The Storm That Turned the Tide

by Sean English

Chapter 25

Hope and Charity

"You're awfully quiet over there. Anything amiss?"

Tuesday afternoon found James and his older son on the road by themselves, driving toward town. The weather had subsided, most of the earlier freezing rain and snow having now passed through the valley, with only lingering flurries in their wake. The windy conditions of the morning had also changed for the better, and upon inspection James had found the roads to not be as bad as they had feared. After conversing briefly with Allen, the men decided to chance getting out, but Allen had wanted to go down to the bank after hearing that many of their workers hadn't shown up for the day.

In the meantime, James had called upon his older son to see how he might feel in joining him. The events of the past week and more had left the man with little opportunity to follow up on their seasonal shopping, or assist in taking care of the things normally done by Makalah. The family was already hampered with an inability to spend either time or money on holiday decorations and the like, and Makalah's unfortunate accident hindered the family even further. Then with the additional burdens of overseeing the hardware store, dealing with helping his wife the best he could, and working the details over the episode that had hospitalized Jesse for almost a week – it had all begun to weigh heavily upon his shoulders. He had even admitted as much to Allen, as they talked earlier that afternoon, and his new neighbor had nodded in sympathy.

"James, trust me… I understand how you feel. It has been a few years since the walls came crashing down around Jennifer and myself, but there is only one reason we made it through those times as well as we did. If it hadn't been for you and Makalah, I'm not so sure what would have happened."

James tried to wave it off. "You two would have been fine, Allen. You just didn't have anyone to lean on very much, and Makalah and I both knew what that was like. All we did, honestly, was try to give you both a hand, that's all."

"I strongly disagree," Allen replied, sitting forward in his chair. "It's not just what you guys did in giving us time, helping to keep me mobile, and otherwise taking care of us, James. Although, don't get me wrong – that was in and of itself remarkable, no doubt about that. But, well… you have to realize, we were still newlyweds, more or less, trying to navigate life in general. I ended up being pretty depressed at times, and there were times we both didn't know what tomorrow would bring, but you and Makalah steered us clear of all that despair. You see, you two gave us your time and your help, but you also gave us advice and guidance… and probably more important than anything else, you gave us a lot of unwavering encouragement. Good God, if you hadn't been there to prop me back up, right when I was down and needed it most, and just… just being our friends - there is no telling what route we would have taken. Jennifer needed it, heaven help! She needed Makalah to be her shining light, a friend to keep it all together, remember? She sure wasn't getting anything out of my brother or sister back then, which even to this day I still don't really understand why, but that's all water under the bridge, I guess. For Jennifer though, being an only child, and losing her parents when she was just a teenager, my wife really had nobody to lean on, all while trying to navigate her classes and everything up at the school!"

"Then, as far as I went, well … you know how estranged my brother and I became after he moved away, and my sister wasn't much better after marrying that slob of a husband of hers." Allen had stopped and sighed. "Don't you see? My Dad was already going downhill then. He couldn't understand half the time what was going on around him, yet alone what was going on with me. All he saw was the accident, and the recovery I was going through physically, but… he couldn't really process it. At least not like he normally would have. That was the beginning of his Alzheimer's condition, and it took its ultimate toll in the months and years to follow. So, it was you who was there for me, just like Makalah was there for Jennifer. It's because of you two, that Jenn and I were able to get back on our feet. We couldn't have done that without the both of you."

James, humbled, only sat there staring out into the cold world that met them. Allen finally smiled before he continued. "That was then, though. What has been going on now is sort of different, I know, but… we're all older, and we're all a little wiser, too. At least, I hope we are – and although I know we had a bit of distance develop between us for a while, trust me – Jenn and I never forgot. You don't forget something like that, you know?"

"Life just got busy for all of us, I know," James finally remarked, uncertain of what else to say just then.

"That's exactly what it is," Allen agreed. "So, take my word for it – I understand, and I'm telling you right now, man-to-man, that it's all okay. We'll get through it, all of us, and we'll be laughing about it by the time Spring rolls around the corner, okay? Until then, we just have to keep doing what we've been doing. We have to take things one day at a time, until we get through all the rough patches."

James finally turned to the man and smiled in return. "I am grateful we have friends like the three of you. Noah for the boys, and you and Jennifer for us – there is so much that has happened, and so much we have you to be thankful for, too. We owe you, big time."

Allen scoffed. "Give me a break! You don't owe us anything. Trust me, I'd rather you four be living next door here, than some unknown vagrants that I have to keep a closer eye on, that's for sure!" He sighed and then sat back again. "Consider something else, too - everything, especially for this time of year, has kind of been slow and dragged out for a bit. I'm not complaining, really - I like being able to take a step back and breathe anyway. But… you just wait - six months from now, it'll be warmer weather, the boys will be out looking to make mischief and money, getting into trouble like a lot of teenagers do, and then we'll all be back on a more normal track of life."

James nodded. "I've thought that, too. Hopefully, everything will return to a more normal speed, too – without all the drama."

"Without it?" Allen grunted. "We'll always have drama, James. We have two teenagers joined at the hip, and you have a little one practically on the cusp of his pre-teen years. There'll be plenty of adventure and drama to go around for all of us in the foreseeable future, I promise!"

James laughed. "Yeah, I guess there will be."

When the man didn't continue, Allen changed the subject. "So, have you thought any more about how you guys want this weekend to work out yet?"

James recalled how that conversation had raised his spirits considerably in the end, but was roused from his reverie to the present, especially now when Jesse suddenly spoke up, sitting beside him by answering his father's question. "No, Dad… Just been thinking some, that's all."

James nodded, realizing he had let his thoughts inadvertently wander for a brief time. "I suspect we'll all be doing some of that for the next several days, won't we," he commented. "To be truthful, I was hoping you would come along with me this afternoon, because I wanted to talk to you about something."

"Me?" Jesse asked, startled. "Uh, well… okay…"

"Don't get your undies in a wad, you're not in trouble or anything," James teased, laughing after seeing his son's reaction. Even Jesse had to chuckle, although he rolled his eyes at the now old-and-lame reference.

"My undies are far too loose to be wadded up! You know that!" the boy whispered with a grin.

"Yeah, well, boxers are like that. I just kind of figured you might appreciate them for a few days until your swelling goes down," James intoned. He paused briefly before continuing. "Seriously, though… this thing we're going to do with the Cooks, it's going to be different from what we normally have done… what we've always done. You know, having our own Christmas tree, opening our presents and just sitting around together for a couple of days. Not that it will be all that much different, but… it still won't be the same. Are you sure you're alright with it?"

"Oh, yeah Dad. I am, I promise," Jesse replied. "I mean… like Mom said, we don't have to have a tree and all that stuff, that's not important anyway. But… being there, it might kind of, I don't know, just feel a little different, but that's all. It'll be fine."

James frowned as he turned onto the main highway. "Well, we'll always feel the spirit of Christmas, Jesse, no matter where we are. That, however, is not quite what I meant. I meant, we could stay home and all, but bringing out the presents and all, I kind of think we could have ended up fighting away the blue. In other words, the storm, the tornado… it stole a lot of our memories, good memories, and it stripped our family back to our roots, more or less. I mean, look at us, we're practically rebuilding with everything new, see… and well, as soon as Christmas morning comes, I kind of felt like it might be hard on us, especially in realizing the price we've paid for it. I'll grant that maybe it won't be as much of an impact on you boys, because you two seem to adapt to just about anything thrown at you. But… I know it hits your mother and me, considering how long it's taking for us to get our lives back together. Understand?"

