The Storm That Turned the Tide

by Sean English

Chapter 23

When Hope Is A Waking Dream

"Ah… uh… yeah, just wait a sec… yeah, okay now…"

The words were spoken quietly as Jesse maneuvered himself into the tub and under the shower spray. Noah, holding his best friend steady from behind, slowly released him and watched as the boy propped himself up against the wall and closed his eyes. Once it appeared that he had regained some control of his balance, Noah nodded and stepped back. Jesse sensed the movement, however, and quickly opened his eyes to see his friend backing away. Noah, seeing his friend shake his head, stopped. "Dad was right, Noah. Right now, it isn't so bad, but I am still getting kind of dizzy sometimes." He paused, glancing down at himself before noticing how his friend looked over him indifferently. He blushed then before adding, "I know, I know… I'm really not much to look at right now, but still… if you can stand it, I think I need you to stay close by, just in case, okay?"

"I'm not going anywhere Jesse, unless you tell me to go," Noah answered quietly over the noise of the shower. Jesse accepted that before turning his attention back to the task at hand. Wetting a washcloth, the teen squirted some body wash from a nearby container into the cloth, before lathering it up and using it to brush across his chest and arms. Noah looked on, already chiding himself because here, once again, he had been taken aback by the various bruises and injuries across Jesse's body. He didn't mind being there at all, he had just hoped that Jesse wouldn't need a lot of physical support right then. It wasn't because of him lacking a desire to help out, but rather because Noah was afraid of touching or doing something the wrong way. He didn't want to do anything that might hurt or bring more discomfort than what Jesse was already feeling. There was no doubt that Jesse was distressed at times, as he winced continuously while stretching to reach certain areas, or coming across others that blindingly stung at his touch. Noah did as he was asked, however, ready to reach out at a second's notice if he needed to.

In the meantime, Jesse was able to take care of most places all by himself. At least, until he finally handed over the soapy cloth to his friend with a sigh. "Okay, get my back for me, will ya? I… I know I've sweated a lot while lying down on it. Just… you know, help me so I don't have to twist as much, please?" he asked quietly, before slowly turning around and backing up to his friend as close as he dared.

Noah quietly did as he was requested, and was relieved to see that the amount of damage there was actually quite superficial. The discolorations disclosed were already in the process of dissipating, and it appeared most were in their latter stages of dissolving. In a way, Noah was grateful the teen had been spared there from his ordeal, but it brought into focus the reality of where the goons had concentrated instead along Jesse's front side and groin. He lowered the rag to the top of Jesse's buttocks and scrubbed gently at the area in and around the waistline before finally stopping. Jesse, seemingly satisfied, turned and took the cloth back into hand. "Thanks, that was perfect," he murmured before rinsing it in the shower stream and squeezing it out. He then turned to shampoo his head, but this time Noah did step in close to assist without being asked. It was a good thing, too, as Jesse had started to stumble, especially when it came to rinsing his hair. There was an expression of complete exhaustion there once again, and Noah was reminded that the teen had been through quite a lot that day already. Noah grasped him along his sides and provided a firm level of support while Jesse finished rinsing.

The task, like the rest, was performed in silence, as there were no words that really needed to be exchanged. This was one of those times that the act of the shower itself was for Jesse's benefit alone, and certainly not with some sexual overtone. It showed, too, because when they had finished and turned off the water, Jesse stared at his friend with an expression of deep gratitude. "You have no idea how good that felt to me, even if it was… you know…" he whispered. Noah only smiled in return as his best friend stood there, dripping wet, before reaching out and touching a single finger on his nose. Before Jesse could respond, however, Noah turned to the sink and removed a towel from the cabinet underneath.

At Jesse's encouragement, Noah used the towel to dry the teen off, using an over-abundance of care in certain places. He did his best to maintain a distant focus, not wanting to alarm his friend in any way as he had done earlier that day, and for the most part he succeeded. When he reached the area between Jesse's legs, he simply blotted the groin several times, never pressing hard, but yet just enough so that the towel absorbed what moisture it could by contact. Jesse sucked in his breath more than once, startling and causing Noah to look up, but again the teenager shook his head. "You're doing f-fine, bro. Don't s-stop," he whispered. Noah nodded and then quickly finished his mission.

Noah discovered that getting Jesse out of the tub was less of an ordeal this time, as compared to getting him in. After the teenager had first stripped, he could raise his legs just fine, but the process of pivoting on one foot and then the other had thrown his balance askew. It had taken them both a moment to sort it out, but eventually Jesse made it into the tub with Noah wrapping his arms around the torso and pivoting for him. Getting out, the two did almost the reverse, with Noah hugging him close and straddling the side of the tub itself. Slowly swiveling, first one leg and then the other, let Jesse make it out and onto the floor. "I have to admit, I didn't think it would be this bad getting in and out, but…"

"Shut up," Noah grumbled, before standing and turning the teen around to face him. Noah looked into the deep blue eyes that met his own, before closing in and threading his arms around him close. "Yeah," he whispered, feeling Jesse begin to relax and giggle. "I know, you're butt-naked, so just deal with it. You know I really don't care. Besides, it's my turn for a hug, and I'm taking it now," he whispered into his ear. Jesse grasped the teen, too, and hung on as if for dear life.

The two held each other for a long time, this being their first real, full-body hug they had been able to accomplish in a week or more. Jesse became emotional just then, but not because of recent events or the fact his body was crying out with even more aches and pains from the embrace. "I- I love you, so much," he finally whispered back. "I'm just so happy to be home, and that you're here… with me…"

"I know you are," Noah replied, his voice low as he pulled back and smiled. He reached up and brushed another tear away that had formed and started to fall. "I can see it, in your eyes. I can feel it in here, too," he added, touching his chest over the heart. They stared at each other for another moment, then Noah slowly guided the teen over and pushed him gently, until Jesse was sitting on the toilet seat. He quickly found the boxers and threaded them over Jesse's feet, before pulling them up onto the teen's thighs. He also made short work of pulling a long-sleeved t-shirt over his head, before helping him to stand again, where he finished pulling the boxers into place. After straightening his friend's clothes from their twisted positions, he then gently pushed again to sit back down. "Okay, now you have a choice. You can either sit there and wait for me, or I can take you back to your bedroom now."

"What do you mean, wait…" Jesse paused, the realization hitting him as Noah began to swiftly remove his sweatshirt. "You're going to shower, too? Then… I'll… well, if it's okay… I'll stay with you," he whispered, causing Noah to chuckle. The two had seen each other, undressed each other and been together near or completely naked already so many times, that hearing that response somehow seemed amusing. Yet, he also had to admit to himself that the moment seemed to take them both back to a time before any of their intimacy had ever taken place.

"It's funny, you know, listening to us," Noah whispered finally as he unbuckled his belt and began to loosen his blue jeans.

Jesse nodded, although blushing. "Yeah, I know. It kind of feels like this is our first time doing this, doesn't it? At least, it did to me for a moment." Noah agreed as the blue jeans cleared his feet and he made to drop his briefs, letting them fall to the floor before stepping away. He was about to turn and get in the tub, but Jesse reached out and caught him with both of hands placed upon Noah's hips.

With an unusual tenderness, Jesse gently guided his friend until he stood directly before him. He stared briefly then, before pulling and bringing Noah in closer, his friend's groin meeting him almost at eye-level. He was actually happy that Noah was in a total non-horny state for once, something Jesse had been wanting to see up close for a long time. Noah believed he understood then, as he smiled and thrust himself ever so much closer. Jesse observed the circumcised toy before him, and pushed it aside in first one direction and then the other with a gentle touch. He even lifted it and explored the scrotum beneath, before setting it gently back into place.

"Be careful. If you get him woke up, you might have to… I don't know… do something, I think," Noah whispered teasingly, but even in the moment, he had no trouble remaining in control of himself and not get aroused. He watched Jesse stare at him, even from different angles, before the teen finally sighed and brushed his own fingers through Noah's pubic bush before looking up.

"I know, I owe you, and believe me, I want to even now… but, I don't think we should with Mom being in the living room, you know?" he whispered. "Plus…"

"Yeah, I know," Noah replied just as quietly. "It's okay, really. There's not that much different than when Dad was watching the game that day outside my room." He tilted his head to the side, however. "You don't ever have to wait though, you know? Any time you feel like it, and you think it's, well, safe…" Jesse smiled and nodded, before gently pushing the teen away. Noah took that as a signal to get going, so he made his way into the shower. Turning the water back on, he then made much shorter work of repeating what his friend had just gone through. Unlike Jesse though, he found he had to pull the shower curtain at least part of the way around, in order to contain the splashes of water he made while going about his business. When he finished, however, he pulled the curtain back to find Jesse still sitting and waiting for him, patiently watching but holding another towel in his lap, which he promptly passed over.

A few short moments later, Noah was guiding the teenager back into the bedroom, where they both found Benji on his top bunk, watching cartoons. "About time you two eggheads got finished! I'm supposed to get a shower too, you know!"

"Sorry, squirt," Noah grimaced. "You might want to wait a few minutes, though, so the water heats back up."

Benji nodded. "I figured as much. We know all about that, don't we Jess?"

Jesse smiled weakly, but then changed the subject. "Hey, how come you're up there? I figured you'd be crawling all over these bean bags by now!"

Benji shrugged. "I figured they're more for you two than they are for me," he replied quietly, causing Noah to raise an eyebrow. Despite the carefree way in which the explanation was given, he could sense something was off. He glanced at Jesse, but the older brother was already haphazardly maneuvering himself over to the bed.

Before sitting down, Jesse looked up and observed his brother briefly, then he glanced at the clock. He was surprised to see that it was almost half-past nine. "Wow, I didn't realize it was getting that late!" he murmured as Noah turned and left the room, only to return a moment later carrying their various clothes from the bathroom.

While their guest was folding and putting things away, Benji lazily popped his head over the side of the upper bunk to gaze down at his brother. "Are you, like, planning on going to sleep right away?"

"I don't know, soon maybe. Why?" Jesse replied, then watched as Benji cocked his head to the side and silently stilled himself, looking on. Jesse felt he knew what it was though, and with a single finger, he motioned for his brother to climb down the ladder and come closer. Benji did as requested, until he ended up sitting on the lower bunk next to Jesse. There, the two brothers stared at each other briefly before Jesse grabbed the boy and pulled him close. He began the task of removing his brother's clothes, which was something Benji seemed to enjoy as he relaxed. Noah, once he had finished separating and putting Jesse's clothes in the hamper, then turned and joined in, causing Benji to giggle even more as he was steadily stripped down to only his underwear. The older boys stopped, however, looking on as Benji pushed his hands behind his head and stared at them both.

Although Benji had spoken of getting a shower, the thought of it now was probably the furthest thing from his mind. He had been here before with both of the older boys, so he had no concern whatsoever with what might happen. He could care less if they stripped him completely, and they knew it. Jesse had no intention of taking advantage of his brother though, so instead he tickled his brother lightly all over, causing the youth to wiggle incessantly. He did play his fingers a time or two along the briefs, briefly pulling at the waistband there, but nothing more. The truth was, he wanted to do something more, something even special enough that Benji would feel between them, but at that moment Jesse's exhaustion was rapidly catching up to him, and threatened to make him topple over. Noah realized it, watching his friend closely, before rising and finding a t-shirt for the youngster to sleep in, and as he approached, both he and Jesse worked it over Benji's outstretched arms, who had raised them to aid in pulling it on. When it was successfully donned, Jesse finally leaned in closer. "See, Ben? I promised you, remember? Tonight, you're going to be all mine."

