The Storm That Turned the Tide

by Sean English

Chapter 20

The Recovery

Thursday morning, Noah awoke to an abundance of sunshine streaming through the bedroom window. Although he was groggy, he gradually shook the feeling away - especially once he realized he had an urgent bladder problem striving for his attention. Before he moved, however, he felt the presence of a smaller boy shifting and pressing up against him, which made the teen smile to himself. The body was tucked up against him, which made the teen instantly dread having to leave it. Although he didn't want to move, he knew he really had no choice though, so soundlessly he extracted himself from the bed and entered the bathroom.

As he stood above the toilet going about the necessities of the moment, his mind journeyed back to the evening before, and at how for the first time in his life, he had taken a shower with someone - without any intention of sex or naughtiness in mind. He didn't expect it going into the shower, and he certainly wasn't disappointed with how it turned out once it was all over. He and Benji had stripped to their underwear, and only hesitated while he activated the water and selected an appropriate temperature for them both. When he turned around, he knew he was being microscopically observed by the younger boy, and for only an instant, he developed a funny feeling in the pit of his stomach. It was swept aside, however, once he simply dropped his briefs, in full and complete view of his young friend. Benji reaction was one of sudden astonishment, as if he hadn't believed it would happen at first, but then his expression changed as he reached down to his own and did the same.

Noah and Jesse had had a few instances that were close to taking a shower together, but in Noah's mind none of it amounted to what he had experienced in that moment. Between the two, there was no agenda - no practical purpose behind his decision and choice – that made any of it planned out ahead of time. He knew that Benji, given what all Jesse had told him, and like a lot of precocious boys at his age, was simply getting curious about certain things. When Jesse first explained it, Noah admittedly felt perplexed, but the more time he spent around the younger of the two brothers, he began to understand what Jesse had meant. The only sexual overtures came by way of little hints, such as wanting to play strip poker, or catch Noah in the bathroom by surprise. Those were just games of a seven-year-old, as Noah began to realize, which he found amusing, but also understood that for some youngsters it implied more. Then as time progressed and the more things happened, he noted how Benji started to attach himself to the teen, and thus Noah realized they were developing their own friendship. Moreover, Benji was really putting a lot of trust in their relationship - the kind of trust that, to date, he had only extended to his brother, as far as they knew. This act of stripping and joining up in the shower, only exemplified how much that trust truly extended.

Then out of the blue, only days before, Benji had outright admitted it: he saw Noah as another brother, too. Now, whenever the older teen observed the youngster, he saw him in a new light. It was like Jesse had been telling him all along, really. There was a value in having a brother or sister, younger or older, that a lot of their peers failed to see or recognize. When a family and its siblings believed and trusted in each other, to the extent that Jesse and Benji certainly did, an indescribable bond developed that had nothing to do with their physical world, but instead within their hearts. The night before had nothing to do with sex, which to some people was probably a good thing, given the difference in their age. What it did have to do with, however, was showing Benji that he, Noah, believed in that trust, and wasn't afraid to prove it.

They had stepped in the shower together, after Benji had scrutinized the older teen up close, something Noah expected would happen, but didn't mind. They cleaned up, washed their hair, scrubbed each other's back even – things that seemed to be nothing more than second nature to the younger boy. The only exception happened once the water was turned off, and both had dried off with their towels. Before Noah could turn to their clothes, Benji had stepped in front of him and reached out, brushing and combing his fingers through Noah's pubes in much the same way he did with his older brother. Jesse had already told Noah about that, so the teen wasn't surprised as he relaxed and looked on, even smiling when the youth glanced up at him. There were no erections, no foreplay between them – just an incessant curiosity in which Noah happily indulged. It lasted for only a moment though, before the youngster sighed and pulled the briefs out of Noah's hands. Holding them out, he invited the older teen to step through them, which Noah did silently. When the garment was pulled up into place, the older teen then reciprocated by doing the same for his smaller friend. Was this another ritual of some sort, something perhaps the boy shared with his brother? Noah didn't know, but he made a mental note to talk to his best friend about it someday. Until then, however, he could see the makings of a smile on Benji's face that told him the youngster was equally as pleased as he was himself. They both donned their t-shirts, put the towels away and turned off the light, returning to the bedroom afterwards.

Perhaps the best part of the night though, had come when they had climbed onto the bed and situated themselves next to each other. Just as had happened the week before, Benji practically melted into the older boy's side, cuddling up close and laying his head into the crook of the shoulder that was there. They turned on the TV and found a cartoon playing on cable, then settled back to watch for a while. It wasn't long, however, before Benji grasped hold of Noah's arm and held it, rubbing up and down lightly as it fell across his chest. There was a sweet gentleness in it, which the older teen did not mind at all. "Noah?" the boy finally whispered, after a time.


"Thanks, bro. Thanks… for everything. Thanks for trusting me," the small voice continued to whisper.

Noah glanced down and then hugged the seven-year-old close. "You're welcome. It goes both ways, though. You trusted me, too, remember? Probably before I ever realized how much I really trusted you."

"Huh," Benji scoffed. "You didn't even, like, look at me any."

Noah giggled. "Want to bet?" When the boy turned and glanced at him in surprise, the teen took him in both his arms and pulled tight. It was another sweet moment, but feeling in a playful mood, the older boy shifted and began blowing a raspberry in the crook of Benji's neck, causing him to giggle. They both lay still with their bare legs intertwined, bellies partially exposed and rubbing together in the coolness of the room. Given that level of intimacy, Noah knew if it were Jesse there right then, he would probably have a problem keeping a boner from developing. That wasn't what it was all about though. That moment was for Benji, and Noah felt their presence together on that night was on a whole different scale. He loved the feeling it gave him inside, making him happy. It made him even more contented, too, to see that the youngster seemingly felt the same way.

When Noah finally pulled back, Benji lay helplessly in his arms, grinning widely. He raised a finger to the tip of Noah's nose and pressed against it lightly. "Did you? Really?" he asked, a certain amount of disbelief still present in his tone.

"Sure did!" Noah whispered. "How could I not, especially since you got all that extra skin hanging on the end that I don't? I find it… interesting!"

"Wow!" Benji exclaimed quietly, impressed. "I guess you did, then!" He laughed. "That is ssoooo cool!"

Benji regarded him with a smile for a moment before cocking his head to the side. "So, can I ask YOU something for a change?" When the boy nodded, he continued. "Why do you think that's so cool?"

"Um, I don't know, I… uh, I just… I didn't want to be the only one interested, I guess," Benji admitted, blushing.

Noah giggled. "You weren't the only one, Ben. I promise, I was curious, too."

"Yeah, but… I'm kind of, you know, I'm only seven-"

"And soon to be eight," Noah interrupted him. "But that doesn't matter, does it? Really?"

Benji smiled. "Not to me, not for us," he had whispered, and then reached and touched Noah on the end of the nose again. "Thanks!" he whispered, repeating it again, at which Noah smiled and hugged him in return. Satisfied, the two then had turned back to the TV, but it wasn't long before Noah heard a light snore coming from within his arms, so he turned out the light, and within minutes, he fell asleep right alongside. It had been one of the most peaceful nights he had experienced in a while, comparable only to the nights he and Jesse slept together.

Noah, returning to the present, smiled again as he finished up and flushed the toilet before washing his hands. When he returned to the bedroom, he found the youngster still sound asleep. Glancing at the clock, he was surprised to see it was almost nine, so quietly he pulled on a pair of shorts and slipped out the door. Heading upstairs, he found his mother in the kitchen, fixing breakfast. "Morning, Mom," the teen offered as he came up and wrapped both arms from behind her.

Jennifer smiled and turned around, giving her son a brief hug in return. "Well, good morning, sunshine! How are you this morning? Sleep well?"