Jesse thought about it for a moment before slowly nodding. "Yeah, I do, Dad. I guess I never thought of it quite that way." He glanced over to see his father smiling at him. "I hope when I get older, I have at least half the smarts you have about stuff like this, you know?"

James looked ahead, suddenly finding himself choking up. No greater compliment could come from a child to their parent, he felt. If he were not in the middle of navigating traffic and turns, he would have pulled the boy into the middle of the seat and hugged him. Instead, however, he smiled and regained control of his emotions. "You know, I needed you today, so you could help me out. I've gotten hold of a couple of things for you two, but the way everything has happened, I haven't bought much in the way of Christmas presents for your brother or your Mom. Not that we've ever gotten a lot to begin with, but I want it to be different this year, you know? So, do you think you might be able to help me out?"

Jesse suddenly laughed, a cheerful, deep-sounding chuckle that came from within. "So, THAT's why you wanted me to come along!" He grinned as he saw his father blush, but then lowered his voice. "Sure Dad, we can do that."

"Good. I know you've mentioned some things before, but I honestly can't recall any of them now. Besides, neither of you ever made that list for your mother and me, you know?" he teased, this time causing his son to blush. "I say we get you a ride-on cart, and I'll follow you around with a basket."

Jesse made a face. "What? A ride-on? You mean, one of those carts like old people use, or, uh… um, heavy people?"

"Yes, that's the one," James replied with his own chuckle. "You can try walking if you want, but… I don't want you getting too tuckered out, too soon. Your mother will have my ass if you come back any for the worse after this!"

Jesse grinned, but then shrugged. "Maybe you're right then. It's just… never mind, maybe it'll be fun."

"You bet it will," James replied encouragingly as he turned into the shopping center's parking lot. "Especially with it just being the two of us for the next hour or so."

"Oh yeah!" Jesse agreed. He was warming to the idea of spending time with his father more than ever, especially now knowing why he had been brought along.

"Whoa, looks like you boys did a pretty good job!" Makalah remarked, standing on crutches in the doorway to the dining room.

Jesse looked up and grinned. "Yeah, maybe," he replied, before setting some bags down upon the kitchen table.

James promptly appeared behind him, carrying two boxes which he sat beside them. "That should be it, other than for the wrapping paper. I'll go get it, while you start getting these things out of the bags." The man looked up at his wife. "I think we've got to do some quick wrapping here. Is Benji still next door?"

"Noah is taking good care of him until we give him the all-clear signal," Makalah replied. She approached the table and paused, picking up a set of Hot Wheels cars. "He'll like these, I'm sure… You two always did like messing around in the dirt, making roads and so forth with them."

"Yeah, I know," Jesse replied, pulling one of the table's chairs out and sitting down. "There's another one in here somewhere, too. We bought two sets." He then began the task as he was instructed, extracting several toys and items from within the bags and placing them on the table. Once completed, the teen gathered the plastic sacks and wadded them in tightly before taking aim at the a nearby waste-basket. He let it loose and the wad traveled several feet until it sunk through the top of the rim and inside. "Two-points!" he exclaimed, causing his mother to chuckle as she, too, pulled a chair out and sat down.

"Maybe I should get your father to put a hoop above that clothes hamper in your room!" she teased, but Jesse turned to look at her with an amusing expression.

"What, aren't we picking our clothes up off the floor enough?" the teen teased.

"To be honest, yes you are. You've both been much better about that this year, come to think of it. Maybe we don't need to-" She stopped unexpectedly as she saw her son's overly exaggerated grin meet her. Puzzled, she watched as Jesse pulled from the stack the exact item she had called out. Laughing, she shook her head, while Jesse joined in with her.

"I saw this and told Dad it might be kind of cool," her son explained through his own chuckles. "Really though, a lot of the things we have here are kind of small stuff. Other than we did pick out a couple of more games for the Nintendo."

Makalah nodded. "I think that's just fine, really. It'll be good for him, I'm sure."

Just then, James returned and saw the clothes hamper hoop sitting out. "Oh yeah, Jesse found that somewhere in house-wares, I think. It might be one we'll need to give to the both of you though, but yeah… I thought it would be cool for a boys' room," he admitted, giving his wife a wink. Turning to Jesse, however, he added, "You still have to wrap it up though, and pretend to be surprised when your brother opens it!"

"Okay, Santa," Jesse mused. "I think I can do that." Looking at the various rolls of wrapping paper, he pointed to them. "So, how are we going to do it, Dad? Should we, like, try to put all of these in a certain color or something, like we did last year? Or…?"

Makalah smiled before reaching out and pulling one of the tubes from her husband's collection. "Here, I say we do everything belonging to your brother using green or red." Then, for the next hour, all three went to work, wrapping the various toys and items with festive papers, ribbons and bows. Jesse's ability to wrap presents had improved substantially in the last few years, and it was not an ability his parents were going to let go to waste.

As they neared the last, Makalah and James both noted that Jesse had become considerably slower with his efforts, as well as beginning to lose some of his perkiness. "Are you doing okay, honey? Getting tired?" Makalah asked.

"Yeah, kind of," the teen acknowledged. He laid the package he just finished upon the table before slowly grabbing the bag of bows nearby. Finding one to his liking, he attached it to the gift and then sat back, shutting his eyes for a moment before reopening them as he turned to his parents. "Is it okay if I go lie down for a while? My back is kind of aching and all, sitting up like this, and yeah, I really am getting pretty tired right now."

James looked up and nodded. "Sure, son. Do you need some help? Has your back been bothering you very much?"

"No, not really. Just… I guess I'm just really starting to feel it more now, is all, from us being out and everything," Jesse admitted.

"Well, go on then," Makalah announced kindly. "We'll finish this up and get things put away, then call and tell Noah the coast is clear. I think they're all coming over anyway for some soup and sandwiches tonight."

"That will be nice," Jesse replied absently, but then smiled before slowly climbing to his feet. It was then the teen stumbled, and would have fallen if not for James stepping in immediately to his side and steadying him. Embarrassed, Jesse glanced up. "Sorry, Dad, just… just still light-headed, I guess. Sometimes, anyway."

James took the teenager by the elbow and stepped in closer. "Meh, don't be sorry. I've kept you hopping about all afternoon as it is, so I'm not surprised how tiring that can be – especially to someone in your condition, still recovering. I should have known better, really," the man chided himself. Glancing at his wife briefly, he then pivoted them both out and away from the table. "Come on, I'll walk you back to your room."

Moments later, James returned and sat down by his wife. She could tell by his expression that he was not happy. "Penny for your thoughts," she invited quietly, before the man stirred from his reverie and grunted.

"I'm not sure they're worth that, even with inflation applied," he quipped, but then sat back thoughtfully. "I guess I'm just kicking myself is all. He's only been home two days, and it looked… it looked like he was almost back to being normal and all, so I didn't think… I didn't…"

Makalah, sitting close, stopped what she was doing and then leaned in next to the man. "There's no harm done, honey. He'll be fine. To be honest, I didn't think much of it either when you guys took out, and certainly not when you guys got back."

"When Allen discovered he needed to go into work, I just… I felt like I needed Jesse by my side, to help do this for Benji, you know? I didn't think of it tiring him out that much, although I should have been more alert. Right now, he just fell into his bed back there like a sack of potatoes, and I wouldn't be surprised if he fell asleep before I even left the room." James sighed, shaking his head. "It's another reminder really, that our son is not totally out of the woods, yet."

