Sorry Mom, I forgot about the game tonight!" he exclaimed, causing his mother to laugh while shaking her head. Once he was outside and around the corner again, he saw the school bus just then grinding to a halt up ahead. Breaking into an outright run, he made short work of covering the distance and finally making his way breathlessly on board. Their driver gave him a wide grin as he closed the door. "Careful there, young'en. I would have waited," he announced, before releasing the brakes and continuing on.

Jesse sat heavily into the seat next to Noah, taking huge breaths but gradually settling down. Even with the colder outside air, the teen had broken out in a sweat with the exertion he expended. Noah ended up giggling beside him. "Sheesh, man!" he whispered. Jesse simply gave his friend a sideways glance and shrugged his shoulders.

When the teens arrived at school, the day began like most others. Once through their homeroom periods, Jesse started toward his first period class, only to be intercepted by Principal Green in the hallway. "Hey, McAllister… have you got a minute?" Whether any student actually had the time to set aside was really irrelevant. If the school warden wanted you, as many referred to the man, for whatever reason at any hour – you obeyed.

"Sure, Mr. Green… what's up?" Jesse asked as he stepped closer.

"I just wondered if you folks have heard anything further on our dear Mr. Haskell? Some of the men-folk were talking down at the grocery last night, about some kind of blanket search the Sheriff conducted Saturday night. One of them was under the impression it all went down near where you or your friend live," the principal inquired, leaning up against the wall.

Jesse nodded before taking a deep breath, and then filled the man in, detailing everything he could recall about both Saturday evening and Sunday morning. As he progressed, the man's eyebrows shot up repeatedly in surprise, but in the interim he was polite, letting the teenager get through the details without interruption. It was something that most students readily appreciated in the man, having recognized before how patient he was in listening to them. When Jesse finally finished, the man grunted and shook his head. "Now, that is something else, I tell you. So, no idea if that fella was camping out in the park or anything, I guess. You say he just upped and disappeared?"

Jesse wrinkled his nose. "Yes, sir. I'm not so sure about the camping part, especially for a couple of weeks, you know? I mean, wouldn't it be too cold to try and make a camp like that, at this time of year?"

"Well, for the most part, yeah," the man agreed. "It's not unheard of though, really. There are people who can make do in almost any extreme of weather, with the right equipment. It's just not at all that common around here, I think." Principal Green shook his head again. "Is this, uh, why you weren't in school yesterday? I was looking for you all morning, to remind you about the game tonight. I found your friend Noah, though, and he explained you didn't come in. I take it that, uh, everything's all right?"

Jesse smiled at the man. "It will be, sir. I just… I had a kind of rough night Sunday night, and my Mom thought it best I rested up. We were so wrapped up in things over the weekend, see, and… she thought it might be good if I took a day to catch my breath." He did not give any further details, and his answer - though simplistic - seemed to satisfy the man.

"It's none of my business, mind you, I was just curious. You need something though, you know how to find me, alright?" Principal Green offered before standing again. "By the way, remember the committee thing we're starting up between the staff and students? The teachers and I agreed that given the shortness between now and the Christmas break, we're going to postpone putting it into action until after the first of the year. Same for your other, ah, participation at the Middle School. Things will be much better settled by then between everyone involved. So, don't look for those to start up until January, okay?"

"Fine with me, sir," Jesse acknowledged. "Are you going to tell the rest of the school?"

"I plan to tomorrow, I think, in the morning announcements," the Principal replied. "Come on, I'll walk you to class so that Mr. Johnson doesn't give you any grief for being tardy."

Tuesday evening found the school losing their game against Boyle County, although only by a narrow margin. Both teams, in every sense of the word, were not only well matched in skill, but also in physical prowess. Once the match-up ended, as they had done the week before, Jesse and Noah joined their teammates in greeting and bumping fists with their opponents, before heading off to the locker rooms.

The experience was slightly different, however, as both boys gathered their team's discarded uniforms, and began sorting them to be loaded in the washer. Upon their return, they were surprised to find the room somewhat emptied, with only two of the guys ambling about and getting dressed slowly. Noah was about to ask where everyone had gone, but then two more players happened to walk in from the showers, totally in the buff, and drying themselves with towels while heading for their lockers. One of them, a junior that Jesse had come to know as Ty, passed close by as the teen blushed slightly, turning his eyes away politely, but somehow the reaction caught the other teen's attention and caused him to laugh. Shaking his head, Ty stopped and pointed out a shelf of towels behind Jesse. "Hand me one, will you?" he asked. Jesse nodded while reaching out and grabbing the requested item, before handing it over. "Thanks," he said, before decidedly plopping down on the end of a bench in front of Jesse. "If you're going to be helping us out, you better get used to this," he continued, remarking in a low voice while toweling his hair dry.

Jesse giggled, but then shrugged. "Doesn't bother me," he replied in an equally softened tone.

Ty glanced up, and then nodded. "Some guys are freaked out, but meh, most of us in here are okay with each other." He reached down into his nearby locker and withdrew a pair of boxers. "So, are you guys going with us Thursday night? We're supposed to play at Glasgow High."

The other player that had entered with him, was pulling his own pair of boxers into place from a few feet away. "I thought that was a home game?" he interrupted, frowning.

Ty shook his head. "Not this time. We've only got one more home game before the Christmas break, and that's next week against… uh… Greensburg, I think."

