The Storm That Turned the Tide

by Sean English

Chapter 18

Complacency Invites a Multi-Edged Sword

By Thursday afternoon, about the only thing that saved Jesse from entering another period of despair was the upcoming trip with the team. It was something both his and Noah's parents had given their permission to make, surprisingly, and the boys saw it as another sign of their expanding freedom as they grew older. Although the school didn't have a pep rally, like the one just held two days before, there was still a heightened feeling of anticipation among the school staff and students. The heartbreaking, 1-point loss to Boyle County on Tuesday night, didn't deter their desire or drive of support for the team, either. In reality, once underway it was only about a 35-minute drive to their opponents' gymnasium, so, as the two boys proceeded through their classes that day, they learned that other students were planning to make the trip, too. The school spirit and the sense of adventure, were still in abundance along with a healthy dose of enthusiasm.

When the two boys arrived home, Noah turned to his friend after they departed the bus and began heading down the driveway. "Listen, I have to take care of a few chores first. They won't take me long though, I promise. What say I just come over in about an hour or so? Will that be okay?"

"Sure, sounds good," Jesse replied, meeting the offered fist bump. As the two separated, the teenager walked along the driveway, slowing only briefly as he passed the bushes there protecting the water main. He could tell that the cover had been replaced, only this time there seemed to be something else added. Under closer scrutiny he found the metal plating was now secured with a padlock. Rising, he then walked the rest of the way to the house and through the rear door, where he was greeted inside by his father sitting at the kitchen table. "Well, hello young man! I didn't hear the school bus go by! How goes it, today?"

"Fine, Dad," Jesse replied, setting his backpack into one of the chairs. "So, I take it the water is back on?"

"Sure is," James replied, then nodded toward the roadway. "We decided to put a lock on it this time, too, just in case our illustrious saboteur decides he wants to monkey around with it for some reason. The key, by the way, is hanging there next to the coat rack," he added, pointing it out to his son. "Try to keep it there, okay? I have a spare on my key ring, but that won't help anyone else around here if I'm not home. Allen has a key, too. I put labels on them, just in case anyone needs to figure out which key is for which lock."

Jesse walked over and inspected the key with its label, before nodding approvingly. "Looks good, Dad."

"So, what time are you boys supposed to be up at the school this evening?" James asked.

"The bus pulls out at 5:30 sharp, so uh, I guess a few minutes ahead of that at least," Jesse replied, opening the refrigerator and pulling out a bottle of cold water. He then turned around and joined his father at the table.

"Sounds good. If you want, I think we can all make a quick trip up to the Dairy Queen and get some sandwiches before you head out for the night. I'm not so sure the sandwiches are a good substitute for the usual junk food, or that it makes it any healthier, but… you get my drift. It'll at least be better than filling up on sodas and popcorn," the man teased. "I say we wait for your brother first, though. He gets home about 4:10 or so, right?"

"Yep, give or take a little," Jesse answered.

"Good, then that gives you just under an hour or so. Have you got any homework?" James asked, but his son quickly shook his head.

"Not tonight. We had a little math, but Noah and I did that together on the bus ride home, so we're good."

"Excellent. Are you excited?" When he saw the amused look that was returned to him, James grinned. "Okay, dumb question, I guess. It'll be fun, for sure. Well, we'll leave when he gets in here. I do have one other question for you, though."

Jesse raised his eyebrow in response. "Sure… fire away."

"Well," James began, but hesitated before continuing. "Have you given any more thought about what you'd like for Christmas? Your mother and I are late starting any of our shopping, I know, but we're getting things squared up a little better now, I think. We're planning to go shopping this weekend, if all works out, and to leave you boys to fend for yourselves for a while Saturday. Or, at least, fend with the Cooks."

Jesse grinned. "That sounds okay with me!" He replied, but then became thoughtful as he regarded his father's inquiry. "Not really, Dad. I mean, I mentioned the bean bags, I know. I think they would be a lot of fun to have for our room. Maybe some more clothes, too, like… short-sleeved stuff. Except for our sleeping stuff, all we really have are these, like, thicker, winter-type clothes mostly."

"I know you do," James nodded in agreement. "Your mother and I have already been discussing that one, but honestly, we may all have to wait a couple of months before we can find those kinds of items. See, the stores this time of year don't carry much in the way of spring and summer stuff, but still – we'll keep it in mind. Really though, I was just thinking more about the fun things. You boys both lost all of your toys practically, during the storm. Even the outdoor stuff, like your bikes, basketball goal and so forth."

"I know, but…" It was Jesse's turn to hesitate this time, before he finally shrugged. "I'm kind of getting out of toys and stuff now Dad, so you shouldn't worry about that sort of thing for me. Although, it would be kind of nice to maybe, I don't know, get another board game or two. Monopoly is beginning to get kind of old when it's the only game we have."

James laughed heartily. "I'll remember that, yeah. Tell you what, get with your brother and make us a couple of suggestions then, and write them down on a piece of paper. Oh, and see if you can prompt him for any other ideas as well. I know he always liked having his tractor and farm machinery to play with in the dirt. Maybe we can find some more of those. Your mother and I have a thing or two in mind, but we'd still like to see what you guys come up with."

"Okay, but… Dad?" Jesse started. "Just… I meant what I told you before, all right? Just … worry about Benji, please? He's still only seven, and he'll honestly like just about anything you guys come up with, I'm sure. For me, I…"

When the teen didn't continue, James rose from the table and approached him. Placing both hands on his son's shoulders. "I know, but we've been through this, Jesse. Stop it, please," he gently admonished, but with a tone of understanding. "Let me worry about the money, and getting us back on track and all. That is MY job son, not yours. I know, it'll take a while – there's no question about it. We can't just pick up the pieces practically overnight, son. But in the end, we'll be just fine, I promise." He smiled. "Don't ever give up on your old man that easily, okay?"

Jesse looked deep into the eyes that met him, and then relaxed. "I'll try, Dad, I promise. I would never give up on you or Mom, anyway. Neither would Benji. How is it going with the insurance company, anyway?" the teen finally asked.

"Well, up until now, not the best, but not that bad either. We'll know more next week, I think," James replied. "The lawyer I retained has filed a petition on our behalf, and the judge has promised to review everything before the hearing. Which is scheduled for next Wednesday, if I'm not mistaken." He smiled. "I'll let you know when we hear something, okay? Like I said, I promise – it'll all work out in the end. It may take us all some time, son, but it will be all right. You'll see. Now, go on, do whatever it is you think you need to do so I don't end up sounding like a broken record again. Go on, scoot! Oh, and call Noah to tell him to come on over so he can go eat with us."

"Sure, Dad," Jesse replied, finally smiling back.

Most of the team members were surprised to see the two boys board the bus that evening. A few greeted them enthusiastically, which made both Jesse and Noah smile as they walked down the aisle and found an empty seat near the center. Even with the team boarded, several seats were empty further on back, which caused Jesse to remark on it to Travis, who happened to be sitting across the aisle from them.

"Well, both the cheerleaders and the band are on the other bus for now. Some of them will probably ride back with us," the teen replied.

"Okay, but… why is everyone sitting so close to the front now?" Jesse asked.

"That's because coach tries to keep us all together when we're heading out. He gets to, like, talk strategy and everything sometimes, without all the usual distraction – or so he says," the player responded. "Keeping us up front lets him do that without shouting, I guess."

Noah looked around. "What other bus?"

"Oh, they left about 10-minutes ago to go and get some gas," one of the other players piped up. "We're still waiting for Coach Stevens to show up."

They all sat, chatting quietly as the minutes ticked by until both the coach and his assistant finally arrived and stepped on board, carrying clipboards and other various paraphernalia which they placed onto one of the open front seats. Coach Stevens spoke briefly with their driver, to which the man nodded before starting the engine. Both coaches took a head count, smiling as they noted their new recruits aboard, before being satisfied. As the bus pulled from the parking lot, the man stood and addressed the team. "Okay now, settle down. I want to go over who we're meeting, and what we know about them – which isn't a lot, but it's the best we could come up with, and it's better than nothing." Both coaches then took turns, dispensing statistics and other information they had learned about their opponents – their better players, things to watch out for, and more. It was interesting to listen to, especially when the discussion soon turned to strategy, which included reminders on everything from ball handling to watching the clock.

The bus pulled into the Glasgow High School parking lot roughly 50-minutes later, and after a brief interlude they approached and stopped at a side door of the gymnasium. Someone from the school walked out almost immediately and met them cheerfully. "Hello Indians!" the tall man announced, causing several of the team members to return his greeting. "We've got a locker room set up for you guys; it's pretty much just inside this door here. So, if you'll follow me, I'll show you where you can go and get ready." With that, the coaches and team disembarked, following the man as he led them inside. After a short distance, he waved and admitted them into a clearly marked door that displayed 'Visitors' Lockers' in bold, black print. Once inside, their host stepped just to the entrance before he spoke again. "If you boys need anything, my office is two doors down on the right here, okay?" Afterwards, the man left with the two coaches following him, and the door closed behind them.

The team made short order of changing into their uniforms then, with Jesse and Noah looking on as the group seemingly flew through the transformation with haste. The gym, they had all noticed, appeared to have been recently constructed, or at least refurbished. The flooring, walls and ceiling appeared clean and crisp in the school's blue and white colors. Even their locker room seemed to be fresh and sparkling with new paint, and as they settled in, they found plenty of open cubicles with ample room to store their belongings. Tim Rigdon made a quick sweep, checking inside the cubicles and other areas briefly, which caused both Jesse and Noah to glance at each other curiously. Simon, seeing their expressions, slid up quietly beside them. "He's just checking for anything obvious, like video cameras or recorders."

Noah frowned. "Is that a problem you guys have to deal with very much?"

"Not really. I mean, we've never had an incident that I know of," the tall teen replied. "But there have been some cases we've heard about, where other schools, mostly the football teams I think, have found things like that in other locker rooms before. It's all usually kept kind of quiet, so you don't hear about it very often."

"But… why?" Noah asked, perplexed. "They don't expect, I mean, they're not being perverted or something are they? Trying to catch kids in their underwear, or… worse?"

