The Storm That Turned the Tide

by Sean English

Chapter 28

Christmas For One More

Christmas Eve in the Hunt household was rather interesting to Pete, to say the least, for a boy who couldn't even remember celebrating much of a Christmas-anything for years. With many of the preparations seemingly completed by mid-afternoon, the teenager took the Sheriff's advice and slipped back into the bedroom, where he kicked off his shoes and stretched out on the bed. Not surprisingly, the boy fell asleep quickly and soundly, oblivious to anything else going on around him. It was not unusual for him to get sleepy and tired as of late, even when he was on the run and avoiding the authorities. Before giving himself up to the police, he had little to do on most of his days while in hiding, and often he passed the time with short naps here and there, or with long walks around the lake and parkland area. The reduced amount of food, the exercise and other contributing factors had the positive effect of his becoming more trim and fit, overall. It wasn't an unwelcomed outcome, but certainly it wasn't one planned either. Some of that behavior carried through to the present. Even after surrendering, he still could not avoid the overwhelming desire to take a respite at times. Just as he did at the police station, he found himself dozing at odd times. It was always small, short naps, nothing overly drawn-out or lengthy, lasting perhaps a mere 15- to 20-minutes. He was discovered once by one of the office ladies, who gently roused him and suggested that perhaps his body was maybe lacking in certain vitamins or minerals, such as iron or B12, thus prompting him to need the additional rest. He hadn't understood her meaning at the time, but having had the opportunity since to do a little research, he supposed that her overall idea might actually not be far from the truth.

Pete awakened later sometime later to a lot of laughter coming from elsewhere in the house, along with a series of rambunctious thuds that seemed to echo through the floor. Assuming the Hunts' children and their families had arrived, he glanced at the clock before sitting up in surprise. It was already half-past five, and he recalled Martha stating that she planned on having the dinner by six, or at least shortly thereafter. He also glanced through the window and noted the darkness outside, with only a hint of the evening sunset still lingering in the western sky. Wiping at his eyes before shaking his head, that was when the teen glanced at himself and noted that a blanket had been thrown over him. It was a thin covering of sorts, not really large enough for a bed in general, but definitely sizeable enough to knock off the chill in the room. It had obviously been spread by someone while he slept, and that reasoning acknowledged just how dead to the world he must have been not to know it. Slowly, but deliberately, he pushed it off to one side, but then decided to fold it. When he finished, he set it aside and slowly stood.

After a quick pit stop, Pete then made his way toward the living room, where he stopped at the entrance in surprise. Two young children, toddlers of perhaps five to six years old, had suddenly appeared and wiggled their way past him to run up the hallway, seemingly oblivious to his presence. He politely smiled at them, but then turned back to the room, which he noted had suddenly grown quiet. As his eyes continued to adjust to the new level of brightness coming from various lamps and the tall Christmas tree in the far corner, he saw that several people were already seated, including Jim Hunt himself. "Oh ho!" the Sheriff declared, slowly rising from his seat. "Back from the land of the living dead, I presume?" he asked merrily, teasing the boy as he approached.

Pete blushed, but nodded. "I guess so, yeah."

Jim waved him to come on in before turning to the others. "Come meet the family, young man. This here is Ed, he's Tracy's husband, our youngest daughter." A rather large man stood up from his perch on the couch and extended a massive hand, which Pete took hold of and shook warmly, greeting the man. "And those two who just about bowled you over, are their kids, Daniel and Greta." As he called off their names, the two suddenly reappeared behind them both, which caused their grandfather to clasp a hand on each of their heads. "Whoa, slow down you two! I want you to meet a guest of ours. This here is Pete Haskell!"

Both children stopped abruptly and looked up at the boy with a smile. "Hello!" Greta replied, while Daniel held up a hand, palm extended. Pete laughed and gave the boy a high-five, which caused the youth to grin widely. Before anything more could be said, however, both were off and running again, which caused their father to grunt before shaking his head.

"Well, yeah, those are my two rug-rats, at least," Ed remarked casually. "Good kids for the most part, but kind of excitable at times." As he returned to his seat, another man in the room rose and stepped into his place.