"Ah, man!" the other player exclaimed. "Jenny isn't going to like that at all!"

Ty laughed. "What, were you two planning something beforehand?" he asked merrily, obviously teasing the player.

"Ah, come on Ty, you know how it is… if we're going to Glasgow, then that means we'll be meeting here at what, 5:00 or something? I don't get off the bus at home until 4:15, and it's a 20-minute drive to just get up here!"

"Yeah, Jimmy, I know. You really do need to get your license, man," Ty prodded respectfully.

"My old man won't let me get it now, though. He does say I can get my permit in three months, but I won't qualify to get off all that restricted crap for another six after that," Jimmy replied wistfully. "Something to do with insurance and … other things…"

"He probably wants to make sure you don't get loose to go sow your wild oats," came a voice from the shower room as Rigdon appeared and stepped through the doorway, a towel wrapped about his waist.

"Well, if that's his reason, then he's failed - trust me," Jimmy replied with both eyebrows wiggling up and down. The others in the room laughed.

Having nothing left to really do, Jesse tilted his head at Noah, and both teens then bade the team goodnight and left the locker room. While they walked the floor of the gym toward the exit, Noah leaned in close and whispered, "Did you notice? Ty doesn't hardly have any hair at all in his crotch! I mean, he's a junior, right? That's got to make him, uh, 16 or so?"

Jesse grinned. "Yeah, I noticed. That's kind of how Simon is, too. I'm surprised he and the other one, Jimmy, just walked in like that though, you know? But… they were both kind of cool about it."

"I think I'm beginning to understand how you feel now, Jess. It's kind of starting to hit me, too," Noah admitted as they rounded a corner.

Jesse shrugged. "I don't know that it really bothers me, I just… I didn't know guys did anything like that, really. You certainly wouldn't know it from being around in Phys Ed, right?"

"Yeah. Guys shoot the bull a lot, but… never about things like their own dicks and stuff," Noah theorized. "You know, we could have stayed back there, maybe even got more educated, or even saw some more, um, you know…"

Jesse laughed. "Maybe, yeah. But… we didn't have anything left to do, and… I didn't just want to be standing around doing nothing, you know? It makes me feel like maybe I'm exploiting them or something when we do that." He grunted. "It might sound kind of weird, but… I want to respect them, that's all. I'm not afraid to hang around, especially if they're like, going to do… you know, but…"

"I agree with you, don't worry." Noah observed, as they went through the doors to the lobby. When they saw no one had yet arrived, they made their way over to the one lone window that overlooked the parking lot. Most of the vehicles were now gone, having made their exit already on the brisk night. As they stood in silence, Noah thought about what his friend had said. "You know something? I think you really hit it on the head – the part about respecting the guys, I mean. You've always respected everyone, even me."

"What do you mean?" Jesse asked, glancing at his friend curiously.

"Remember the first night you came and stayed with me? The night of the storm? You didn't try to, like, wiggle your way into my life or anything. It was like, you knew I was giving you a shitty deal, but you didn't try to make it any better or worse," Noah explained. "Then, we had that fight after school, and I realized something else. I realized it wasn't you trying to be friends or anything, but something else entirely. I mean instead, you were respecting my privacy, at least up to the point I brought your brother into the argument. That's when things really changed. I knew I was screwed then, though."

Jesse leaned against the wall, glancing around. The lobby was nearly empty, so he knew they could speak freely. "Noah, up until that day, I just thought you were a spoiled brat or something. Me and Benji didn't grow up with some of the good things that you did, see, so… my view of your life was kind of limited."

"Hmph… but I was a brat, wasn't I? I'm not sure about the spoiled part, but then again, maybe I was," Noah replied sheepishly. "I just figured the world was out to hate me, and that my life would end up being kind of, you know, useless for the most part. Especially if anyone found out I was… that I liked boys." The latter was spoken in a near whisper, but Jesse picked up on the sentiment immediately.

"Most people wouldn't hate you for that, Noah – at least, I don't think so. Some might find it amusing, but… hate you? I doubt it…" He sighed. "You know, that night, when I came to bed, I was ready to have it out with you again. It was either that or else get my pillow and go sleep on the couch or something. The couch, the floor – anywhere, just so I could leave you alone. When I saw that… that flag of truce thing though, as you called it, I was like 'huh?'"

Noah smiled. "You liked that, huh?"

"It was a different side of you, something I didn't think even existed, you know?" Jesse explained. "It was the beginning of seeing the real you. Then, as we started to trust each other a little more, well…"

"It wasn't all rosy though, was it?" Noah frowned. "I'm still kicking myself for telling Pete and the guys about you showering with your brother."

Jesse turned and observed his friend closely. "Don't worry about it. It's already happened, and I understood, really. You didn't know me, and for that fact, I didn't know you either. Besides, you heard all those people in the lunchroom that day, saying they had been in showers and stuff with their brothers or sisters. I mean that, Noah – let it go, okay?"

"I still don't think that should let me off the hook – especially given the way it got so far out of hand," Noah replied softly.

"Well," Jesse started, but then paused, just as headlights sliced their way through their portal to the outside world, and Jesse believed he saw his father's truck approaching. "Look at it this way. If you hadn't, then we wouldn't be where we are now. Pete actually did us a favor, you know? In a weird kind of way, he's the reason we got to be so much closer."