Benji smiled, but then glanced at their guest with a questioning look. "But… what about Noah?" he whispered, clearly uncertain at that moment.

"What about me? It's okay, I'm going to be right next to you guys, right down here," Noah replied. "Watch," he commanded, as he rose again and then went about setting up both a quilt and blanket beside the bed on the floor, along with one of the bean bags and a pillow. "Just, uh, if you get up for the bathroom or anything, try to not step on my uh, you-know-what!" he teased.

"Your willy?" Benji filled in for him with a whisper, clearly amused.

"Yeah, that and my nuts," Noah replied, with a wink. Before he stretched out, however, the teen leaned in and gave Jesse a hand. Benji's smile grew wider when both teenagers pulled and settled him inside the covers close to the wall. Noah took a brief timeout to hug both boys, muttering, "The only thing it might cost you though, is letting me have a hug." Benji put everything he had into the embrace that followed, then watched as Jesse did the same. Afterwards, Jesse adjusted himself behind his brother and hung an arm over the side, keeping him close and making Benji let go a deep sigh. Noah turned off the TV and stretched out in his makeshift bed after turning off the light.

All three lay for a moment in the quietness before Jesse grunted and rolled onto his back. Wordlessly, Benji followed so that he could sink into the older boy's side, placing his head up into the crook of his big brother's shoulder. "Thanks," he whispered, ever so softly. "Jesse? I'm glad you're home… I love you…" It was the last words spoken by the youngster, and before long, Jesse reached out and found Noah's hand was surprisingly nearby. As he grasped and squeezed it, the affectionate gesture was returned, and in the silence that followed, Jesse felt he was at peace with the world just then. If for nothing more, he was finally, once again, home. Before long, he closed his eyes, and succumbing to his exhaustion, he quickly drifted off to sleep, holding his little brother on one side, and knowing his best friend was on the other, protecting him.

"Dang, it just keeps getting better and better, boss!"

Fred Spence laughed as he dropped a folder onto the Sheriff's desktop, then approached a nearby facility cart where he began pouring himself a cup of coffee. "Three of the six sets of prints have been identified from the bust the other night. Two of them are for fugitives wanted in upper-state Pennsylvania and New York, both in connection with drug trafficking, terroristic threatening and a host of other charges. Then there's that so-called John Bush himself, whose prints came back as not being John Bush, but as being a Walter J. Bushong, from Aubin Hills, Michigan."

Sheriff Hunt sat back in his chair and observed his deputy with a frown. "Really? I thought we checked his driver's license that day in the clearing… didn't we?"

"We did, that and his hunting license, yeah," Fred responded. "The FBI database says different, though. They sent his details back, including an impressively long rap sheet and photo, both in the folder there. You might be interested to see he has a list of aliases, too, that he's been known to use. Bush is one of them."

"Humph," the Sheriff replied, before setting the folder back down. "That's three of them then. Which of the others are we waiting on then?"

"One is a no-go for anything, yet. The look-alike brother is another. So far, nothing has rolled in on him or the brawny big guy," the deputy replied, taking a seat in front of the desk. "Get this: none of them, not even Walter Bushong, had any kind of ID on them – just wallets at most, with money from the looks of it. No credit cards, no IDs, nothing else. That big guy though, he had a watch that was kind of interesting – and I mean, the kind of stand-out-in-a-crowd interesting. Clean, extra-nice looking, as in fancy. When I checked it into the locker downstairs, it was some kind of a Audemars Pig-something brand. I looked it up online, and found out it comes from a company founded out of Switzerland, makers of fine watches and accessories. Extra-fine, by my standards at least."

"The Swiss are known for making high-quality watches, Fred," Sheriff Hunt informed his employee, already discarding the information – until Fred explained further.

"Oh, I know that, boss, but… for these people, the least expensive item I could find in their line of watches was somewhere around the $17,000 range, give or take a few."

Both of the Sheriff's eyebrows shot up, his curiosity now piqued. "Whoa, are you kidding me? That… that is interesting, indeed. I think I see what you mean, now! You're certain you got the brand-name right though, correct?"

"Oh, I think I did, yeah. Just in case though, I've had it sent over to old man Slinker's shop off the square, to see if he can have it checked out and appraised. We'll probably know something about it later on today or tomorrow," Fred replied. When it seemed as if the topic had come to a close, he cleared his throat and took the conversation in a different direction. "So, any word from the boat crew yet?"

"Oh, yes. Phillip is down there with both the Park service and the FBI right now. They're tearing that boat apart from bow to stern, and have already found all sorts of contraband stuffed everywhere," Sheriff Hunt replied. He paused briefly before shaking his head. "I always suspected we had a drug trail through here, but I never expected it to be quite this sizable. Those boys down in the lockup, I imagine they'll have quite a bit to answer for before all is said and done. You know, I walked down there earlier this morning, but Garret told me they haven't uttered a single syllable since going in - and I do mean, like, mums-the-word. Zip, nada, nothing – total silence. There is one thing interesting, however. One of them supposedly started to grumble about something the other night, perhaps about being stripped down and all - but the big fella you mentioned, shut the man down and fast. Hasn't said a word since."

"Oh?" Fred asked, chuckling. "Didn't like having to go all-natural, eh?"

"I guess so, from the looks of it," Sheriff Hunt replied. He considered the matter for a moment, but then shrugged. "Given what you've just told me though, it may be the big guy is the one in charge, or at least one of the major players. As I recall, he also did something rather peculiar yesterday, too. When Daugherty offered all of them their one phone call, big fella is the only one who stepped forward. Without a word, he took the phone and made a single call out to a number with an area code registered to North Carolina."

"Who did it go to?" Fred inquired, sipping his coffee. "Did we trace it?"

"We don't know exactly, because it was one of those burn phones you hear about; you know the type, pre-paid, no real registration to speak of. It's like those temporary units you can pick up in places like Walmart, or at a mall or somewhere, I think. Anyway, that still isn't the peculiar part of it. Daugherty said that someone picked up on the other end, never seemed to say anything at all, but then our big fella uttered four simple words: 'Ford, Pontiac, Honda and Dodge'. Afterwards, he hung up and handed the phone back. None of the other detainees bothered to even make a call at all."

"You're shittin' me?" Fred exclaimed under his breath. "What the hell…? What do you make of that? Like some kind of spy-movie code, or…?"

The Sheriff shrugged. "No idea, really. Of course, it's a code, but your guess to what it means would be as good as anyone else, I reckon. As far as I'm concerned, we'll pass it all on to the FBI and let them worry about it. Right now, I'm more interested in keeping them locked up until they're transferred, and in finding our other young absentee as of late."

"Yeah, the Haskell kid," Fred surmised. "I know we was hoping to catch him in that group, too."

"Got some news on that end, boss," came a voice from the door. The Sheriff looked up in surprise and then waved for Deputy Aubin to come in. "I just got off the phone with Turner. Evidently the boys found a backpack stuffed in one of the compartments aft. Inside it were some clothes, including school gear that had the Adair County Indians logo on it. Get this, too: one of the items also had a faded nametag sewn into it, but could still be seen, identifying that it belonged to a 'Pete H.' That has to be the kid, boss."

Sheriff Hunt suddenly sat forward. "Now, THAT at least ties him in! It says the kid has been on the boat at some point!" the man declared excitedly. "Where's that pack at right now?"

"They're sending it up here, along with a few other things later today," the deputy added, before nodding and walking out of the office.

One look at Sheriff Hunt left no doubt that the gears in his head were in full motion. "Fred, I think Chester is coming on duty in a bit. When he does, you two make a trip back down to the docks, but this time concentrate along the shorelines both leading in and coming out of the Marina. Make sure we aren't missing something, okay? Pete Haskell has to be out there, somewhere in the area, you know? Finding that bag is the first piece of solid proof the kid hasn't high-tailed it out of the area just yet!"

Fred stood. "Okay, boss, will do. Uh, what do you want to do about that reporter out front?"

"What I'd like to do, and what I can do, are unfortunately two totally separate things, right now," the man grunted, but then sighed. "You're right, though… It probably is time we bring him up to speed somewhat. I'll be hog-tied though, if I'm going to give him very much to go on, especially since our investigation is still considered to be ongoing!" the man declared, pushing himself back from the desk.

Jesse awoke slowly to the stillness in the air around him. When he opened his eyes, he first just saw the wall before him, but as his sight expanded - much like the shutter of a camera - he was able to take in more of his immediate surroundings. Oddly at first, he had jumped to the conclusion in thinking it had all just been a dream, and that he was actually still back in the hospital. It was enough so that it had caused his heart to sink at that thought, but as he blinked away the sleepiness, a different realization hit him. He felt no cables attached, heard no monitors, and definitely observed a silence of sorts bereft of the sounds he had become used to hearing in the hospital. Instead, it was a stark silence that met him, and that realization revitalized his spirits somewhat. It also helped when, in his peripheral vision, he began to realize that another bed, which was the bottom of Benji's upper bunk, was secured above him. All at once it then clicked, and immediately he sighed in relief.

Sitting up slowly, the teenager paused briefly to look out their window and observe the outside world. The sky was partially clouded, with beams of sunlight breaking through in places at irregular intervals. Glancing up, he saw clouds moving swiftly across the horizon, which was his first sign that the day was a breezy, if not blustery one. Several trees and bushes along the ground between the house and the Cooks were shaking and bending in the wind, thus quickly confirming that assumption was not restricted to just higher elevations. He had no idea how cold it was, or otherwise, but he figured that it wasn't going to last long. The oncoming front already forecast for that night, would probably change everything once again.

Jesse sighed, but then laid back momentarily and smiled to himself. It was the first time in almost a week, that he felt truly rested and… alive. Unlike his nights in the hospital, where the nurses always appeared periodically to check in on him and interrupted his sleep in some way or another, his being home had the exact opposite effect. He didn't understand really, how anyone was supposed to get rest in a hospital with all those constant interruptions and sounds. Sure, the nurses were just doing their job, but to him, he thought of it all as being counterproductive - at least toward the end.

So deep was his state of slumber in fact, that Jesse never even realized when first Noah, and then Benji, rose and left for school that morning. As if to confirm it, he glanced behind him and saw he was not only alone in the bed, but the room as well. In fact, the floor was also open next to the bed, devoid of Noah's makeshift accommodations from the night before. Glancing around, he saw the beanbags had been stacked out of the way in one corner of the room, with the coverings stacked on top, neatly folded along with his friend's pillow.

Jesse then glanced at the clock and was startled to see it was almost half-past nine already. No unpleasant dreams, no bumps in the night, and a feeling of being rested combined, it was almost too much for him to believe in. Nothing had disturbed the teen even once since he had fallen asleep the night before, holding onto Benji at his side. In fact, the last thing he remembered was his brother crawling up and laying his head into Jesse's shoulder, and the hand that slipped up inside his t-shirt to softly rub across his chest was uncharacteristic of the youngster, but was totally welcomed. No other night, on his own at least, had Jesse felt that much at peace since the 'event'. Noah had come close while staying with him at the hospital, but it was this night, with his brother sheltered and protected on one side, and his best friend on the other, that made all the difference in the world.