"Fine, I guess," Noah replied, before pulling one of the barstools around and taking a seat. "Except for Benji's snoring, at least."

Jennifer laughed aloud before turning her attention back to the stove. "I forgot about that, to tell you the truth. I remember when they were staying here, there were a few times I walked by the couch and heard him trying to saw a bunch of logs up!"

Noah rolled his eyes. "I don't remember hearing him do it when I spent the night over there, though. Still… last night sure was different. I didn't think someone that young could snore, you know?"

"They can sometimes, yes, especially if they lie on their back a lot. Usually, you just have to get them to roll over though and that will do the trick. That's what I used to do to your father, and trust me – there were times he could give a chain saw a run for its money!" she admitted, causing her son to giggle.

"Well, now that I think about it, that's kind of what I did. I just got him to roll over," Noah admitted quietly. He did not tell her, however, that the rolling over was so they could snuggle and spoon together again. He watched her for a moment though, before continuing. "How was Jesse last night? Is there anything new on him?"

Jennifer nodded. "They moved him into a step-down room a little after nine last night. That's a kind of transition room when someone moves out of intensive care, before they put them into a regular room. I imagine he may have already been moved to a new room by now, though." She looked up at him. "If he has, then you and Benji will be able to visit and stay with him longer this time."

"That would be really awesome," the teen muttered. "What about the Sheriff? Dad said last night he was going to come out and meet with him and Mr. McAllister last night, right?"

"He planned on it, but the man called again and asked to put it off until sometime today. Seems that he got tied up with some weather-related emergency somewhere," Jennifer replied, scraping a skillet of scrambled eggs into a bowl. "We're not sure what that was about, other than he was probably just trying to check in on Jesse."

"Did Jesse wake up again any?" Noah asked.

"A couple of times, but he was still being sedated so that he would sleep through the night. That should be different today, as long as the headaches are gone. I think everyone is hoping he'll be able to talk to us more, and soon."

"I hope so, too."

Jennifer stopped and glanced at her son. "Now that he's out of danger, maybe he can shed some light on the who and why. Makalah and James are getting antsy, and I have to admit – your father and I are right up there with them."

Noah acquired a thoughtful look. "Well, the 'who' part has to be Pete Haskell, I'm sure, and the why… well…"

"The 'why' probably has something to do with treating Jesse like some sort of plague," announced a voice behind them as Allen walked into the room.

Startled, Noah turned. "Dad! I figured you had already gone to work!"

Allen laughed, rounding the corner and pulling a carton of orange juice from the refrigerator. "I decided to take a few hours off. Your mother and I didn't get in until almost 1:00AM this morning, and since I hadn't had any real sleep for a couple of days, I thought I might stay in a bit for a change. I take it the little squirt is still sacked out downstairs?"

"Yep," Noah answered, stepping up to get plates out for them. "I think you're right, though I think the plague might be putting it nicely. Pete and his goons, they…"

Allen shook his head. "I understand what you're saying, son. If it was Pete - and be careful, we still do not know that conclusively, alright? - but if it was, then he has a hard, long way to go if he expects to navigate the rest of his life without encountering different sorts of people. It does not matter if they are of a different race, and different color of skin, or have a different outlook on sex or religion either. All of you kids will meet every kind of individual you can imagine down the road of life, believe me, and then some. The best part of it though, is that you'll find people are just as normal as anyone else."

Noah grunted. "Good luck convincing that to some of the kids I know at school."

Jennifer approached and set a bowl of eggs on the countertop. "Maybe, but I'll bet that your generation will learn to tolerate them much better than ours does."

"Your mother's right," Allen added. "Older people have a harder time understanding that, as time goes on, society evolves with it. It's good to instill values, and even to hang on to some of the old, tried and true ways of living and everything. But, if you don't work to prepare yourself to keep up with times that are ever changing and evolving, then you'll get left behind. That's why your mother and I try to watch out for you, but at the same time, we know you have to find your own way in the world too, because we won't always be here to guide or help you out."

Noah exchanged glances with both his parents, before his mother finally smiled and turned her attention back to the stove. "I don't know about you two, but for me it's too early in the morning for discussions like this. This will all be done in a few minutes. Noah, why don't you go wake our guest up so we can all eat together. Then we'll get ready and head down to the hospital for a bit before your Dad has to go into work."

When the family arrived at the hospital with their guest in tow, Noah noted how much busier the scene had become compared to his last visit. Instead of the emergency room entrance, the group had this time used the normal entrance around at the front, and once inside found a number of people in the waiting room there. With a quick stop at the reception desk, however, they were diverted to one of the elevators and soon began walking down a second-floor corridor. The hospital was not an overly large building, at least from the outside. Inside, however, the corridors were lengthy and twisted, as several extensions had been annexed over the years.

Before long, they walked into an open area that served as a secondary waiting room, where this time they found James and Sheriff Hunt seated off in a corner, having a quiet discussion. Jennifer turned and whispered something to Allen, before taking Benji's hand and guiding him onward through a set of heavy, double-doors. Allen and Noah, however, walked over and approached the two men. Seeing them, James suddenly grinned and stood, shaking Allen's hand. "Good to see you! How's it going, Noah?" he asked the teen.

"Going okay," the teen responded.

By then, Sheriff Hunt had also risen and shook hands with them both as well. "We have a little more information now than when we started," the man announced after initial pleasantries were observed.

"Oh? Has Jesse filled us in, the?" Allen asked.

"No, not yet," the man replied. "There's a bank though, situated just off the school property on the gymnasium side, and it so happened to have one of those automated teller units with a camera facing the school. When we checked it, we found some interesting video footage from Tuesday night." With that, the man turned and picked up a tablet, before opening and navigating the screens until he had a video displayed. Handing it over to Allen, the man explained. "This first video, comes from a sequence shot around 7:16PM. It shows a white van pulling around to the side entrance and letting some people out." The video did show a van in the distance, pulling up and letting three people out, as they walked behind the van and up to the door while the vehicle pulled away. The group appeared to open the door cautiously and peer inside before going in. Just before the door shut, another hooded individual, approached and joined them. "You'll notice, that fourth person came from the same direction the van had pulled up, so it couldn't be the driver, as he had just pulled away."

Noah, looking over his father's shoulder, frowned. "That last guy, he was, I don't… kind of chunky, like it could have been Pete."

"Could be, yes," Sheriff Hunt acknowledged, glancing up at the teen. "But there is no way to really tell from this. It's dark, and you're looking at a zoomed in image there, so the resolution isn't the best given the distance and all. Here's the interesting part, though. Look at this second video…" The Sheriff retrieved the tablet long enough to bring the second media online before handing it back over. "Three people leave – not four, at 7:38PM. That's twenty-two minutes later. They exit quickly, looking around and then start running for the parking lot."

As Allen and Noah processed that information, James intervened. "You'll notice, the one who didn't join them was that last fellow that entered at the end. So, the question would be, what happened to him, assuming he was involved with what went down?"

"Other than that, the timing coincides now, and we have a few facts to put into place. I came here to see if our young Mr. Jesse could fill in any more gaps this morning." Sheriff Hunt sat back in his seat.

"And…?" Allen asked.

"Jesse is awake, and alert as far as we could tell," James informed them. "But he's still not processing things very well. Whenever Jim here asked about that night, he seemed to just freeze up. That, or he was confused, so we didn't push him too hard."

"I didn't get much out of him, really. He confirmed he went to the restroom, and had just finished his business when he was jumped from behind. The hood was pulled over him though, before he could see who his attackers were." Sheriff Hunt then sighed deeply. "I have a massive state-wide bulletin out, pictures and all, to try and find Pete Haskell III. No different than what we already issued before, but I'm hoping this young man will turn up somewhere along the way and be spotted."