"I agree," Makalah replied before stretching. "He'll be fine, though. You'll see. Here, start picking up the scrap paper and shrink wraps, and I'll start figuring out what to do with these packages."

James stood, but then smiled. "What to do is the easy part. Allen told me that door leading upstairs isn't as sealed off as it looks. There's not-" The man stopped, before surveying the table again. "I started to say there's not that much here, but I think I better be careful. There has to be, what, nine or ten packages, isn't there? And most all of them belong to Benji!"

"Try eleven," Makalah corrected him. "But like Jesse said, several of these are just small items, almost like stocking stuffers." It was then she glanced up. "Speaking of, what about Jesse? Are we set for him?"

"Oh yeah," James acknowledged with a smile. "As it turned out, that one big item we ordered for him came in at the store last Friday, and one of the ladies offered to take it home and wrap it up for us." He leaned back against the wall. "I'm hoping he'll be surprised by it, too. By the way, did I ever tell you that he tried to get us, or get me rather, to not worry about him for Christmas? His words were, more or less, to just worry about Benji, and not worry about him this year."

Makalah arched her eyebrows. "Really?" The woman then sighed. "Somehow that doesn't surprise me. What about those cards we got from the donations?"

"I took care of that, using them for Jesse's things. Also, there are two bicycles assembled and waiting in the back room at the store," James replied. "I didn't know at first about getting one for Jesse, really – since he'll obviously be driving in another year or so. In the end though, I figured what the heck. They didn't turn out to be that much after all, so we've got one for each of them anyway."

"Probably just as well that you did. Those two always loved taking off and riding together, especially Ben, since he's got a big brother that will take him places besides just around the yard," Makalah reasoned. "I think though, even after he starts driving, Jesse will probably still like riding his bike for a while."

"Yes, he probably will," her husband acknowledged.

Jesse rolled over and opened his eyes. It took him a moment to get his bearings, but once his senses sharpened, he sat up slowly. Outside their window, darkness had taken over much of the landscape, but the blanket of snow left behind by the morning's front was clearly visible. The stillness beyond their window looked both peaceful and serene, as if it could have been captured and used on a greeting card. "Boy, it would be nice to have this Christmas Eve, or Christmas Day, even," he remarked to himself, and he meant it. The area had been fortunate the year before to have a semi-white Christmas. Semi-white in the sense that roughly a half-inch to an inch had fallen the night before, thus setting the mood for the morning to come. It had been the first in over twenty years, as it turned out. The big day now being only three days away, and the forecast of cold temperatures remaining through the weekend heightened many hopes of this layer sticking around.

The teenager sighed and swung his legs out over the side of the bed. He recalled how he had suddenly felt strange earlier, and how his Dad had helped him make it to his room. It was as if the events of the day had culminated and struck him all at once like a tidal wave. As soon as he had stretched out, he had sighed and succumbed to the built-up exhaustion. He wasn't used to taking naps, not really… but this was the third day in a row the fatigue had caught him by surprise. It was annoying, because the teenager felt like he should be over it by now, but as soon as he had stood and the dizziness struck yet once again, it became a stark reminder to him that he was supposed to be taking it easy.

He slowly made his way to the bathroom, being cautious in every sense, because he didn't want a repeat of what had happened earlier. Once done however, he felt fine, and so he began to route his way into the kitchen and dining room. There was already laughter coming from within, and as he reached the open doorway, he couldn't help but smile. Seated around the table were his parents and Benji, along with the Cooks. Benji, it appeared, had just fallen from his chair for some reason, as the others were laughing hysterically while he sheepishly made his way back on to it.

Noah was the first to catch sight of Jesse, however, as he stopped and pointedly called out to him. "Hey, you! Back from the land of the dead?" That remark instantly caused his mother to lean over and swat at him, as Benji suddenly turned and jumped up to run to his brother.

"Yeah, I guess," Jesse replied, placing an arm around his brother as he was guided toward the table. Immediately James rose and pulled a chair around for him between the other two boys, which he obligingly took and seated himself on to it carefully. His father then rejoined the group after pulling up one of the stools from the counter. "Uh, how long have you guys been here?" Jesse asked Noah, who replied by simply shrugging.

"I don't know, maybe an hour or so," the teen informed him.

Glancing around the table, Jesse saw that the others looked as if they had already finished. "I guess I missed supper, didn't I? Sorry about that…"

"We thought maybe we ought to let you rest a bit longer, that's all," Jennifer announced, climbing to her feet. After exchanging a few words with him, she quickly collected a fresh bowl of soup and made the teenager a ham sandwich to enjoy with it, before sitting the tray of food down in front of him. James pulled a can of soda from a nearby cooler and handed it over as well.

The teenager studied the contents of the bowl and frowned. What first looked to be a simple, ordinary dish of northern beans, he discovered was anything but after stirring it. He took a tentative bite, and then his eyebrows arched in surprise. "Hey, this isn't bad!"

"Yep, it's pretty good, isn't it? I've heard of White Chili before, but never ventured to try and make any. Mrs. Harrison brought it by late this morning," Makalah announced. "We had some beef vegetable soup here, too… but I'm afraid most of it is already gone."

"That's okay. This hits the spot," Jesse declared, as he dug into the concoction even more. "What's it made with… shredded chicken or something?"

"Sure is," James answered. "Mostly beans, chicken and a bunch of spices, we think. Don't worry though, I intend to ask her for the recipe when we take her slow cooker home."

"So, did you get rested enough and everything?" Benji piped up, before taking a drink of his own soda.

"I guess so, yeah. Sorry, if I had known you guys were back, I would have already been up before now."

"No worries," Noah announced. "You must have been out of it pretty bad, though." The families turned to other topics around the table then while Jesse continued to finish his supper. Before long, James rose and pulled out a plate of brownies from the oven, and set the pallet on the table along with a carton of ice cream. No one had to be invited, as they all, in one form or another, started reaching for the food.

Once done, the boys rose from the table and headed back to the bedroom, where Benji let go a loud belch. "Oh man, that was good!" he exclaimed, before walking out and calling behind him, "Back in a minute, gotta wiz!"

Jesse rolled his eyes. "Sheesh! You'd think he could do that without announcing it to the whole world, don't you? Good grief!"

"Like you've said before," Noah replied, plopping down on the bed. "He's only seven!"

"Yeah, I know. Soon to be eight, though," Jesse replied, sitting down next to his friend.

"Um, same for you isn't it? I mean, aren't you supposed to turn 15 soon? Didn't I hear you tell me that, or was it your Mom…?" Noah asked.

"Yeah, I'll be 15 on January 20th… um, about a month from now, I guess."

"Whew! I'm glad!" Noah declared, then giggled when he saw Jesse's expression. "What? I just didn't want to be that much older than you, that's all!"

Jesse leaned in and bumped his shoulder with the teen. "Why? Afraid you're molesting me or something?" he whispered, which caused Noah to snort and then laugh.

"NNoooo… but, I guess I'm guilty of it in a way, yeah," Noah relented, before changing the subject. "So, I need to talk to you about something… something serious even, but… not with Ben around. Got any ideas?"

Jesse arched an eyebrow, and then after a quick consideration, he nodded toward his shoes. "Help me get them on, and then let's take a walk outside. I'd like to get out in the snow anyway, even if it's only just to walk around for a bit. Will that be okay?"

"Perfectly!" Noah exclaimed, and instantly pounced on the pair of sneakers before handing them over.