The teenager finally tossed the covers back and sat up on the side of the bed. A tinge of lightheadedness returned, prominent enough that he had to remain motionless before the feeling passed. It was a stark reminder of why he was home in the first place, and not at school doing what would have been normal. Eventually the feeling dissipated enough for him to climb to his feet and, once there, he was pleased when there seemed to be no more ill effects. He took a tentative step toward the door, and then a second one, but by the third step he started to feel the disorientation return. Making it to the doorway, he paused and held onto the frame, closing his eyes until the feeling passed. Once done, he then started carefully down the hallway, moving more cautiously this time until he reached the bathroom. Once inside, however, he didn't bother to close the door behind him. His body had started to feel funny, and the closer to the bathroom he traveled, a certain sensation began to impress urgency in his step. Making a beeline for the toilet directly, he quickly turned to take a seat, sitting hard and only grunting when he realized he still needed to get his boxers pulled down. Internally there was no mistaking that the huge pressure he felt, had no intention of waiting for him to meet any level of properness. So, as quick as he dared to move, he hoisted himself up just enough to work them down until they practically dropped to his ankles. Not a moment too soon, as it turned out, as he plopped back onto the seat just as it all began to move internally.

It had never occurred to Jesse to think about taking a dump in the last few days. His body had never given him that existential urge, as it were, and no one had seemed too concerned about it at the hospital. At least, not that they mentioned around him. Now, however, the movement turned out to be almost explosive in nature, not particularly in any form of diarrhea, but far from the normal, solid mass he was used to. He realized, too, that he hadn't even had cramps for the past few days, so he was not surprised to have that feeling set in and take over just then. It was almost humorous, the loud noises erupting on occasion, followed by a rank stench that began to drift in the air around him. Its putrid odor even caused his eyes to water up and blink. For some reason, he was glad for once that Benji was nowhere around to witness it or tease him about it.

It wasn't long before he heard voices coming from the front room, and then a moment later one of them called out to him from just outside the open door. "Uh, Jesse, are you okay in there?" Jennifer asked quietly.

Jesse grimaced. "Yeah, I'm all right Mrs. Cook. I'm sorry, I didn't, … like, have time to get the door closed behind me, and well…"

The woman giggled from the hallway. "I bet! Don't worry about it though, I'm not coming in there – unless you need me to, that is."

"Um, no… I think I can handle it. Besides, you don't really want to be in here right now… You'd literally need a gas mask, I think," Jesse responded sheepishly, which caused Jennifer to laugh aloud even more.

There was a pause then as another voice called out from beyond, but Jesse couldn't quite make out the words. Jennifer, however, readily relayed the message. "Your mother wants me to ask you how you're feeling this morning?"

"I…" Jesse started, but then hesitated as another gaseous round escaped. "Uh… not bad, really. Better, I think. I might be a contender for the next rocket to the moon if this keeps up, though!"

Jennifer again laughed heartily at his attempt of humor. "It's all good, though. Better to get it out now than let it bloat you up later," she added, before relaying it on. In the distance, he heard his mother suddenly laughing as well. Meanwhile, Jesse reached and started to pull some toilet paper from the roll before her heard the woman speak again. "Listen honey, when you're done, head on into the living room and sit with your Mom. If you need help, just yell and I'll be here in a flash, okay? Otherwise, I'm going to go make you some breakfast and then bring it to you. How would you like to have a ham and cheese omelet this morning? I can add some other stuff in, too, if you like."

Jesse thought about that briefly as he smiled. "Honestly? That actually sounds great to me, ma'am. Um, could you maybe see if we have and add some green peppers and onions, too?" he added timidly.

"Like a western omelet? Of course! You got it, Mr. Hobbit," Jennifer replied with another giggle. "Remember, call out if you need me to walk with you to the living room, alright?"

"I will, Mrs. Cook, and thanks," Jesse replied, before the woman retreated. A moment later, he could hear her bustling about in the kitchen.

Jesse cleaned up appropriately and pulled his boxers up onto his thighs, before attempting to stand. A wave of nausea hit him suddenly, this time affecting his stomach and more, but as he reached out to grasp the nearby sink, it gradually dissipated. He frowned though, and hoped it was only because of his day getting started. Other than having to deal with getting in and out of the tub the evening before, he had not had much of an issue otherwise. Tentatively shaking his head, he cleared the fog that had hung around inside, and then reached out to flush the toilet. He found he could wash his hands without difficulty, so using the various props and walls to hold and guide him, he made his way to the doorway again. There was no air freshener that he could see, and since the old house didn't have an exhaust fan, he pulled the door almost completely shut behind him, hoping the fumes would eventually dissipate. Stepping into the hallway, another minor wave of dizziness surfaced again, but pausing briefly he let it pass before taking another step. Although he seemed to be walking a little better, the teen straightened himself and put everything he had into walking as normally as possible. He didn't want to show his temporary handicap to the women if he could help it as he approached the living room.

Reaching the end of the hall, the teenager took another deep breath and hesitated, realizing suddenly he was still clad in only his boxers. Grunting, he ignored that and stepped around the corner, where he found his mother already stretched out in her recliner, similar to the evening before. She glanced up immediately and saw him, beaming a wide smile which in turn caused the teenager to return one of his own. Carefully crossing to her, he bent down slowly and gave his mother a kiss on her forehead, before moving on to take a seat at the end of the couch, closest to where she sat. Makalah, although disappointed she didn't get a hug out of the moment, didn't let it show as she turned her attention and watched both his stride and descent to the couch with interest.

"Good morning, Sunshine! How did you sleep last night? Did everything go okay?" Makalah asked quietly, as her son reached out and pulled a nearby blanket over to cover his lap and bare legs.

"Really good, Mom, I think. I barely even remember going to sleep, and then the next thing I knew, I woke up and saw Benji and Noah were already long gone," Jesse replied.

"I think Noah woke up before your alarm went off, and I heard your father extract your brother pretty quietly, as much as he could anyway – which is saying something, nonetheless. He checked on you sometime during the night and, according to him, you and Benji were about as wrapped up as a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich," his mother explained, her tone betraying a certain level of amusement. "This morning he said you were still snoring so peacefully and everything, that they decided to try and not bother you."

Jesse nodded, although he blushed slightly. "It was… I don't know, Mom. It's kind of hard to explain, really… It was the best sleep I think I've had since last week, since the, uh… yeah, you know."

"I imagine so," Makalah replied. "You don't have to explain it to me, kiddo. I promise, dear old Mom understands it probably better than you think." Jesse rolled his eyes, but let the reference to age go. Sometimes, he though his mother did it just to goad him into responding, but this was not going to be one of them.

Just then Jennifer appeared in the doorway leading to the kitchen, nodding in agreement to what she had overheard. "There is something about being home that just makes anyone rest better, in most cases. Everything is more familiar – the feel, sounds, smells – all a lot different than staying in a hospital room. I think so, anyway," their guest declared. "By the way Jesse, do you want anything to go with your breakfast? Like some toast, perhaps?"

"Yes ma'am, please. That would be great," Jesse replied. Jennifer nodded before disappearing again, and that's when the teen glanced toward his mother again. "I'm sorry, Mom. I promise, I'll give you a hug in a little bit. I'm kind of still fighting off the fog, I think. She's right though, I really wanted to come home, and… well… yeah."

"It's alright, son. Just seeing you here is already making my day feel a lot brighter. You're looking better too, I think. That swelling that was around your eyes is definitely less profound now, if not altogether gone on the right side."

Jesse brought his hand up and lightly touched the affected area she spoke of. "Maybe. I know it doesn't feel as puffed up like it was."

"Your hand, too. You know, you can probably take that bandage off where your intra-venous tubes were stuck, if you want to," Makalah announced, before pushing herself to sit up straighter. "In fact, if you'll let me, I'll check out your ribs and some other areas later to see how they're doing, too. Who knows, you may have an even better report card to deal up!"

Jesse stared at her with a blank expression for several seconds before lowering his eyes and simply nodding. "Um, okay…" he answered as nonchalantly and simply as possible, but behind it there was a meekness in his voice. That, combined with his body language, told Makalah everything she needed to know. "Don't worry, honey," she replied, her own voice muted somewhat. "It'll be alright, kiddo. Just you and me, I promise." Her smile disarmed him, and thus he sat back, rearranging the blanket and relaxing. Hoping to change the subject, the teen then pointed toward her bandaged foot, and without asking, his mother nodded. "Believe it or not, it is doing much better now. I've already been up hopping around to the bathroom twice this morning, with first your Dad's and then Jennifer's help, of course. Don't worry, I'm still using the crutches, so I've been a good little girl thus far - just like the doctor ordered, I think."

"About time," Jesse offered, his voice teasing, but she was glad to see the improvement in her son's spirits.

"Well, I'll probably wait until tomorrow before I try to put any significant weight on it again. Then if all goes well, I'll be walking on it by late Wednesday or Thursday."

"I'm glad," Jesse offered in return.

The two fell silent for a moment before Jennifer entered the room again, this time carrying a platter which she placed onto Jesse's lap. "So, I know you don't like coffee. Would you prefer milk or juice? I think I saw them both in the refrigerator…"

"Um… could I have some milk then, please?" the teen replied.

"Sure! Go ahead and get started, I'll be right back!" Before leaving however, she turned to Makalah. "What about you? Do you need or want anything while I'm up and moving around in there?"

"No, I'm fine, thank you," Makalah replied, after checking her own glass. A moment later Jennifer returned with a tall glass of cold milk, which she sat on the end table by Jesse's side. Her tasks now finished, the woman briefly stretched before crossing the floor and taking a seat on the other end of the couch. For the next hour or more, the trio chatted amicably, or rather, at least the women in the room did so without any problems. Jesse, however, had little to offer in the way of real conversation, but he politely listened and smiled at various times, trying to make it look like he was at least tuned in. The truth, however, was that his mind had already started to go over all the other unusual events in recent weeks, including that of the last game he had attended at school. He replayed what he could recall with excruciating detail, at least as much of it as he could remember, hoping to uncover something, anything, that might help the authorities zero in on his attackers. Try as he might, however, nothing seemed to stand out that he hadn't already offered, and that saddened him in the end.

Jennifer eventually rose and collected his plate and glass, before carrying them into the kitchen. That moment gave the teenager an opportunity to get up, without having the woman see him in his boxers. He felt oddly uncomfortable wearing them, mostly because of their strange roominess, and for not knowing whether either of the women could make anything out inside. He shouldn't be bashful with his mother, he knew, but all the same he knew it was not something he took any pride in. The teen moved as quickly as possible however, smiling at his mother during the process, and was grateful that, at least in that moment, he didn't succumb to another round of dizziness. As he rounded the corner into the hallway, he stopped and turned, tossing the blanket back onto one of the nearby chairs, before disappearing from view. Makalah had already determined what was happening and, understanding his sentiment, sat back impassively. Beneath her cool exterior, she was pleased he at least attempted a show of modesty, although she already knew her son was less strict when it came to both his brother and best friend. It did not bother her however, as she knew all teenagers developed varying levels of shyness as they grew older, and certainly neither of her sons were any exception. It did serve to make her sigh though, as she realized profoundly how much, and how fast, Jesse was growing up.