Simon suddenly emitted a muffled laugh, as Tyler answered quietly from his position. "No, of course not… or at least, we wouldn't think so."

"You have to think about it, Noah. Football teams discuss strategy a lot before games, during half-time, that sort of thing. Things like plays, defensive assignments and more, and most all do it in the locker rooms, see? So, if you're a visiting team, the home guys can get a big advantage if they get to overhear that kind of information… get it?" Simon explained, but then shrugged. "Like I said, we've never found anything, but it doesn't mean it can't happen. So, Tim is the one who kind of checks the room out for us, when we visit other places… just in case."

A look of comprehension suddenly crossed Noah's face. "Actually, yeah… that does make sense, I guess." The teen shook his head. "But… high school? I would figure that happened more at college, or at the professional level…"

"It does, although it can happen at any school, really. Seriously, you know as well as we all do, it's a dog-eat-dog world out there. Some teams, well, you know," another boy nearby, answered for him.

Although the room held no chairs, benches were plentiful, so both Jesse and Noah found one to sit upon against the far wall. Several of the boys chatted cheerfully with one another, but each was eager with a renewed level of anticipation. From outside, although muffled, they could hear the escalating noise of the local crowd gradually building up.

After a short time, there came a knock at the door, and with everyone now changed and ready, both coaches entered. As they came in, a few of the boys got a glimpse through the open doorway out into the gymnasium. "Wow!" Tim exclaimed.

Coach Stevens grinned before nodding. "Yep, full house tonight, boys, and I do mean FULL house! This is their last home game before the Christmas break, so I guess their fans and supporters decided to show up and cheer them on." He glanced around. "Don't let that influence you, though. You'll be surprised how many of our own people are out there as well, so you're not alone." With that, he gave the group a few last-minute instructions, and then sent everyone out onto the floor to do warm up exercises. Here, Jesse and Noah finally had a proper place with their new buddies, standing around the goal and serving the balls that went wild in their practice shots, tossing them back for the next player to continue with the drills.

When the game got underway, the first half was considered extremely close, with each team running neck-and-neck and the lead exchanging back and forth. The roar in the gymnasium was thunderous, with the crowd cheering both teams on continuously, assisted by the bands and cheerleaders for both schools. When half-time arrived, the Scotties were up by only two points, something that seemed to please all the coaches to no end. Retiring to the locker rooms for a brief respite, Coach Stevens could not help but heap his highest praise on them. "This is better than I expected boys, really! I always knew it would be a tough one, but honestly - we have a shot at winning this tonight fellas, so don't get discouraged!"

"They're a lot better than the team we played last year," Tim Rigdon remarked, pulling a water bottle from a nearby cooler and dropping heavily onto a bench. "They're wearing us down, though."

"I know they are. The Scottie teams have been a premium group for the last several years, and I think it's because of their coach, really. Word is they may even move up to Division II starting next year," the coach explained as he took a seat with the team. "Make no mistake boys, you're up against a very solid team, as you've found out, but you're holding your own brilliantly! Now, if we can just hold out for a little while longer, we'll give them a definitive run for their money. Let's work out some strategy here, maybe come up with something that lets us rotate you on the bench a little more, so you don't get worn down so quickly…"

When the team returned to the floor for second half warm-ups, they appeared to have been revitalized. Their renewed energy was not lost either, on the parents, friends and other supporters that had driven down to be with them. Once the second-half was underway, the battle continued, with just as much - if not more - intensity than that in the first half. One team would take the lead for a minute or more, before the other would retake it again, and the scoreboard displayed the ping-pong effect continuously.

Nearing the end of the game, Noah happened to glance at Jesse with a wide grin, as the Indians were once again on top of their opponents by 3-points. With the ball in their possession, the players were heading down the court at a slower pace, hoping to take some time off the clock and thus bring a quicker conclusion to the end of the game. The teenager paused, however, when he noticed his friend staring off into the distance with a look of concentration that ignored the moment in the game itself. Following the gaze, Noah tried to look across and discern what had caught the teen's attention so raptly. When he failed to find anything out of the norm, he leaned closer so that he could be heard over the roar of the crowd. "Earth to Jesse, you okay over there? What is it?"

Several seconds passed before Jesse turned to him. "Over there across the gym, just behind that bench where they're keeping score and all, look about three rows up and… maybe five or six people to the right. See him? The guy wearing a dark-blue cap, and a white jacket?" Noah, following his instructions, found the referred person of interest in seconds. He was about to say something when instead he suddenly frowned. "Oh yeah, he's… he's familiar somehow… Where have we seen him before?"

"That's the guy who was camping in the woods that day… Bush, I think was his name," Jesse replied.

"Yeah, that's right, Tom Bush, I remember," Noah replied. Both boys watched as the man was following the game on the court with intense interest, each team now once again crossing the floor back and forth. "I wonder what he's doing here, though? I thought they said he lived in Indiana or somewhere up north?"

"Yeah, I was wondering about that, too. Maybe he has more family or something down here. He did say that day he was heading back home though, I'm sure of it," Jesse mused. Just then, a loud roar erupted from the crowd as the Glasgow team stole the basketball again, and was making their way rapidly back to the goal. Having caught the Indians off-guard, the ensuing layup was made with little effort before their guests could gather what had happened. Within seconds afterwards, another stolen ball was again advanced on an inbound pass, and the Scotties re-took the lead by a single point.

From that moment forward, the Indians never fully recovered. Although the remaining two minutes of the game were fought hard between both teams, Columbia never re-took the lead. Each score the home team made was matched in kind, but by the time of the final buzzer, the Scotties had held on. The gymnasium erupted with shouts of glee and praise all around, as their home team had finally pulled off the win by a score of 67 to 66. Although the Indians were disheartened once again at having lost by such a close and narrow margin, the team maintained a brave front and conducted themselves with exceptional sportsmanship as the two groups lined up and exchanged congratulations with each other. Toward the end of the line, however, the Scotties coach stopped and called the boys together, alongside with Coach Stevens, and addressed them directly. "Listen boys, I want to tell you something I've not told anyone for a long, long while. We haven't played a game this hard, or this close all season long. You really did well out here, trust me. I think you're a fine group of players, and I'm looking forward to hearing great things about you in the future, okay? Take it from me, that was some solid basketball playing out there tonight!"

"Thanks, Tom," Coach Stevens replied before shaking the man's hand a second time. As the other coach walked away, Coach Stevens turned to them. "I don't think I could have said it any better boys. I know, we lost, but that-" The man paused to wave his arm, indicating the breadth of the floor behind him. "THAT was one of those games I'm not in the least bit discouraged by. I honestly believe it was one of the great ones, and it will be talked about for months to come. Now, go on in and change. Make sure Jesse and Noah get your uniforms all bagged up too, okay?"

Once inside the locker rooms, the mood was considerably lighter than what it might have turned out, given the narrow loss. The boys were exhausted, however, and it showed in their slower than average movements as they readied to depart. Noah even found Jesse moving about slowly, chatting with the guys as he waited and collected their uniforms from them. As the two approached each other, having made their rounds, Noah was about to say something, but Jesse shook his head quietly. Noah understood, and as both laundry bags were now full, they set about making sure nothing else was being left behind before closing them up. As the team readied what was left in the way of shoes and outerwear, Noah turned to his friend and saw that far-away expression of his had once again returned. "Hey, what's up?" he finally asked, keeping his voice low as he breached the silence between them.

"Wha-? Oh, yeah, I'm fine. I'm just – I was just wondering about you-know-who, that's all. He got up and disappeared quick after the last buzzer. I totally lost track of where he went, I mean-"

"So, does it really matter?" Noah asked, and then shook his head. "Seriously, Jesse, what could we have really done about it, anyway?"

Jesse paused before grunting. Shaking his head, he agreed with his friend. "Absolutely nothing, I guess. You're right, there isn't anything we could have done. Still though, something isn't… right about him, I think. It's just a feeling, really, but…" The teenager sighed deeply. "When we get home, I'm going to let Dad know about it. Uh, you did see him, right? I mean, I wasn't just imagining it was who we thought it was… right?"

"Yeah, it was Bush," Noah replied firmly. "I saw him easily enough once you pointed him out to me."

By that time, several players were on their feet with their gym bags, readying to leave, with the others not far behind. Both Jesse and Noah joined them, with both Simon and Tyler moving to stand with them and chat freely. When it seemed everyone was ready, Simon whispered something into Noah's ear, which he acknowledged with a nod and moved forward, opening the door and slipping outside. Within seconds, he returned with Coach Stevens right behind him. Their coach was still all smiles with the group, and he spoke encouragingly to them as they began making their way out of the room. Once outside, the boys were surprised to find various people - fans, peers and families alike - who were still lingering behind and waiting for them. All of the bystanders cheered the team and gave them their well wishes for having played a fine game, which the boys smiled and accepted. By the time they reached the bus outside, all were grinning at each other, their spirits lifted even more measurably than before.

"You're certain it was him? Not that I doubt you, son, but still…?"

James asked the question curiously, his senses coming to full alert as Jesse explained whom they had seen at the game. It was Noah, however, who answered the man instead. "Yes sir, it was him. I saw him too, the guy from the woods at that campsite. Uh, Mr. Bush."

"Yes, Tom Bush if I remember correctly," James replied, becoming thoughtful. "He was just there enjoying the game though, right?"

"That's what it seemed like, yeah," Jesse answered, before sitting back. "He disappeared quick though, as soon as the game was over. Not that it was anything suspicious, Dad. I mean, he could have just been wanting to beat the crowd out to the parking lot or something."

The trio made their way toward home, passing another mile before James broke their silence with a deep sigh. "I know, son, but… it IS interesting that he was at the game, I think. I'll call the Sheriff when we get home and let him know about it. Well…" the man hesitated, clearly reconsidering. "Maybe I'll wait until in the morning, given how late it is. Nonetheless, it is… curious, I admit."

"I thought it was weird too, Dad. He told us all he was going home, remember? Back to Indiana?" Jesse theorized.