As they were getting them pulled on, Benji returned. "Hey, what's up? Going somewhere?"

Jesse smiled. "I just want to take a walk around outside for a few minutes. You guys got to get out in the snow earlier, and I really haven't had much of a chance to."

"Oh," Benji answered, and then shrugged as he glanced toward Noah. "Well, when you get back, can we play some more on the Nintendo? I might even let Bubble-Butt win for a change…"

Both of the older teenagers laughed. "Hey," Noah suddenly interrupted. "Where did you come up with that anyway? First Jesse, and now you're calling me 'Bubble-Butt'? What gives?"

Benji laughed before leaning up against the base of the bed. "Petey says his brother calls him that all the time. He used to call him 'Butt-Face', but his Mom didn't like it. She got after him about it, and, well, you know..."

Jesse laughed and, after standing again, purposefully bumped shoulders with his brother. "Sure, we can play after we get back. We won't be out to long either, I promise." The youth nodded, and then the teenagers left the room while Benji set about preparing things in their absence.

After donning their coats, Jesse explained to his parents what they were going to do, which met little to no resistance. "Just… don't stay out too long and wear yourself out again. Remember, it's pretty cold out there, okay?" his mother implored, after which he promised he would be careful. Stepping out from the back door, he and Noah both began walking up the driveway.

After they both had traveled several feet in silence, Jesse finally spoke. "Okay, so, what's up? Dumping me for another cute guy?"

That remark earned him a playful shove before Noah rolled his eyes. Stepping slightly ahead, the teen eventually turned to face Jesse, stopping them both in the middle of the driveway before they could continue. "It's about Benji. He asked me something today, and… I don't know. I guess I just kind of got scared. I mean, Petey told him some stuff evidently, and it was bothering him, see? About Christmas, and… Santa and stuff."

"Whoa!" Jesse exclaimed in surprise and stopped in his tracks, but then began moving again, although at a slower pace. Noah then related their conversation as closely as he could recall it, explaining how it had all come about between the two of them. Jesse listened carefully, with little interruption because he wanted Noah to get it all out in the open. He did nod encouragingly from time to time, and by the time they had made it to the end of the driveway and started the short distance to the Cooks' driveway, he had finally quieted and sighed.

"I mean, I'm sorry, Jesse. I- I honestly didn't know what to do, or what to say! It just, well, it kind of came out of the blue, and…"

"Hey, don't beat yourself up over it," Jesse replied, stepping in close to his friend and stopping them both again. "I'm… well, I'm surprised, yeah… not that he brought it to you, but…" He sighed then as deeply as his friend did. "You know… I kind of thought we'd have another year or two, at least. But, now? Wow…!"

"Yeah, I know. It's not Benji's fault, either. I mean, if anyone, it's Petey's brother that should be, I don't know…"

Jesse nodded grimly. "No kidding! I thought most people had a little decency about stuff like that, at least!" The teen then stretched, enjoying the fact the cold was helping to sharpen his senses. After a moment, he glanced at Noah and smiled. "I'm glad, actually."

"Glad? About what?" Noah asked.

"Well, I'm glad he asked you. I mean, I know I haven't been around as much lately, and… if it was bothering him, at least he got to talk to you about it, rather than keeping it all bottled up inside like he did when those kids were bullying him at school," Jesse reasoned. "As far as what you told him, I honestly think it was awesome, really. He knows there's something more than what he sees and all, but… thanks to you, he now understands that believing is the most important part." He bumped his friend's shoulder again while steering them on toward the house once again. "You see? Like I've been telling you, you're getting to be more of a big brother every day! In fact, if you're not careful, I might start getting jealous. I mean, heck, I might even be out of a job before I know it!"

"Oh, please! Don't say stuff like that, whether you're teasing me or not!" Noah muttered, hanging his head. "I've felt bad about it ever since, because… well, I didn't mean to, like, do something I shouldn't. I wish he had come to you, because you two are the real brothers, and-"

"Shut the fuck up!" Jesse hissed, then immediately regretted it as he watched Noah recoil. "No, no… come back, I didn't mean it quite that way." As if to emphasize the point, he reached out and draped his arm around Noah, pulling the teen up close. "What I meant was, you keep giving yourself no credit for the things that you should. Then when you get nervous about dealing with Benji, you always pull that line on me, about me and Ben being the real brothers and you aren't. Honestly? That's starting to get to me, Noah! I mean, heck – you talk about me and my moods and stuff sometimes. You do have them too, Bubble-Butt!"

"But… you two ARE brothers, Jesse!" Noah scoffed, but then finding the look of annoyance meet him, he relented. "I have to admit, it feels strange hearing him call us that. I wonder if he even knows what that's supposed to mean…"

Jesse laughed. "Are you kidding? No way, no how! At least, not yet." The teen then lowered his voice and became more serious. "Noah, listen: we tell each so much about how we trust each other sometimes, about our feelings on the inside and everything, right? Well… As much as you tell me to believe in them, I'm telling you that you need to do the same, especially when it comes to my brother." He looked over to see they were close to the house, so he then led his best friend up to the porch. Once they ascended the steps, the two took a seat on the swing. Jesse was thinking again, trying to find the words he wanted, before he continued.

"You just don't get it, I think, about how much Benji likes you and all. He does, and he's opened his heart up to you, you know? And why not? You've been taking care of him for a while now, all while I've… you know, not been around as much. That isn't the easiest of things to do, Noah. Maybe it is for some kids, but not for Benji – not 'our' little brother. I mean, face it: for a seven-year-old, he doesn't act like his age. Sure, he's a goof-ball and cuts up and plays a lot like kids his age, but Ben thinks ahead about things, and worries and sees things too, a lot quicker than most people give him credit for. At the same time though, he's still just seven years old!"

"You got that right," Noah interjected, smiling.

"Yeah… You know, he has a few friends, but I don't think there is anyone he lets inside his head like he lets us, and I do mean both of us. He trusts you - can't you see that? He invests just as much with you as he does with me," Jesse remarked pointedly.

"Well, I understand that maybe, yeah, but…"

"But, what?" Jesse asked, before shaking his head. "Okay, look - not that I'm trying to be a pervert or anything here, but consider something you told me at the hospital. You and my brother took a shower together, and he got to see you in all your beautiful, naked glory, right? You told me he even played with your hairs down there, right? Kind of like he does mine?" The teen giggled. "Noah, there is something special in all of that, bro. First off, you let him do it, remember? You told me you didn't care, and believe me – I'll bet Benji saw that, and it probably made him feel pretty good inside when you let him get in the shower with you. You can't tell me that was just for kicks, either."