Jesse made it to his bedroom and quickly found a pair of pajama bottoms he could pull on that, surprisingly, fit loosely enough. He thought about returning to the living room, but decided against it since the prospect of their continued conversation seemed uninviting. Instead, the teenager grabbed one of the bean bags and pitched it onto his bed, before settling himself carefully back and maneuvering into a corner with it. From there he reached out and opened the Harry Potter book he had been working on for some time. Trying to read from where he last left off was difficult though, as his mind wanted to drift aimlessly and, making little progress, he gradually became drowsy and drifted off into a light slumber, oblivious to the world around him.

When Jennifer checked in on him sometime later, she saw he was asleep. Smiling, she entered the room quietly and, kneeling down, gently pried the book from his fingers before setting it aside. In a motherly fashion, she ran her hand kindly through his silky-fine brown hair, observing him in a way few got to see. She was proud of him, of the fact she hadn't even heard one time any complaints of the attack itself, and of his disarming attitude that had followed. That displayed of a strength of character that few would ever find in the world, regardless of a person's age.

Jesse did not stir from her attentions, however, so she quietly sighed and stood, before leaving the room.

Harland Green sat back in his chair, turning off the microphone for the school's public address system. He had the equipment setup in his office, something his predecessor had arranged, that matched a similar arrangement in the front office. It was a matter of convenience, more or less, and although the man had been somewhat vocal about other things that previous administrations had done or set into motion, this was one he would not chide the men for.

The principal had just completed his usual morning announcements, a ritual that served multiple purposes overall. He had made it a point to bring the student body up-to-date regarding the events from the previous week, knowing that rumors were rampant based on exaggerated tales and Chinese whispers certainly in play. It was the first opportunity that he had had since everyone's daily routine had been interrupted by the snow storm. The man had kept his remarks simple and based on fact, trying to anticipate what the students would be wondering about: Jesse McAllister was doing fine, and he was home and recovering nicely; yes, the teen sent along his appreciation for all the cards and get-well thoughts from everyone; and no, they had not caught those responsible yet. He encouraged that if any student wanted to pass along news that might help the investigation, even anonymously, to please do so. All anyone had to do was reach out to himself or a trusted staff member. Not that he expected anything to come from it, but he knew it never hurt to try.

The man also addressed the fact that the weather system, forecasted to move through the state that night, might prevent them all from enjoying their last day of school tomorrow. With that in mind, he urged students and teachers alike to make the best use of their time, in case it might be the beginning of the new year before they would all return. He had already instructed the cafeteria workers to serve their usual, annual Christmas lunch feast a day early, and he knew that some of the teachers were planning on holding their final holiday tributes as well. Some were hosting mini-parties, or planning special events –all of which had met with the man's approval.

Harland rose from his desk then and headed out into the school's general office. His two administrative assistants, ladies who happened to be dressed for the season at that moment, were presently managing the flow of students that came through the door. The class bell had rung by then, and outside students were filling the halls in a lively manner, moving toward their first-period destinations. The man walked up close to the glass that separated the office from the hallway and stared out for a moment, watching the crowds as they passed, some also dressed in multi-colored seasonal attire and sweaters. One boy passed by with a strand of miniature Christmas lights, stretched and hanging from his neck, and blinking, as he walked on and garnered amused looks from some of his peers. There were two girls who also approached from the opposite direction, each wearing a reindeer-like cap with a plastic-like red nose - which lit up and beaconed from the front and center. It was a little excessive, Harland knew, and certainly they were items that approached the line of being considered acceptable wear. The man didn't care, however. In his mind, students should be allowed to express their freedom and love for country, and season, at least every once in a while. This was certainly one of those occasions that fitted the bill. He smiled and nodded for a bit, but then turned away with a sigh, thinking he, himself, should have dragged out that Christmas sweater of his own and worn it for the day.

It appeared that most of the boys and girls frequenting the office just then, were simply there because of tardiness. As they had to get their permission slips signed or stamped, something the principal knew both ladies would handle swiftly, he moved over to the incoming-mail basket. It was piled unusually high then, having several envelopes and periodicals that had been delivered by the weekend carrier. He picked them up and thumbed through the collection, and was about to set them all aside when a strange, red-colored envelope caught his eye. Looking closer, he discovered that it simply had a single line written across the cover: 'H. Greene'. Curious, he extracted it and walked back into his office, readying to take a seat and open it. Before he could do so, however, the desk phone rang, and he thus became distracted for a time while dealing with a situation. The card, for the time being, was laid aside.

It was mid-morning before the man returned and sat down once again. He was weary, and took the moment to catch his breath while replying to an email he had received from one of the school board members. Upon finishing he closed his eyes and rested for a moment, his breathing returning to a more normalized rhythm, before sitting up again. When he glanced about his desk, he saw the card again and, his curiosity renewed, he reached out and picked it up. Studying the handwriting and searching both back and front for any other clues, he found nothing that indicated where it had originated. It certainly had not been delivered through the normal mail, as it had neither an address nor a stamp, and certainly not a postal label. He finally began to open it, where he pulled out a simple but colorful Christmas card. The card's front contained the image of a pleasant wreath hanging on an exterior door, and beneath it was a simple expression: 'Wishing You a Happy Holiday Season'.

Harland Green then smiled at the sentiment, coming to the conclusion it must have been dropped off by a student at some point. As he opened the card and read what he found the inside, however, he initially frowned. Re-reading the message scrawled at the bottom, his expression transformed into one of surprise. After studying it for a third time, he finally laid it flat upon his desk and picked up the phone, punching a button to the outside office. "June, have you got a second?" he asked, but then killed the connection without even waiting for the reply. Seconds later, the office assistant entered and observed him as he held up the card. "Do you by chance know when this card was delivered?"

"No, Mr. Green. I do think it was mixed in with the Saturday delivery, but I cannot be sure of it," the woman answered. "Why, is there something wrong?"

"Oh, no… no, no, no… I- I was just wondering. Thank you, that's all," Harland replied kindly before dismissing her, and then waited until she had left, closing the door behind her. He picked up the phone again, and was half-way through dialing another number, when he suddenly he stopped to consider something. Thinking better of it, the man placed the phone back into its cradle and then sat back in his chair. He had some thinking to do, and it was not going to be easy determining the course of action he should take.

With the busses now departed for the day, most of the staff were either finalizing their own plans or leaving. Harland Green walked slowly and purposefully across the school, conveying well-wishes for everyone he encountered. For some, he chatted socially at times, which is one of the things the staff liked him so well for. Not only did he make it a point to connect with the students and their lives, but he treated the staff both professionally and respectfully. Too many former men in his position would be constantly irritated at the usual things going on in the schools, and would take out their frustration wherever they saw fit – including with people who may have had nothing to do with whatever happened. Not Harland Green. The man was well known for his patience, and for listening before making any drastic decisions. Whether it was for the teachers, the support staff or the students, he believed everyone deserved equal and reputable treatment as human beings, and it showed.

The school principal continued his evening round until he reached the gymnasium. Once there, he saw one of the janitors approaching, so Harland stopped and chatted briefly, reminding the man to lock everything up and then go on home to enjoy the holidays with his family. The man had smiled kindly, thanking his boss for the opportunity. He had been the school's head custodian for a number of years, and was set to retire at the end of the current school year. It was something the overseer was personally looking forward to, but at the same time he knew it would be a sad moment when it arrived. They spoke a little longer, each inquiring about the other's families, and in the man's case, his grandchildren. Harland was surprised to learn that one of them was in the same class as his youngest daughter, and they both laughed at some of the stories they shared regarding them.

Eventually the two parted, the principal wishing the man a happy holiday break, before proceeding across the floor. As he passed by, he glanced briefly at the locker room door, now closed and locked. The event of the previous week was still not only on his mind, but those of the coaching staff and others. He felt saddened, as if it were his fault the students were not protected any better than they were. Still, he was making attempts to improve the situation, and he had settled upon the fact that was all he could accomplish – at least, for now.

Continuing out the side door of the gym, the man stepped into the brisk cold breeze of the outside world. Without any hesitancy, other than to ensure that the door had closed behind him as it should, he then continued his trek toward the football stadium, walking along in silence until he reached its opposite corner. During the short hike, he glanced to his left and saw the bank in the distance, along with the remote ATM station where the video had captured the assailants' party that evening. Here in the daylight, the man grunted to himself as he realized how lucky it was that anyone had extracted any image worth noting, given the distance it was between the two - especially in the darkness of night that evening.

Once he rounded the corner, Harland stopped and took a seat on one of several benches there. The locale had been used by classes in the past, and by the football teams, to have impromptu meetings when needed. Although the stiff breeze had subsided just then, he pulled his coat closer in the cold afternoon air. He studied the surrounding terrain, and wondered why he didn't just bring his car down closer. He had already deposited his briefcase there, and was ready to leave anyway. Besides, having the vehicle there would have at least provided him better shelter from the cold. He hadn't thought of it, however, as other things had distracted him throughout the afternoon, so he did not dwell on it. Instead, he sat and watched the traffic in the distance, and listened to the sounds of the town that reached his ears. All in all, it was a tranquil afternoon, so he took the time to enjoy it.

Harland did not have to contemplate long, however, before a person wearing black jeans and a dark-colored hoodie, came around the corner, approached and then slowly sat down across from the man. The hood of his garment was presently pulled up, partially obscuring the face inside, but one glance was all the principal needed to confirm who it was. He assessed his visitor briefly, but then nodded in acknowledgement. Both sat in silence momentarily, before the newcomer finally spoke. "So, are the cops hiding out here somewhere, ready to pounce on me?"

Harland chuckled. "I figured you'd already checked that out," the man replied, before looking smug. "I probably ought to waylay you right now, and just take you on in. But… I'm a man of my word. You asked, brief and to the point, but with a great deal of respect, and that, young man, meant something to me. So, here I am."

The visitor nodded. "I would thank you not to take me in, at least not right this minute," the voice replied in return. Another pause as he looked about again, before turning to the older gentlemen. "I would also thank you, for at least being willing to just see me."

Harland began to wrestle with conflicting emotions then, wanting to shout and interrogate the boy, but at the same time there was a demeanor here that made him pause. "I won't take you anywhere, but mind you – this is a one-time deal, alright? So, you would do well to say what it is you want to say and get it off your chest. Your card, it was… well, pretty explicit."

"Oh, you think?" the voice replied again, although the overtone of sarcasm quickly vanished. Before the Principal could respond however, the boy held up his hands. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean that quite the way it sounded. We're here though, because… because I want to give up." The statement was made plainly, in a way there could be no room for misinterpretation. Surprised, Harland's jaw dropped once, before he closed it. The boy across the table actually laughed at seeing the uncommon reaction. "Don't piss your shorts too quickly, old man. That would be rather unbecoming, even for you."

The older man frowned, with all of his pretenses in the previous moment suddenly pushed aside. "My apologies. I think, well, that's not quite what I expected, to say the least."

"Why? What exactly did you expect?" the other young man asked.

"I don't know. Honestly, I had no idea what to expect. I figured it was even possible you'd be coming to gun me down," the school principal replied quietly. "Maybe take out some act of revenge on me."

The newcomer glanced up with a softened expression. "No, sir. You had nothing to do with what happened, as far as I'm concerned. Despite what you might think, that is not me. I wouldn't do that."

When the boy didn't continue, Harland leaned forward and placed his elbows upon the table. "That's good to hear, at least. So, would I be correct in thinking there must be something else on your mind? I mean, otherwise you'd have already done it, son. Right?"