"But… you still don't know that it was him involved," Allen voiced quietly.

"I think we can all make assumptions, and find ourselves relatively accurate with them, but you are correct: there is no physical evidence yet tying him to the incident," Jim Hunt explained. "Nor is there anything tying him to being involved with vandalizing your water mains at both houses. Still, he is our prime suspect, and unless something is uncovered otherwise, that is who we will concentrate our efforts on finding."

James nodded as the man then collected himself and stood. "I'm sorry James, I'd stay for a while longer if I could, but the truth is there are several other things going on this morning that I really need to attend to. If anything changes, however, don't be afraid to reach out to me," he said, extending his hand. "We're not giving up, not by a long-shot, but at the same time…"

"I understand, Jim. I'll try to talk with Jesse in a little while, too, once he's had a chance to calm down somewhat," James acknowledged. After wishing them each a good day, the man left.

Noah looked on. "Uh, Dad? There's only one thing I didn't understand. The time on that first video showed 7:16PM, didn't it? That was, well…"

Allen placed both hands on his son's shoulders from behind and squeezed. "Daylight savings time, I suspect. The video clocks were never run forward. You add an hour to each and all of it makes much more sense, time-wise." Stepping closer, he lowered his voice. "Why don't you go on into the room back there. I want to talk with your father a few minutes first."

"Which room is it?" Noah asked, before James stood up.

"I'll show you, son. I need a bathroom break anyway. I'll be right back," the tall man added for Allen's benefit, who simply nodded in understanding.

As Benji entered the room, his eyes grew wide at seeing his brother with his whole upper body now elevated. He started to run forward, but Jennifer quickly caught hold of him. "Be easy, now!" she warned, causing Makalah in her chair to turn around just in time and catch the youngster for herself, pulling him into her lap.

"Boy, have I missed you!" Makalah exclaimed, smothering him in a warm hug.

"Aww, Mom…" Benji complained, and then giggled. "You just saw me yesterday!"

"So? That was a whole, uh… what, 18 hours ago?" his mother shot back quietly, then laughed at seeing his expression. "Jennifer's right, though. See? Jesse's asleep right now, so don't be too rough on your brother."

"I won't," the boy replied while rolling his eyes, but then swiftly wiggled away from his mother and approached the side of the bed. He said nothing, seeing his brother lying there with the various bandages and stitches in various places. It humbled the kid momentarily, as now he could see his brother in much finer detail, being in a room with a window and the bright daylight pouring in. How badly he had been beaten was no longer a question to him, but at the same time, he studied Jesse's face and saw what he needed to for the moment. Even though there was little to no movement, other than the rise and fall of his brother's chest, the youth was appeased at the thought that his brother was alive, and was going to be okay. Benji glanced at the tubes and equipment surrounding the head of the bed, watching briefly as the IV continued to drip and supply fluids than ran down and just above his brother's wrist. He had seen these before, but never imagined what it might be like for anyone – until now. The only other sign of life came from a nearby monitor, which measured the teen's pulse and blood pressure. The readings seemed to be normal, since no alarms or warnings were displayed.

Jesse emitted a deep sigh just then, which brought Benji's focus back to his brother. He waited, expectantly, but the teen continued to sleep, which caused the younger boy to frown. He reached forward and found Jesse's hand, then took it within his and just held it. That's when he heard his mother step up beside him. "He'll wake up in a little bit," came the soft whisper. "He looks a lot better today though, don't you think?"

Benji once again studied the various black and blue bruises that were so vividly visible to him now. In some ways they appeared darker and profound, but in other ways they did indeed seem to be much more tolerable and less inflamed. "Yeah, I guess so," he finally admitted. He turned to look up at his mother. "When will he get to come home, Mom?" he whispered.

Makalah knew what her younger son was thinking, and she gave him a consoling smile in reply. "It'll be a few days, honey, but he WILL… COME… HOME!" The last was added with emphasis, as she placed an arm around his shoulders and hugged him. That seemed to mollify his fears, before he eventually nodded and turned back to the bed. From somewhere, Jennifer suddenly appeared with a stool, which she promptly set by the bed and helped the youngster to sit down.

It wasn't long before Benji felt another presence behind him, and without turning, he knew who it had to be. "He's sleeping, Noah."

"Yeah, I can see that," came a warm reply.

"Am… not…"

The voice surprised them both, along with the half-smile that greeted them as Jesse slowly opened his eyes. Benji turned to his Mom, who had by that time returned to her chair and was having a conversation with Jennifer quietly in the background. She heard the disturbance, however, and then smiled while giving Benji an all-knowing look, as if saying 'See? I told you so!' The young boy grinned before turning back, while Noah rounded the foot of the bed and approached on the other side. Jesse's eyes dotted back and forth between both boys, while he stretched his fingers out, one to his little brother and the other for his best friend. Benji saw the movement and reached down, taking hold, but used care to not interfere with any of the various wires and tubes in place. He immediately felt Jesse squeeze his hand though, as did Noah on the other side who had taken hold as well.

Uncertain what to say, Noah finally smirked. "Wow, what some people will do to avoid going to school this week," he whispered, then immediately regretted his words. Feeling like a heel, he hastened to add, "I'm sorry, bro. I didn't mean that the way it came out, honest! Not at all! I mean…"

Jesse squeezed the hand holding his once again. "O-okay, no… worries…" Although drawn out, the words spoken were much clearer. Benji received a warm squeeze as well, and he made an effort to return the gesture, causing Jesse to glance at him and smile. "How's it… going… short…. stuff? Did you… get to…play in the snow?"

Benji nodded excitedly. "Yeah, Petey and I started making a snow family, and then later yesterday, Noah and I built this snow fort and all! Like you and me used to do!"

Jesse started to giggle, but then his face twisted in a contortion of pain. Makalah was immediately by his side, placing a hand against his face and letting her son lie against it heavily. She glanced at the other two boys. "It's better if he doesn't laugh for a couple of days, boys. He didn't end up with a fractured rib, but they're still badly bruised all the same. He's going to need a few days to get his breathing back up to a normal pace, and then a few more before he can start laughing again."

"Yeah… what she… said," Jesse added in agreement. "It's okay…Mom… Just… Benji being… Benji is… all." He saw the crestfallen face, and moved his hand to reach out to his brother again. "Don't… worry. I just… wish we… could have played… too."

"I know. I wish you could have come home last night," Benji whispered back. He shrugged it off, however, and then smiled. "Yeah Mom, just me being me!"

"I know, that's what I'm afraid of," the woman admitted, giving a stern look toward her younger son, who immediately wilted once again under his mother's stare. Blushing though, he turned away and observed his brother again, albeit more quietly this time, all the while Makalah hobbled back to her chair and sat down again.

Noah leaned in closer. "Hey, don't talk if you don't feel like it, okay?" he announced. "Just… save your strength, and get better. That's what Benji and I want more than anything."

"Already… better… it's okay."

A silence fell between them, allowing the conversation between Makalah and Jennifer to drift in their direction. "Do you think you can hang around this afternoon?" Makalah had inquired, still keeping an eye on the boys.

"Sure," Jennifer. "What's up?"

"Well, Doctor Reddy was here earlier this morning, and he took a look at my ankle. He offered to do some minor surgery and then bandage it up afterwards, if I wanted him to. He seemed to think I just needed to get some excess fluid off some of the cartilage there and then, if I would not use it for a few days, it would heal up much faster. I admit, the way he made it sound, it's better than having a full surgery, or some kind of cast put around it."