Noah raised both eyebrows in surprise as they made their way outside into the cold evening.

"Do you want to go with them to Glasgow on Thursday night?"

The following morning, both James and Makalah were sitting at the kitchen table, enjoying a breakfast of oatmeal and bacon with their oldest son. Outside, the weather had turned nasty, with a strong wind blowing in from the north alongside hard rains that were drenching the area. Initially the trio sat in silence, listening to the sounds of the storm with its occasional rumble of thunder that echoed around them. Both parents had engaged their son the night before about the game once he arrived home, and then James casually had inquired when the next one was coming up. Jesse told them what he had learned, to which his father had only nodded. This morning, however, his father eventually set the newspaper aside and glanced at Makalah before voicing the question.

Jesse, surprised, simply shrugged. "I don't know. I mean, we don't usually go along for any of the away games. If we did, I'm sure it would be almost ten or so before we'd make it back."

"I'm aware of that, but - you still didn't answer the question," James teased him merrily, before leaning forward. "If you're not interested, then that's simply that. I'm honestly not pushing it, but if you are interested, I think your mother and I could let you go this one time at least. It would certainly be something a little different for you, and after the way things have been these last few days, it might be good for you to take a break, maybe have a little fun. What do you think, dear?" he asked, glancing at his wife again.

Makalah set her glass of juice onto the table and sat back in her chair, observing them both briefly. "Your father's right. You'll probably have a blast. I'm okay with it, as long as you promise to be careful."

"Really?" Jesse's surprise was genuine, as he had never had such an offer like it before, nor had he ever contemplated it. "Wow, then… yeah, sure!"

James expression changed as he cleared his throat. "Then why don't you do it. I'll say something to Allen about it, too – so maybe Noah can go with you. Like I said, I think it would be good for you both to get out of the house, so don't be so surprised. I think your mother and I sometimes overlook how respectable of a young man you're becoming. We both trust you, and we know you have both your head and your heart in the right place."

"That goes ditto for me, too," Makalah added with a smile.

"Thanks," Jesse whispered softly smiling at them both.

James scooted his chair back from the table. "I'm off tomorrow afternoon, so I'll make sure you get up to the bus, and then I'll come pick you up afterwards tomorrow night."

With a growing excitement building, Jesse sprang from his chair and gave his father a big hug, before turning and repeating the embrace with his mother. Glancing at the clock, he turned and picked up his backpack. As he began heading toward the door, he stole another slice of bacon from the platter on the table. "I guess I'll see you later tonight. You're both working late, right?"

"Yep, I'll be home a little after seven, and your Dad about an hour later – at least, we think. So, don't try and burn the house down or anything, alright?" Makalah offered. "Oh, by the way, Jennifer said for you and Benji to come over there for supper, since we'll both be so late."

"Okay, sounds good!" Jesse responded, and then waved as he left the house.

Once the teen was gone, Makalah sighed deeply. James, overhearing the sadness, rose and circled behind her before engulfing the woman with his arms. "I don't think I've seen him that excited in quite some time," he remarked casually. Makalah grasped the man's strong arms and held them in place with her own.

"It's certainly a lot different than we've been seeing for the last few days, I agree," she murmured. "You do think he'll be safe out there on his own, right?"

"Oh, he'll be fine. That's one group of boys who don't get into drinking or anything wild like some do at those parties we hear about. He'll be surrounded by friends, too – especially if Noah goes along." The man cleared his throat. "He is, however, NOT the one we should be worried about being a problem, though."

"What do you mean?" Makalah asked, turning just enough in the chair so she could see him.

"The problem you and I will be having, my dear, is with a certain, precocious 7-going-on-8-year-old that will be left behind for the evening!" James replied, smirking.

Makalah scoffed. "Oh dear, yes… for that, you may be right. I'm afraid I didn't consider that yet…"

"Neither did I, at the time at least. Oh well, I'm sure we'll come up with something," James added giving her another warm hug.

"You're serious, aren't you?" Noah asked, then broke into a wide grin. "Count me in, then! I mean, if your parents let you go, I'm sure Mom and Dad will let me go, too!" He sat back in the seat, amazed. "That would be a lot of fun, you know? It would be… different, at least. Hey, have you ever gone to an away game?"

"Nope," Jesse replied. "I was never invited before, or considered important enough to take along, I guess. Either way, mind you that we still have to ask the Coach first. He might say no."

Noah shook his head, however. "He'll let us, I'm sure. Is there, like, anything we can do and all? You know, something to give us a reason to go along?"

Jesse shrugged. "Moral support, maybe? I don't know."

"That ought to be the cheerleaders' job, I think. Heck, they would do a lot more for the team that way than we would. You know what I mean, since they're dressed in their uniforms and everything, with practically nothing but panties on underneath."

"Whoa!" Jesse laughed, then shook his head. "I guess if we were, um, kind of straight, we'd get a kick out of their moral support too, wouldn't we?"

"Oh, yeah! You and me can support each other, though," Noah whispered back, before meeting the offered fist bump. "So, are we still on for after school today? Mom is going to take some outside pictures before it gets too dark, then we're heading over to this man's house who has a studio setup in his garage or somewhere."

"Yep, I'm ready. All this rain and stuff is supposed to be over with by lunch, so it should be partly sunny by then. It'll probably be wet, but…"

"That won't bother us," Noah replied.