"Back to Indianapolis, yep," James grunted. "That also doesn't mean anything is wrong though, son. He may have had family or someone playing in the game, or was just back down in the area for some perfectly plausible reason. But… I agree with you, it does seem sort of odd that he showed up in Glasgow, if nothing else. Anyway…" He glanced at both boys once again before changing the subject. "Enough of that for now. How did you like the game?"

The next 10-minutes were spent with both teens detailing their other adventures of the evening, along with a description of how the game itself went. It wasn't long before James was laughing, listening to the narrative as they would often interrupt each other or finish the other's sentences. Before long, they were pulling into their driveway at home, and when the truck rolled to a stop, Noah made to give his thanks and say farewell. James, however, told the boy to hang on a second. "Your mother brought you over a sleeping shirt and some clothes for school tomorrow. She figured you two would be too hyped up to get any sleep right away, so she suggested you might want to spend the night."

Noah's eyebrows shot high into his forehead. "Really? On a school night? Sure, I would! That's awesome!"

James laughed again. "Well, yes, I guess so… but beware: you two will probably have to put up with a certain 7-year-old, too. He wasn't too keen on being left alone at home tonight."

"He wasn't too happy when we were out earlier, was he?" Jesse sighed. "He didn't say much while we were eating, but… I could tell."

"I had hoped that banana split I bought for him would have done something for the better, I admit," James replied as they reached the rear door. Out of instinct, Jesse stepped back to glance further down the wall where their outdoor faucet was located. He saw nothing, however, which struck him as curious. James noticed, and then explained. "It's all okay, for now at least. Allen and I removed that faucet altogether today, and shut off the pipework going in there. If our saboteur returns and tries his deed yet again, he'll find it a wasted effort."

Noah nodded. "It's probably just as well, isn't it? I mean, none of us really use much in the way of water outdoors anyway this time of year, do we?"

"Right you are, young man," James reassured them before the trio entered the house. The boys met Makalah in the kitchen, and spent a few minutes repeating what they had just finished filling James in on their ride home, detailing her about the adventures of the evening. Both boys carefully avoided mentioning their discovery of John Bush, something James had asked them to keep quiet on until morning at least. Otherwise, after a brief exchange, Makalah informed Noah that his clothes were already in the bedroom, so both teenagers wished Jesse's parents a good night and left.

When they reached and entered the bedroom, they found Benji stretched out on the top bunk, listlessly watching TV. Upon their arrival, the smaller boy gave his brother and their guest a half-hearted wave, but surprisingly remained quiet and ignored the two teenagers otherwise. Both of the older boys glanced at one another as they kicked their shoes off and peeled their socks away. The disappointment in the air that radiated around the younger brother told them enough, and both Jesse and Noah knew they were going to have to do something before anyone made an attempt to get any sleep that night. As they removed their jeans, Noah leaned in close and whispered something into Jesse's ear which made his friend arch both eyebrows. A quick nod of agreement was exchanged, and after they rolled up their garments and set them aside, both approached the bed and simultaneously stepped up on the lower mattress. Each had just enough clearance above Benji's own rail to reach out and grab the youth, quickly grasping hold of different parts of his body to secure them and then begin tickling him. At first, Benji began to protest, but soon the boy was fighting back the giggles, as he was suddenly dragged closer and tickled all the way up and down his body. Overall, it was a premium match between the three of them for several minutes, as the younger boy squirmed all over the top of the bunk. Jesse ended up climbing the rest of the way into the bed, however, and secured his brother even more. The seven-year-old had no chance of avoiding them then, and before long his laughter became a happier sound to their ears.

In the process, Jesse discovered his brother was still dressed in his jeans from earlier in the day, so with a smirk, he suddenly went through the effort of picking Benji up and handing him over the side to Noah, who received the youth easily. With little effort, the teen eased the youngster down to the lower bunk while the older brother scrambled to join them. Without preamble, Jesse pounced on his younger brother again, this time wrestling the boy into a captive position. After a few more tickles, he suddenly caught hold of his brother's hands and arms, then pinned him down before looking up at their guest. "Okay, you can do the honors. Strip this little fart!"

Noah laughed but did not hesitate in his assignment. Unsnapping the garment at the waist and pulling the zipper down, he quickly had the smaller jeans yanked down and off of Benji's bare feet. Benji only giggled, even as Noah returned to hover above him with a sly expression. He teased the youth first by leaning down and blowing a raspberry on his belly, something the boy found ticklish but still squealed with delight, sucking his gut in before pushing it back out. Noah then grabbed at the waistband of Benji's briefs and began pretending to pull. Instead of fighting or squirming though, the smaller boy suddenly quieted himself and relaxed. That sudden change caused Noah to hesitate then, mostly because it took the fun out of the overall struggle – or so it seemed. The teen was humbled though, at the level of trust the boy continued to place in him, which made him smile. Perhaps Benji thought that Noah wouldn't really do it, or maybe the opposite - that the older boy would do it, which to him was still okay. Either way, the teen stopped and withdrew with a smirk, which in turn caused Benji to look on with an expression of curiosity. Had the two missed something here? The younger boy didn't know, but given the way things had been going, he fully expected the older teens to completely strip him. Jesse had done it before, so Benji didn't really care – it was all in the name of fun, right? But when Noah backed away just then, it caused the younger boy to wonder why. He was about to ask, but then Jesse leaned over and peered down at him. "So, I heard you gave Dad some grief about us leaving you tonight."

Benji turned his gaze up at his brother briefly, before lowering his eyes and blushing. "Well, maybe a little, but…"

When the youth didn't continue, Noah spoke up. "Is that so? Should we punish him?" he asked quietly, teasing still, but one glance from Jesse told him maybe not now, or at least, not yet.

"Ben, I'm sorry - it kind of happened on the spur of the moment, you know? We were invited, and I didn't expect Mom or Dad would go for it, but then they did and it just happened kind of fast, you know? That's why you didn't get to go, bro," Jesse replied, letting go of his little brother's arms.

Noah sat back at the same time and spoke up. "Yeah, sorry little man, but honestly, I doubt Coach would have let us take you along anyway, you know? With a road trip like that and everything, it isn't all that easy to keep track of things, especially people who go along."

Benji studied them both closely, switching from one face to the other, before sighing and nodding. "I guess I didn't really think about any of that, so… you might have been right. Sorry, guys."

"No, don't be sorry," Jesse quickly admonished him. "You have nothing to be sorry for, really. Just – you know we can't always take you along everywhere, right?"

"It's not that," Benji offered as he lay back in Jesse's lap, surprising them. "I just… I don't know, it just felt lonesome without either of you around tonight, that's all. I didn't really mind you going to the game without me, I just…"

"It got boring, didn't it?" Noah offered, and after receiving a quick nod from the boy, he understood. "I get how you felt, believe me. That's the way it got for me a lot of time when I was at home, too. At least, it used to be that way, before you two moved in over here."

"Really?" Benji asked curiously.

"Heck, yeah!" Noah replied with a smile. "Before things changed with you and your brother, I spent a lot of nights alone in my bedroom. I mean, Mom and Dad were usually around, and sometimes we'd even do some things together… like, play games or watch a movie together or something… but, it was okay, just not the same as having someone my age, or, at least another guy to hang out with and stuff, you know?"

"Yeah, totally! Mom did try to get me to play some cards with her, but… I'm sorry, I just wasn't in the mood," Benji explained wistfully. "I just… like I said, I was kind of out of it, that's all."

"I think we get it," Jesse responded. "So, what DID you do tonight, then?"

"Mostly just watched TV," Benji replied after shrugging. "I did make a deal to stay up a little while, though." He glanced up at his brother again. "It's okay, Jess. I promise, I'm all right. I'm not going to cut off your willy or anything for going away."

Jesse snickered. "Sheesh! That sounds desperately devious!" All three of them giggled, before falling silent.

Noah observed the youth for a few seconds before he reached out. With Jesse's help, the teen captured Benji into a tender, full bodied hug, which the younger boy returned with equal affection. They held each other a moment before parting, but both held a smile on their faces that pleased Jesse to no end. There was a touch of sweetness in the gesture, and he was glad to see his brother was feeling so much better now than before. He was surprised though when Benji turned to his big brother and launched himself to give the teen an equal effort as well. "Here's one for you, too, doofus!" the smaller boy whispered.

Jesse thought back over the recent years as he held on, recalling the times they had always been there for one another. It made him realize the dependency each had developed with the other was not something taken for granted. They had a genuine affection between them that he knew was rare, and for which he was ever the more thankful. "Thanks, Ben. You know I love you, right? We both love you, really – Noah, too."

"Yeah, I know," the smaller boy replied before pulling back with another smile on his face. Although he didn't glance toward their guest, he did speak to them both. "Thanks, guys."

Just then they heard someone approaching outside the door to their room. "Benji? Are you in bed yet?" Makalah called out from behind the closed door.

Benji rolled his eyes before answering. "Yeah, Mom, I'm almost ready to climb in now. Just changing is all." Observing the look of curiosity that met him, he then quickly explained in a subdued voice. "That was my deal with Dad, remember? I told them they had to let me stay up until you guys got home, so I could pick on you and everything about going to the game without me."

Both of the older teens began giggling as Makalah, still behind the closed door, called out again. "Well, okay then. Good night boys. Jess, don't you and Noah stay up too late, or keep your little brother up, alright? Tomorrow is still a school day you have to get through. I'd rather not get a call from anyone down there saying you two fell asleep in class or such!"

"We won't, Mom, I promise. Noah and I will probably turn in after we get a shower and settle for a few minutes," Jesse called out. This seemed to satisfy her, and they heard the tell-tale sounds of her retreating back down the hall. Jesse then turned to their guest. "Why don't you go ahead and get your shower, Noah. I'll stay here with Ben until you get done, and then take mine afterwards. That way I can make sure he doesn't try to sneak up on you," he teased, which elicited a groan from beneath them both as the younger boy rolled his eyes.

"I wouldn't do that," they heard him whisper, but he knew he was being teased anyway.

Noah giggled again, but decided he'd better heed the advice of his friend. Nodding in agreement, the teen then reached out and picked up a pair of sweats lying nearby. "Can I, like, borrow these for a few minutes?"