"I've been telling you that it needed to be seen to," Jennifer chastised her, but then nodded. "Might as well do it now, though. You're not going to leave Jesse's side until he goes home, knowing you, so what better place to be or time to do it?"

"That was sort of the same consensus me, myself and I came to as well," Makalah admitted.

"I'm surprised he's willing to do it today, though," Jennifer thought aloud, but at that point Makalah shook her head.

"I was too, but he explained he had been scheduled to do some stuff here this afternoon, then most of his appointments got postponed because of the weather. So, before heading back to Glasgow he said he would take care of it for me if I wanted him to." Makalah then grunted. "I'm sure my boss had a few words and appealed to his good nature about it, as well."

"Well, I've heard he's a pretty gentle soul to deal with most of the time, so good for him," Jennifer responded. "Especially, given this weather. In the city here it's not too bad, but the county roads are still quite slippery in places. To top it all, there's talk of another front moving through later tonight, too, although don't expect as much out of it as we got Tuesday night."

Makalah nodded. "Which means they'll probably be calling school off tomorrow then." She sighed. "If I do this, I'll have to stay here overnight. That means Benji might-"

"Don't worry about him, Mrs. McAllister," Noah piped up, interrupting the women. "We'll take care of him, I promise. He'll be fine, won't you Short-Stuff?" Benji glanced around with a smile, but then nodded.

Jennifer also smiled at her son, but then nodded in agreement. "To be honest, I suspected they might call it off anyway, being a Friday. I just hope the kids can all get to go back at least early next week, since there are only two days of classes remaining for the year."

As the women continued to talk, Benji suddenly felt Jesse squeeze his hand. Turning, he listened as his brother spoke again. "Are… you being… good to… Noah?"

"No, he's being a pest and a pain in my ass!" Noah interrupted with a whisper, teasing. "I mean, how do you put up with him? He snores all night long, pees in my toilet without flushing, and eats all the bacon up at breakfast before I can even get a chance to have any!"

"Hey, now!" Benji spoke up in defense, louder than he intended, but then he saw the smirk on Noah's face and fell silent again.

"Of course," Noah added, "if you believed any of that, then you don't know either of us very well."

This time Jesse did not laugh, but smiled as best he could. Noah felt his hand being squeezed once again, and in return he held on for a long time before easing up. After a few moments, Benji became restless and got up before walking over to his mother. While they talked, Noah leaned in. "I wish… I really wish there was something we could do for you. Anything, really. It sucks you have to be in bed like this."

Surprisingly, Jesse made a slow but purposeful nod of agreement with him. "It's o-okay… you're… here…"

Noah smiled. "Are you hurting anywhere?" he whispered, and again Jesse nodded, but he did not answer right away. He turned his head slightly to see the two women still in conversation before turning his attention back to his best friend.

"My… nuts… feel like… the size… of… basketballs…" he spoke quietly.

Noah glanced down at his friend's groin and saw the larger rise beneath the covers there, know very well the area was still padded. "I have to admit, you do look kind of, uh, big down there," he whispered. "Can I peek?" Seeing another nod, Noah once again glanced at the women, but their attention was diverted, so the teen slowly pulled up one side of the blanket. Not surprisingly, he found nothing but bare skin running along Jesse's side, so he then subtly lifted a little more and peeked further inside. That was when he saw what looked like an overly large diaper was covering the groin. Seeing nothing else, he was about to let the blanket fall back into place, but he stopped when he noticed a tube extending from underneath the pad, and stretching down to the side of the bed. Dropping the blanket, he followed it until he saw the tube emptied into a plastic, transparent-like bag. It was already partially filled, and one glance told him without question what it contained.

Noah returned and locked his gaze with Jesse momentarily before he leaned in and spoke again. "You've got, like, this huge padding or something down there all taped up. That is probably what's making it feel so big," Noah whispered. Once again, Jesse nodded but said nothing. Noah, once started, could not help himself as he continued. "There's, uh, also this … thingy, too, like a tube and all, coming from underneath and into a bag over here."

Jesse nodded again. "I… know… bro. It's… how… I… pee," the boy replied.

Noah made a face. "Ugh, you mean they've got something hooked on the end of your, you know, or something?"

"No…" was the reply, but only a smile remained. When Noah didn't respond, he whispered again. "I'll tell… you next time… we're alone."

Noah nodded, but before they could continue both Allen and James suddenly appeared. From that moment on, the men either stood or sat with Jesse, chatting and cheering him up, thankfully without any need for laughter. Before long, Benji had convinced his father to give him change for a soda, but the two disappeared together to find a vending machine. Over the next hour or more, however, both families visited without interruption. As noon approached, a nurse subtly appeared and checked the teen's vitals again. "All good so far… how are you feeling right now, honey?"

"Kind… of… sleepy…" Jesse responded.

"Well, then why don't we just let you take a little nap. Do you feel any hunger at all?" she asked sweetly, but Jesse replied to her with a quiet 'No'. She nodded in understanding. "That's good then, for the most part. These fluid bags here are keeping you up for now. We'll be cutting them back somewhat, beginning this afternoon, and then that will change. We'll start you on a liquid diet tonight, just simple stuff to get down. Then as soon as you're up to it, we'll graduate your food on from there. How does that sound?"

"Good," Jesse replied.

Both Makalah and Jennifer had stepped up by then. "Honey, we're going to go out for a bit, alright? Try and take a nap, like the nurse suggested. We'll get out of here so you don't have to listen to us cackle like a bunch of hens, but I promise, I'll be back in a little while. Especially before anyone works on my foot this afternoon, alright?"

There was a pause, but Jesse finally breathed, "Thanks… Mom…"

With that, the group of adults made their way with Benji to the doorway, but Noah remained behind briefly, picking up Jesse's hand and holding it one last time. Their glance at each other said everything, it seemed, but both were reassured by it. "Love ya, bud, get better, okay?" Noah whispered, to which Jesse nodded.

"Take… care… of Benji… okay?"

Noah smiled. "I promise, I will."

During their break, the group headed out to a local diner to sit down and order some food. As they waited, Noah once again borrowed his mother's cell phone and sent a text to Simon. Almost immediately, the teen responded, hearing the positive news. "That's awesome news, Noah! I'll put Operation Get-Well-Soon into action, then!"

Curious, Noah returned his own response. "Operation… what? What are you talking about?"

Again, the response came quickly. "LOL! You'll see, don't worry – it's a good thing! See you later!"

The group casually ate, talking over various points. The men brought the women up to speed with the news Sheriff Hunt gave them that morning, which was somewhat encouraging at least. They all theorized about the extra boy who had joined the bandits initially, but did not come back out with them – but nothing they came up with made sense, really. As they finished up, Allen sighed deeply, causing Jennifer to turn his way. "Why don't you just take off for the rest of the day? It's not like you don't have any paid time-off you can't take."

"Normally, I'd agree, but there's a family supposed to close on a house this afternoon, and it unfortunately has some tricky paperwork we have to navigate though. I really need to be there so that it runs smoothly," Allen explained. Pushing back from the table, he turned to the boys. "Do you two want to go back to the house now or later? I can drop you off if you like."

Surprisingly, it was Benji who shook his head. "I want to go back to my brother," he stated, with a certain determination that caused Makalah and James to glance at one another.

"Well, I can take you back later in the afternoon then. I'll drop these ladies and the boys off and go up to the store for a few minutes. I need to sign timesheets anyway, and make sure the schedule has everything covered for the next few days," James announced.

Moments later, both men paid their bills and headed out to the parking lot. Although it ended up slightly crowded in the truck, James was able to drop his party off at the entrance to the hospital before taking off. Makalah, Jennifer and the boys then made their way inside and to the elevator. There was a delivery man who got into the elevator with them, carrying several nylon balloons with various 'Get Well Soon' phrases and other words of encouragement. Benji and Noah both looked them over with the same thought: maybe they could get some for Jesse later.