The boy froze, and his voice turned to icy steel. "Do not call me, 'son'! I am not, nor will I ever be, your fucking son – got that?"

Harland Green frowned even deeper at the sudden rage the boy expressed, but it wasn't the first time he had encountered this. "I apologize then, but if you will, let me give you a short word of advice, okay? The more of us older people you run into through life, you'll find that expression is something kind of ingrained in us, and very hard to just up and break from. It isn't meant to be derogatory, or to put any of you young men down in any way. Honestly, it's just an expression, that's all. You see, when an older person looks upon our youth and tries to explain something, or refer to them in a kindly way, we think of them, the boys especially, as our own. That's how I feel sometimes, because I'm responsible for every student in this school, like a parent, even though it is only for the few short hours our paths cross each day. Sometimes, perhaps regrettably for some, I look after and want to help all of you - not just to learn things, but understand life. That makes it more important for both you, and them, and to me - although at a more personal level. Understand?"

A silence fell between them then, but Harland could see the young man was thinking hard about his words. When the boy let go of a deep sigh, he relaxed. "Maybe, yeah. It doesn't mean I have to like it though, but okay. If you knew my old man, you'd understand, but, yeah… okay." The boy then sat up straighter. "Believe it or not, this is simple, really. I want to just give up and get out of this shit-race, but I need to do one last thing first. This is where you come in, sir. I figured, of all the people out here, you're probably the closest person around here that might help me and make it possible. That's… that's why I sent you the card."

Surprised, this time Harland observed the teen seated across from him closely. "You're serious?" he asked, unsure what to think of that. It was then the teen turned and, for the first time, Harland Green was able to stare into the face of someone he had not been seen since a fateful Saturday not that long ago. A someone who had been hauled away in the back of a police cruiser, with a determined look of defiance and a quiet fire in his eyes. A fire which, he noted now, seemed to be long gone. Harland was troubled at that thought, too, because as Pete Haskell III looked away, he noted the weariness, the dark circles beneath his eyes, and the general hollow-looking appearance. The boy brought a hand up to rub his nose, and Harland quickly noticed how dirtied it appeared, with fingernails both dark around the edges and cracked in places. This was someone on the run in the most literal of ways that anyone could imagine, and worse. It was only then that the man caught a whiff of a scent from the boy's clothes – and inwardly grimaced as he recognized it as one of water and fish.

"Yes, I'm fucking serious! Shit, man," the teen expelled quietly. He then closed his eyes and seemingly retreated, lowering his voice. "Sorry, I'm … not … I haven't slept well for a several days now… It's getting to me, I think."

Harland nodded in understanding. "That's okay, but tell me… Why? Why now?"

For the first time, Pete looked visibly as if he were about to collapse. When he spoke, however, there was a resolve that strengthened the tone of his voice. "Because, okay? I… I'm tired of running… I just… I need to see him, first. I need… Last Tuesday, it wasn't supposed to be like that at all, okay? None of it was… none of… not like it turned out, and… and I need to tell him that… I need to tell…"

"Pete… Tell him what, son?" Harland whispered, finally using the boy's name, but then immediately regretted at having the word slip again. This time, however, Pete did not seem to pay attention, so the principal went on. "Why do you need to see him? What is it you want to tell him?"

"I need… I want… I… need to tell Jesse McAllister… that I'm sorry, okay? I want to tell him, I'm… I'm…"

For the first time, Harland Green saw the young man in a new light, and he knew the teen wasn't kidding around with him. One look said it all, as the man regarded him with surprise. Before him, Pete Haskell III appeared to be anything but the macho, chauvinistic and bullish individual that most all had come to know him as. Sitting now was a young man that for the first time in a long while, appeared to be a human being.

Because Pete Haskell III was in tears.

Following a mid-afternoon snack, Jesse sat back in the borrowed bean bags, flipping through various channels on the TV. When the teen came across a broadcast of the original Star Trek series, he paused with interest. His father had often talked of the show, about the comradeship of Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock and Dr. McCoy, a trio of men that were sometimes amusing, but other times serious. The other members of the show were sometimes interesting, too, and Jesse had never failed to hear the infamous 'Beam me up, Scotty!' line that originated from the series. Jesse wasn't that keen on science fiction in general, but the more he learned about the groundbreaking elements of the series and its place in American history, the more he found it interesting to watch. This particular episode dealt with a doomsday-like machine, one capable of ingesting entire planets as fuel for its sustainability. The special effects were not bad, given the time and technology that was available in the 1960s, but this episode had made him pause. After following along for a few minutes to understand, he saw that all the external special effects had been updated in it. It was as if someone had gone in and edited in newer shots and updated effects, mixing them with the original episode. The more he watched, the more the teenager was impressed, and wondered if any of the other shows had been done similarly. He determined he was going to find out.

Just as the episode was ending, Jesse heard the back door being opened and shut loudly, followed by a chorus of voices between Jennifer and his mother greeting Noah. He heard his friend reply, and although it was indistinguishable, the three began laughing in the other room. Quickly afterwards, however, Jesse heard the expected footsteps approaching his room, and then grinned as Noah walked through the open doorway. Setting his sports bag down, the newcomer rushed to plop down onto the other bean bag, already pulled up and waiting for him next to Jesse. "Hey!" he whispered, happily, lifting a fist mid-air.

"Hey yourself!" Jesse replied, returning the bump happily. "How's it going? How was school today?"

Noah pulled back with a pleased expression. "It was awesome, more or less, although it would have been better if you could have been there," the boy admitted up front. Before continuing, he turned and opened his sports bag and pulled some items from within, which he promptly handed over. "Here, these are from a few more people in our class, and one of them is even from Mr. Garland himself!"

Jesse smiled, but shook his head while taking the cards in hand. "Sheesh…" he said quietly, before sitting back and opening each one in turn. Noah sat by his side as they both read them, some of which were quite humorous. Others were just Christmas cards, but they contained notes that wished Jesse the best in a speedy recovery. For the second time in recent days, Jesse was humbled by their efforts. Up until only a couple of months ago, he would have never thought he had such people he could think of as friends like this, in his class especially. Now, it was turning out he had more than he ever gave his fellow peers credit for.

When they had finished, Noah looked up and glanced around the room. "So, I see you've done some unpacking," he mused.

"Yeah, your Mom brought all that stuff from the hospital in here, and we worked on setting some of it up this afternoon," Jesse explained. Several of his get-well cards had been taped all around and onto the doorframe, while others got strategically placed on top of the furniture in the room. The various stuffed animals were also set up, in multiple places, with the largest – the Christmas bear that had been sent by Addison and Linda – tucked away in the corner of his bed. In its 'lap' also sat the smaller, but equally important stuffed elephant that Benji had given to him, too.

"They do look kind of cool, really. You guys didn't have very many before, I know," Noah mused sitting back. "Benji told me last week," he explained afterwards.

Jesse shrugged. "We did have a few, before the tornado I mean. You're right though, we pretty much lost all of them. Which reminds me…" Jesse stopped and reached under the bed, pulling out another of the plush figures, this time one representing a youthful and furry puppy. "If you'll take it, I want to give this one to you."

"But… it's yours! I mean…" Noah stuttered, frowning.

"I know, but as you can see," Jesse explained. "I've got plenty puppies, kittens and other animals as it is right now, and this one I practically have two of. I know, it seems like I'm kind of re-gifting it, but… I'd really like you to have it, if you want. It isn't much, but…"

"No, it's perfect," Noah whispered, before smiling and nodding. "Okay, thanks." The teen felt suddenly warm inside for some reason, but he did not pursue the subject any further for the moment as he set it atop of his gym bag. "So, how are you doing today?"

"Better than when I woke up. That was kind of rough, for a little while anyway," Jesse replied and then sighed. He then pulled the shirt up off of his belly, exposing his chest for Noah to observe. "They're almost the same as they were yesterday, but … I don't think they're bothering me as much."

Noah nodded. "Your eye looks a lot better, too. I mean, some of the swelling is gone now."

"It is, yeah," Jesse acknowledged.

"What about, you know…" Noah whispered, then subtly pointed toward his friend's groin.

Jesse shook his head. "I can't tell a lot of difference, really. Still kind of, I don't know, tennis ball sized, I guess." He rubbed his nose. "Doc told me they would take, ah, longer to heal." The suddenly grunted. "Darius did, too, only he called them the 'twins'."

Noah laughed. "That's kind of cool," he admitted, before leaning in and dropping his voice. "Don't worry about it, okay?" Noah murmured. "They'll get better."

"That's what Mom said, too," Jesse replied, blushing. "She didn't really 'look' at me too close, though. At least, not down there. She just asked me some questions and all. Still… it was kind of, I don't know, embarrassing is all."

"Why though?" Noah asked. "I mean, she's your Mom, and she's a nurse, right?"

Jesse shrugged. "I don't know, it just felt… funny, I guess." He paused and then grimaced. "Which I know sounds really stupid. I guess if anyone is going to see me, I'd rather it be her than those old shrivel-pruned nurses up at the hospital, or the doc for that matter."

Noah feigned a mocked expression as if hurt. "What about me?" he whimpered.

Jesse demeanor changed quickly as he grinned. "You and Benji are not included in that bunch. You two can see me all you want, I don't care."

Noah laughed. "You goof-ball!" he whispered, before leaning in and gently bumping shoulders with his friend. "I'm so glad you're doing better though."

Jesse shrugged. "I guess otherwise it hasn't been that bad today. Mostly, I've just been more bored to death than anything else." The teen then stretched lightly before relaxing again. "So, want to play some Nintendo? Maybe Mario Kart?"

"Sure," came the ready reply. Noah was actually beginning to tire of the game, but he knew it was one of the few the brothers had that allowed multi-player competition. He was willing to do anything to give his friend a break in the monotony.

Nearly an hour passed before Benji arrived home from school, smiling widely and toting a cardboard box when he entered the room. "Jesse!" the boy exclaimed, dropping everything at the doorway and rushing in. His brother was ready though, drawing his knees up and together and bracing for the coming impact. As he arrived, however, Benji actually stopped and slid up against Noah before rolling sideways into his brother. "Aha! Fooled ya!" he announced with a silly grin.

Jesse laughed while Noah recovered from the last-second change of direction. "Yeah, you did!" he said quietly between them, as Benji reached out and engulfed his brother with a big hug, one which caused Jesse to lose his breath quickly.

Benji, realizing his error, quickly pulled back with a frown. "Oops! Sorry bro…"

Jesse grunted. "It's okay squirt, I- I'll live."

Noah, who had recovered quickly as well, reached out and grasped the younger boy. "Get over here, Short-Stuff!"

Benji grinned at the teenager. "Hi there, bro number two!"

Noah pulled the boy into his lap, stomach down. "Bro number two, huh? What does that make you, bro number three?" he asked, then suddenly reached in and grabbed Benji's briefs by the waistline. "You know, I don't think I've ever given you a wedgie yet, have I? I wonder how that hasn't happened?"

"No! No, don't do it, uh… ahh…" Benji started, and then laughed as he could feel the cloth of his briefs squeeze up and between his buttocks. Noah stopped however after a certain point, not wanting to make it too uncomfortable for the youngster. When it was obvious it wasn't going to get any worse, Benji relaxed and laughing, called back to him. "You… you… turd!"