"Sure thing," Jesse replied. "Just so you know though, Mom and Dad will most likely have gone on to bed by now. I doubt anyone will be hanging around out there." Noah nodded, but still donned the garment just in case, before opening the door and peering out. Sure enough, the house beyond the hallway and their bedroom looked to be dark and deserted. "I'll be back in a few minutes then," he whispered, before slipping out quietly, closing the door behind him.

"Jess?" Benji quietly asked, after twisting himself around and climbing further into his brother's lap. "You know, I like him a whole lot better now than before. Oh, and I wouldn't have snuck in on him, honest. That's something I only do to you, you know?"

Jesse laughed, wrapping his arms around the boy. "Yeah, I kind of figured that. I just said it to tease you. You know something though? He wouldn't have cared if you did, buddy."

"You think so?" Benji whispered.

"I know so, little bro. You know what else? I think deep down that you know it, too. He trusts you," Jesse whispered.

Benji smiled at that thought. "I'm glad. Yeah, I think I know it, too. Like I said, he's not the same Noah we met after the tornado and all."

Again, Jesse giggled as he cuddled the smaller boy closer. "Wow, so that's all it takes to tug on your heartstrings, huh? A big, ole monstrous hug? I better be careful, then… you might want to go and start living with him, and leaving me here all by myself!"

"NNNooo… no way!" the boy exclaimed with an exasperated look. "You – you know what I meant!"

"Yeah, I do," Jesse whispered back, before leaning in and blowing a raspberry on the side of his brother's neck, causing the boy to finally giggle. "I'll say it again though… I'm glad you're my real brother. Just don't forget that I happen to like you a bunch, too."

"I know you do," Benji replied sweetly, before yawning. Jesse glanced at the clock and saw it was already close to ten o'clock.

"Come on Short-Stuff, climb in here," Jesse offered, pulling the cover back.

"But- there isn't enough room, I mean, what about Noah?" Benji asked with surprising concern. "I can sleep on top, Jess. He's your friend, and I know I can't, like…"

"Let me worry about it, okay? Just… come on, let me cuddle with you a little bit until he comes back," Jesse whispered, then gently pushed his brother along until the boy slipped under the covers. Once Benji was inside, Jesse sat with his back against the headboard, listening to his little brother's breathing. Benji, in turn, had scooted until he was snuggled up next to the older teen. Neither spoke again, both knowing they didn't need to while lying there in the still silence of the night. Jesse smiled and looked on, holding and rubbing the boy's side. In no time, Benji's breathing changed into a deep, rhythmic pattern, signaling that he had fallen asleep.

When Noah returned to the room, he found both brothers still where he had left them earlier, although Benji was now facing the wall and under the covers. Jesse glanced up and smiled, and as their guest shucked the sweats and laid his dirty garments next to his bag, he waved his friend over to the bed. While Jesse quietly extracted himself and stood up, he pointed. "There, just climb in like I was and, I don't know, just stay with him a bit. He'll know you're there, trust me. I'll be back in a few minutes." Noah nodded and made to climb in as he was instructed. Jesse collected his own set of fresh clothes and then exited the room.

Benji did stir briefly, but then rolled over and stretched an arm around Noah's bared belly, pulling the older boy in closer until they were snuggled together. Noah obliged, and was once again in awe at the feelings he experienced while holding the younger of the two brothers so intimately. After a bit, he scooted down to lie flat in the bed, which caused Benji to stir again, but this time the boy chose to lay his head into the crook of Noah's shoulder before becoming still again. It felt different, Noah admitted, compared to the times he and Jesse had slept so close together, but it still left him with a special feeling, as if a little slice of magic wrapped them together. So rhythmic was the younger boy's breathing in the silence surrounding them, Noah found himself comforted, and before long he, too, became drowsy. He jerked himself awake once, thinking he wanted to wait for Jesse to return, but before long he was overcome with the serenity of the moment as he closed his eyes.

When Jesse returned, he found them both resting peacefully with one another. The teen smiled as he crossed the floor and turned out the light beside their bed. He sighed with his own feeling of contentment then, before turning and climbing the short ladder into the upper bunk. Stretching out, he listened to the two beneath him. It would have been nice to be with them both, but he understood what was happening. Noah was getting a taste of what life with Benji was really like - what life having a little brother could really be like. It was something Noah would probably never get to have now, but given as far as the three of them had come, Jesse didn't mind sharing something this special.

Within minutes, he gradually closed his own eyes and joined them in dreamland.

Friday afternoon, after school had recessed for the weekend, Jesse, Benji and Noah found themselves waiting impatiently as Allen pumped gas into the vehicle at the quick mart. Even Jennifer glanced at her watch more than once, also becoming anxious regarding the time, before rolling her window down and calling out. "Hurry up Allen, we're going to be late!"

"But… I'm going as fast as the pump will let me, dear!" her husband retorted, before laughing and shaking his head. He stopped dispensing the fuel and pulled the hose clear. "I don't guess we need a full tank, anyway," he added, putting the handle away in the pump. Afterwards he collected his receipt and then returned to the driver's seat.

"That has got to be one of the slowest pumps I've ever seen around here," Jennifer drawled as he started the engine and pulled from the lot.

"That I agree," Allen scoffed. "You'd think they'd replace some of these ancient ones by now with something newer, wouldn't you?" He glanced into the rear-view mirror to see the three boys watching them. "Don't worry boys, you'll be there with time to spare, I promise."

"Huh," Jennifer huffed. "Only if you call making it with less than 5-minutes being 'spare', that is!"

As they moved through the town, there were already bystanders beginning to gather in several places along their route. Although Columbia had held its own Christmas parade earlier in the season, the neighboring town of Campbellsville was holding its own parade that Friday evening, at a time when darkness had fallen, letting everyone enjoy a festival of lights along with the event. It was a new concept, really, put into practice successfully the year before, and was voted to be repeated probably from then on. What was of particular interest on this night, however, was the fact that the hardware store where James worked, had been asked to bring their float along to participate as well. In the interim, Mr. Stout, the business' owner, offered to let the boys ride with them and throw candy and treats to the kids along the route. When they heard the invitation, all three naturally jumped at the opportunity with enthusiasm.

Pulling into a large parking lot near the north end of town, they were greeted by one of the organizers at the entrance. After checking their names, he pointed toward the middle of the line, and soon Allen had navigated to where a brightly-lit trailer, adorned with a holiday theme involving tools and animated balloons met them. Atop the float stood James, glancing about to ensure everything was in order. When he saw the boys alight from the Cooks' vehicle, he glanced at his watch. "About time you three made it! We'll be pulling out at any minute!"

"You can thank the traffic for it mostly, plus Allen had to stop for gas," Jennifer called from her window. She waved goodbye to the boys, while Allen began turning around and heading toward the exit. In the minutes that followed, James showed the trio a comfortable-looking bench that had been set up just for them near the front of the float, along with several bags of various hard candies underneath. "Try to not give it all away at once, boys. In other words, make it stretch as much as possible until near the end of the route."

"How will we know when we're near the end?" Benji asked innocently.

"We'll let you know as we go along," Mr. Stout announced, overhearing the question as he approached. He stopped momentarily to greet the three and chat with them, before moving on to step onboard. He had no sooner than gotten settled with James near the rear when a large whistled sounded off near the front of the parade line. The sky, now darkened with the oncoming evening, suddenly changed with an efflorescent glow as the various floats and vehicles began to light up. Strands of Christmas lights were hung everywhere, stretching from the front to back of various floats, and also on some of the trucks and automobiles that were waiting in their respective places. After another pause, music began to fill the air with one of the school bands leading the way to the tune of Frosty the Snowman. The various rows within the parking lot then began to get underway.

Along the route, patrons from all over cheered the numerous bands, floats and exhibits as they passed by. The air was filled with songs of the season as well, as with the sounds of bands from both the local and surrounding counties which participated. There were over 50 exhibits within the parade itself, quite a number for such a set of rural communities as theirs. The length of the route was a long circling path that took the parties down one side of town, and then was routed to return them on another, taking the group almost an hour to complete. Along their journey, many of the floats tossed candies into the crowds, similarly as the boys did, to kids of all ages, including some grown-ups, too. At the tail end of the parade, both the police and fire departments rode past in their various vehicles, thrilling young toddlers to see the lights and hear the sirens that went off from time to time. The last entry was with the biggest of fire engines, carrying Santa on top, merrily shouting "Ho, Ho, Ho!" and "Merry Christmas!" to all.

For Noah, Jesse and Benji, the entire event was a thrill. They had never had such opportunity to be in one before, but they clearly loved it, laughing and cheering and greeting the people whole-heartedly as they rode along. Both James and Mr. Stout himself could not help but smile at the youthful exuberance they displayed – especially Benji's.

"Those boys are sure having a time up there, aren't they?" Mr. Stout muttered at one point to his store manager.

James grinned, leaning back against the rail. "That they are. I don't know how to thank you, really. Life has been, well, rather interesting in the world as of late. This is the kind of distraction they really needed, I think - to just get out and do something a little fun. You know, something a little different for a change."

Mr. Stout nodded while waving at a passing spectator who had called out to them. "I can imagine that, yes. How's it going with that insurance company and those damages? Any progress yet?"

James immediately frowned before taking a deep breath and releasing a long sigh. "I've got Dennison working on it, and he keeps telling me not to worry about it, but… I have to admit - it keeps looking more and more sour each day. Just yesterday we got a registered letter in the mail, informing us that our policy was being canceled altogether. Which was a laugh, really, since I never renewed it with them after the storm - especially for the rental property that we're in now. Oh, and you'll love this… the reason? 'Too many claims', more or less. Isn't that a crock of bull? I mean, we've never had a single claim with them since I took out the original contract, and that was what, seven years ago? Then, have a simple tornado come through and they suddenly declare we've had too many claims to make keeping the policy with them worthwhile."

"Seems extreme, I agree. They're just dropping it altogether, then?" Mr. Stout asked.