Surprisingly, however, when they departed on the second floor, the delivery man seemed to be heading in the same direction the group was taking, especially as they all turned through several hallways until they reached Jesse's room. Before entering, the man turned and grinned at them. "McAllister?" he asked with a single word.

Makalah's eyebrows raised as she replied. "Why, uh… yes?"

The man grinned, but then knocked on the partially closed door before entering. Once the door was opened and he proceeded, the families stopped in the entrance, glancing at the spectacle before their eyes. Along the window, at the foot of the bed, and in the corners were masses of balloons, cards and boxes, collectively sitting all around. The man moved and sat his collection at the head of the bed on the table, before turning quietly and greeting them once again at the door. "That's my last load, but I just heard from the office there's more there to bring up here. Seems like the boy has a pretty massive fan club from the looks of things." He saw their astonishment and simply nodded, acknowledging he'd probably be back in a little while, before heading back down the hall.

As the women moved in, Benji and Noah were still in shock as they followed slowly behind them. Both boys moved to the foot of the bed, where Noah picked up a stack of envelopes, most with either just Jesse's first name, or his full name written in various scripts or block letters. One rather large envelope was not sealed, and as Makalah approached, she encouraged him to open it up. Inside, they all saw a large card displaying more get well wishes, and then signed by what appeared to be the entire basketball team. "Oh, my Lord…" Makalah whispered, taking the card and shakily reading it, before putting it back into the envelope. "I… I don't…"

Noah had no doubt then, understanding exactly what 'Operation-Get-Well' had all been about. He watched as Makalah began looking over the tables and windows. Flowers had been brought in, along with a basketball that looked as if it were also signed by their team. A few small stuffed animals were also scattered about in places, with other trinkets and novelties. It was Jennifer who spoke next, with just as much surprise as the rest of them. "I don't believe it, really… this is so, just awesome!"

It was then Makalah's composure broke down. She had to sit on a stool as tears began streaking down her cheeks. Seeing his mother crying, Benji approached and put an arm around her shoulders. "What's wrong, Mom? Don't cry… it's a good thing, right?"

She glanced up into her son's face. "Good thing? Honey, this is… this is…"

"Awesome, it's awesome! It's a very good thing, Ben!" Noah filled in for her, to which she quickly nodded her agreement. They all then turned suddenly to the bed, where Jesse, who had obviously been asleep the whole time, was just now beginning to stir. Benji was about to run over and join him, but his mother held him back. "Shh! Let Jesse see them first, all on his own, okay? Like a surprise!"

Jennifer, who had sat down in a nearby chair, nodded he agreement. "And boy, what a surprise it'll be!"

The group did not have to wait long. About a minute later, there was a sharp sound that came from up the hall, loud enough that it made the teen stir again. As the group watched, they saw Jesse open his eyes slowly at first, but then quickly gawk at all the arrivals situated along the foot of the bed and the room's solitary window. "What… the…heck?" the teen spoke with pure, unfiltered astonishment. He then saw the group nearby. "What's… all… this…?" he asked in disbelief, his words coming even stronger than before, though still with an obvious effort.

Through her tears, Makalah stood and approached his side. "Well, to quote a man that was here just moments ago, it seems you have amassed a pretty extensive fan club!" She picked up the large card they had all just looked over, and pulled it from the envelope for him. "Here's to you—steadier, stronger and better every day" she read to him, then opened it to show the picture inside. "We're already missing you around here! Get well Soon!" she finished reading, then pointed out all the various signatures.

Very slowly, Jesse lifted his one free arm until he could take hold of the card and hold it up for himself. Jennifer and Noah joined him from the other side, as Benji carefully squeezed up in front of his mother. They watched the teen read it again, before his eyes filled with happy tears to go along with the smile. That was when Jennifer turned and lifted the basketball from the window sill. "It looks like they sent you a signed game ball, too. See?"

Jesse gazed and nodded, wishing he could reach out and hold it, but knowing that wouldn't be a wise course of action just then. Noah grasped hold, however, and held it for him, close enough so that he could read the various signatures, while the teen turned it slowly in the palm of his hand. When he put it back, Jesse glanced at the other cards and items. Seeing the attention, the group pulled a few of them up initially, but were interrupted by one of the nurses. "Mrs. McAllister?" she called, and when Makalah turned, she saw the wheelchair the woman was pushing. "Dr. Reddy asked me to inform you he'll see you now. So, if you'll come with me…"

Makalah turned and smiled at Jesse, who returned it. "I'll be back in a little while, okay?"

"Love you… Mom…" Jesse breathed, his eyes still watery, but nonetheless expressing a happiness he hadn't felt for some time.

"Love you, too." Makalah leaned in and kissed him on the forehead, before turning back to Jennifer, where she pulled her coat off and handed it over. Neither said a word to the other, but their expressions spoke volumes.

With Makalah gone, Jennifer and the boys pulled more cards and items forward, each taking turns to show and read their contents to Jesse. Before long, the delivery man returned again as he predicted, this time bringing two more sets of flowers inside, along with another stuffed animal - this time a larger, Christmas-like bear dressed in full holiday gear. When the family checked the card attached to it, they discovered it had come from Linda and Addison, two girls that neither of the teens had seen now for a week or more.

Noah observed his friend as each card and item was presented. He was unduly impressed, too, by how his peers had come together so quickly and done this. It must have taken a massive effort, especially with school being out since the basketball game. He soon realized, however, that with the team coming together, and the network of people that were so tuned in and in touch with one another, maybe it wasn't so impossible after all. The most humbling thing, however, was how they had all just come together for Jesse. More than once, the teen shed a tear that ran down his cheek, but for the most part would smile, even attempt to laugh at a few that were more entertaining in nature. There were also times that Jesse would glance up, blushing in embarrassment, but not once did he try to hide or shy away, even with Jennifer sitting beside him. All in all, there were over 40 cards they went through, and Jennifer took pleasure in taking some of the prettiest ones to set around the room. Given everything that had been received, the once rather barren room, was suddenly alive with a new life of its own, all in honor of its occupant.

That was not to be the last of the surprises, however. Later in the afternoon, there came a knock at the door before it swung wide. Expecting Makalah's return, or even another delivery, the group was not prepared for the mass of bodies that filed though and entered. As the basketball team made their way inside, they were also accompanied by both coaches, and the high school principal, Mr. Green. The team gathered around the bed as best they could, all grinning widely as Jesse looked on initially, speechless for a moment, but then began talking with them as best as he could. They did not stay long, especially when one of the nurses came to the door and waited patiently. Their 15-minute stay, however, was all Jesse needed to cheer him up the most. Each of them circled around and gave him an easy-going fist-bump, telling him to get his ass out of that bed soon, or he'd have them to deal with! When Harland and Coach Stevens made their moment to close in, both grasped the teen's wrist and told him not to worry about a thing, and to just get better. As the group moved out, Simon held back until he could lean in and whisper something privately to Noah. "Now do you believe us?" Noah, speechless himself, only nodded before trading his own fist bump with the teen. Simon, however, went one step beyond and placed an arm around Noah's waist, giving the boy a passing hug, before trailing off to join his teammates.

After their departure, Jennifer told the boys she was going to the restroom, so for once the three were left alone. Each approached Jesse on either side of the bed and stepped up close. The tears were falling freely now, but the teen had no shame as he looked upon one and then the other. It was Benji who broke the silence. "That was awesome!" he said quietly, but with a wide grin. Jesse simply nodded, unable to say anything for the moment.