Jesse glanced out the window and smiled. "I'll get ready after we get off the bus, then get Benji ready when he gets home. We'll come over afterwards as soon as we can."

"Sounds good, I think. You'll have some time though, so no rush," Noah added thoughtfully.

The rest of the school day slipped by quickly, with little in the way of any new excitement. Both teens were also delighted to have little homework to deal with as well, which was always a plus. The rains and gusty wind had already moved on by that time, leaving the area with a somewhat calmer afternoon. When they arrived home, both initially bumped fists, but as they walked down the driveway, Jesse couldn't help but notice his friend following close behind. "Something up?" he asked curiously.

Noah only grinned in return before he replied, "Not really. I just kind of thought, well – is there any reason I can't come in for a few minutes?"

"Fine with me, I just – you know, I need to clean up and stuff," Jesse replied. "I want to do it before Ben gets home, so we can be ready quicker.

"That's cool," Noah replied. "I'll leave before he gets in, since I intend to get ready, too. I think Mom is going to take a few pics of you and me, and then all three of us together, too."

"That would be so awesome! Honestly, I was kind of hoping she might," Jesse answered as he inserted the key into the deadbolt. Within seconds, they were inside.

Noah sat his school bag down near the door and looked up. "We're just going to be wearing, like, nice jeans and shirts... right?"

"Yeah. Ben and I don't really have anything super nice yet, but we've both got button-ups and polo shirts that we can change into. I figured we'd keep our same bottoms, you know, our jeans, and maybe change shirts after we leave the park."

"Sounds good. I'll call Mom and let her know I'm here," Noah announced as they walked into the kitchen and he approached the telephone. Jesse nodded and proceeded on into the hallway, before stopping to use the bathroom. By the time he had finished, Noah appeared and leaned in the doorway while Jesse rinsed his hands. "All good. I'll stick around about 30-minutes or so and then go get ready."

Jesse finished and headed to his bedroom, Noah following close behind. "So, what do you want to do for the next 30-minutes then? Watch TV, play video games, or…?"

Noah didn't answer immediately as he paused at the corner of the bed and propped himself back against the bedpost. "We're alone… right? No surprises?" he finally replied, looking smug.

Jesse crossed to stand in front of his guest, before gently propping his arms around Noah's neck. "It's one of those rare times I can actually say yes, we're alone, all by ourselves, at least for the next 30- to 40-minutes."

Noah giggled and then pushed his friend back slightly, grasping Jesse's waist and looking deep into the blue eyes that met him in return. "Then, how would you feel about me helping you out? Do you like, uh, need a shower or something?" he asked, his voice growing husky.

Jesse smiled, lowering his own voice to one just above a whisper. "I don't know. What does my best friend and brother think?"

Noah pushed, separating the two even more. "Well, your best friend thinks you could probably use a shower, but knows you'd have to make it a quick one," he whispered, before reaching out and grasping the bottom of Jesse's hoodie. As Noah lifted it up, Jesse offered no resistance, raising his arms in compliance and waiting until the garment rolled off the tips of his fingers. Wasting no time, Noah then removed his friend's t-shirt underneath in a similar manner, before moving to his friend's belt. "Say, are you planning to wear this tonight?"

"It's the only one I've got, so, yeah…" was the whispered reply. He realized what Noah's intentions were by that point, and he offered no resistance while his friend swiftly unhooked the buckle and pulled the leather strap away from the loops. Noah wasted no time in setting it aside and then continuing on to the zipper, working it down before unbuttoning the denims and letting the flaps hang to the sides.

Noah then suddenly stopped before issuing his next request. "Um, maybe you should kick your shoes off first, okay?" Jesse complied, only to follow with removing his socks afterwards. Once he had wiggled his feet free, he closed back in and Noah finished the job of pushing the jeans down past the calves, before Jesse helped to pull them free of his legs. Standing in nothing but his briefs by then, he giggled when he glanced down and noted a certain rigidness beginning to tent out in front. Noah noticed too, returning the grin with one of his own, before grasping it with one hand through the cloth and giving it a tug. Jesse gasped and briefly closed his eyes, but as Noah continued to pull, he opened them to see his friend waving him to follow.

Noah guided his friend from the bedroom, proceeding down the hall and into the bathroom, where they stopped and closed the door behind them. "Just in case…" he whispered by way of explanation, before moving over to the tub and pushing the shower curtain back about half-way. When he turned around though, he grasped Jesse firmly at the waist and leaned in to whisper. "Horny, huh? I'm glad," he announced, grasping Jesse's manhood again and holding on before suddenly locking lips with his friend, giving him a sweet, sensual moment. All the while, Jesse was getting harder from the attention as he pressed back both from his groin and their kiss, before emitting a deep groan from inside.

It didn't last long, however, as Noah sudden let go and let his hands snake to his friend's waistband. Once there, the teen hooked his thumbs inside, broke the kiss and bent over, quickly pushing the final garment to the floor. His nose brushed up against the hardness that sprang loose, and he honed in to both feel and breath the scent that met him around it. As the briefs hit the floor, Noah suddenly grasped his friend's buttocks with both hands, pulling him forward while he moved about, rubbing his nose and face into the groin and the boy parts that were located there. Jesse, overcome and fully giving in to the moment, moaned again and involuntarily thrust himself forward gently. Noah giggled and, after glancing up, suddenly took his friend's hardness inside his lips and sucked down as far as he could go.