"Hello, Pete! I'm Roger, Chelsa's husband. She's Jim and Martha's oldest daughter," he introduced himself, also extending and shaking hands with the teenager. "It's good to meet you!"

Pete smiled. "I'm happy to meet you, too."

When the man turned, they all beheld a younger boy who appeared to be 12 or 13, stepping up beside his father. "And this is Roger and Chelsa's son, Justin," Jim announced unabashedly. "Justin, meet Pete."

"Hey, how's it going?" the younger boy offered along with a fist-bump, which Pete acknowledged, before everyone returned to their seats. Justin scooted over on the couch, creating a space for the older teen to join him, which Pete did.

"The rest of the brood are in the kitchen, getting everything ready," Jim eventually spoke up again. "It's actually a good thing you're up. I was just about to come and wake you. We'll be eating fairly soon, I think."

Pete smiled, but then rubbed his eyes again before replying. "Sorry, sir. I guess I let the time get away from me." When he glanced across to the man, however, the teen paused when he observed the semi-serious look that meet him.

"It's fine, but… let's do without the 'sir', okay? We're not at the office anymore, and we're all family here, including you as well." The man spoke softly, but with an amusing lilt to his voice. "I'd like to have a few days, if I can, without being reminded of my other duties."

Roger, on the other hand, snorted. "Don't feel bad, kid. It took me months before I was comfortable calling him anything else." The others in the room laughed, and then the mood quickly shifted to one that was more cheerful. "Just don't call him a pain-in-the-ass, and you might stay out of trouble down the road!" More laughter, including from the boy sitting beside Pete. When the older teen glanced at him, the boy just shrugged.

"Don't look at me – I just call him Grandpa!" the boy exclaimed, bringing yet more laughter from all in the room.

Pete nodded and then turned back to the group in general. "I'll, uh, try to remember that," he squeaked. They continued with more light conversation for a few minutes, the in-laws asking Pete general questions about him, his likes and dislikes. Before long, they had drawn him into their conversation as he got to learn more about them.

Eventually the older men turned to other topics, inadvertently leaving the two boys to themselves, which caused Justin to lean in closer. "So, can I ask how old you are?"

Pete, having just laughed at something humorous, turned to the kid sitting beside him. "I'm 15, but I'll be 16 in March. How about you?"

Justin grinned. "I just turned 13 in October," he replied with a certain amount of smugness. "So, 15 isn't too bad, I think. Do you, like, live around here, or…?"

The innocent question caused Pete to hesitate, thinking about its context. Exactly where he lived, or would be staying, was certainly up in the air for the time being, so he decided he should probably play it safe for the time being. When he answered, he based it on things he knew. "We had a house near Sparksville, yeah. You?"

"We live on the other side of Russel Springs," the younger boy replied. "Where is Sparksville, though?"

"It's about nine miles south of Columbia, give or take, out toward Edmonton," Roger answered, overhearing the question. "You don't get to go out that way very often."

"Oh," Justin replied, frowning briefly before finally shrugging and accepting the information as fact. Pete gave him a quizzical look, prompting the younger boy to explain. "It's no big deal, I was just kind of wondering is all. It would have been cooler if you didn't live so far out, that's all. Maybe even lived up toward our direction, you know?"

Pete regarded the young man briefly and nodded, understanding where he was coming from. "Sorry about that," he replied in a low tone, before sitting back into the seat further. "So, what kind of stuff are you into?" he asked casually.

"Huh? Oh, I don't know… I like soccer a lot, and video games… and well, I like girls," was the ready reply, although toward the end his voice had dropped so low that even Pete, sitting next to him, had to strain to be sure he heard right. Glancing again, he saw the boy was blushing, so the older teen grunted.

"Well, that's a good thing, right?" Pete smirked before relaxing even further. "Asking what you're into though, doesn't mean anyone is asking if you like boys or girls. It just means, like, they're asking you what you like to do for fun. You know, what interests you and everything… understand? At least, that's what I was always told, anyway." Making that remark felt strange to Pete, really. He had never, for as long as he could remember, been in a mentoring-like mode, explaining something like he did just now. Bossy, maybe, pushy even, or worse… but not like this. This was totally different.