"You know, Simon kind of hinted to me that something was going to happen, but… I had no idea it was this," Noah explained, before settling his elbows up on the bed rail in place. "God, they're… they were great for doing that. See? I told you, you're not alone."

Jesse nodded. "Neither… are… you…" he rasped out. That was the last thing the teen said before he finally closed his eyes, and quietly fell asleep again.

The nurse magically returned at that moment and checked on his stats. Satisfied, she smiled at the boys. "Quite a little crew there, wasn't it?"

"The best," Noah replied. As the woman was leaving, James appeared in the doorway, but stopped when he saw the room. With his mouth agape, the woman scoffed at him, but then shook her head chuckling as she went down the hall. Approaching, he glanced at Noah and waved his hand at all the various cards and paraphernalia. For the first time, Noah actually giggled. "They're from the school, the team and all mostly, but there's a few others there, too."

"Are you… serious?" James asked, his voice a whisper when he realized Jesse was sleeping. "Well, I'll be…!" he added when Noah had nodded.

"That was so awesome today, you know?" Benji stated that night, when he and Noah had climbed into bed together. The hour was not that late, but both had agreed they would watch a Christmas movie, and thus had just set it up in Noah's player. They scooted close together, using the bean bags as props to recline against on the bed and under the covers. The movie had not yet started, as previews began playing. Noah knew he could have advanced to the beginning, but had decided instead to take the few minutes and listen to the boy instead, as he went on talking about the various little gifts, and all the cards that had been sent.

Noah nodded in return. "Yeah, I know. Some of those cards were pretty cool, too. Remember the one about the dog?"

Benji laughed. "Yeah… 'Biscuit and I are thinking about you. He says WOOF!, which is doggy for Feel Better Soon!' I think that was my favorite one! It was from Addison!"

"Yeah, she and Linda sent the Christmas Bear, too," Noah mused. "Did you see the one on the ball? It said, 'Like a big ol' basketball, you'll bounce back!'. I think that was one of my favorites."

Benji giggled, then settled in, placing his head into the crook of the bigger teen's shoulder. "They were all good. He has a lot of friends. You both have a lot of good friends."

"Maybe," Noah acknowledged. He placed his arm around the boy however, and moved his leg so as to lie next to Benji's. The younger boy giggled and within seconds, the two began rubbing their feet together while another preview played on the TV. Eventually, however, Benji laid his head back again and changed the subject.

"So, no shower again tonight?" he asked quietly, which made Noah suddenly giggle.

"Why, do you think we need one?"

"Not really, just checking to make sure was all," the boy replied, but Noah detected a hint of disappointment. When the preview finished, he paused the player and turned his attention to his guest.

"Benji, I… I'm not afraid, you know that by now, but… I don't know, it feels… kind of, I don't know…"

Surprisingly, the younger boy nodded his head. "Yeah, I understand. Sorry Noah, I just…" He turned to look up into the eyes of the older teen. "I was just messing around, I guess."

"I know, and messing around is fine, honest," Noah replied before smiling. "I just kind of figured you might have gotten to see all you wanted of me last night, though."

"Well, kind of, but…" Benji hesitated. "It doesn't mean I still don't wonder about stuff."

"Really? Well, what kind of stuff are you wondering about?" Noah asked, sitting back and relaxing.

Benji then blushed deeply and began stammering. "I don't know, I, uh… just… things, I guess."

Noah leaned in close and whispered into his ear. "Are you afraid to ask me? After all we've been through? What's wrong, are you afraid Jesse won't tell you something you want to know?"

Benji's eyebrows shot high at the last question. "No way! Jesse and me, we talk about anything and everything!"

Noah nodded. "Okay, I believe you. So, what then?" he coaxed the boy. "What do you want to know?"

Benji observed his friend for a brief time, contemplating if he should pursue the subject any further. As Noah sat waiting patiently, the younger boy then decided he might test the moment. "Well, uh… do you, like…" He moved his hand over his groin and made the pumping fist, moving his hand up and down.

Noah, amused, lay back again. "You mean jack off?" he whispered. He wasn't sure which term he should use, but he did know, from conversations with Jesse, that he and his brother had talked about it before with each other. When Benji nodded, Noah smiled. "Ben, I think all boys do it at some time or another, once they're old enough. Sometimes a little, and other times a whole lot."

"How old do you have to be?"

"Well, I would say as long as you can get it stiff and keep it that way, then… that would be old enough," the teen whispered back.

Curiously, the boy rolled toward the teen. "How about… like, you know, making the white stuff?"

"Making cum doesn't happen at first. In fact, it doesn't really start happening until you're, I don't know, at least 11 or older, maybe more like 12," Noah answered without hesitating.

Benji observed the boy closely before his voice dropped to a whisper. "Do you make the white stuff? You know, when you…?" He punctuated the question that time by pointing at Noah's groin.

"Of course, I do Short-Stuff! I'm 15, remember?" Noah replied.

"Oh… yeah…" Benji became thoughtful for a moment. "Noah… how, like, big do you get? You know, when you…?"

Noah paused, thinking about it, but then shrugged. "I don't know… not so long, I guess, but kind of big around. You know, like puffed-up-big. Like, fat." He studied the face watching him, and he thought he suspected what the next question might be, although the younger boy had hesitated again. Smiling, he added, "Yes, I'll let you see me sometime, just to satisfy your curiosity if you want to. I promise."

"Really?" Benji looked up with surprise. "How did you know I was thinking about that?"

Noah laughed, before pulling the boy up into an embrace. "Because I'm psychic," he whispered into his friend's ear. "And… because I know if our places were switched, meaning if I were you, and you were me, I'd be wondering the same thing. Especially after you let me take a shower with you last night."

Benji giggled. "Wow," he voiced, impressed. "Noah, I… I'm sorry. If its stuff I shouldn't be bugging you with, then just tell me to shut up, okay?"

Noah, however, shook his head. "You and me, we can talk about anything, I promise. Just realize I might not always have the answer, okay? If I don't, then I'll tell you I don't."

Benji cocked his head to the side and regarded the older boy. "That's what Jesse always tells me, too." He leaned forward. "I'm curious though, I know that much. About both guys and girls, but… I don't want to be like a pest or anything to you, you know?"

"You won't, I promise. Now, is there anything else?" Noah asked. He saw the smile and expression that surfaced. "All right, what is it then? Come on, ask me…"

"Well, do you and Jesse, uh… I don't know, fool around and stuff? I mean, have you seen each other naked, or… you know?"

That was one question that surprised the teen. He thought about deflecting or evading the answer directly, but one look at the innocent face observing him, told Noah he'd better not take a chance that might destroy the trust they were building together. Slowly, he nodded, which made Benji giggle. "Cool!" the boy whispered, which then confused Noah.

"Huh? Why…?"

"I don't know, I just kind of wondered, that's all. I mean, Jesse and me are brothers, so we're not shy or anything, and here you're like a brother to me now, too. Get it? I just thought, well, maybe you two wouldn't be shy with each other, either. And believe me, Jesse really IS shy around most people, Mom and Dad especially. But… he's never hid himself from me or anything. That's how I know, see? We're brothers!"

The simple explanation caught Noah by surprised, but he nodded respectfully. "Yeah, you are, just like you and me are, too. And… so are me and Jesse, we're like brothers, too." he stated.

Benji nodded, but then settled back once again. "So, just what does messing-around mean? What do you do? Just, like, look at each other's willy, or…?" he asked quietly.

Noah scoffed, then took the simplest answer he could come up with. "We've compared, and yeah, looked at each other. And your brother has jacked me off some, you know, made the white stuff come out, and I've done the same thing to him a few times."

Benji nodded. "So, you've touched each other then? That sounds awesome!"