"Yeah, pending 'unspecified litigation', it said." James scoffed. "Can you believe it? They sure didn't mind taking our $1200 we coughed up every year, but boy - come time to actually cover us and pay out for everything when the tornado struck, then… whew!"

Mr. Stout fell quiet for a moment before he finally grunted. "I have to admit, I didn't think Tony's outfit was anything of that sort. They seemed to be pretty up and up, for a while at least. That's who you bought your policy through, right? Tony Cannon's agency?"

"Yeah, he sold me the policy. I agree with you, it seemed everything was on the up-and-up. I mean, they had been around for a number of years at the time. The policy is nothing that special, either - just pretty much basic stuff, or so I thought," James replied.

"I know what you mean. Plus, Tony was a reasonable old sod, too – highly respected. I held a policy through him for the store for a number of years. I only changed it when something a little better came along after he passed away." The old man sighed. "I feel for you, I really do. All in all, it's a bad rap for sure, but hang in there – Dennison is really pretty good with some stuff. It may take him some time, but you shouldn't give up hope too easily, or too soon. He may do you some good yet, or if he can't, find you someone who will, I think."

James nodded. "I hope so. I know, I guess I'm just a little impatient is all. The important thing though, is that we're all alive and healthy, and that's what should matter the most. Still, it seems like every corner we turn, there is a new test of some sort, you know? If not this, then with other things."

Mr. Stout glanced and studied his employee briefly before reaching a hand up and clamping it on the man's shoulder. "I understand, but… the way I look at it, if life didn't test us from time to time, it would really get kind of boring." He smiled and waved at a few more people out in the crowd before speaking again. "Listen, just so you know, Christmas bonuses are going out next week, and I've put a little something extra in yours. Make sure those boys have a good holiday this year, alright? At least, one worthy of getting past such a rough time as this is."

James glanced at the man, his demeanor turning to one of being humbled. "You don't have to do that, you know."

"Oh, I know, but meh… We've never had kids of our own, James. Me and the missus, we decided long ago we'd just use our time and see the world, do some travel, enjoy life - that sort of thing. Ever since your two came along however, we've always enjoyed being around them and then some. We're both reminded of what we missed out on by not having kids of our own, but having a few to watch growing up and all has sure been a blessing, to say the least. So, take it like it is this once – it's our way of trying to help make things right again. That older one, he's going to be ready for a job before long, isn't he?"

James rolled his eyes. "Don't remind me. That is something I haven't even begun contemplating yet! They're both growing way too fast for Makalah and myself to keep up with sometimes!"

Mr. Stout laughed. "I can understand that, believe me!" He stared out into the crowd, smiling and waving some more before lowering his voice. "When the time comes, though - he can have a place at the store, part-time at least. Both of them for that matter. That friend of theirs, too… that's the banker's son, isn't it?"

"Allen Cook's son, Noah, yes," James answered. "He and Jesse have become two peas in a pod, really. They had a rough start, but it all changed for the better pretty quick."

The old man nodded. "I know the Cooks quite well. That boy, he used to be a handful if what I heard was correct. Funny how everything works out sometimes, though, don't you think?" the old man observed, as they watched the trio begin scrambling to open another bag of candy. "Who knows, maybe those two buddying up together will see some good come out of it in the long haul. I always said, sometimes kids these days just need a kind hand and a little guidance… and good friends to lean on."

"Some good has already come out of it, I believe," James added, smiling at the sentiment. "Like I said, they're like two peas in a pod."

"So, what do you think? Do any of these pictures strike you as being good enough to do something with?"

Jennifer put the question before the two brothers the next morning, as they all stood around the Cooks' kitchen table. Her eyes betrayed her amusement, watching as Benji first, and then Jesse, excitedly fingered through the many snapshots she had taken only days before. The woman had taken several of the pictures and digitally enhanced them before having them printed at one of the local stores. She was quite proud of the results, and seeing the brothers wide-eyed expressions at the outcome pleased her to no end. Each print was centered perfectly, surrounded with a background that dimmed the closer it reached the edges, but with a clear, bright and colorful vividness that captured the subject in the center. The presentation improved them considerably, making them favor much more like a professional studio would have done with proofs, Jesse thought. The collection was a perfect storyboard of the events of that afternoon, showing the brothers as they had fun with one another. Noah stood nearby quietly, with an equally amused expression as his mother. He had always thought she did excellent work – insofar as he understood what professional photography was all about. Listening to the two brothers' response only intensified his own appreciation for what she had done.

Finally, Jesse sat back and sighed. "Are you kidding? I mean, they're all good – really good! How do we, like… How do we pick…?"

Jennifer laughed as she pulled a chair out to sit beside him. "They're not THAT good, but I have to admit, I do think they make a nice collection."

"I agree with Jess, these are great!" Benji responded.

Jennifer hesitated, but then nodded. "Well, I did have a thought, if you'd like to hear it."

Jesse tore his eyes away from the table to observe the woman. "Sure!" he responded, which prompted his brother to look up in a like manner.

"Well, what if were to put all of them into an album? That way, you could give your parents the whole set altogether, right? There's only about 30 or so here, but I'm sure I could squeeze a few more pics out of the ones I haven't processed yet. You see, I just mostly picked the ones I thought looked the best for our purposes here. You know, ones where your hair wasn't blown aside, or you didn't blink your eyes – that sort of thing. There are others though, including some with you guys and Noah."

"I was going to ask about those," Jesse spoke up, before returning to the prints on the table. "I wondered why there weren't any here of those we took with him."

"There are some good ones, but I was just concentrating on the two of you first," Jennifer explained.

"I understand," Jesse replied. Looking up again, he gave the woman a sincere smile. "I think it's a cool idea, really. I've got a couple of bucks on me, too," he announced, suddenly plunging his hand into his front pocket. However, as he felt around, the teen suddenly frowned and withdrew it. "Uh, scratch that – I thought I had a few bucks on me!"

Jennifer laughed. "Don't worry about it. In fact, I have a few albums downstairs in storage that Noah and I came across a while back. We got them from a sale of some sort I think, for next to nothing. You're welcome to one of them, if you like. It'll work out just fine."

"Can we see some of the ones you took with us and Noah?" Benji suddenly piped up. Jennifer, however, shook her head.

"Not yet, I'm afraid. I was in a hurry to get these finished so you could look them over, and I walked away leaving the memory card at the print desk by accident," the woman informed them. "Don't worry, I've already called and they're holding it for me, so it isn't lost. I'll get it later today and get started with the rest of the pictures. That way you can see them in the next day or two perhaps."

Jesse nodded. "Okay then, that'll be fine. Just… let me pay you, okay? Keep up with how much it all adds up to. We've got to take care of that photographer first, but anything left over is yours. Plus, Benji and I will chip in some more until we get it all paid back, as soon as we can."

Jennifer leaned in, about to retort, but a sudden sound by her son caused her to glance at him. Noah, in turn, maintained his silence, but his eyes were pleading with her to let the matter drop, so she did. Instead, she nodded. "Then, I'll let you two mount and fix these like you want to do it, and then we'll wrap the album up in a box or something so you can put it under the Christmas tree. Does that sound alright?"

"It sounds great!" Benji replied, before suddenly springing away and crossing to where the woman sat. Once there, he gave her an energetic embrace, causing her to laugh. "Thanks!" the youth added.

"Well, you're welcome!" Jennifer replied. When they separated, she stood up. "Okay, you boys go along and do your thing, I've got to bake some cookies to take with me tonight."

"Where to, Mom?" Noah asked.

"Mrs. Akers down the road is having one of those holiday get-togethers for the ladies at church," Jennifer explained while carefully picking up the various prints and returning them to their envelope. She glanced at her son. "Don't forget - you and your father have a project to complete when he gets back from Bowling Green."

Noah nodded. "I haven't forgotten," he replied as the boys gathered themselves, thanked the kind woman once again, and then made their way downstairs and into Noah's bedroom.

"What kind of project?" Benji asked, curious.

Before Noah could respond, Jesse interrupted. "Ben - it's none of our beeswax, bro."

Noah laughed. "It's just something we're doing for Mom, that's all. Sorry though, we've only got a couple of hours at best. Once he gets home, I'll probably be busy for the rest of the day."

"No reason to be sorry, we understand. Mom asked us this morning if we wanted to put up a Christmas tree tonight, so… I figure we'll both be tied up too, for a while anyway," Jesse explained.

"Yeah, and how. Usually that means not just the tree, but other things, too," Benji added, his tone slightly exasperated.

"It's all good," Noah replied. "So, what do you two want to do in the meantime?"

"Well," Jesse started and then hesitated. "How about maybe we could play some more of that Aggravation game you've got? If you wanted to, that is."

Noah grinned widely. "Sure! I think it's upstairs, though. Be right back!" he announced, before quickly leaving the room. Moments later he returned, carrying the game-box. "Benji has played, right?" he asked as he sat down on one of the bean bags.

"Yeah, a few weeks ago," Benji replied, dropping in place beside his brother, who had also joined his friend in the floor. Before long, the trio were immersed in the game, constantly facing setbacks but gradually making forward progress as they moved their marbles around the board. Eventually, Benji succeeded in getting three of his four marbles into the safety zone, and was about to move his last there as well, when Noah caught up with him and sent him back to the starting ranks. "You… you turd!" the youngest boy exclaimed.

The boys laughed, but suddenly quieted when they heard Jennifer enter the room. Benji immediately blushed a deep red. "Sorry, Mrs. Cook!"

"That's not that bad of a naughty word, Benji, don't worry about it," she informed him before laughing. "I take it one of the boys must have sent you back to the beginning?"

"Noah did, yeah. Crap, I almost had all of my marbles moved into home, too!" Benji replied in exasperation, causing the two teens to giggle even harder. It mattered little in the end, however, as Jesse suddenly sent one of Noah's marbles back in a similar manner. That move gave Benji an advantage, and he quickly maneuvered his remaining marble around the board and into the safe zone, before winning the game. "There! Take that, Turtle-Butt!" he exclaimed gleefully.

Jennifer laughed, having hovered above while watching the boys play. She bent down and gave the younger boy a high-five, which he excitedly met. Afterwards, she gave Noah a knowing look and waited.