"Oh," Justin replied again frowning, but then shook it off. "Well then, I like watching basketball, and I play soccer, and I get into certain games quite a bit, on my PlayStation, I mean. Mom won't let me stay on it very long at a time though. She seems to think it's bad for me."

Pete laughed. "All parents believe that, I think," he whispered, which caused the other boy to grin and nod in agreement.

"I like to ride my bike a lot, too, and shoot arrows. You know, like in archery," Justin added, causing Pete to recall his conversation from the day before.

"Your Grandpa told me about that. He's got some cool-looking bows and equipment he showed me out back on the porch," he remarked, causing the other boy's face to light up.

"You're not kidding! He's got that Diamond back there, and you talk about awesome! I've tried a few times to pull it back, but it's too strong for me to do it by myself… at least, so far," Justin readily admitted. His enthusiasm continued to build as he went on. "I've seen him use it though, and you talk about fast! And he's got another one back there, too. It's not a compound bow, but he gets it out and lets me shoot it sometimes! It's just as cool as the Diamond!" He paused, settling back again. "So, have you shot any? Do you get into archery?"

Pete shook his head. "Nope, although I'm with you - it does look kind of interesting."

"Maybe Grandpa will let us go out in the morning and let you try it out, then! I'm telling you - it really is a blast! Especially when you don't have a lot of other stuff to do!"

Jim, overhearing the two, piped in. "Sure, you boys can go out back in the morning if you want. Just be careful is all." Justin grinned and made a mock salute to the man, all the while giggling. Pete found himself beginning to warm up to the youngster. Far from being a 'kid' in the usual sense, but certainly one on the cusp of maturity, the boy was full of spirit, but a spirit that was without a doubt respectful to those around him. What Pete liked about him the most, however, was the openness he displayed, and how quickly they seemed to have found common ground between them. As he thought about it, Pete did find the prospect of trying the bows out interesting, but before he could dwell on it further, a young girl of about nine or ten years old entered the room. "Grandpa? Ma said to tell you guys to go ahead and wash yourselves before dinner," she announced before noticing Pete. Blushing slightly, she turned and spoke to him directly, waving at the teen as if he were a passerby of some sort. "Oh, hello!" she said, rather timidly.

Jim Hunt chuckled and then introduced the two. "Pete, this Shelby. Shelby, this is the young man spending the weekend with us, Pete."

"Yeah, my pain-in-the-butt sister," Justin added under his breath.

Shelby heard him, however, and stuck her tongue out, blowing her brother a rather noisy raspberry before disappearing back the way she had come. His father, sitting nearby, turned and gave his son a cross look. "Be good, young man, and mind your manners!"

"Yes, sir," the boy replied, thoroughly chastised. He then scooted to the edge of his seat. "I already washed my hands though, Grandpa, right before Bluto here came in."

Pete frowned, not catching the reference. "Bluto? Who's he?"

Justin laughed. "You, doofus! You know, Bluto – like in Popeye and… well, whatever they call his cartoon. Your kind of one of those beefed-up muscle guys, aren't you? Haven't you ever seen any of the shows? He's the one who always tries to go up against Popeye, see, and…" The boy stopped, observing the fact that he wasn't getting anywhere, the younger teenager then just laughed. "Forget it, it's not important."

Pete, on the other hand, remembered the cartoon from somewhere and although it took a moment, he finally began to understand the reference afterwards. Grinning, he then rocked sideways, bumping and playfully knocking the boy off center. Pete knew he was a bit bigger, older and perhaps more filled-out than the younger teen, but he never really saw himself as being a bulky person – which, in truth, he was not. It did make him note, however, that even though Justin might be 13, the boy seemed to be made of nothing but skin and bones.

"I guess calling you Bean-Pole would be going a little too far, wouldn't it?" Pete teased, his voice low and direct.