Jesse at once closed his eyes, feeling suddenly weak as the sensations of the warm, wet cavity took over with a tongue slipping all around his shaft. Only seconds passed, however, before he gasped again as, with a little positional effort, he felt his skin being pulled back from the glans, and Noah attacking inside. A loud moan escaped this time, causing Noah to add his own whimpering to his friend's, as he ravaged his treat. The teen had been thinking of doing this for the last hour, even dreaming of it for days. They had done this before, but he had done it more out of a curiosity than the desire he had now. He quickly placed his fingers around Jesse's shaft and, between the up and down suction he worked with his lips, and the erotic massaging from underneath, he had his friend in a state of total bewilderment.

Jesse grew weak in the knees suddenly, and slowly stepping out of his underwear, he backed his butt to the sink to use it as a much-needed prop. Time or not, he was succumbing to something that had been building for days, and it showed. Noah did not let up in his intensity or tenacity, following his friend as he stepped back, clinging and sucking as if for dear life. For him, it was intoxicating, and the more he progressed, the more he took his friend further inside. Within a short time, he felt Jesse's dick begin to harden even more and subtly swell. Knowing the goal was at hand, he slowed his lips and simply sank inward, this time pushing his nose into Jesse's pubes. It was a new experience, but not one of surprise. He could feel the pulses beginning inside, so he backed away enough to let his tongue take the exposed tip in all its splendor. Wave after wave erupted then, as Jesse moaned loudly and pressed his hands gently upon the side of his friend's head. "OOhhh… ffuuccck…" he gurgled, gasping and sucking his gut in.

Noah also gurgled at one point, having to pull back because of the ferocity of the spasms and spurts that hit him from inside. He did not pull off though, nor did he let go. As Jesse's cum shot forward all around inside, Noah did not mind taking it, instead sampling and swallowing his friend's seed and its distinct flavor. It was tasty, the teen thought - especially compared to his own, which he had recently discovered. Ever since Jesse's admission about sampling his own, it had led Noah to realize he had no idea what he, himself, was even like. Although it had taken him a short time to build up the courage, he finally gave in to the idea one night and scooped up some of his own cream. Sampling it, he found the concoction interesting, and the more he licked, the more the teen relaxed. Now, he was taking Jesse's load full bore from the source, and although he found it as something wickedly naughty, it was also surprisingly fulfilling.

When he had expended his last euphoric splurge, Jesse grunted loudly and closed his eyes. He sank back against the wash basin even more, using it to keep himself upright. Noah initially followed, leaning forward to keep the teen engulfed as long as possible. He heard the barest of whispers above him utter another, "Oh, fuck!" It made Noah giggle as he finally turned to glance up. Jesse and cursing did not usually go together, but right at that moment, Noah knew and understood what his friend was feeling. 'Oh, fuck' indeed.

Pulling off of the now expended stiffness, Noah leaned in again and once again moved his nose around Jesse's groin, playfully following up their intimate play. Before long, however, he sighed and climbed to his feet. Leaning in, he took hold of the other teen in a warm embrace. "Didn't expect that, huh? I take it you liked it, though… right?" he whispered.

In response, Jesse wrapped his own arms around his friend, before shoving his hands inside the back of Noah's shirt and feeling the warm skin there all over. Noah audibly gasped, eventually squirming to fight back the tickling Jesse initiated playfully, before their gazes found each other. "I owe you," Jesse replied. "Oh fuck, do I owe you..."

Noah shook his head, however. "You don't owe me anything, other than to stop swearing. The other two were alright, but… it still doesn't fit you, bro," he teased.

Jesse shook his head though. "Hey, if I want to fucking say 'fuck', you can't fucking make me stop… uh, fucking the uh, um, fuck-" Suddenly the teen laughed before shaking his head. "Yeah, you're right, I don't cuss very good. MMaannn… I don't think I've ever creamed that hard…"

Noah laughed harder then, before leaning into the embrace once more. "It's okay, I still love you just like you are," he replied, before planting a soft kiss on Jesse's lips again. "You needed it, Jess. You've been so wound up and everything… when's the last time you jacked off?"

Jesse blushed. "A while…"

"See?" Noah replied. "Seriously though, you don't owe me for anything. You already do a lot as it is, goof ball. Besides, I heard sex makes one really relax afterwards. Remember what what's-his-name said in the locker room last night? I bet he gets to screw his girlfriend before most games, and it makes him play better and all – you know, less tense, more loose-like and everything – that sort of thing. If it does then, I just hope it works on you tonight."

Jesse stared deeply into the eyes that met him for a moment before leaning in and giving his friend a soft kiss on the lips. He said nothing more, mostly because they had already said so much to each other without a voice. The exchange was one of a deep seated, mutual trust between them, and they both understood it. It was Noah who finally stepped back, breaking their moment again as he grasped his friend by the hand. "In the shower, now," he commanded, which Jesse obeyed.

With the shower curtain pulled half-way around, Noah found he could step up close as Jesse began wetting himself down. Even in that moment, he could tell Jesse seemed more relaxed and pensive than usual, which he found to be a good thing. "Just wash your hair, and leave everything below to me," he announced. Jesse only nodded before reaching for the shampoo. In the meantime, Noah found a washcloth and loaded it with body soap, before reaching out and applying it to his friend's back and sides. Noah enjoyed the task, swirling and turning Jesse around multiple times as he made quick work of every area and crevice exposed to him. Within minutes, the two had finished with the basics, which suited Noah just fine. Checking his watch, he nodded as he turned the shower off and observed the finished result. "Not bad, not bad at all!" he quipped.