"It wasn't, but-"

"You're not listening to me, Noah. Think about it, please? It's one thing to strip together and get in, but you told me that afterwards you shared a moment – just the two of you. Why do you think he did that, if he didn't trust you as much as he trusts me?" Jesse implored. "Like, I mean it, I'm really not trying to be pervy or anything, but… that's the point, I think. It's because you weren't pervy, or getting turned on or anything with him. You did it because you didn't mind, and you didn't object because you trusted my little brother. And in turn, I'm telling you – he saw that, Noah… and he trusted you." Jesse paused, seeing that he was making some headway, so he pushed on. "It's like you and me, bro. You know why I trust you, Noah – given everything we do, from being together, laughing, playing, even getting naked and jerking each other off and all. Trusting you is what makes us best friends, because I know what's in your heart. You and I have been through this before, and yeah, I'm freaking glad of it! I mean, how could I not be? To find out that you like me, back in the same way I liked you, it… it feels like… something I can't really put into words! But whatever we want to call it, it's something we share together, and it brings us closer. I'm telling you, Benji is the same way, but his reasons aren't about sex and love… at least not in the way we see it, not like what we have together. Instead, his heart is built all around this trust thing, kind of like ours is but with a whole lot of curiosity mixed in with it, you know? Only with him, he's like this innocent kid, through whose eyes we get to watch things happen. Especially when you and I never had anyone to share stuff with us at his age! That's why you and I care about him so much. That's why we love watching him and everything, and the more he does with us, the more it grows on us. It… it's more powerful than just getting naked, it's… it's sharing, and … feeling, and…"

"Okay, okay… I get it, I promise…" Noah watched as his friend grew quiet in that moment. Everything Jesse said made perfect sense, and for a moment Noah felt as if he had let his friend down. "I'm sorry, Jess. I didn't mean for this to turn out this way, or for you to get all worked up over me. I just… I just thought I should tell you, in case you or your parents ought to, I don't know, be prepared, I guess." He turned his gaze up into the blue eyes that he could still make out in the darkness. "I was just afraid maybe I might have fucked it up, you know? Like, not handled it the best way…" He squeezed Jesse's hand for emphasis, which caused his friend to nod.

"Nope, I think you handled it perfectly! Seriously, that's what I've been trying to tell you, to make you understand!" Jesse exclaimed, before laughing and wrapping his arm around Noah's shoulders. "Don't you see? You and Benji, you've both built something between you now, and yeah… I'm happy about it, honest. I don't worry about you handling things the best way you think or feel. More than that though, I don't think Benji worries about it either. He obviously believes you'll tell him the truth, like you did, and Noah - that means a lot." He lowered his voice even more. "It means a lot for me, too. Heck, the fact you're even telling me this right now, shows that you trust me like you always have, and that means so much to me, I'm afraid you'll never really understand." He leaned in really close again. "You know, you could have probably just not said anything. The way I figure, I doubt Benji would have ever even told me about it."

Noah sat up then and shook his head. "No, I don't agree. I think he would have, because he still respects you, maybe now more than ever. Like you said, I guess: I was just there at the right time. Or the wrong time, as it might have been in this case."

"Wrong time?" Jesse laughed again. "I've got a secret for you, bro… there is no right or wrong time, really. This is stuff you have to just handle when it comes, I think." He sighed before slowly leaning in and kissing Noah softly on his lips. "Thank God you still let me do that," he whispered. "If you didn't, I think… I don't even want to think about how I'd feel if I lost that from you, right now."

"Lose what? Kissing me?" Noah whispered, before glancing toward the McAllisters' house. Although it was brightly lit from the inside, he found no one at the windows or doors checking up on them. Sliding closer, he returned the kiss to Jesse, only this time parting his lips. For the next minute or more, they both embarked on a brief interlude, sharing something once again that neither had been able to do for a while. Jesse whimpered at one point and totally surrendered himself, but both knew it could only last for a moment, and for that, they took advantage of every second they possibly could.

When he finally pulled back, Noah smiled with a sigh. "We have to, you know, do something before long. I can be patient, but…"

"I know, I know," Jesse whispered back. "I thought about us maybe taking another shower tonight, where maybe I could, like, give you a little exercise and all. But to be honest, I think I need to do this one with something else in mind." Seeing the look of curiosity that met him, Jesse became apologetic. "You told me yourself, Benji kept asking about how bad I was beaten up and all, and I still haven't worked up the courage to, like, let him see me all over. I admit, at first, I was really afraid to, but… after what you told me the other night, well… I thought maybe tonight I'd pretend I might need some more 'help', and… you know…"

Noah giggled, before nuzzling himself into Jesse's shoulder with another embrace. "You know something? That's why I think I love you so much. You talk about my heart sometimes, but you've got the bigger one, you know? The things you do for Benji and me both, and for others… it's really awesome sometimes." Breathing deeply, he finally looked up again into the smile that met him. "Jesse, we'll do stuff again. I know, I said something silly about beginning to lose my patience, but honest – I was just teasing. You've got to get well again, first. I couldn't lose my patience with you. For one reason, who else would I ever have the courage to trust and do what we do together, right? And… besides, there is nothing about what I feel for you that has changed, I promise."

"Ditto," Jesse whispered back, as he hugged Noah to him again. They stayed there a few minutes longer and then sat up. "We better start heading back in. It's getting colder anyway."

"Yeah," Noah agreed, standing to his feet and offering a hand to his friend. Jesse accepted it gladly, and before long both were heading across the lawn. "Jess?" Noah asked before pausing. "Just… are you sure I handled it okay?"

"Oh, yeah! I'm not too sure I could have come up with it that way, either, so rally – I bet you handled it way better than I would have!" Jess replied with a smile. "Seriously though, don't worry about it. I'll talk to Mom and Dad, too, so that they know the cat's out of the bag at least. I'm not going to say anything to Benji though, unless he brings it up – scout's honor."

Noah made a face. "I don't care if you talk to him about it. I- I just… thanks."

"Hey, I got your back, okay?" Jesse whispered. "If anyone should be worried, it ought to be Petey's brother. If I ever get him out anywhere alone… there might be some trouble before we get done."

"I agree, and I'd want to be with you, too," Noah replied.

As they both crossed the little dip between their lawns, they strolled toward the lone bedroom window and stopped to peer through it. Inside, they could see Benji stretched out on Jesse's bed, looking at a book, obviously waiting for their return. "That's my little brother, Noah," Jesse whispered. His friend grunted as he stepped closer and reached out, tapping on the glass. Benji turned in an instant and, upon seeing the two standing there, they watched as his face transitioned from one of boredom to sincere happiness. He waved at them, causing both of the older teenagers to wave back before setting off toward the back of the house. "Did you see him? Did you see how he just… I don't know, how everything just changed?" Seeing Noah's smile, he smiled, too. "You felt it, didn't you? Like I did, you felt him on the inside."

"Oh, yeah, more than you'll ever know," Noah whispered back. He was suddenly feeling elated, free from the tension he felt his confession might create between them. Just before they reached the back door, he reached out and bumped fists with his best friend, holding the gesture mid-air for several seconds. Jesse only smiled, as he understood.

It was enough.

Pete Haskell III awoke Wednesday morning at half-past seven. It was as if some internal clock had summoned him, telling him it was time. Unlike most teenagers, Pete rarely regretted the early hours. He had learned some time ago that, if he were to keep the pretense of having a normal home to stay in, he'd have to attend school, and to attend school he would have to be alert. He knew, however, there was no school now, with the official break having started, but he still could not take advantage of it to sleep later. It wasn't that he didn't try. Even now, he rolled over, trying to lull himself back into slumberland, being in a warm bed finally, with room to stretch out – unlike so many recent nights he had lived through. The gradually approaching dawn, however, lit up his single window to the outside world, and that inherently brightened his room considerably. That single event caused his brain to kick into gear, and thus after another ten minutes, he finally just pushed the covers back.

The teen yawned before looking down to find one of his quilts in the floor. Sometime during the night hours, he had pushed it back, as the room had become overly warm. If he had any complaint about his small quarters, it was that the heating was not very consistent, swinging the room, if not the entire floor, from one extreme to the other over periods of time. Seeing it lying there though, the teen grunted before pulling it back onto the bed, and made a note to himself to fold it later. Right now, he had more pressing business with a certain toilet, and he did not waste any more time getting to it.