Justin laughed. "I've been called a lot worse, believe me," he said dryly.

"Yeah, so have I," Pete replied quietly, but otherwise stood up.

When everyone eventually made their way into the dining room, Pete was then introduced to both Tracy and Chelsa, who also took the time to shake hands with him. It felt so funny, for some reason, to shake hands with people. He never did it growing up, and no one ever thought enough of him to extend such a greeting or gesture in the first place. Moreover, here Pete was, shaking hands with the opposite sex, something he knew if his father were around, would probably have caused him to go into hysterics. Wasn't it an act that was more of a guy thing? He wondered, but politely accepted the gestures all the same, thinking there must be more to it overall than he was giving it credit for.

The three younger children made their way to the table Pete had prepared for them in the corner, while the remaining eight took their place around the table. What a table it was, the teen thought, seeing it adorned with a bright red tablecloth and white-laced top, and with green-coordinated placemats, creating settings that were fit for royalty. In the center sat one of the largest turkeys the teen had ever laid eyes on, already sliced along the top and ready for serving, complete with stuffing in its exposed cavity. Around it sat various bowls of gravy, extra stuffing, cranberry sauce and other vegetables, not to mention casseroles, bread and salads. All were beautifully displayed too, as if it were a feast for the eyes that came straight out of some magazine. "Wow!" Pete muttered under his breath, stunned by the spectacle, and some of the others who overheard him, murmured their own agreement.

Jim glanced at his wife, and Martha returned his smile, both silently acknowledging their suspicions had been correct. The teenager had never been exposed to anything like this before, and it plainly showed as he would look about the table in wonder. It wasn't that the two believed the rest of the world got to enjoy such a get-together this extravagantly. They knew and understood that they were among the better-off, more fortunate people who could do this, at least once a year. After all, this might be their norm, but it was also Christmas – which had its place in all their households. As they all sat, Jim silently took hold of hands on either side, which rippled around to the rest of the group. Justin, sitting on Pete's right, grasped the teen's hand firmly, clearly unafraid of the stranger and friend to whom he had been introduced. To his left, Pete's hand grasped that of Martha herself, who surprisingly squeezed it affectionately, as Jim, without any further preamble, began to say the blessing.

Pete had only set foot in a church once before in his life, at least that he could remember. When his Grandfather had died, Pete had been no more than four or five at the time. His mother had taken him to the funeral, which the experience left him feeling that it was a scary event. Since then, he had gone out of his way to avoid such places, and with her absence and a father who had no respect for the church at all, he was relatively successful. Thus, the entire aspect of giving thanks was relatively new to him. He had seen it done in the movies on occasion, but he practically ignored those scenes, considering them to be overly sentimental. Praying to a God seemed so immaterial and selfish, he had always thought, and as such the teen found religion more of a hypocrisy than anything else. After all, if such a deity did exist, and if He were a Savior that watched over the human race in whatever shape or form it was, then why had he ignored and deserted people like Pete, leaving him where he was at most of the time – alone, and having to fight for his life in so many ways. It left a bitterness in his stomach, but only because it compounded with his feelings of abandonment.

Right now, however, he pushed those thoughts and feelings aside, with the intent on being obedient, as he had promised he would be for his host. Still, he listened and was surprised at the words he heard. "Dear Lord," the man began. "We thank you for our children, our families, and for our friends. We're thankful for the meaning we set this time of year aside for, and hope the virgin birth is rightfully revered until the end of time, as it should be. May you continue to watch over us always though, and keep our love and respect together as one. May you grant us strength, wisdom and charity in all things we do. Help us, each and every one sitting at this table, from our youngest to the oldest, from our guest to our innermost, and guide us with your will in the days to come. We ask these simple, but humble things, in your name. Amen."