"Okay, Master, what now?" Jesse giggled quietly.

"Now, we get you dried off, and then dressed before I have a relapse and decide to have another afternoon snack with your banana!" Noah replied. Jesse giggled, but only nodded as he stepped out onto the floor. "I've only got about 10-minutes or so though, so you might have to finish the last steps on your own," Noah added.

"I wish I could do this to you," Jesse whispered as a towel suddenly attacked and wrapped around his head. As he grasped it, he felt another one suddenly drying him along his butt and back. He turned automatically, letting his buddy take care of the other areas. Surprisingly, Noah noted his friend already had another partial erection, one which he took special care to gently dry with the towel. It would have been interesting to see if they could go at it again so soon, but the teen knew they were running out of time. Instead, he leaned in and kissed it on the tip, making Jesse giggle again.

Noah grinned in return. "So? I like my new toy, what can I say?" he whispered, causing Jesse to blush.

"I think he likes his new playmate, too," was the only response he could think of.

Both boys made their way back to the bedroom afterwards, with Noah heading to the dresser first thing. "Here, let's at least get some underwear on you before I leave."

Jesse glanced at the clock, then raised his eyebrows in surprise. "Wow, is that all the time we spent? It was pretty quick, you know?"

Noah nodded as he brought a pair of briefs over. "Well, you splurged me pretty quick, so I'm sure that helped," he quipped, as he arranged and bent down. Jesse obediently stepped into the holes and then watched as his friend pulled them up into place. He also assisted his friend in donning another undershirt before Noah stepped back, approvingly. "Wow, you look almost ready to take on the world, I think!"

Jesse stood before him, totally relaxed but continuing to blush. "I couldn't do it without you, though. Thanks!" he whispered.

"For what?" Noah asked, still grinning. The teen stepped forward and pressed until both boys pressed their forehead upon the other. "Just remember you happen to be my best friend, like the brother I never had. Besides, it's you I should thank for not pushing me away. I wanted to do it, for you Jesse. Just for you." After a moment he stepped back. "Okay, show me the shirts you're planning to wear, and I'll see if I can't find something that sort of matches with them - at least in color."

"Okay," Jesse responded, before turning and walking over to the closet. Within seconds he pulled a bright, long-sleeved button-up from within, which had thin, vertical checked lines with yellow and blue stripes. "I thought this would look okay. It's has some mixed colors in it, anyway. Benji has one similar to it, too."

"Those will be good. What about for in the studio?" Noah asked, which caused his friend to extract a second, long-sleeved dress-shirt in a pale orange color with thin, white stripes. "That one is awesome, too! Okay, I've got the idea, I'll see what I can come up with." Turning, he started for the door. "You'll be okay, right? Benji will be here in about 10 minutes, I think."

"Yeah, I'll be great," Jesse replied. "Go on, we'll be over there as soon as I get him ready."

Noah gave him a sly look. "Don't do anything I wouldn't do," he whispered, causing Jesse to laugh.

"Good grief, he's, well, he's my brother, Noah! I wouldn't… I mean…" Jesse stammered, before laughing again. "Get out of here, you dork!"

Noah leaned in close one final time. "I know you wouldn't, at least not like I did," he whispered, and then quickly made his exit before Jesse had a chance to retort.

The afternoon proved to be both relaxing and productive for the McAllister boys, and for Noah as well. As soon as Benji arrived home, Jesse put him through the paces of a quick shower and dressing effort that made the best use of their time, and then after locking up the house behind them, they crossed the lawn to find Jennifer and Noah already waiting. Loading up in the van, the group then made their way into town and the local park, where they found evergreens and other plant life still green in various places, along with plenty of fallen, autumn leaves in others. With the rains of the night and morning now departed, everything had a fresh, clean essence about it, making Jennifer's work easier. Providing little guidance, she took a number of pictures as the boys both posed and goofed around with one another, capturing not only the two as brothers, but the friendship that her son had invested with them as well.

After about an hour walking through various places in the park and taking different depictions, they finally called it quits and took a drive out into the country, before pulling into a long, winding driveway that led them up to a modest, craftsman-styled house. When they got out and approached the door, it was opened to reveal a grinning, balding man greeting them. After a few pleasantries, he led them inside and toward the rear of the house to where a luscious garden-like sunroom awaited them. It was comfortably furnished and already partially decorated for the holidays, but along one side it also contained a portrait screen, set up together with a set of studio lights. In no time at all, the man had set the brothers at ease in varying poses, taking several snapshots before turning his attention to Noah. Surprised, Jesse and Benji learned that Jennifer had also made an appointment for her son as well. The man teased and joked with all three boys at various times, and his humorous personality made them feel welcome. The entire session was completed within an hour, and as they left, the man promised he would be in touch in a few days.