Noah smiled, but became serious. "Listen, that's between the three of us, okay? You can't go telling your friends at school, or anyone really. You understand that, right? Lots of kids will think you're weird and stuff, and … and…"

"They'll call you a fairy for it, won't they?" Benji asked, his own voice becoming quiet. "That's what all that stuff with Jesse was about, isn't it?"

Noah nodded, although a lump formed in his throat. "Some people think that it's all wrong, and dirty, and… and things that aren't normal."

Benji studied the teen briefly and then nodded. "Don't worry, no one is going to hear it from me, I promise."

"I'm glad," Noah whispered back, relieved. "I mean, I promised you, I would answer anything I could, but sometimes…"

"Noah, I know it all has a price, as Jesse puts it. And… I know what it was like, having those guys come after me. I didn't understand it then, but I promise, I do now. Besides, I don't see anything so wrong with it, you know? Like we said, we're brothers… right? Isn't that what Jesse is always telling us, about trust, and… you know, that stuff?"

Noah smiled once again. "You're too smart sometimes, you know that?" He reached in and tickled the boy briefly before wrapping him in his arms again. "Okay, anything else going on inside that head of yours?"

"No, I think that's all for now."

Noah grinned. "Are you sure?"

Benji shrugged. "Maybe not always, but… yeah." He then put both hands around Noah's neck and pulled, until their noses were practically touching. "Thanks, bro. I mean it, you're my brother, just like Jesse. Love ya bunches!"

In that tender moment, Noah nodded and grabbed the boy, holding him close. "I guess I better love you back then," he whispered. Benji giggled, but then maneuvered himself until both his arms and legs were encompassing the teen.

"Shut up, you big fart! I know you do," he whispered, holding on.

When Jennifer, Noah and Benji entered Jesse's room Friday morning, they were surprised to see the teen sitting up further in bed, awake and watching TV. As they walked through the doorway, he even turned his head further to watch and smile at them, although as they approached the bed, they could see it was still a painful gesture at best. Nevertheless, the trio were encouraged. "You look like you're feeling better this morning, kiddo!" Jennifer decreed.

"I am, thanks," Jesse replied, and although he still talked slowly, there was no hesitation between his words. "You just missed… Mom. She came… in early to eat… breakfast with me. Well… that is, she had breakfast… I just got Jell-O… and some juice," he added dryly.

Noah giggled. "So, does that mean you're going back toward a normal diet, with food and stuff?"

"The nurse promised me a snack… in a little bit, and then… some soup and crackers at lunch… If I don't get sick… from any of that, she promised… I could start on some… real food tonight," Jesse replied. "My doctor came in, too… He said I might… get to go home in… a couple of more days… So yeah, I'm kind of excited... Oh, and Mom is going… to get out this afternoon… but they're making her promise… to stay in a wheelchair."

"That's awesome!" Benji announced, walking up close to the bedside. Jesse smiled and, with his free hand, placed it around his brother as he leaned in and gave him a hug. "I'm so glad to see you doing better, big butt!"

Jesse smiled before replying, "I am, too, squirt." Surprisingly, he turned and then addressed Jennifer. "Um, do you know… if my Dad, or Allen… is going to come this morning?"

"Well, I know Allen left for work early, saying he had some things stacking up that needed attending to. He'll probably swing by, but I don't know what time, unless it might be during lunch. As to your Dad, I really have no idea. I assumed he would come in as soon as he's able, since both you and your mother are in here," she replied. "Why, do you need them for something?"

Jesse hesitated, thinking earnestly before he replied. "Yeah, kind of. I wanted… to talk to the Sheriff again… but not without one of them… being here, you know?" He immediately gave the woman an apologetic look. "Not that I couldn't do it… without you or Mom, ma'am. It's just… I think one of them… might know about something… that could help too, that's all."

Intrigued, Jennifer stood a little straighter and nodded. "That's okay, honey. Look, I'll go check in with your mother first, then give them a call if you want. Will that do?"

"It would be great, yeah. Thanks… Mrs. Cook!" Jesse replied. At the end, the pause had returned, showing the teen still had some difficulty speaking at times, but she acknowledged him all the same, ignoring it for now.

As Jennifer started to walk away, she stopped and turned to Benji. "How about it tough-stuff? Want to go see your Mom for a minute with me?"

Benji glanced at the two teens, then sighed as he hopped down from the stool to follow. As they exited the room, Noah took Benji's place and then leaned in close. "So, what's the deal? Can you tell me?"

"I can tell you… anything, bro… you know that." With his free hand, Jesse motioned to the utility cart next to the bed. "See that red envelope? There… pick it up and read it."

Curious, Noah reached out to do as instructed, pulling a simple card from inside. The cover was rather plain looking, but contained a simple, handwritten phrase in large, black script: I'm sorry. Inside, in a simple scrawl, was an even more perplexing message: This is not what I wanted at all. Get better. "Huh? Where did this come from?" he asked his best friend.

"I don't know," Jesse replied. "When I woke up… this morning, it was… on my chest, underneath my blanket."

"'This is not what I wanted at all' … It sounds like, well…" Noah repeated, and then paused, debating whether his thoughts were even viable.

Jesse was already ahead of him, however. "To me it sounds like… it came from Pete… doesn't it?" the teen asked. "I was wondering… have you ever seen… his hand-writing before? I mean… does it look like it… could be something he wrote?"

Noah studied the lettering briefly, but then shrugged. "I don't know. In all the time I was around him, I don't think I ever saw anything he did – homework, notes or anything. I mean, it might be from him, but…"

"That's okay, Noah. I understand, really... I was just… wondering. Do you…" Jesse paused to take a couple of breaths again before he continued. "Do you think… Linda would know?"

Both of Noah's eyebrows arched just then. "Yeah, she might. She used to help him with some of his homework, I think. I have her number at home, or better yet, her Dad's name is Raymond! Hamilton, or… or…"

"I thought it… was 'Hopperton'… wasn't it?" Jesse filled in.

"Yeah, that's it! I bet I could find the number in the phone book!" Noah stood, excitedly. Looking around, he saw a phone in the room, but checking the single drawer beneath it and finding it empty, he frowned. "There's no phone book in here, though."

"There is probably… one out at… the nurse's station," Jesse offered.

Noah nodded. "You… take a minute to get your breath back. I'll be back in a flash, alright?" Seeing his friend nod, Noah hurried from the room and rounded the corner, jogging up the hall until he reached his destination. A single nurse was sitting there, and as he made his request, she pulled a chained binder and handed it over. Understanding he could not take it back to the room with him, he suddenly began thumbing through pages until he located the number desired. Asking for a pen and piece of paper, he jotted the information down and then thanked the lady.

Returning to the room, he saw Jesse had returned to staring blankly at the television, and as he approached the bedside, the teen had yet to stir. "Hey, you alright?" Noah asked quietly.

Jesse nodded. "You know, if it was… Pete… That means he came… in here, sometime… during the night."

Noah stopped and frowned, as the realization began to hit him. "Wow, you're right…"

Jesse finally glanced at him. "Call Linda, see if… she could come up here… or you take the card… to her, or something… please?"

Noah nodded and dialed the number. On the third ring, a voice he recognized immediately answered the phone. They chatted for a moment, with Linda obviously inquiring about Jesse, and Noah filling her in on the latest news. When he got to the subject of the card, she told him she'd be happy to come up to the hospital, and would be there within the next half-hour.

While they waited, Noah sat close again, this time taking Jesse's hand in his own. Jesse smiled at him eventually. "I'm glad you're… here, Noah."

"I'm glad I'm here, too," the teen replied. "Is there anything I can get you, or do for you? You do look better and all, but you also kind of look… I don't know… down, I guess…"

Jesse, surprisingly, nodded in agreement. "I've been thinking a lot… this morning, about… what happened, and what I remember… about it and everything. After seeing… that card, I don't think… well, I'm just not sure."