Pete found the prayer strange, but as he looked up, he could see smiles all around the table. It did not bother him that this family obviously held a deep conviction and belief in their religion, because in that instant he saw something in the way the prayer had reached out and brought them together. Maybe there was something in that small gesture, he thought, and noted he might have to re-evaluate his own beliefs down the road. When done, Martha announced to everyone it was time to dig in, and then the noise around the table grew - from the children stepping up beside their parents and pointing out what they wanted on their plates, to the lively chatter about the various dishes. From the laughter to the surreal sounds of sampling and finding Martha's good taste in the meal, Pete could not help but simply sit and watch them for a moment. No one dominated the conversation, and no one exhibited any sign of importance – everyone at the table, from young to old, was treated as an equal.

"Aren't you going to fill your plate up?"

The voice was low, intended only for Pete as he turned and grinned at Martha, who was holding a bowl of mashed potatoes ready to pass on to him. He blushed slightly, but then nodded and, one by one, started accepting the various dishes, scooping a portion for himself before passing them on. There were so many things, and he wanted to try them all, really, but discovered instead that eventually he would have to forego a few for lack of room on his plate. When he finally began to eat, he closed his eyes at one point to savor the flavors themselves. Two days before, he had enjoyed his first real serving of Thanksgiving dishes at the hands of a restaurant, when it was delivered to the staff at the police station. At that time the teen thought it was pretty good, but now sampling the food on his plate, in this room, he knew there was no real comparison. Maybe it was because he compared home-cooking against that of a restaurant. Over time, he knew there were some things he had eaten at restaurants that he would declare were far better than home-fixed versions. Maybe that was the point, though. His lack of skill notwithstanding, or those of his Dad's acquaintances, nothing he ate at home qualified as being exceptional. All Pete knew though, at this moment, was that he had not tasted anything this good in a long while, if ever. Martha Hunt was, in his opinion, not only a professional homemaker, but a superb cook, and he would definitely take issue with anyone who said otherwise.

The families chatted and laughed merrily throughout the meal, leaving no one out of the conversation on all sorts of topics. When they had finished, they still sat for some time, while the younger kids were excused to go off and play. Eventually, however, Jim Hunt finally climbed to his feet and, as if by some hidden signal, so did the others. Pete did likewise, wondering what was happening as he followed the others, who headed toward the living room. It did not take the teen long to figure out, as they all took various seats, that the patriarch was leading them inside so that they could exchange gifts. The tall Christmas tree stood as before, with its lights blinking brightly against the many strands of tinsel and ornaments. It was interesting to see how the group quieted down as they all took seats, all the while Pete remained as non-intrusively as he could in the doorway. After a moment, rather than stay, the teenager thought it might be better if the family had this moment to themselves. As he started to turn, however, he found Justin suddenly beside him and blocking his exit. "Come on, sit with me," the boy whispered, pointing to a corner of the room not far away.

"I- I had better not," Pete stated simply, but with a thin smile. "This is something for you guys, so-"

"Pete…" The voice did not boom loudly, or sound threatening in any way, but as he turned around it was clear where it had originated from. "Come along, son, have a seat with us," Jim said, waving the teenager to come on inside.

"Yes, do," Martha suddenly called out, passing him in the doorway. "Go on, sit with Justin over there. That's his usually favorite spot, I think."

Before the teenager could debate it further, Justin had already grasped hold of his elbow and was leading him inside to the designated spot. Pete accepted his fate then with no further resistance, and joined the other boy on the floor, sitting cross-legged toward the rest of the room. Before long, the younger children were cackling with glee and excitement, as Justin's sister moved forward and helped her grandparents pass out the various packages from beneath the tree. Toys, games and clothes were among most of the presents, along with much appreciation passed back and forth between them. Pete smiled politely, still feeling a little awkward, but he laughed at some of the silly antics and teasing between the adults and the younger kids. Beside him, Justin had received two packages, one which he opened and found a new basketball. "Oh, cool! Thanks, Grandma!"

Martha, hearing his call, glanced over and smiled. "Your mother said your other one got run over or something, I heard."

"Yeah," Justin replied. "We think the wind may have blown it off the shelf and under the car. Then, well…" A few chuckles were then heard around the room.

"For once, it isn't his fault," Shelby piped up in his defense.