While he sat atop the seat, Pete looked about the small bathroom and discovered that, behind the door, was a single shower recessed into the wall. It didn't take him long to decide he really wanted to make use of it, too, especially now before he got moved downstairs and into the cells, where there was little or no privacy to be had. He had already surmised the reason the Sheriff didn't move him there right away, figuring it was because of the other guys swept up during the raid. Once they were gone, however, he was certain that would change. With a grunt, he finished and then took care of the necessities, before standing. Flushing the toilet, the teen then turned to briefly wash his hands, before staring at himself in the mirror. It didn't even look like himself reflected back, to his mind anyway. It was as if another body, another face was taking over his life and he didn't know what to do about it. Regardless, however, the teenager stripped on the spur of the moment and stepped into the small shower. Turning on the water made him immediately step back out, however, as he quietly cursed the icy temperature of the flow, but after giving it sufficient time, warmer water found its way to the spigot, and thus he was able to re-enter and let the steaming stream take over. It felt good, really – so good, he found himself standing for several minutes, all the while letting the heat invigorate his aching muscles.

When he returned to the room, he opened the shopping bag, still sitting upon the side table where it was deposited the evening before, and extracted garments to wear. When he glanced at the clock and saw that it was just past eight, he smiled to himself, realizing he had not been preoccupied as long as he thought he had. He quickly dressed, and then made up his bed as best as he could. As a teenager, he wasn't used to doing such tasks, living alone as he had, but he had already drawn one menacing look from the office lady the day before, so he tried to at least make things look more presentable.

He had no sooner than finished and sat down, turning on the TV, when there came a knock from the door. "Yeah? It's not locked."

The door opened to see Deputy Phil Turner stick his head inside. "Good morning, sport. Sleep okay?" he asked, before opening the door wider and decidedly standing in the entrance.

"I did okay, yeah," Pete replied, keeping his words short and to the point.

Phil nodded at him and then jerked a thumb toward the kitchen down the hall. "There's breakfast down the hall. Betty's Kitchen sent up biscuits and gravy, with eggs and sausages. Thought you might like to know."

Pete raised an eyebrow. He had heard some talk about different breakfasts before, but he had always been used to just having Pop Tarts or cereal. "Sure!" he responded enthusiastically, rising from the bed and following the man out the door. When he reached the kitchen, he stopped once he saw the table. Spread across the entire length were several trays containing biscuits, sausage gravy, scrambled eggs, bacon and sausages, along with other side dishes. "Wow!"

The office lady, Ida, was just placing paper plates down on one corner when she looked up and saw the teen. "Did you make your bed?" she asked in a menacing tone.

"Uh, yes… yes ma'am," Pete replied quietly.

The woman glared at him for an instant longer, and then broke into a wide smile. "Good!" she declared, before handing him a plate. "There now, dig in. Don't get used to this though – I think Betty's only does this for all of us a couple of times a year." Pete nodded and, feeling relieved, moved to the table and began serving himself heaped helpings of eggs and potatoes. When he reached the biscuits and gravy, however, he didn't have any room on his plate to continue, but then Phil was standing beside him with a second plate.

"Here, let's fix this up separately and then can sit you down over there on the far side," the man said kindly, before splitting a biscuit upon the plate, and spooning a hefty serving of the gravy on top. Pete glanced up at the man, but then did as he was instructed, with the deputy soon following and placing the extra plate beside the first. "What do you want to drink? I think there's coffee, milk and juice – though you may have to wait on the coffee a bit while it brews."

Pete started to rise from the table. "Juice, but I can get it," he stated, but was immediately stopped as the bigger man gently pressed him back down. Without a word he walked over to the cabinet and poured a glass, before returning. When he saw Pete still sitting idly, he grunted. "I thought I heard you was a hungry boy, kid!"

Pete glanced up again and saw a kind expression, so he then picked up his fork and began digging in. For a moment, the deputy and Ida watched him attack his plate, but eventually both procured their own plates and circled around the buffet, fixing their own. Before long, other various office personnel and deputies entered the room to do the same. Most all of them greeted the teen, but beyond that he was left pretty much to himself, which suited him fine.

As people began filing out of the room, a familiar figure began making his way inside. "Whoa ho, I see our guest is up and about this morning!" Sheriff Hunt announced, looking merry as he approached the table and procured his own plate. As far as Pete was concerned, this was probably one of the strangest men he had ever met. He didn't act like the typical lawman, at least with respect to the stories the teen had heard. In fact, the entire department seemed to be much friendlier and more open than what he had been led to believe. His surprise doubled when, after a short grunt, the head man himself took a seat next to the teenager at the table. "Did you have any of those biscuits, with some gravy poured over the top?" the man asked gruffly, but he had already been clearing his throat more than once since entering the room. Pete assumed the man was possibly fighting the onset of a cold, given the slight nasal inflections in his voice.

"Yes sir, they were good, thanks," the teen finally answered, though with a certain amount of uncertainty.

"Ever had them before?" the man continued, as he took a bite on his own.

"No sir, not that I remember anyway."

Jim Hunt nodded. "Well, given what we know now, that's really not surprising. You've probably not had much in the way of a normal breakfast for a long time, other than that fruit and oatmeal crap they feed the kids at school. Do they ever serve eggs, or anything else?"

"Um, I wouldn't know," the teen replied. Pete had never eaten breakfast at school, given his lack of monetary funds to support it, but he let the issue slide. He wasn't sure if, for a moment, he should rise and leave the man to enjoy his meal with the others or not, but then the Sheriff changed the subject, and the subject itself took the teen totally by surprise for a second time.

"So, do you think you're ready to help out around here today?"

Pete stared at the man with disbelief. He had felt something was probably coming, although he had no idea to entertain what it might be. After all, there was no way he was going to be allowed to stay indefinitely, right? "I- I guess so. What's the deal?"

"The deal?" The man grunted and then sat back. "Well, there are still some things I have to work out and all, especially in dealing with you. First and foremost, we can't let you go back to your life before. Sorry, son, but that is no way for any decent human being to live, even if you have been making it on your own as well as you did."

Pete scoffed, sitting back as well. "Yeah, but who says I'm decent," he muttered, more to himself than anyone else.

Sheriff Hunt turned to him with one eyebrow raised. "Probably just as many people who say you're not," was the flat-out retort, which made the teenager draw back in surprise, frowning. Watching the boy try to figure out the play on words, however, made the man laugh. "Oh, good grief, you young'ens… How is it you say it in your generation? 'Just chill man, just chill.'" Across the room, Fred had entered the room in time to overhear his boss. Chuckling, he walked over and held out his smart phone, showing the screen to his boss of what looked to be a recently received text message. Jim read it quickly and then nodded. "Have you eaten yet? It's going to go cold before long, if not already."

"Thanks boss, but yeah, I got a plate earlier. Good stuff, I tell you!" Fred replied, before turning and walking out of the room. Jim Hunt took a few more bites of his breakfast before turning his attention back to the teenager.

"So, here's my 'deal', as you call it. I want you to spend the day here today, helping the custodian do some last-minute cleaning and all. Those boys' downstairs, they'll be moving out by mid-day if all goes as planned. Be mindful, however: I don't want you anywhere down there until they're gone, you hear? You help John out, do what you're told, keep your nose clean and all that. Oh, and I heard one of the barbeque houses is sending down some lunch for us all later - smoked turkey, beans, coleslaw and so forth. You'll get fed a-plenty, I reckon. So, it's nothing hard or strenuous… just a day to help pass the time, more or less."