"I used to do it all the time," Jesse confided to his friend smugly. "But… I also had to pay the price and undo it once it was done, too."

The implied message was received, as Noah glanced sideways and then down at the boy hanging over his lap. Grunting, he then pushed his hand down deep inside the boy's jeans and underwear, effectively pulling them out of the wedge itself. "Sheesh, if I had known that…" he started, but then giggled as he heard Benji giggling as well. Once done, he began to pull his hand back out, but not without stopping and pinching on one of the boy's buttocks instead. Benji reacted by clenching up before beginning to squirm. That was when Noah finally withdrew, however, and the younger boy twisted around and faced him. "That was cool!" he quietly squealed. Noah, bemused, began tickling the boy in his ribs and belly, causing more squirming and giggling, until he eventually pulled free and sat up. "Hey, you guys wanna see what I got at school today?"

Jesse smiled. "Sure, Short-Stuff. Lay it on us!"

Benji pounced on his box and removed the cover, showing two Christmas-themed cupcakes inside, along with a toy jeep with come action figures. "Ta-da!" he announced as he pulled the toys free. "Oh, the cup cakes are for you guys! I sneaked them out of our party this afternoon!"

Both of the older teenagers glanced at each other, then quickly reacted, reaching out and scooping up one apiece. Benji watched with a wide grin, before he grabbed the toys and pushed the box out of the way. Before long, he was running the vehicle up and down both teenagers' legs, playing on the makeshift terrain. Over the next hour, all three kidded around with one another and continued playing, some with the new toys but also on the Nintendo.

It all halted however, when sometime later a phone call came, followed by Jennifer appearing in the doorway moments later. "Uh, Jesse, do you feel like you could go out and make a little trip uptown for a few minutes?"

Curious, the teen glanced up at the woman. "I- I guess so. What's up?"

"Well, that was your father on the phone. He said if you would to get ready, and to dress warmly. He's going to come by in about a half-hour and pick you and Noah up." She saw both boys perk up, as if about to bombard her with questions, so she quickly held both hands up to stop them. "Listen, I don't know why, okay? He didn't say, so I honestly have no idea, but evidently it seemed important enough for him to get you out for a bit," Jennifer explained. "So, don't dilly around, alright?"

Jesse glanced at his friend and then set his controller aside, giving it to his younger brother. "Uh, okay, I guess. I need to get ready, then."

Jennifer started to give her son instructions, but one look from Noah registered the fact clearly that the teen already knew what he had to do. Nodding, she then retreated as Noah began rising on his feet. "Okay, so what do you want to wear?" he asked nonchalantly, heading over to the closet door.

"Just… find me some clean sweats, okay? And a pullover… maybe my school hoodie, if you can," Jesse replied, glancing through the window outside and seeing that it was still quite breezy.

In the meantime, Benji watched the two teenagers for a moment before rising to his own feet. Both Noah and Jesse noted the obvious disappointment he displayed, but before either could react, the younger boy silently left the room. "What do you think that was all about?" Noah asked.

Jesse's shoulders dropped. "I don't know, unless maybe… maybe because he thinks we're leaving him alone or something again."

Noah didn't comment any further for the moment, but instead found his friend's hoodie and tossed it over to him. "What about our bottoms? You don't want to wear jeans yet, do you?"

"Not on your life!" Jesse exclaimed, then amended his statement. "Err, not on mine, either!" Noah chuckled, but Jesse added as an afterthought, "My new grey sweats should be just inside there on the left. They're thick, kind of like those good for wearing in cold weather, I think." Noah nodded and rummaged through the shelf as instructed until he found the requested garment. Walking over, he helped Jesse climb to his feet before reaching out and grasping hold of his friend's pajama waistband. With a quick smile, he pulled them down, dropping them to his feet. Jesse grimaced and shook his head. "You're really enjoying this, aren't you?" he whispered.

Noah stood back up and leaned in to whisper. "What do you think?"

"I am too, I think," Jesse whispered back, stepping out of the garment before sighing. "I just wish-"

"No, don't go there!" Noah hissed at him, bending over and this time holding the sweats out, which Jesse readily stepped into. Pulling them up the distance, he finished the job before commenting again. "If you were going to say something like 'you wish you didn't look like a punching bag' or something, then I'm telling you – that's enough, McAllister." Seeing the flabbergasted expression that met him, Noah's voice softened. "I don't care, Jesse, and I'll bet Benji won't either. Only you see yourself as some… I don't know, something not normal, I guess. But I'm telling you – you're fine."

Again, Jesse stood there staring, so Noah stretched and placed both of his forearms around his friend's shoulders before gently pulling them closer together. He did not break their gaze, wanting to convince Jesse in any way he could of his sincerity. When they were less than an inch from the other, he made a surprise move and lightly began rubbing their noses together. No kiss, no hug, just something totally different and intimate between them. When he pulled back, he smiled.

Mollified, Jesse returned the smile. "Me and Benji used to do that sometimes."

Noah nodded. "I only just now thought of it," he freely admitted. "But… you know why, right? You told me I had to let go of what happened last week, remember? Well, it's my turn now. You have to let go of this fear you're having, too, okay? It doesn't help either of us, or your brother."

Jesse frowned. "Huh? What about Benji?" he asked quietly.

"Well, I just kind of, I don't know…" Noah began before pausing briefly. "I think it's more than just us leaving him. I think he knows you were beat up pretty bad, and he just wants to be able to see, and feel like you're going to be okay. He wants to know that you still love him enough to not hide anything, see? He told me once last week that he was afraid people were hiding stuff from him, and, well… I wouldn't be surprised if that's not a part of why he's being so moody today. Not just now, either… last night too, and those times at the hospital and all… you know what I'm talking about, right?"

Comprehension dawned on Jesse as he started to consider the implications of that statement. "I- I have been hiding, I guess. More than I should."

Noah cocked his head to one side. "From my parents, sure – and expected. From your parents, only you can judge that. But from me and Ben? Please… stop being afraid, okay? I mean, I know you're not bashful around me anymore. I'm telling you though, your head is in a different time-zone if you think those bruises and things are something your brother can't handle. He cares about you, okay? What you're hiding from him, well, he knows it, you know? It's like sending him a message that you don't trust him back right now, and it's hurting him. Maybe only in a little way, but the hurt is still there. Does that make sense?"

Jesse smiled and then embraced Noah back. "And how," was all that he replied, but it was enough.

After a moment, Noah pushed him back and then stacked the two bean bags up, before gently pushing his friend to sit on top. Jesse was both surprised and pleased at the makeshift chair and how well it worked out to be the perfect height for them. Noah, scoffed. "There are a lot of things you can use bean bags for, either together or separate," he informed as he pulled Jesse's tennis shoes out from under the corner of the bed.

"What's going on, Dad?"

Jesse McAllister finally broke the silence by asking the obvious question. James had just turned the truck into the city park, and finding a place to pull into near the entrance, the silence continued until he had turned off the engine. Both Allen and Noah were seated behind them in large cabin, for whom Allen had also maintained an eerie quietness during the drive. The radio, which had continued to play a mixture of country tunes in the background, fell silent.

Both of the teenagers were beginning to feel uneasy, until James finally turned to observe his son. "Harland Green has asked to meet us, or rather, meet with you and Noah for a few minutes. That's why we've come up here to the park. He's supposed to be just over that rise there," the man explained, pointing out the window.

Noah's frowned, as he could sense something was amiss. Turning to his own father, he saw an expression of concern meet him. "Dad?"

Allen, however, smiled at him and simply nodded. "It's true. Your principal is supposed to be waiting for you, down near the playground at one of the picnic tables. Remember them?"

"Yeah, but…" Noah hesitated, confused.

"Noah, just… walk with Jesse, okay? Help make sure that he gets down there without any problems. Your Dad and I will be nearby, waiting for you both when you're done, alright?" James urged, trying to keep his own apprehension in check and out of his tone.

Jesse observed his father for a few seconds, but then opened his door. "Okay then, we'll be back in a bit." The teen climbed out slowly, stepping down to the ground just as Noah followed in from behind. Once they were outside, they shut their doors and began making a steady trek toward the aforementioned playground. "What the heck do you think this all about?" Noah asked quietly.

Jesse simply shook his head. "I have no idea, honestly, but… Dad seems to think it's important, so I say we play along and find out." When they topped the rise, they did indeed see their Principal sitting in the distance, and as they approached, the man smiled and waved. Both boys returned the wave, but neither spoke again. When they were within only a few feet, Harland Green spoke up.

"Well, how's it going, boys?" he said cheerfully.

"Fine, I guess," Jesse replied, while he and Noah took seats across from the man. The breeze blowing now was mild, with occasional gusts that made it seem colder than it actually was. Still, both boys ignored it, concentrating instead on their school principal as he observed them both before clearing his throat.

"I know, I know. You're probably curious about why we're here, and I don't blame you. I asked your fathers not to give you any specifics, so don't blame them for any of this, alright?" The man looked into each of their earnest faces, and found mystery reflected in them. "So, let me fill you in. What I need, boys, is for you to listen to me for a minute. I want to explain something, and then make a very special request of you. It is not one you have to fulfill, mind you – that decision is yours and yours alone in the end. Just hear me out, though. After school today, I had a rather extensive conversation with someone of our acquaintance, and he convinced me that, in no small terms, that he wants to meet with you for a few minutes."

Jesse's face was the first to register both surprise and comprehension, and Harland knew right away that the boy had already put two and two together. "Like I said, hear me out first, alright? You see, when we started classes this morning up at the high school, I found an envelope addressed to me in the mail basket. Nothing special mind you, other than it was red like the card you showed me the other day, and it had my name written out on it. I figured maybe one of the students had slipped it in the stack some way, so I didn't think much of it at first. Our receptionist though, said she thought it showed up in last week's deliveries. So, again no biggie, other than when I opened it and saw it was from our mutual acquaintance."

"Pete," Noah voiced quietly, beginning to get the picture as to who the man was talking about.

"That's right. You both do yourselves credit, but yes, it was our younger Mr. Haskell. It was a nice card and all, but he had scrolled a note near the bottom, asking if I would be willing to meet him alone after school today, that he wanted to just talk with me." Harland Green paused briefly. "I was tempted to call the Sheriff, but… honestly, something kind of pulled at me in a different direction, and I thought what the hell, at least I could see what was up."

"Okay… and?" Jesse spoke up finally, his voice just as quiet as the one belonging to the school Principal.

"So, I met with him, on his terms, and Pete told me he wanted to turn himself in. When I asked why, he said he was tired of running and being blamed for things he had no part in. He looked cold, malnourished, grimy – not that it mattered much, but there was something about his sincerity that just clicked with me. Call me an old softie if you like, but after we spoke for a while, I became convinced that he was shooting straight with me. He was even ready for me to take him in right then and there, but he wanted to make one stipulation. That was to have a chance to at least see and talk with you two for a few minutes." Harland sat back and observed Jesse closely. "He promised me, he just wanted to talk, that's all."

Jesse studied for a few seconds before looking up at the man. "And… then he'll turn himself in afterwards? But… why now, sir?"