Justin rolled his eyes, but when he saw Pete's curiosity, he explained. "This is like my fourth basketball in, I don't know, three or four years. Somehow, they all seem to get lost, or stolen… or something." Others nearby chuckled again as they overheard him, but he shook off the moment and turned his attention instead to the second package. Opening it, he suddenly exclaimed, "WWhhooaaaa!"

The room fell quiet at the outburst, as he turned the box around to show the others excitedly. "Thanks, Grandpa! This is super!" When Pete was able to observe it up closer, he saw a fairly large diecast, metal fire-truck model from an older era. "These things are classics! I've got four fire trucks already at home! They're all kind of different sizes, but they're really detailed and everything, and super cool!" the teen explained. "That looks like a Seagrave model, and – oh yeah, it is! 1958, Model 750!" the boy added, before handing the box over to Pete

"Yeah, it looks nice," Pete admitted, though confused.

Justin picked up on it, though. "You don't understand, and that's okay. You see, there were only about 1500 or so made by Seagrave, so the trucks themselves were kind of a rarity. That's what makes them kind of special and all, because they have a lot of history surrounding them."

"Okay, I get it now… cool. So, do you play with them, or… uh…" Pete asked, still slightly confused.

The teen laughed. "No. Well, not really. They're collectibles, see. They work and all - I mean, the doors open, wheels turn and all that stuff, and they have a lot of parts and everything, like ladders, hoses, and so forth… but they're not really made for 'playing' with. Some of them are way too expensive for that." Justin looked up at the bigger boy. "You see, I started collecting these a couple of years ago. My Dad found one somewhere on one of his trips and brought it in, and ever since, well… you get the idea. There's not been very many made, but we find them every once in a while, and well, I'll save my allowance up for them and all. I have all of mine displayed on a corner shelf in my room, along with some other emergency vehicles and stuff. I've always liked them, see? I'm thinking I might even get training and join the fire department after I get out of school!"

Pete nodded, finally understanding. "That sounds, well… it sounds pretty cool." He turned the box around and handed it back, but was then surprised when Justin opened the end of it and physically pulled the metal truck out. They spent the next few minutes going over the exquisite details up close, and Pete, impressed, commented on how realistic it looked.

They had just put it back in the box, when a package was suddenly placed into Pete's lap. Before Pete could even register it, Shelby quickly turned around and hopped away. Looking confused, he stared at the package momentarily, before Justin elbowed him. "Well, are you gonna open it, or wait for it to go off like a bomb or something?"

Pete frowned. "There must be some mistake. I mean, I…"

Justin leaned in and turned the box around so he could see the name tag. "Um, nope, it says Pete H. on the tag, so it has to be yours. I don't know any other Pete in here tonight!" He sat back smugly. "So… go on, doofus! Open it!"

Pete glanced around the room, but most everyone else was engaged in conversation and not paying attention to him or Justin. The younger kids were playing with their toys, and in that moment, the room was filled with nothing but a bright cheerfulness that once again did not escape him. He looked down at the tag, and sure enough it had his name, along with 'From: Santa' written underneath. When Justin elbowed him again, the teen finally grunted. "Okay, okay!" He then began tearing the paper away carefully. So carefully, in fact, that Justin eventually rolled his eyes.

"Sometime this year, doofus!"

Pete smiled thinly, acknowledging that the boy's enthusiasm certainly outweighed his own. That's when he noticed others were also watching them, so the teen inwardly sighed and began ripping the paper more haphazardly until it finally fell free to reveal a simple, white cardboard box, though larger than common. Opening it, he found inside another pair of jeans, along with an attractive long-sleeved, button-up shirt, as well as a black polyester vest, all in his size. Looking up, he saw Martha giving him an appreciative look, as well as her husband.