Pete's eyes narrowed, but then he became curious. "Um, okay, I can do that, but… what about after?"

Sheriff Hunt grunted again. "That, pray tell, is going to be the hard part, I think." He set his fork down and took a long sip of his coffee, before glancing up. "You drink coffee, right? Want a cup? Black, if I remember right?" Then, without waiting for a reply, he waved at Ida, who had made herself busy by the sink during the exchange. "Ida, pour me another cup straight up, will you, young lady?"

The woman turned and grinned at the man. "Sure thing. How can I resist a compliment like that? Unless, well… Either that, or you're going blind in your older age!"

"I'm not that old, you confounded…"

"And I didn't say you were!" she snapped back with a giggle. Walking over, she set a cup of the steaming liquid in front of Pete. "I said old-er age, not old!" she declared, winking at the teen before returning to her sink. "Keep complaining though, and I might change my mind…"

"Confounded women…" Sheriff Hunt muttered under his breath, but he was pleased all the same. Afterwards the man turned back to the teenager. "The hard part, son… may be me trying to get around not calling you that, I think! I heard you gave Harland quite a row about it."

Pete grimaced, but relaxed. "Don't worry about it. I think… I think he sort of set me straight. At least, it doesn't bother me quite the way it used to before."

Jim Hunt laughed. "Harland has a tendency to do that sometimes, I know. Kind of has to, I reckon, given all the kids he deals with over there." He then shook his head. "No, the real part in all of this is how to deal with you over the weekend. We're set to close the building down at noon tomorrow, with some of the boys taking turns covering the phones and radios to handle any emergencies that may come up in the next few days. That means, I can't leave you here. So… my wife, Martha, and I started talking, and we were thinking perhaps, just for the weekend mind you, of inviting you to come out and stay with us. Not as a prisoner, detainee or such to be looked after - but as a guest. Our guest, for the holiday. You'll have to put up with my family and all, but I don't figure that will be all that bad."

Pete, in his astonishment, almost dropped his cup of coffee. "Seriously?" The teen suddenly laughed. "That's a kinky sense of humor you have, 'older man'," he added, employing the euphemism used only moments before.

Jim Hunt suddenly burst out laughing, so hard at one point he had to grab his sides with both arms. "Kinky? Hear that Ida, he says I'm 'kinky'!"

Ida, having finished her task, turned while drying her hands with a dishcloth. "Don't tell Martha that, she might want us to launch an investigation, if not send her own inquisition squad down here after you!" the woman quipped.

It was several minutes before Jim could regain his composure. Although Pete had smiled weakly at the humorous exchange, it was only beginning to sink in that the man's offer was actually genuine. "You are serious, aren't you?" he whispered.

Jim Hunt pushed his chair back and crossed his legs at that point. "Look, there are a few things we need to put on the table here, just you and me. You've had a rough go these past couple of years. Not through our fault alone, mind you, but… someone, somewhere has dropped the ball in more ways than one when it came it following up and looking after your interests. Whether they didn't know you existed, or if you were just too well hidden away, I don't know – but someone dropped the ball, pure and simple. You can blame us here, or the school, or the corrections department… even social services, if you like. I suppose even those boys hanging out at your old man's place are partially responsible, if not even you yourself. Everyone around us, I think, has had a certain level of accountability here, and all of us have failed to live up to it. I mean, consider, if you had spoken up to someone along the way, things may have turned out totally different, right? Whether it would have been better or not, well… hindsight can only offer us so much, considering."

The man glanced away momentarily before he continued. "Truth be told, however, it doesn't matter who screwed up kid, when or where. The way I see it, all of that is water under the bridge, as it has already happened the way it unfolded. Really, there is nothing that anyone can do about it now, see? So, in a sense, I'm of the opinion that this might be a way for you to consider turning over a new leaf. In other words, it might work out in such a way as to give you a chance for a fresh start again, if you want it. You've been very pleasant to deal with here, and… I'm not afraid to tell you to your face: I see the part of you that's been that badass we've heard about for years, but I also see a part of you that's been longing for something more, anything that's got a bit more normalcy to it than the chaos you've had surrounding you. Am I right? Don't be afraid to laugh at me, or tell me I'm wrong. I promise you won't hurt my feelings, but consider… Sometimes, I sense things in people the more I get to know them, and I'm telling you, that's what I've been feeling down in my gut."

Pete sat there stunned for some time before his eyes fell to the floor. "I don't know if that's quite it, but yeah… you're not all wrong. I… I've always been… alone. Even with what few friends I had, it was just, well…"

"I thought so, yes." Jim Hunt regarded the teen carefully. "Then, hear me out. Martha and I, we have no kids at home now, but we do have two beautiful daughters, already grown and with families of their own. One lives down in Georgina, but the other isn't really that far from here. They're all coming in Christmas Eve though, for an old-fashioned, home-cooked smorgasbord. I mean it, Martha's been going all out this week, more this year than she's ever done before. There's going to be turkey and dressing, ham, sweet potatoes - all the works you can probably think of, and then some you probably don't even know about yet. Tell me something, have you ever enjoyed a feast like that before, especially for the holidays?"

Pete slowly shook his head. "No sir, never."

"Well then, the two of us are inviting you to haul your butt over with me, beginning tonight. You'll spend a few days with us, probably until the first of next week. Mind you, you won't be idle, as I'm sure she'll keep you busy with all the prep work and cooking she has to do. I left the house this morning and she was already mixing up some filling for a couple of pecan pies, or something like that."

Pete looked up doubtful. "I don't know anything about cooking stuff. Hell, I've even burned water before!"

That remark drew a chuckle from the man. "Well, you and I are in the same boat then, I'm afraid. I've honestly never really had the time to do much more than learn how to make coffee. Oh, and maybe heat up a frozen dinner or two. Still, none of that really matters, right? Just… do what she asks you to do, and I'm sure you two will get along fine. Besides, who knows? Maybe you'll learn something interesting before it's all said and done." He paused then and observed the boy intently. "The only thing though, is that there needs to be an understanding between you and I, okay?"

"Yeah? About…?"

Sheriff Hunt uncrossed his legs and leaned forward, closer to the boy. "I'm putting a lot of trust in you, son. This is something the missus and I have never done before, for anyone, okay? Just consider, I didn't lock you up, I didn't put you downstairs, and I haven't forced any of a number of other extremes on you… mostly because I believe you to be a person of your word. I know you've been this badass kid and everything in school, like I said, but… I believe there is something that goes above and beyond the front you gave to people. If I'm right, then good. You have to give me your word though, that you won't make any trouble. I'm taking a chance, because I think you need a break – a real break, if nothing else, and not some half-assed attempt by a group of assholes who couldn't care less whether you go up to a boys' home or not. Understand? That means no fighting, no trying to run away – nothing adverse, for the rest of the weekend at least. We're just making you a simple offer, one that will give you a place where you can stay for the holiday, and maybe share along with some fellowship, warm comfort and plenty of good food."

"You… you're sure? You… have a place for me there?" Pete whispered.

"Oh, the girls' rooms still have that yellow and pinkish hue that the girls were always fond of, mind you. That was something we did for them years ago, but otherwise yes - one of the bedrooms will be yours to stay in, if you like. The bed is soft and big enough for you to spread out easily, I think. So, as far as I'm concerned, if you think that you can put up with it, then I don't see why not."