"I'm not sure, to tell the truth," Mr. Green replied. "We chatted at length for a bit, and the only thing I got out of him was that he's afraid, if he turns himself in, that he'll never have another opportunity than right now to meet with you boys. I admit, there may actually be some truth about that, but I'm not so sure if it is as accurate as he believes. In other words, even with all this doom and gloom hanging over him, of the way things have happened and unfolded, I kind of doubt it will be as bad as he fears, you know?" The man paused again before continuing. "Regardless, he swore to me he just wanted to talk. Says he'd even do it on a bible if he had to, that he had nothing to do with what happened to you when things got so far out of hand last week. He admits to being there, admits to initiating some of it, but…"

Jesse nodded. "I already know that," the teen admitted, causing their Principal to arch his own eyebrow. He did not pursue the matter, however, instead choosing his next words carefully.

"Then, make sure you understand this. Pete made it clear that he's ready for me to take him down to the Sheriff's office, right now, whether you meet with him or not. I have his word though, which I am contented to believe for the moment, that he'll abide by it. You can, of course, say no, and that will be the end of it. If you so choose to hear what he has to say, however, I'm going to walk over to that table there on the other side, and sit down and wait," the man explained, pointing out another identical picnic table some 30 to 40 feet away. "I will not leave you totally alone with him. There'll be some space, I agree, but honestly – after chatting with him for a while, I do not believe he is up to any ill-will. If I did, I would not have called your fathers and spoken to them at length about it."

Jesse finally nodded. "So, where is he, then?"

"Close by, waiting for your decision, I think…"

Jesse glanced at Noah, who in turn gave him a slight nod, acknowledging that it was okay with him. Jesse turned back to the man. "You'll be… over there, right? Is there anyone else here, hiding I mean?"

Harland chuckled. "No. I did not call anyone else, if that's what you're asking me, other than James and Allen, and I urged them both to refrain from it as well. So, in a sense, all of this is riding on me, fellas."

Jesse then nodded. "Sure, Mr. Green, I'll… I'll listen to him," he said quietly, though not without a hint of anxiety creeping in.

"It'll be okay, son, you'll see. Plus, you've got your friend here, who I'm sure can help protect you if I'm wrong. I'm telling you though, I've been a pretty good judge of character for a long time, I think. Nothing amiss is going to happen." When the teen nodded again, Harland then stood. "He'll be here in a moment then. My signal is simply to cross to the other table over there and sit down, while you boys stay here." With that, he walked quietly away.

"Holy shit," Noah muttered in disbelief, which caused Jesse to glance at him and nod, conveying his own sentiments silently between them.

A moment later, neither boy heard the approach of another person come up behind them, so they were startled when the teen circled around and took Harland's place at the table. He wore the now familiar dark hoodie, although it was quite dirtied in several places. The hood was pulled up, covering the sides of Pete's face, but once the teen turned toward them, there was no mistake it was their nemesis. When he landed heavily in the seat, the sluggishness of the moves to adjust told both Noah and Jesse that the teen was utterly exhausted, just as their principal had informed them. Pete's appearance, with a dirtied face and hands, added to their conviction the boy had had it rough in recent days, or possibly even weeks.

The trio sat for some time just staring at one another in silence. Jesse did not know what to say, really, and Noah felt the same way. Their emotions and feelings were all over the place, ranging from shock and annoyance, to surprise and curiosity. It was Pete, however, who finally broke the silence. "T-thank you, for s-seeing me."

An apology was so out of character for the teen, Jesse was surprised again to say the least. "Okay… but why?" The request was simple, his voice lacking any of the hatred or malice Pete had expected he would receive.

The bigger teen dropped his gaze to the table. "I… I wanted to tell you… I mean, I had to tell you, from me, that… that last week, that wasn't, I mean… last week, that got way out of hand, and it wasn't… I didn't…"

Noah was even surprised at seeing how uncomfortable and uncoordinated his ex-friend was just then. "We saw the card," he voiced coolly, to which Jesse nodded in agreement.

"I also heard you, trying to stop them, I mean," Jesse admitted quietly, which surprised the bigger teen as he looked up. "Why?" Jesse asked again, but when Pete didn't initially reply. The continued silence caused Noah to become irritable.

"You left him there, you know?" Noah prodded rather harshly. "You could have at least stopped them, or called for help… or done something. Instead, you just left him there alone, left him to those creeps so they could have their way with him. That's exactly what they did, too. They beat the shit out of him, Pete!" Noah then became agitated. "Didn't you hear? He could have been hurt worse, Pete! Possibly even killed!"

That remark snapped the older teen out of his reverie. "I know that, yeah," he growled, his gaze suddenly turning dangerous toward the younger boy. "I mean, I didn't know it then, no, and that's my mistake, okay?" The tone changed yet again, this time to one that was far more apologetic. "I did try, whether you believe me or not. I tried to get them to stop and just leave, you know? But then Jonathan… he, well… he shoved me aside and then pulled out these, like brass knuckles or something. I grabbed them away before he could use them, but then he knocked me down. By then, the others were already going at you full force, and… and…" He took a nervous breath and let it out slowly. "It wasn't supposed to be that way," he whispered. He saw Noah begin to object, but then he held both hands up defensively, palms facing forward. "Okay, I get it, Cook! Stop rubbing my fucking face in it right now, alright? I know!"

Jesse frowned. "Okay, so you know. You still haven't explained to me… why?"

Pete took another deep breath. "You know why. I was at the game that night. Edwards got me a ticket, and I slipped inside. I didn't stay long though, as I saw someone who kept staring at me, like maybe he recognized who I was, see. So, I left about half-way through the second quarter. Then, I'm out in the parking lot and I get this call from one of the guys, telling me you two pansies were in there sitting with the team and all. I already knew that, but meh. He asked me if I wanted to have a little fun and get back at you for what happened that day at school, so yeah, I jumped at the chance. Next thing I know, a little bit later, I'm getting this text telling me to haul ass to that side door of the gym and all, and to get inside. The guys were already there and going in, I think, so I followed."

Pete paused a long time before he continued. "I caught a glimpse of the guys going into the locker room see, and then I watched as someone approached you and pulled out that bag-thingy that was pulled over your head. I think that was when, maybe for the first time I realized that only me and Edwards were, you know… but the other guys, they were older and all, part of… well, anyway… They stripped all your clothes off and hung you up by your wrists, see. I was fine up to that point, but then they started hitting on you… I figured, up until then, that was the 'fun' part, more or less, stripping you naked and hanging you up for… for everyone to see when the game was over. That's when I was getting ready to high tail it out of there then, but… then they started hitting you – and not just here and there, but hard, all around your privates and ribs and stuff. I mean, they were really hitting you hard, too, and… and that got me scared."

Jesse noted the brief pause again before he encouraged the teen. "Okay… and?"

"You know the rest of it, mostly. I ran. I mean, when I saw what was happening to you, I got scared shitless, really s-scared. I tried to stop them, but… but…" Pete continued, his voice barely above a whisper. "So, yeah, I'm guilty… not of beating the shit out of you, but what I did was probably just as bad, or worse. I ran, and…I'm… I… I'm sorry." It was then that Noah and Jesse both saw something they never thought they would see of the boy in front of them in a hundred years. Pete Haskell, the obnoxious, overbearing loud-mouth, the bullish creep of the school, at least for their generation, was sitting before them, tears streaming down his cheek. "They were using you for a punching bag, and… and trying to mess you up, and… a-and…" he whispered again, before falling silent.

Noah, stunned into silence, simply glanced between his best friend and the other boy back and forth repeatedly. When the quietness encircled the three and did not seem to dissipate, the other boy grunted. "Do something, idiot. Hit me, yell at me, just… do s-something, alright? Don't sit there like some pussy and gawk at me! I m-mean…" He hesitated before his shoulders slumped in defeat. "I'm sorry, okay? That's what I had to come tell you. That's what I needed to tell you, alright?"

Jesse ignored the rant and finally spoke again. "Okay… for what it's worth… I believe you."

If Pete was expecting any kind of a response, it most certainly wasn't that one. The incredulous look that crossed his features caused his face to screw up as if contorted with pain. "I- I don't want that, okay? I… I… Shit, you two… I…"

"You want me to beat you up, is that it?" Jesse finally spoke, his voice rising. "You want me, or us, to give you a taste of… what, being humiliated and everything, like you guys did to me? Maybe kick your balls all the way to the North Pole or something? If that's it, then no… I won't do it." Jesse closed his eyes for a few seconds and calmed down. "Look, if you tell me you were all for it at the beginning, that's one thing – but, if you tell me it got out of control, then… I can't blame you for that part of it then, can I?"

Pete turned his gaze up once more, before sighing heavily. He honestly appeared to be about ready to lose it then – not with rage or uncontrolled hormones, but with beating himself up. To the two best friends, it showed. "Pete, stop… whatever you're doing to yourself, just stop it," Noah said quietly.

"I agree," Jesse added. It was a struggle for him coming to terms with the confession, but it was slowly beginning to seep in. "So, tell me, who were those other assholes anyway?"

Pete seemed to regain control of himself. "They… they're part of my Dad's buddies, his…"

When he didn't finish, Noah quietly spoke up. "What, his druggie gang or something? Really?"

"Yeah," Pete acknowledged.

Noah was instantly annoyed. "Why the fuck would they care about you and Jesse, then?" he retorted hotly, and was about to go on except he felt Jesse touch him under the table. Glancing sideways, he saw his friend subtly shake his head, so he grew silent.

Pete, however, seemed either not to notice, or ignored the exchange. "You don't understand guys. I doubt anyone would understand, really."

"Try me," Jesse encouraged, which caused the older teen to look up and meet the younger teen's stare head on.

"You've got to understand, Dad has always been mixed up with some sort of shit. From the beginning, first it was auto parts, then growing weed. Anything he could do for a fast buck, he was in the middle of it, really – legal or not. He always got caught though, always had to do his time, but then he'd always get out, too, for good behavior or some such bullshit." The teen paused to reflect before he continued. "Then somewhere along the line, he met up with some people out of Mexico, I guess. I was too young to know what was going on, see, so I didn't really think anything of it, but when people started to come around at all hours of the day and night, Mom got suspicious. The next thing any of us knew, Mom discovered he was fencing drugs, and then all hell broke loose. They used to fight a lot before, see, but it always ended up the same way in the end. He got caught again, though, and Mom thought maybe he'd finally learn a lesson, because it was getting so much more serious. He got out though, and just went right back to doing it again. Then the next thing I know, Mom is going crazy. I mean, literally, fucking crazy. That's when she left… I don't know, something like five or six years ago. I was like eight or nine, I think. No announcement, no nothing… I came home from school one day and her clothes were gone, everything. We never heard from her again. No goodbyes, nothing. She left… not just Dad, but she left me, too."

Pete took another deep breath. "Dad, he's always been loud and bullish, so I guess that had something to do with me taking after him. For the most part, he pretty much left me alone. I mean, I never saw him but maybe once a month, if I was lucky. These guys and all, would always show up at odd times, some of them would stay a few days or more, others just drop in and leave right back out. They almost all brought in food though, if not lots of beer. I didn't starve at least, so we had food in the house. Mostly I lived off of sandwiches and frozen dinners. The point was though, he was always gone, so I learned very fast how to fend for myself."

As he paused, Noah frowned. "What does this have to do with anything about the night Jesse got beat up?"