It wasn't until after the group had entered one of the local diners and ordered their food, that Jesse sat back and regarded Noah's mother with a curious expression. "Mrs. Cook?" he began. "We didn't, like… I mean, how do we pay that man and everything? Ben and I brought our money, but he didn't ask for anything, and… well…"

Jennifer raised her eyebrow. "Didn't Noah tell you? Harry did this session for you guys at no charge. Oh, he'll get a few dollars for any reprints he makes up, I'm sure - but the session itself, sitting fee and all, he's doing as a gift." She saw the change in the teen's expression, so she hurried to explain. "You see, when Allen talked to him that evening, he found out Harry was already giving the same offer to the other families who were victimized by the tornado. So, we just added the two of you to the list."

"That's neat!" Benji replied with a happy expression, but then glanced at his brother for confirmation. "Isn't it?"

Jesse nodded, sitting back further in his seat. "Yeah, it is. I just…" He sighed. "It's just kind of hard getting used to all these favors that people are doing for us, you know? I don't mean to be ungrateful or anything, it just doesn't seem… well, not always right, you know?"

Jennifer sat back and observed the teen thoughtfully. "That's a very noble thought, Jesse, and I admire that you feel like you should sort of go it alone, like, stand on your own two feet. Seriously, though, don't sweat it. It's about community, and you will have the chance to be kind and generous to others in your life. And anyway, I think all you guys will be in the clear from here on out, for the most part anyway. Just don't forget though - a lot of what was done for all of you, your family and others, was sponsored and put on by the township and some of the churches. That tornado was a pretty big deal, a kind of wake-up call, I think. I mean it, too – the absence of that kind of event is something that a lot of people take for granted, thinking it could never happen around here in our little town, see? But the reality is, it did happen here, and I think that a lot of people were shocked by it. That's when most of them came to realize – or at least have a pretty good idea – how much of an impact it had on all the families hit the hardest. That's why they came together for that benefit so quickly, and… other things." She studied the teen thoughtfully. "Consider this: these kinds of things, when people can do it, make them feel better because they know they helped – not because they had to, or because it made them look famous or charitable or anything. Instead, they did it because they wanted to. They wanted to help take care of their own in the community. Understand?"

"I get it," Jesse replied, nodding. "I understand, it… it's just still different, or at least it just feels that way, I guess. I know we appreciate it and all, but…" The teen sighed and relented. "I'm sorry, I guess it just takes some getting used to, that's all."

"Well, 'different' comes in all shapes and sizes. Don't forget, there are a lot of people in this town and nearby that know your Dad personally. He has run that hardware store for Mr. Stout for years now, and you don't take a small rural place like this and not get to know some of the people like him. Whether you know it or not, your father has done a lot of things for a lot of people, sometimes going out of his way to help them out over the years. That creates a sort of vested friendship, if you will, between people. They remember those gestures for a long, long time." Jennifer sat back, turning and resting into the corner of the booth. "Like I said, don't worry about it. It'll all work itself out as time goes on. People will be talking about that storm for years."

"I know people who have helped us out – a lot," Benji piped up. "Including you guys." Jennifer looked down upon the boy with a smile, but noted his attention had already returned to a coloring sheet, along with a set of with crayons, that had been handed to him by their server. Jesse smiled also, nodding and noting that once again, his little brother was more in tune with their world than a lot of people realized. Soon, their food arrived and the conversation turned to other topics.

It was close to seven that evening when the foursome returned to the Cooks' house. The sun had already set hours before, but as they exited their vehicle, Noah turned and asked his mother if he could join the brothers for a bit, since he and Jesse still had some math homework that needed to be completed. After advising her son not to stay too late, she gave her permission, and thus the trio of boys set out across the lawn. As they approached the rear of the McAllisters' house, however, Jesse frowned when they found themselves suddenly trekking through wet, soggy ground once again. One glance ahead caused his heart to sink. "What the…? Not again, no!" he cried, picking up the pace and closing the distance rapidly. The other two boys followed close behind, only stopping when they reached the outside faucet, which was once again dispensing a torrential flood of water once again. Closer inspection revealed that, once again, the valve control was gone, broken off to hinder anyone from being able to close the flow. "Crap!" Jesse cried out in frustration.

Noah, now on alert, glanced around the property but found nothing else to be amiss. "I better go check ours, too, just in case," he announced, before taking off quickly. In the meantime, Jesse noted the house was still as dark and lifeless as when they had earlier left it. "Neither Mom or Dad has made it home yet," he observed, more to himself than his brother who was up until that moment, standing quietly by his side.

"What are we gonna do?" Benji asked, his voice straining. Jesse became thoughtful for a few seconds before standing up.

"Dad and Mr. Cook ended up cutting the water off by turning some kind of a main valve, I think somewhere in the front yard. Come on, let's go and see if we can find out where they did it. Maybe we can get it turned off, too," Jesse offered. The two then set off around the corner, stepping away from the soggy ground quickly. They had just reached the front corner, however, when they heard a shout. Turning, they saw both Jennifer and Noah approaching quickly with flashlights.

"Ours is still okay," Noah said breathlessly as he pulled up to them, his mother not far behind.

"Come on, let's find the shut-off valve," Jennifer called out, walking past them. The group reached the front lawn, but then continued up the driveway toward a pair of evergreens located alongside about halfway in the distance to the road. "It's behind those bushes, boys," she explained. Once they arrived, Jesse found a metal cover on the ground he had never noticed before which, when removed, exposed a cavity beneath with both a gauge of some sort, and a master knob that he assumed would cut off service for the house. Dropping to her knees, Jennifer reached inside and, with a grunt, found and turned the knob to close the valve. "There, now that's that," she announced before returning to her feet and standing again. "Come on boys, let's go see how bad it is."