Pete studied the man's face for a long time before he nodded. "I can do that, sir. And I can promise – there'll be no trouble. I'll… I'll be on my best behavior. I'll try to be, at least."

Jim Hunt smiled then and nodded his head. "That's all I ask. We'll deal with next week when next week gets here, alright? Until then, just relax. You'll be taken care of by one of the county's finest."

For the first time, on his own behalf, Pete actually felt a wave of relief come over him. Smiling, he was surprised as the man raised a fist mid-air to meet him. Recognizing the gesture, the teen laughed and met it in the middle.

Jim Hunt also laughed. It was turning out to be a good day already.

"So, how did it go with Benji last night, after we left?" Noah asked nonchalantly.

Noah had crossed the lawn mid-morning, bringing back some of the dishes his mother had borrowed the night before. Of all the food that had been brought over, even with the help of the Cooks and other friends, it had been too much for them to consume in a timely fashion. Jennifer had offered then to take a few dishes and transfer their contents to the freezer for later use, which was welcomed by both James and Makalah. Having delivered them, Noah walked back to the bedroom to find Jesse sitting up in his bed. "Where is the little bugger, anyway?" he added, before sliding in and sitting next to his friend.

"Dad took him up to the hardware store this morning, just to get him out of the house for a while," Jesse explained. "And… it went okay, I think."

"Okay… and?"

Jesse giggled. "What, you want a play by play?"

Noah blushed. "No, I just… I want to know how it all turned out, if he felt better and… and…"

"SShhh…" Jesse whispered, grasping Noah's hand with his own and squeezing it gently. "I'm only teasing, Noah. It's okay, I promise."

"I know, but… I just, I guess okay, I don't know, really. Did you, like, let him get in the shower with you, or what? How did he react?" Noah asked, his voice just above a whisper.

"Yeah. Like I said, I kind of pretended I wanted him nearby so he could watch out for me, just in case I did the crazy-loopy-thing again," Jesse confided. "That made him feel pretty good, I think. Then when I got in the tub, I offered to let him join me. Sheesh, you never saw someone get naked so fast, trust me!"

Noah giggled. "I bet. So, what about it then? The other? Besides you both being in all your naked glory, as you put it, how did he react to, you know, your bruises and everything else?"

"He was kind of surprised, I think," Jesse responded slowly, staring off into space. "But… I didn't hold back. I mean, our tub, it's not as roomy like your shower is and all. We couldn't both stand under the spray, even if he is smaller than me. So, I just kind of sat down on the side of the tub and let him do most of the work. He liked that, but you could tell when he came to certain, uh, places… he stopped and really got all bug-eyed and everything. Especially when he started to go low and get to my nuts up close."

Noah nodded. "I can understand that. Are… are they looking any better yet?"

Jesse nodded. "A think they might be a little. They're still awfully big, and really dark and everything, but I don't think they're as sensitive as they were the other day. Plus, uh… 'Little-Jesse' is able to, uh, now flop down on them. Before, I had to keep him like, pushed to the side and everything, you know?"

"Yeah, I remember noticing you make some adjustments sometimes," was the quiet reply. "Was that it then? Was there anything else? I mean, did you two talk or anything about it or anything afterwards?"

"Honestly? We got out and dried up and then came back in here," Jesse replied after a moment. "I- well, I hugged and thanked him, and told him again that I loved him just as much as I always did, but now maybe even more. And I said I was sorry for holding out on him, when I knew he wanted to see how bad it was and everything. Really, I just kind of held him, and… well, we went to sleep, right here in this bed, and then the little booger… he was the one holding me half the night for a change, or cuddling in close and all. It's usually the other way around, but… not last night." Jesse then smiled while glancing back to his friend. "In case you're wondering, we didn't talk about anything else, Noah. He thanked me, but other than just clinging to me and all, he really didn't say anything else. No Santa Claus questions, or anything about that night at the game - nothing. He… I wish you could have seen him, really… He was just so happy, just being with me last night and all, you know?"

Noah finally smiled back, looking relieved. "I'm glad," he replied. "I was hoping that it might do something for the both of you, but more for him. Maybe not the feeling-up part of it, but…"

Jesse leaned over and bumped shoulders with his best friend. "Huh… I didn't 'feel' him up! Uh, well, not really… I mean, my little brother doesn't have anything big enough to be worth feeling up! Even you should know that!" He hissed, before giggling. "But… he does like cuddling up, and sometimes that, well…"

Noah raised a hand to wave his friend off. "I don't need to know, okay? I just need to know that you and him are okay, that's all."

"We are, I think," Jesse whispered back. "Thanks to you. If you hadn't convinced me, then… well…"

"I told you once already, I still think you two have a lot of respect for each other. He would have come around to you eventually, but for this…"

"Yeah, but for this, if I had waited too long, it might have been too late to do any good," Jesse agreed. He then took a deep breath. "Hey, I didn't get up wobbling this morning, so that's an improvement."

"Awesome!" Noah replied, his voice returning to normal. "How's your Mom doing?"

"She's hobbling around now, still using a crutch, but she says she doesn't feel anything in the way of pain much at all anymore. She is walking, getting around the kitchen, being a pest like Moms do, more or less." Jesse laughed. "That's one of the reasons Dad took Benji with him, I think. He had started clinging with her so much, he was getting in her way."

Noah laughed. "I can picture that, yeah. Probably a good idea, then." He sat back up and glanced around. "I, uh, wanted to tell you, Mom has got me doing stuff today, so I don't think we'll have much of a chance to get together."

"Until tonight, you mean?" Jesse asked mysteriously.

"Huh?" Noah replied, turning back with a frown. "What have you heard? Is something going on tonight?"

"Yeah. I overheard Dad talking to Allen about us all getting together and going for a drive, up near Applegate, or something like that. It's some kind of a subdivision near Russel Springs that, like, makes this big effort to setup outdoor Christmas lights and everything," Jesse explained. "So, I walked in on them and just decided to ask if maybe I might spend the night with you for a change, especially since you've been over here so much lately. Benji, too, if you didn't care. I know we're not going to be able to get together tomorrow night or Saturday, so…"

Noah grinned. "Really? What did they say?"

"Well, my Dad said it'll depend on your parents mostly, whether or not they want to put up with the two of us," Jesse replied. "I'm sorry, though. This was one time I didn't feel like I could leave Benji out of it, Noah. Not with this being Christmas and all. He would have been here alone if I did."

"So? I don't care, he's always welcome to come. Heck, he might can even fit in the bed with us, if you wanted him to."

Jesse thought about that, but then shook his head. "Maybe for a while, but not all night. I know he'd probably like that, but… I want, well, this time I want to be the one to cuddle up close with you, and… for once, I don't want to hold back from anything just because he's in the bed with us, you know?" He sat up. "We probably should do something special with him and all, though, and sometime soon."

Noah shrugged. "We will. Who knows, maybe we can play cards like he's been wanting us to do. You know…"

Jesse giggled. "Seriously? Strip poker?"

"Of course, seriously! I've told you before, I'd do it with him. And now, since he's seen you, and I already know what's underneath those boxers and all, well…" Noah replied, smugly. "I mean, that should be kind of special to do for him, right? Me too, maybe."

"Oh yeah, and me three, definitely!" Jesse added in a whisper, putting up a fist mid-air and bumping it with his friend half-way.

With that, Noah climbed out of the bed. "I should probably get going. I promised Mom I wouldn't be long. See you tonight then, right?"

"Yep!" Jesse replied and then gave his buddy a friendly wave, before Noah disappeared through the open doorway.

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