"About?" Noah asked quietly.

"About Pete. I mean, he's… not an angel or anything, but… I never thought he… would be the vicious… type, you know? He's always been more… of the kind to embarrass… or humiliate people… I thought." Jesse sat back and took another couple of deeper breaths. "That's why you… guys found me naked… right?"

"Well, yeah, but…" Noah frowned, re-evaluating what he had known about the boy for the last year. "At first, after they came for you in the cafeteria at school-"

"They, yeah," Jesse interrupted. "Not just Pete, it was… his goons for sure... right? But, remember… I'm the one… who went after them."

Noah frowned even deeper. "Yeah, kind of…"

Jesse sighed. "There's something… else, too. That night… everyone in the locker room… talked in whispers… So, I couldn't make out… anyone specific, except…" Once again, the boy paused to catch a few deep breaths. "Damned, I wish I could… talk more normal!"

"You are talking normal, just take your time is all," Noah shot back. "Except? Who, Pete?"

Jesse nodded. "I remember… hurting bad, because… someone had started… kicking me in my… nuts…" Noah watched as the teen grimaced before continuing. "That was… the only time… someone yelled out. See?... I think it might have been… Pete."

"But… why? Did it sound like him?"

"Yeah," Jesse replied. "And he was yelling… something like… 'You guys are… taking this… way too far'… Someone hissed at him… and then I think I heard… something like 'I'm… out of here…' He was leaving."

Noah's eyebrows shot up again in surprise. "Really? Whoa!"

"Yeah, I know… That's what… I need to tell… the Sheriff."

Noah nodded, then squeezed the hand he held, and was rewarded when one was gently returned. "Wow," was all he could think to say. When he sighed, Jesse turned his head to observe his friend closer, but he saw a troubled expression meet him as Noah continued. "I just… I'm sorry, Jesse. I wish to God I had gone to the bathroom with you, or at least been there - or even just checked on you when it all was going down. Maybe, I don't know… I could have done something, you know?"

Jesse squeezed his friend's hand again. "No… better for one of us… than for both of us." Jesse then grunted. "Besides, my balls got… big and blue enough… for us both. You do… NOT want… to have to deal… with this, Noah!"

Noah recognized the weak attempt at humor, but did not take the bait. "I don't care, Jess. I would do anything, anything at all, to make this all better for you, you know?"

"Yeah, I know," Jesse replied. "Don't beat yourself… up, okay? Honest… I'm just glad… you're okay."

"I will be, eventually," Noah muttered, but held the hand firmly nonetheless. "Is there, like, anything I can do, right now?" he whispered.

Jesse grinned, which given the stitches looked odd in and of itself, but it was reassuring. "Well, I don't think… I'll be needing… any 'action' soon." Noah's curious glance was all Jesse needed to giggle again, despite the roughness he felt in his chest. "Take a look," he whispered, moving and pulling Noah's hand underneath the blanket.

Initially Noah was hesitant, but when he felt the expected padding, he noted how loose it was. Glancing around to make sure the coast was clear, he pushed the blanket back just enough, and that was when Jesse sucked in his gut. The teen couldn't hold it however, only lasting a little more than a second, but that was all the time Noah needed to see the now untapped padding, and Jesse's manhood underneath it - along with the tube attached not just on the end, but inserted inside. "Holy shit!" he breathed, looking up incredulously. He slowly pulled the blanket back down into place. "You… that… what is THAT fucking thing?" he exclaimed.

Jesse caught and held his friends gaze briefly before answering. "Mom told me… it's called a 'catheter'... They put it in people… who can't get up, or… go to the bathroom… like normal. Girls can get one, too… but theirs is different."

Noah observed him with a queasy expression. "Doesn't it… like, hurt?" he whispered, still in disbelief.

"Not really," Jesse answered back, his voice just as quiet and hushed as his friend. "I wasn't awake, or conscious… when it was put in… I just woke up… and it was there… If I don't move… too much, I don't… even feel it."

Noah glanced back at his friend's groin, as if he could see through the blanket. "Damn, Jess! How… I mean…"

"I don't know, really. It goes… up inside and, somehow… just let's my pee… come out on its own." Jesse suddenly sighed. "That's another reason… why I'm glad you're okay."

"Damn, Jesse… wow…" Noah whispered again, but then felt Jesse take hold of his hand again and squeeze. There was nothing more to really be said then, as Noah contemplated it all. At one point he even visibly shivered, which made Jesse smirk at him.

"Don't worry… We'll be at it… again, soon," the teen whispered, teasing him, which made Noah blush.

"How can you even think about stuff like that, when… when…"

"Because it's funny… and weird… but funny anyway," Jesse replied, giving his friend a lopsided, toothy grin. "And, because I… trust you… more than you know."

With that, the topic changed, and the two chatted a bit more until they heard a knock come from the door. Looking up, they watched as Linda strolled in, followed by Addison, which garnered a big smile from Jesse. "Hey, how's the dynamic duo doing?" Linda asked cheerfully, as both girls approached the bedside. Noah pulled back and rose from the stool, giving both girls ample room to slip in close. Addison, smiling, leaned in and gave Jesse a makeshift hug, before pulling back and letting Linda duplicate the same effort. Jesse took it in stride, and with his freed arm, tried his best to hug them back. For a few moments, the teenagers then chatted amongst themselves, asking Jesse questions and listening to him and Noah filling the girls in on what they knew - and didn't.

Eventually the conversation worked around to the room, and all of the cards and gifts that had appeared. Jesse thanked them both for the stuffed bear and card, which caused Addison to nod. "You should have heard it all… The team all got on their phones and started making calls or sending texts to everyone they could think of from school – coaches, teachers and staff - everyone."

"Then some of them got out in the snow and drove around to peoples' houses, bringing cards and everything so all of us could sign them and everything, too," Linda explained, picking up the explanation. "It was interesting for a few hours there. Sometimes we'd end up getting two, maybe three calls and all because the guys weren't keeping up with who was doing what, see? Then one of them, I think it was Tim Rigdon, started organizing everyone a little bit better."

Addison looked around at the room, impressed. "They did a heck of a job, didn't they? This is all so… awesome!" She then pulled out her cell phone and started taking a few pictures, but then decided to include some with Jesse and Noah, creating selfies between them with herself and Linda. When she showed them to the others, Jesse suddenly blushed as he stared at himself. "D-Don't…" he started, but then sighed.

Addison frowned, not understanding, but Noah was quick to pick up on it. "I think he's afraid someone will see him, you know… with his face being so beat up and everything."

Jesse nodded. "Yeah… I don't look too… pretty," he whispered.

Addison smiled at him. "I give you my word, I will not share any of the ones with you in them, except maybe this one…" She handed him the phone, its display depicting one with the four of them, but from an angle that did not show very much of the abuse he had endured. "Would that one be okay? You know, some of the guys want to know you're doing okay and all. This would be a good one to do that with, I think."

Jesse nodded, relenting. There was a certain exhaustion beginning to show, however, and Noah suddenly realized what the morning had been like. With a glance at Linda, the girl understood perfectly. "Come on Addison, I think Jesse needs to get some rest," she called out softly. Her friend nodded, and after a final hug and best wishes for him, they started out the door. It was in the hallway that Noah, however, rushed and caught up to her. "Wait! We almost forgot!"

Linda, thoroughly chastising herself, took the card and examined it thoughtfully, before looking up at the teen, his face anxious as he watched her. With a firm voice, she answered his unspoken question.

"I can tell you that yes, this is definitely the handwriting of Pete Haskell the Third."

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