"Is Dad home?" Noah asked finally, catching on to her intent, to which she nodded before standing up and exiting the room. Sighing, the teen then turned to Jesse. "I guess that's it then, for a while anyway."

"It's okay. We probably should head home," Jesse replied. He and Benji helped collect the various pieces to the game and store them back into the box. Standing first, the teen then reached out with both hands, offering them both one, which they gladly accepted as they climbed to their feet. "So, football game tomorrow, right? I think the Redskins play the Cowboys?"

"Oh yeah, and they're both doing pretty good this year. It should be a good game," Noah replied, pushing the game box with his foot until it slid under his bed. "Uh, Mom said we're planning to go to church in the morning though, so you might have to wait until we get back before you come over."

"That's okay, I'll be on the lookout for you then," Jesse replied. "Come on Ben, we should get home." Both began making their way toward the door then, chatting idly as they moved, neither of the brothers really wanting to go, but both knowing they needed to.

"See ya later, alligator!" Benji called out as they departed moments later.

"In a while, crocodile!" Noah answered in return. As he watched them cross the lawn, Jennifer appeared behind him.

"Do they suspect anything?" she asked her son quietly.

"I don't' think so. I told them we were working on something for you," Noah replied. Jennifer gave her son another knowing look, but then nodded in acceptance as she began walking away. Her son followed, however, until they both arrived in the kitchen. "Mom, about the money thing… I think I've finally started to understand why Jesse is so intent on paying for this stuff, or at least, as much as he can."

"Oh? Why is that?" she asked, turning to give him her attention.

"Well," Noah began, but then hesitated before continuing. "I think they feel that, if they get it all for nothing, or next to nothing, then it won't really be a Christmas gift from them to their parents. It'll be more like, we're giving them the gift to give their parents, and Jesse… I don't know, I just kind of get the feeling that's what part of all this is about with him. He and Benji want to be responsible for it, you know?"

Jennifer thought about that momentarily before slowly nodding. "I guess I didn't think about it that way. We've just been so used to helping them out, all of them, and that… you know…"

"I know, Mom. Honest, I might be wrong, but I think that's why they're being kind of picky about it," Noah explained. "I'm not sure why I think that way, other than maybe…"

"Maybe what, son?" she asked quietly.

"Well, I'm so used to having a little money put back, and you and Dad, you're always taking care of me for other things, see? We, I know we're not rich or anything, but… we do have a lot more than what they have right now, don't we? I kind of think, if I were in their shoes, or Jesse's shoes and all, I'd really try to do as much as I could on my own, before depending on someone to bail me out. It would mean I accomplished something on my own, like that. Does that make sense?" Noah asked quietly.

There was a silence that fell between the two of them as Jennifer observed her son in a new light, once again impressed by how much he was growing up and changing lately – for the better. "Yes, it makes a whole lot of sense, honey. Okay, I promise I understand," his mother replied with a smile. "It'll be alright, Noah, you'll see. They'll have plenty to contribute before everything is said and done, I promise, but I'll be a little more careful. I mean, we might still help out a little here and there, if we can, but when we're all done... you'll see."

Noah smiled, relieved that his mother seemingly understood. He leaned in and gave her a quick hug before grabbing his coat. "Dad's in the garage, right?" He didn't wait for an answer however, heading out the back door and closing it behind him.

The weather turned bitter cold in the valley the following day, with another brisk wind moving through from the Northwest. Although winter was not supposed to officially arrive for another nine days, one would have had a hard time convincing everyone else that it had not arrived yet. Forecasters were not providing a pleasing outlook for the immediate future, as they informed all that the first significant winter weather was due to roll in that night. One- to two-inches of snow were expected by morning, and if that wasn't enough, another front was expected to move through and bring a second-round of significant wintry weather on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning.

Of course, most school-aged kids throughout the county were elated with the news. The mix of winter and snow together, right in the start of the season leading up to Christmas, was a boon for their morale - along with hopes of school closing, if necessary. Parents and other adults, surprisingly were not as opposed to the idea either, at least not as much as one would think, given the time of year. If school closed, however, some parents would be hard pressed to make other arrangements if their children were not of a sufficient age to remain home by themselves.

Jesse made the crossing to the Cooks' house as usual, once he saw the family had returned from their morning outing at church. Benji had elected to stay behind, not really interested in watching football anyway. Instead, he was expecting his friend Petey to show up and spend the afternoon and evening with him, which made the day all the better. In a way, Jesse was glad - he and Noah had not enjoyed a lot of time alone together as of late, with the different things happening in their world. This would be a welcome respite for a change, and Jesse looked forward to it earnestly. It also helped that the Cooks had a super-sized LCD TV downstairs, which made it one ideal for watching sports, so it gave the teen another perfect excuse for wanting to get out of the house. His father had already fallen asleep in his recliner, but his mother had given him a knowing smile and happily shooed him on his way. Although she claimed she often never understood what went on in the minds of men, she did seem to fathom the thrills or pleasures of watching sports in the way that they did, so she ushered him out the door.

When Jesse arrived next door, he was greeted by Jennifer, and told to head on downstairs, where he found both Noah and Allen just as the second quarter was getting underway. "What's the score?" he asked, slipping out of his tennis shoes and placing them at the bottom of the steps.

"Seven-to-seven, so far," Noah replied. "The Redskins just intercepted the ball on their own 38-yard line, so they're getting ready to take off up the field."

"Cool!" Jesse responded, smiling widely. At least, until he saw Allen giving him an exaggerated look of annoyance, which caused Noah to laugh out loud.

"Uh, might want to be careful. Dad is a huge, huge Cowboys fan," the teen explained.

"Better than being a Rednecks fan!" the man shot back, but then had to dodge the pillow Jesse threw at him as he sat down. The man laughed in surprise, just as Noah interjected.

"I'd rather be a fan of Rednecks than Cowgirls!" he purred, before bumping fists midair with Jesse. Jesse started to get up to retrieve the pillow, but Allen grasped it and tossed it back before climbing to his feet. "You guys want some soda?"

"Yes, please!" Noah replied, with Jesse nodding beside him. As the man ascended the steps, Noah pulled his legs up underneath him where he was sitting on the other end of the couch. "So, are you ready for the winter storm that's supposed to be coming tonight?"

Jesse shrugged. "Mom said she didn't think it would be all that bad."

"My Mom did, too, so they're probably right," Noah replied. "Tuesday night and Wednesday, though… The way they're talking, I'm not so sure."

"Yeah, I know. Benji is already wanting to spend the night with Petey Tuesday, just so the two can play in the snow Wednesday."

Noah raised an eyebrow. "Really? He must be expecting them to cancel school, then."

"Kind of, yeah. Mom told him we'd have to wait until it gets a little closer before deciding, especially since it's a regular school night." Jesse sat back and relaxed. "If it were me, I'd say let him go anyway, because even if school doesn't get canceled, he'd still have to get up just as early to catch the bus and everything, you know? It wouldn't be a lot of difference in the end."

Noah nodded. "I hear you. Well, if he does, why don't you come over here and stay with me? Assuming they don't call off the game, we'll be coming home late together anyway."

"That's not a bad idea, really," Jesse agreed. Just then, Allen returned carrying a large bowl of popcorn and drinks for the three of them, so they turned their attention back to the screen. The game progressed rapidly, entertaining the trio throughout the mid-afternoon, before finally ending with the Cowboys on top 27 to 24. Jesse sighed deeply when the final score was displayed. "Rats!"

Allen laughed. "Told you, Cowgirls are America's team, I think. Especially with those cheerleaders!"

Jesse made a face. "All they do is hop around and show their panties off all the time!" He then laughed. "But I hear you though, they're, uh… kind of cool to watch, sometimes."

Allen snorted while laughing again. "Well, at least that puts you in line with the rest of the nation!" he teased. Jesse laughed as well, with Noah looking on amusedly. The teen hadn't realized it at first, but he gradually could see where his response might have raised some curiosity, and because of that, he began to blush. His glance at Noah confirmed he had dodged a proverbial bullet.

It was even more apparent when the two retired to Noah's bedroom moments later, leaving Allen to watch the second of the double-header games that was just beginning to get started. Noah pushed the door shut before turning to his friend. "Wow, did you ever just scrape by with THAT one!" He saw Jesse blushing again, which caused him to giggle before he relented. "Don't worry, it's not that bad. Besides, I may not like girls very much, but even I can't help but be curious about, you know, sometimes."

Jesse nodded before falling back on the bed. "And how, I know! I mean, I'm not, like, alien to them or anything either. I like girls a little, just… what they have between their legs might excite most people, but to me it just seems, uh, you know… nothing all that special."

Noah crawled onto the bed and stretched out beside his friend. "I know what you mean. I'm kind of the same way, I think. I mean, I wouldn't turn down a chance to get a peek at some of them and all, but… they don't really excite me. Not like you do," he added toward the end, almost in a whisper.

Jesse turned and blushed still again. "You're only saying that because I got all the extra skin that you don't," he whispered. "If I were like you, I bet you'd get tired of looking at me pretty quick."

Noah rose up on one elbow to stare deep into his friend's bright blue eyes. "No, it isn't that. In the very least, it's because I find hanging out with you to be something ultra-cool. Mostly though, I think it's because we trust each other as much as we do, and I don't mean like the guys on the team, who shower with each other and everything. Our trust…" The teen hesitated slightly before smiling. "Our trust goes deeper than that. It says we can hold and feel each other, from the inside and all, and not be afraid. That, Jesse, is worth far more to me than any girl's stinky pussy. It's worth more than anyone mooning us, too – boy or girl."

Jesse smiled before rolling to face his friend. After observing his friend for a moment, he finally sighed. "I… I don't know what to say, really… just, thanks."

"You don't have to say anything, Jess. I meant it, every word," Noah replied softly.

"I know you did," the teen replied, before his face acquired a curious expression. "What did you mean though, about stinky?"

Noah's eyebrows shot up. "You don't know? Some of the guys, they say it's like, really, uh, strong down there when girls get worked up. One of the guys not too long ago even said something about it smelling, uh, like fish - or something like that."