"I'm getting to that, hang on. You see, it was around then… like I said, one night when I was nine or so, he came home late with two of his 'buddies'. It was past midnight, see, and I was in my bedroom out like a light, when one of them came in and poured water on me. Wakes me up quick, see, and then I see my Dad yelling at me to get out of the bed and find them some fucking beer." Pete made a face. "They were high, see. I mean, really high on something. I doubt Dad even knew what he was doing, but that night was bad. It turned even uglier, though. One of the creeps passed out right in front of me, on the floor and started pissing his pants before he even got the beer can opened up, see? Then the other one, he just laughed his ass off, and Dad… he… he just kept yelling for his beer. Even when I gave him one, he'd smack me and yell at me to bring him his beer, see? So, I did it, I got him a whole fucking six-pack and threw it on him. So, he gets mad, see, and pulls me over his lap and beats the shit out of my ass, right in front of that other creep, who was still laughing at me the whole time. He's even telling my dad he should strip my shorts… my underwear away, and… and… Dad did it, yanked everything off of me, even tore ripped them up while doing it see? And… and then he beat me on his lap and all again. My ass was as red as you can imagine, but… then, after a bit everything got quiet, and Dad let me up and shoved me away, telling me to go on back to my room see, and put some fucking clothes on." Pete paused for a moment, a far-away look in his eyes as the two other boys watched him struggling to get through the words.

Pete finally turned his attention to Jesse before he screwed up his face again. "Don't you get it? You… if there was any single person, that I ever had a reason to hate, it was… it was…"

"Pete," Noah spoke up quietly, reaching out and taking hold of the older boy's wrist. "What happened? Don't stop now… why are you telling us this? What happened to you? Did it stop there?"

"Hell, no! Oh… fuck no, you idiot!" Pete forced through clenched teeth as he turned and glared at Noah for a brief instant. Almost immediately though, he withered before them again. "Because, stupid! Because that's… that's when…" He shut his eyes and took a deep breath once again, calming himself significantly before continuing. "That other guy, he kept looking at me funny the whole time, see? He liked seeing my naked ass I guess, or some kind of shit, but… but I didn't know why, I didn't know… see? I didn't understand what the fuck his problem was, but he just kept… kept staring at me. He was high, I know it now, probably shot straight up into tomorrow, but back then… I mean, don't you get it? He'd laugh like some kind of maniac and everything, and he'd grab his crotch and…and… just stupid stuff. But when I went back to my bedroom, it wasn't even a minute before he come busting through the fucking door, see. He came in and… and grabbed me by my hair and yanked me up to my feet." A tear fell across his cheek, then before his voice dropped to just above a whisper. "He… he grabbed me, and he… I had only gotten as far as putting a t-shirt on, and… and… he just ripped it off, fucking tore it like Dad did with my underwear, ripping everything off of me, see? And… and… he dropped his pants and his stinking underwear, and… and he did it, he shoved… he shoved his fucking dick… he… he grabbed me, and… and… s-shoved it up inside my ass, and he… fucked, he… and… and…"

When Pete didn't continue, Jesse leaned forward. "He raped you, didn't he?" When Pete didn't answer, Jesse was finally beginning to understand. "He raped you, and since then that's why you hate gays, or bi-sexual people being around you, isn't it? That's why you really gave me such a hard time – gave us all a hard time, really. Because you thought I was gay, and it drove you crazy because you thought I was, like, someone who liked to screw with guys and everything, especially like that. Isn't it?"

Pete turned his gaze to the smaller boy, but everything in his willpower, his spirit, was uselessly broken by then. The tears flowed freely as he finally nodded, before hanging his head and staring at the table. "I know, I shouldn't have, but… it's just so… so fucking hard sometimes to deal with that, and… and…" he whispered.

"Do you know the man who did it to you? And what about your father? Why didn't he stop him?" Noah asked quietly.

"Because my father had zonked out, that's why!" Pete hissed harshly. "I cried, I yelled, I screamed… I did every fucking thing you can imagine to fight back, to get away, but once… once I was … once he had his prick was inside me, I… it hurt, it hurt so bad, and I lost it…"

Jesse waited, but then surprisingly rose up and moved over to Pete's side of the table to sit again. Pete started breaking down even more, so the teen placed a hand upon his shoulder and held it strong. "Okay, it's over… it's done," he spoke soothingly. He glanced off in the direction where Principal Green was sitting, and was not surprised to see that both his father and Allen had joined the main. All three looked on with curiosity, but Jesse simply shook his head, as if silently telling them 'no, not yet'.

When Pete's breakdown slowed, Jesse leaned in closer. "What about afterwards… did you ever tell your Dad what happened?"

Pete nodded. "He wouldn't believe me. Told me I was full of shit or something… Started yelling and telling me I was making all of it up just to stir up trouble. Told me I didn't even know what fucking was, that it was something only men and women did… all that shit, at least at first. Then before long, that changed to calling me names, hitting me for no reason… All I had to do was just walk in a room and he'd beat up on me, like I was some kind of fucking, useless whore or something. And then, Jimmy's Dad…" He looked up to the sky just then and suddenly laughed, although it was strained and hollow sounding. "He started beating me with his belt, all the while my Dad just looked on laughed. It was all my fault, see? I had to be taught a lesson about making up lies like that, and… and… Everything was always my fault, you know?" he ended with a whisper.

"But… it wasn't," Noah interjected. "It was their fault, Pete." He studied the teen momentarily. "Let me guess, there was more to it, wasn't there? He let Mr. Edwards beat you, but… I mean…" When Pete didn't answer, Noah realized what the implication meant. "Jimmy's Dad… he was the one who raped you, wasn't it?"

Pete only stared at the teen, but Noah relaxed. "You forget, I know the Edwards. Dad has dealt with them at the bank a lot of times, and Mr. Edwards has come out to the house more than once. He'd always end up yelling a lot, and threatening Dad with all kinds of bullshit, too. I even remember once when Dad called the Sheriff, but the creep left before anyone arrived." Noah pulled back, studying the other two before glancing at Jesse again. "That's why I never really cared for Jimmy any on the bus. He wasn't as bullying I think, but he had, I don't know… he didn't like a lot of people, and he was weird sometimes, I guess."

"Jimmy got fucked a lot when he was younger, I think," Pete offered quietly. "But when he started hanging out with me, well, the rest is history I guess, yeah," Pete spoke softly. He sat back and studied Noah closely for a moment. "Jimmy was nothing like his old man, though. That's why we clicked, I think, always getting into things together. Unlike you. You weren't that bad, Noah, but… you tried so hard to fit in sometimes that it was hilarious. Or did you not ever see that?"

Noah grunted. "I guess I didn't, really. I had my own reasons though, Pete."

"I'd say they must have turned out to be pretty good then, given how you've gotten your shit together and all," the older boy replied, before turning to Jesse. "Okay, now do you see why? The guys that were with me that night, they were all homophobes, and… and…"

"They had their own reasons for hating gays, yeah. I get it. I kind of figured that was what you were trying to tell me," Jesse quietly replied. "It all makes more sense, now." He looked hard into the brown eyes that were staring back at him. "You didn't have to tell me this."

"Yes, I did. You may not be gay, but you at least needed to understand. I'm not proud of what happened at all, okay? I mean, that day, in the lunchroom… I had grown to hate you, so bad… especially after what you did to me…" He paused and took another deep breath. "But… I deserved it; I know that now, but back then…"

"You threatened my brother," Jesse said quietly. "If not for that, I probably wouldn't have… wouldn't have…"

"Humiliated me? Kick my balls up to my head? Yeah, I know… I don't ask for forgiveness for that, because I was, well, it was just me being stupid, yeah." He looked away. "I wasn't on drugs or anything, but… it's hard to understand what was driving me, okay? I just…"

A long silence then began between them, one that only began to fill the chilling air as the evening was falling around them. Jesse did not know how long they had been there, but he knew their time was running out. "I'll make you a deal, if you want to hear it."

Pete looked up. "I'm listening," he stated, rather morosely.

"We'll see you, and talk to you again, and soon. You don't have to be alone anymore. Besides, you might find everything isn't as bad as it seems anyway."

Pete stared at the boy. "Why the hell would you say that?" His tone was not sarcastic or menacing, but it was clear he had no belief in that statement.

"Let's just say, people are beginning to notice things a lot more lately." When the curious expression was evident, Jesse shook his head. "No, that's all I'm going to say. Just… don't count on it being the end of the world yet."

Pete's eyes narrowed. "And what is the deal part, then?"

"You have to tell my brother you're sorry. Nothing elaborate, no big stories or anything… just simply tell him you and I had some problems, and you're sorry you got him involved before we figured it all out. Easy enough?" Jesse explained.

Pete, however, was dubious. "I guess so, but… I'm never going to see him again anyway, so what's the point, right? Seems like a lame-ass deal, doesn't it to you?" The last question was addressed to Noah, who simply shrugged. The older teen, however, contemplated something even further before he spoke again. "I need to tell you I'm sorry, too, Cook. I know, I was a jack-ass there at one point, but you were also being a dick, you know? That's the whole irony of it, though. I mean, don't get me wrong, okay… but having you around I think was a part of what kept me sane a lot of times. Having you around sort of balanced me out, if that makes any sense. When you got all haughty and started pulling away though, you and that stupid girl of ours, Linda… That stung man, and it stung hard."

Noah frowned, confused. "Uh, but…"

"I know, I know, okay? I was the one who started it all …" The teen suddenly laughed. "Do you know what she did later that day on the bus? She told me to go 'fuck a duck'! Can you believe that? Coming from her?" Pete asked, shaking his head again with disbelief. "Fuck a duck, as if… oh, man…"

Both Noah and Jesse laughed at that, the first sign between the three that maybe, just maybe, Pete wasn't as big of an asshole as he appeared to be. It was then the older teen finally stood up. "Okay, time for me to face the music now. My deal was to get to talk to you, and old man Green held up his end of the bargain, and then some. That's one thing no one will ever accuse me of, you know. If I make a promise, I keep it – or I'll die trying." He turned to Jesse and held up a fist mid-air. "I'm not asking for your forgiveness, McAllister. Okay? I've got things I need to own up to, and I know it. But... now you at least know. Now, maybe you can understand this shit a little better. Maybe… maybe you can even quit kicking me in my fucking balls from now on." He suddenly laughed again. "Oh God, you have no idea how much that fucking hurt that day! Almost as bad as the knee Linda gave me a few days before that! I was afraid to even pee afterwards, they hurt so bad!"

"Oh, yes I can, I think… I can imagine," Jesse replied, blushing. He met the fist and bumped it, before Pete and Noah each reached out and did the same.

"Yeah, that was… that was uncalled for, I know. You would know, I'm sure. I'm sorry about that," the boy apologized yet again. He then sat up a little straighter. "Okay, that's it then. Sayonara, as they say. Bring your brother around sometime and I'll have a word with him, as promised. Until then though, maybe I'll see you two around again, okay?" Pete gave them a genuine, simple smile then before he raised his hand and waved at the trio of men across the playground. Jesse and Noah started the trek toward their fathers, while Harland rose and approached, passing them with a simple smile and nod. When the two best friends had joined their fathers, the foursome watched as their Principal reached Pete and put a hand on the teen's shoulder. They exchanged a few words, and then quietly the two walked away.

James leaned down to both boys, placing his arms around both their shoulders. "Just tell us one thing: was coming out here worth it?"

Jesse looked up at him and smiled. "Every bit, Dad… Every bit."

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