"It looks about as bad as it was the other night," Jesse offered as they once again rounded the corner of the house. Stepping into the back yard, the group saw the flow of water had indeed stopped, but the damage was already done. Jennifer eventually shook her head in frustration.

"Just wait until they catch that asshole," the woman muttered under her breath. She then glanced at her watch. "Okay boys, you need to go inside and change clothes. We don't want your parents wondering why you're dressed so nicely, do we?"

"But… what about this?" Benji asked, perplexed. Jesse put an arm around the boy's shoulder.

"She's right, bro. We'll worry about this later. Mom and Dad should be coming home any time now. Right now, we need to change," Jesse announced, though he paused. "How the heck are we really going to explain it though? I mean, us not being here…?"

"Simple, really. You just tell your parents you came over for supper and we went out to eat, that's all. Which, from the looks of things, that was when our illustrious bully decided to strike again anyway. When we got back, you stayed with us for a bit before coming home," Jennifer announced. Despite the circumstances, she saw Benji's eyes grow wider. "It's not a fib, really. We're only leaving a few details out is all – at least until Christmas gets here."

Benji suddenly grinned. "I can do that!" he quipped, making Jesse laugh beside him.

"So, go on you two," Jennifer answered. "Allen will be home in a bit, and I'll fill him in. Just be ready for when your parents get home, as I'm sure they'll want to ask you a few questions, too." She looked down at her son. "You can still go with them, if you want. Just… like I told you, don't stay too late."

"Sure, Mom," Noah replied. With that, the trio of boys made their way around to the front door, for which Jesse's key also let them unlock it and go inside. "You know," Noah started, after they had closed the door behind them. "I can't believe Pete, or anyone really, would come back and do something like this… even twice!"

"As crazy as he is, I don't see this in him either," Jesse mumbled as they entered their room. "If he did, he must have picked up some kind of a cruel streak in him, you know?" He began peeling his shirt off just as Benji announced he needed to go pee. "Remember, don't flush, at least not yet!" The boy gave his brother a thumbs up and then disappeared. Glancing at Noah, he grunted. "I guess it's a good thing we took showers when we got home, isn't it?"

Noah nodded. "Yeah. I don't know what you'll do if you have to go poop tonight, though!"

Jesse laughed as he unsnapped his belt buckle and jeans. "Well, each tank has enough water for one good flush, at least. We'll cross that bridge if we have to, later…" As he finished removing his clothes, he paused after he noticed his friend observing him intently. "You already got it good with me once tonight, you know," he teased softly, causing Noah to blush.

"I'll have you know that I wasn't even thinking anything naughty," Noah replied. "But… I confess, you still look just as cute as you did 4 hours ago."

Jesse bumped shoulders with him as he stepped around to where his school clothes still lay discarded on the bed. Donning them quickly, he then took his time to get his nicer clothes rehung and put away, finishing just as Benji returned. He was about to ask what took his brother so long, when he glanced around and stopped. Benji was approaching him with nothing but his briefs on, handing him the shirt and pants already folded for the most part. "Good job," Jesse announced upon inspection, before turning and placing the garments away in their respective places. When his brother started to pull out pajamas, however, Jesse stopped him. "We've just come from the Cooks' house, remember? You'd be better off to put your school clothes back on for now, I think."

"Oh, yeah… right," the younger brother replied, thumping his own forehead with the palm of his hand.

It was another half-hour before the trio heard the front door open, followed by a rousing voice. "Boys? Are you here?" The trio then set off and greeted James as he met them in the hallway. "There you are! Is everyone okay?"

"Yeah, we're fine Dad, but…" Jesse began. James, however, cut the teen off.

"Yes, I know. Jennifer phoned while I was on the way home. Your mother and I stopped for a bite to eat, too. So, our infamous water-raccoon strikes again, is it? I tell you - I'd love to get my hands on him and take him out behind the old woodshed for a bit!" James declared, before shaking his head. "Still… at least you boys are okay. Jennifer said you guys stayed with them the better part of the afternoon and then went out to eat."

"Yeah, Dad… We're good, honest!" Benji piped up, which caused his father to reach out and ruffle the boy's hair. Soon, however, the man's expression turned serious once again.

"Your mother was stopping to get gas, I think, but she'll be along shortly. Allen is on his way over, too, and we're going to call the Sheriff. So, you boys can just hang loose for a while." The trio of boys acknowledged the man and then retreated.

"Your Dad, he's... wow," Noah muttered. "He was nice and all, but you could tell he was pissed, too, you know?"

"No kidding," Benji replied, his tone also low.

"He's annoyed, yeah," Jesse offered, before plopping down on the bed. "Wow, what a night!" he added as the other two joined him, one on each side. "It was going great, really, and then this again…" he muttered. "So, is there anything you guys want to do? You're not going home right away, are you?"

"Nah," Noah replied. "All the 'rents will be up in arms for a while, so I might as well spend the time with you guys."

There was a noticeable pause until Benji sighed. "Well, want to play some cards then?" he asked. Before the others could react, he immediately gave Noah a knowing glance. "No, not strip poker or anything like that, either. Just… cards, you know? Maybe Rummy?"

Noah laughed before nodding. "Sounds like a good plan," he replied, their homework now long forgotten.

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