"No way!" Jesse shot back in surprise. He thought for a second, but then shook his head in disbelief. "Girls, good grief! They're complicated!"

Noah giggled. "I know, right?"

Jesse relaxed before speaking again. "Well, I love you too, from the inside. I don't tell you that very much, but I do. If something happened to you, or something came up between us, I'd… I don't know, I think I'd die. Before you came along, it was mostly just me and Ben, and don't get me wrong - he's great, especially for a little brother! But, well…"

"But it's not the same, I know," Noah finished for him. The teen glanced to make sure the door was closed before leaning in. He placed a soft kiss on Jesse's lips, and held their connection by pressing in ever so gently. Jesse, in return, parted his lips momentarily, and then the two were locked in a loving exchange once again. Although it had only been days, it felt to them both as if it had been ages since they were able to do this. Even with Allen in the next room watching the game, for a few minutes the two were oblivious to the world around them. Jesse rolled onto his back, with Noah closely following and scooting up along his friend's side. Once there, the teen cupped the side of Jesse's face before going all out, breathing in the essence while running his fingers through the teen's hair. Jesse, in turn, pulled Noah the rest of the way on top of him while stretching out underneath. In the silence, he placed his hands inside the small of Noah's back, moving one inside the waistband and deep into his sweats and underwear, while the other tracked upward underneath his sweatshirt, and brushing lightly across the bared skin underneath.

The kiss was long and tender, but also filled with fun, as Noah tried hard to extend his tongue as far as he could make it stretch inside Jesse's mouth. Jesse, on the other hand, pushed his one hand deeper, finding that space between Noah's legs where he wiggled his fingers into. He brushed across the back of his friend's testicles briefly, before deciding to stroke and tickle the skin there ever so lightly.

It caused Noah to finally break their kiss, all the while clenching his butt cheeks together. "That t-tickles!" he whispered.

"It's supposed to tickle, doofus!" Jesse fired back, before digging deeper and doing it again. As Noah buried his head into Jesse's neck, however, the teen relented and withdrew, instead deciding to run his fingers up and down the split between his friend's buttocks.

Noah sighed at that point and relaxed, collapsing helplessly in the arms of his newfound brother. "That feels… good…" he whispered. After another moment, he pulled back enough to glance at Jesse with an amused look. "You know, I get the feeling you like my butt more and more, for some reason."

Jesse laughed then, before pinching his friend along one side. "Of course, I do!" he exclaimed. "I like everything about you though, remember? I've told you that before!"

Noah crossed his arms then and settled them onto Jesse's chest, before supporting his chin and staring down at the boy beneath him. "I like it that you like me, you know?"

"I know," Jesse replied with a grin. "ALL of you!" They both giggled before he added, "You should be careful though. One of these days I might actually bite it!"

Noah rolled his eyes. "Yeah, rriiggghhhttt…."

"I'm serious!" Jesse admonished him, before giggling again. "Well, at least your butt, maybe. I wouldn't bite your corndog, though, I promise. It's got other cool uses, I think, but one of these days… oh man…" Instead of continuing, he thrust himself up against his friend long and hard.

"I know," Noah responded, closing his eyes as he pushed downward, but then sighed. "I can feel your dick, you know. Probably as much as you can feel mine."

Jesse nodded. "Oh yeah, and how!" he whispered. "They're kind of begging to make out some more, I think. I don't guess we can, like, you know…"

Noah opened his eyes and gazed at Jesse apologetically. "I wish. The truth is, I'm kind of afraid to, with Dad being so close by in the den. Plus, Mom is fixing us all some food upstairs, and she'll probably have 'lupper' ready before too long."

"'Lupper'?" Jesse asked.

"That's what we call it on Sundays, when we eat late for lunch, but early for supper. Get it? Lunch plus supper equals 'lupper'," Noah explained, smiling once again.

It was Jesse's turn to roll his eyes, but he giggled nonetheless. "That's… that's…"

"Corny, I know," Noah agreed, but shrugged.

Jesse giggled. They both knew their parents had some oddities that had been handed down from the generation above them, so the idea wasn't anything new. "Well, corny or not, I know of a certain hot dog I wouldn't mind enjoying, or a corn dog like I said, one that I could suck on for a bit…"

Noah giggled as well, but then leaned in close again. "I wish we could, though. I would so go for another treat below, like I got the other night!"

Jesse shook his head. "Maybe, but you'd have to wait your turn. I get first dibs next time, and you'd better be ready for it!"

Noah nodded. "I will, I promise." He then let go a huge sigh, all the while grinding his midsection down again. "UUggghhhh… I so WANT to, like right friggin NOW, you know?" he hissed in exasperation.

Jesse responded by pushing both of his hands back inside his friend's underwear again and grasping the buttocks he found. Noah sighed, rolling to his side, which allowed Jesse to bring one hand around front, where he found and grasped a certain shaft and held it firmly. "Oh yeah, I know. Trust me, I really know!" He stared deep into the eyes. "Are you, like, still jacking off and stuff?" he whispered.

"Every … single … night!" Noah replied, smiling again. "Sometimes when I get up in the morning, too. You?"

"Every shower I take, and then some nights, too – especially if Benji falls asleep quick enough. I even did it the other night, with him asleep beside me," Jesse replied. "Not because we were sleeping together, mind you, but… it was just kind of a fun thing to try, kind of wicked and all, to see if I could do it without waking him up."

"And you did? He didn't wake up?" Noah asked before his look of surprise was replaced with amusement. "What if he had?"

Jesse laughed. "Then I guess he would have watched or felt me cream myself. I mean, he would have been cool with it, I think. I got away with it though, so no big deal. I just kind of turned away from him, so he didn't feel anything too much, or hear me either. At least, if he did, I sure didn't know about it."

"And… you got off?"

Jesse blushed. "Got off? I made a friggin' mess, bro." He looked up. "Or would you rather I say it like it should be said? Like, 'I made a fucking mess!'"

Noah giggled. "That's one time it doesn't sound too weird, I admit, even coming from you." He relaxed as he settled in again. "So, how did you clean up then?"

"Who says I needed to?" Jesse replied wryly, before giggling again. "I, uh, was using a sock, if you get my drift."

Noah raised his eyebrows. "I've done that a couple of times! It, uh, isn't too bad."

Jesse nodded. "I know. Thankfully, I don't have to worry about it very much, but… sometimes, yeah."

"I hear ya," Noah responded. Just then, a sound could be heard coming from the stairwell outside the room. "I think Mom has 'lupper' ready. You are going to stay and eat with us, right?"

Jesse smiled. "Yeah, Mom told me before I left that I could, if I wanted to."

Noah then leaned in for a final kiss before sighing yet again as he pulled away. Rising up, he looked down at the crotch of Jesse's jeans and reached out, rubbing it gently, before quickly shoving his hand inside to find his friend just as hard as he was. "Damn!" he whispered, but then withdrew again. "Soon, man. I promise. If you come Tuesday night, it'll just be us, and we can do anything you want then!"

Jesse reached up and took the hand offered to help him to his own feet. "I know, and believe me, by the time we're done raping each other…"

Noah giggled. "No kidding!"

Jesse stopped, however, as they approached the door. "There is one thing though, that is going to happen, no matter what." Seeing the look of curiosity that met him, the teen explained. "I've always said I wanted to check you out, remember? Like, completely… all over, back and front, up and down. You know?"

Noah nodded. "Yeah, I know, and you can do that all you want, I promise." Instead of opening the door, however, he turned. "Uh, maybe you better gimme a sec first, will ya? I need to wiz…"

Jesse grunted as his friend made an exaggerated beeline for the bathroom. "Don't shake it any more than you have to, you know," he whispered. He heard Noah scoff, but then disappear inside the bathroom. Jesse smiled as the idea hit him that his friend's sudden need might be because of something more visible than he wanted to show.

On Tuesday afternoon, both boys stepped from the school bus into the chilly air. The low-hanging clouds had been around for almost two days by then, with no obvious signs of changing in the near future. As the bus pulled away, Noah suddenly set his gym bag down next to their mailbox before proceeding to zip his coat up even tighter, something that seemed to amuse Jesse.

"I don't believe it!" the teen exclaimed. "It's been freezing all day long, but now - when you're within 50-feet of being home - NOW you decide to zip up your coat?" he teased, causing Noah to give him an annoyed look.

"I didn't think it was that cold until we stepped off the bus!" he retorted, knowing his reply was a weak one, but at least something better than nothing. He heard Jesse giggle at him however, and as he picked his gym bag up again, the two bumped shoulders. "So, what time do we need to be up at the gym tonight?"

"Well, the game starts at seven, so I figure we need to be there by no later than six - especially since we didn't stay after today. There are a few little things we have to do to prep and stuff. Most of the guys usually show up about an hour before, too, I think," Jesse replied. "I hope we win this one tonight. I'm kind of getting tired with being on the losing streak, you know?"

Noah nodded. "Yeah, I know. Dad said Greensburg wasn't doing all that great this year, so maybe we'll pull it off tonight. You have to admit though, that game with Glasgow was a close call, just like the one with Campbellsville a few weeks ago. We lost both, I know, but they were really close."

"Yeah, I know," Jesse replied as they neared the house. "I'm supposed to do some things for Mom before we leave, though, so what say I give you a call a little later, maybe after 5:30 or so? Dad is supposed to take us up there-"

"Yep, I know, and my Mom is going to pick us up. Sounds good, though. I'll see you later then," Noah replied, before bumping fists with the teen. They then separated, each taking the final steps to their own respective houses.

Jesse, entering the front door, was suddenly surprised to see his brother and Petey in the floor of the living room, watching TV. "Whoa, you guys are home early! Who croaked?" he asked, teasingly.

Benji glanced up and grinned. "Nobody, bro. Mom was at the school for a parent-teacher thingy, and our teacher agreed to let me come on home with her."

"Yeah, and since he's coming to my house later to spend the night, I got to come home with him!" Petey piped up beside him.

"Really? Well, that's… cool, I guess," Jesse replied. He then headed toward their bedroom, and once inside, put his backpack away. Within moments, his mother appeared at the open doorway.

"Hi sweetie. There's some soup and a grilled cheese on the counter for you, so go grab it before it gets too cold, alright?" Makalah announced.

"Sure, Mom. Do you still need help with that thing you were doing for Mrs. Cook?"

"Actually, no. Your father came home for lunch today, and he helped me with an extra set of hands," the woman explained. "You're off the hook for tonight, at least."

Jesse shrugged. "Wouldn't have bothered me, but… okay." He glanced at her. "What's the weather people saying? Are we still in for snow tonight?"

Makalah laughed. "Afraid so, but it's not supposed to start until after midnight." The petite woman leaned against the doorframe and lowered her voice. "Do you think it is alright for Ben to stay with Petey tonight? I mean, if they don't call off school, that means…" She stopped and waited for his response.

It was not something unnoticed by Jesse either. As of late, his mother seemed to be soliciting more and more of his thoughts on different things, which surprised him in a way, but pleased him in others. "He'll probably be getting up all the same in the morning as if he were here at home, Mom. So, yeah, personally I don't see any big deal with it. Then if it does snow, you and Dad don't have to worry about either of us tomorrow. You're both supposed to be working, right?"

"Yes, I go in at six in the morning, and your father has to be at the store by eight or so, I think," Makalah replied, before nodding. "I was actually thinking along those same lines, to tell you the truth. You, on the other hand… I guess you're staying with Noah tonight either way, right?"

"If it's alright, yeah. I mean, it'll be 9:30 or later before we get home, and-"

"You don't have to explain, I already understand. You two just be sure you don't let any school work fall behind, okay?" Makalah saw her son nod, and thus smiled. "Then that is that. Your father will be home a little after five to take you two up to the game tonight. I'm going to run these other munchkins over to Petey's a little while after that, then come back and take a long, hot bath before climbing into bed."

"That sounds good," Jesse replied, and then followed his mother out into the kitchen. As he picked up his platter of food, he commented, "This looks pretty good. Did you make the soup?"

"Yep, homemade vegetable beef, without the onions. You know how your little brother doesn't like onions," Makalah added with a smirk.

"Yeah, don't I know it!" Jesse replied wryly. He opened a cabinet door above the platter, rummaging inside. "Have we got any pickle spears, Mom?"

"In the refrigerator," came the reply, as Makalah busied herself at the sink. "It's the last jar, too. We need to get it added to the grocery list."

Jesse walked over and took the pen from its holder, scribbling on the notepad next to the appliance. "Done!" he announced, before opening the door and, after a brief search, extracted the jar. "There's only two spears left in here, though."

"Go ahead and take them, I doubt your brother would want any, and your father and I can wait."

Jesse did as he was instructed, and after discarding the jar appropriately, started to pick up his platter and carry it to the table. "So, are you going to have that blanket thingy for Mrs. Cook crocheted by Christmas?"

Makalah stood up straight then and stretched before replying. "I should. I made good progress on it today when your father came in and helped me get the corners reinforced. That's what I needed an extra hand for, to hold the knitting in place. Anyway, another few days' effort and then yes, I should be near done with it." She eyed him wearily. "Then after Christmas, I'm going to see if I can make one for each of you boys, too. It won't have to be as big, so they shouldn't take as long to do."

"That would be cool," Jesse admitted. He observed the woman for a moment, noting how she continued to favor her good foot. "Your ankle isn't doing any better, is it?" he asked quietly.

"No, not really," Makalah grunted, drying her hands and then dropping the towel near the sink. She turned to face him, leaning back against the cabinet. "Although I don't like admitting it, I think it's swelling again and gotten worse the last few days."

"What about the doctor? What did he say about it?" Jesse asked after taking a drink of milk.

"He wants me to have some minor surgery to repair the tendons. I'm not sure about doing it though," his mother replied. Jesse let the subject drop, knowing his mother preferred to not dwell on the topic any more than she had to. They chatted a bit longer before Jesse finished and rose from the table, carrying his dishes to the sink. Setting them inside, he leaned in and kissed his mother on the cheek. "Thanks Mom, that was great. I don't know what we'd do without you!"

Makalah blushed, but then gave her son a one-armed hug. "Go get ready, you racoon! Your father will be home before too long, I suspect."

At that, Jesse smiled and then walked away.

Arriving at the school, Jesse and Noah both were surprised to see several people had already gathered at the entrance, waiting for the gymnasium to open. As they thanked Mr. McAllister for the ride, they walked up the steps just as one of the caretakers appeared and opened the doors. Everyone then hastily made their way inside to get out of the night air. The evening was already dark, the light of the day having already disappeared to the west, and thus the feeling of the coldness set in quicker.

Once inside, most of the crowd lined up behind a makeshift table that had been setup to collect admittance fees. The two teens, however, moved over and went through one of the offices that opened through inside the gymnasium. The lights were shining extra bright it seemed, and as they looked about, other than for a few items here and there, the gym seemed to be spotless. Jesse pointed at one area and Noah nodded, taking off while Jesse headed for a different section. Within minutes, the two had collected the trash and deposited it in the garbage cans.

Once completed, they headed toward the locker room, where they found most of the team already assembled and changing into their uniforms. "Hey, here come the dynamic duo!" one of the players called out merrily as the two entered the area.

"Which one of you is Batman and the other Robin?" Tyler teased as they walked by.

Noah and Jesse both glanced at each other and then pointed to the other, simultaneously calling out, "He is!" The room erupted in laughter, as most everyone there joined in on the joke, with several offering fist bumps as the two continued to walk past them. When they reached the far side, both boys opened a recently added icemaker, and proceeded to fill a water cooler with both ice and fresh water. As the others continued to change behind them, there was quite a bit of lively conversation taking place, filling the atmosphere with a heightened level of anticipation. Before long, a knock came from the door before the coach's son, once again, poked his head inside.

"You guys dressed enough yet?" Richie asked, to which Simon, being the closest, gave the boy the all-clear. Moments later, both coaches walked through the door and greeted everyone. Jesse and Noah listened along with the rest of the team, to what had become a standard opening, before both coaches started in to detailing what they knew and understood of their opponents. Before long, the team came together for a rousing cheer, and then the group made their way out into the gymnasium. Jesse and Noah carried the water jug between them, setting it safely into a newly created cradle built to hold the container.

After warm-ups, the teams readied themselves to play each other. Despite the threat of oncoming weather, the crowd of spectators was impressive, easily filling two-thirds of the gymnasium with family, friends and fans of both teams. It helped that some of the local townships were not that far separated, making it easier for some teams to have followers and supporters appear at various sporting events. It also helped, however, to have communities that invested an interest in their schools and teams that represented them as a people altogether.

Unlike other recent games, this particular event saw the Indians play with an easier gait compared to Campbellsville and Glasgow. Although Greensburg's team was considered quite talented, the entire team was comprised of mostly freshmen and sophomore players. The Adair County juniors and seniors outclassed their opponents from the beginning, however, and by half-time, were up by 12 points. As they headed to the locker rooms for a brief interval, the team was smiling and chatting triumphantly – at least, until the coach joined them. "Now listen up boys, be careful… those boys out there will take your hides apart if you get too comfortable and loose! That's when you begin making your worst mistakes, and believe me, a 12-point lead can be whittled to nothing, and even turned in the opposite direction in no time at all!" The players looked at one another and then fell silent, observing and listening as the man gave them new pointers to watch out for in the second half.

It was good advice, too. The second half of the game started with Greensburg suddenly charging forward much more aggressively than before, and within the first minute, they had outscored the Indians by 8-to-2, cutting their deficit in half. After a brief timeout, Adair County had to hunker down and play a much tougher second half than they expected, and by the mid-point, the scores were almost neck-and-neck.

At one point, however, Jesse found himself needing to go to the bathroom, having consumed more liquids than usual that afternoon leading up to and including the first half of the game. It was annoying him, for the clock was winding down and entering the final quarter, but his bladder was becoming unforgiving. Turning to Noah, he told him where he was heading and would be right back, to which his friend nodded. Getting up, he walked from the bench and headed to the locker room, knowing there were urinals installed off the showers inside. It was the closest and most private of places to go, so he thought nothing of it.

Once inside, Jesse rounded the various bends until he reached the rear of the room and made his way to the nearest urinal. He relieved his bladder readily, and was zipping up when something suddenly distracted him. As if he had a sixth sense, everything immediately around him seemingly stilled into a deafening silence. The teen felt it was more than that, however, because the air itself seemed to have shifted, moving away from the space he occupied. The hairs at the nape of his neck suddenly rose on end, alerting him that something was both wrong and unseen. He started to turn around, but then suddenly felt a blow to the back of his head, followed by multiple sets of strong arms grabbing him on either side. Before he could process and look up, however, a black hood of some sort was pulled over his head, cutting off any and all vision into the room.

He started to stand when he felt someone punch him in the gut hard, making him double over before a strong hand reach inside the hood and stuffed a cloth of some sort deep into his mouth, practically gagging him in the process. The teen could not have reacted otherwise, however, as a sudden flurry of blows started raining down on him, in his gut, his sides and face. Caught by total surprise, he collapsed quickly to the floor where he was then kicked at times. The pain was excruciating, and he felt more than once as if he was going to pass out. None of his attackers spoke a word to him during the whole ordeal, and Jesse began to wonder at one point if he was going to be able to make it through the next few minutes. Tears stung his eyes, but his muffled screams fell seemingly on deaf ears.

As suddenly as it had started, it then seemed to stop, before the boy was yanked hard up to his feet. He had no energy, no strength to hold himself upright, and as such he toppled almost immediately, until his attackers grabbed hold of him again. This time they held on, however, and for a few seconds, nothing seemed to happen. Jesse, for some reason, could hear a loud roar coming from the gym, the game still going on in the background. It made him feel sick to his stomach, however, as he waited for whatever was going to happen next.

He didn't have to delay long, however, before one of his abductors finally slid up close to him and with a familiar, though hushed voice, suddenly cackled in one ear. "I told you, you fucking fairy, that I wasn't done with you yet!"

Jesse then passed out, as he suddenly heard his captors laughing at him.

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