As the teen looked down and stared at the outfit, a whole host of emotions swept over him. He could remember when, years ago, his mother would try to have a present or something under their little tree at home, along with various candies and fruits. It was so long ago, he had almost forgotten about it, along with how it had made him feel so happy afterwards. That was the closest though, he had been able to enjoy having a Christmas of any kind until now. In the last few days, he had ended up with clothes, shoes and a coat – all to offset or replace clothes he had obviously been growing out of for a long time. His wardrobe before had always been comprised of hand-me-downs, or whatever he could get from his pals. Once, he even ventured into a Goodwill shop, and came out with a few items, but there had been many eyebrows raised in that little adventure. Pete deemed it might not be the best idea to go back again, and so he didn't.

Pete stopped and reflected briefly on the fact that so many things were changing for him now. He chastised himself at ever thinking he wasn't missing out on anything at Christmas, when right now he was beginning to understand otherwise. It wasn't until Justin clamped a hand on his shoulder, however, startling him and pronouncing 'Cool!' in a low voice, that Pete finally looked up again. The boy did not criticize him in any way, or the gift itself, but instead seemed pleased – which was odd, Pete thought, thinking in terms of being a 13-year-old. Most kids wanted the toys, the games, the things-to-do type of gifts - or so he thought. Justin seemed to be just as happy with his collectibles, and as he found out later, his own hunting vest that he received that night. Pete thought that was certainly a testament to his new friend's maturity. At least, more so than his age suggested.

"Do you like them?" The voice was quiet as it came from behind them both. Pete turned and saw that somehow, Jim Hunt had slipped out of his chair and approached, before kneeling down behind them. Amongst the rest of the chaos in the room, as the children continued to happily cackle like hens in a barnyard, playing with their own newly received treasures, the man had spoken in such a way that only Pete and Justin could hear, and Pete clearly understood. When he nodded, he felt the man place a hand on his shoulder. "That's from Martha and myself. The boys up at the station pitched in and picked you up a little something, too, but I'd rather wait and give that one to you later."

Pete looked on dumbfounded, but nodded in acceptance. "I… I mean… I – I don't know what to say," he whispered.

It was Justin, however, who came to his rescue. Leaning in, the boy lowered his voice. "Um, usually we just say 'Thank you'. Its, um, kind of a given around here, especially at Christmas-time, but it works pretty good."

Pete stared at the younger teen for a few seconds, lost in thought, before he turned to the older man. "Um, yeah… I mean, thank you. Yeah, I really do like them, I promise."

Jim smiled pleasantly, then sort of waved to the other people around the room. "This is my family, son. No matter what you may think of it, this is the most precious, closest thing I have in my worldly soul. I do my job so that they, as well as other families, can have a future. Sometimes I win the battle, and sometimes I lose, but it never keeps me from believing I'm protecting what's right. You see, there are always those out there who will do their best to tear this sort of thing down, intentionally or not, but… with the bad also comes the good. I like to find the good in people, when I can. It's kind of like that Star Wars movie your generation seems to like so well. There is the dark side, and there is the light side, right? I like to think…" The man paused, placing his other free hand upon his grandson's shoulder. "Just look around you, hmm? I like to think that in here, tonight, for just a little while… we have a glimpse of what that light side really is. And I have to tell you – it looks mighty beautiful to an old man like me."

Pete nodded. "I get it. This is what being family is all about, yeah. I've… well, I've always dreamed about it, but…" When he didn't finish, Justin reached out and took hold of Pete discreetly by his hand.

"Well, like Grandpa said, for a little while at least, you are a part of the family. Our family," the boy pointed out. Jim Hunt grinned widely at that sentiment and nodded, squeezing Pete's shoulder fondly before returning to his feet. Without another word, he made his way back to the recliner, the smile never letting up.

Pete glanced at the boy next to him and, for some reason, didn't seem to mind the fact they were holding hands. Everything about it would have, at one time, screamed at him as being something too personal and gay-ish between guys… but not tonight, and that surprised the teen. Pete Haskell III had learned something more about human nature and human quality in the last few days than he had ever before realized. "Thanks," he choked out, his voice catching. Justin glanced over and only smiled at him, but held the hand firmly for a little longer before letting go. As it turned out, his younger cousin had approached with one of the new toys, and begged Justin to come play with him. With a grin at Pete, the boy obliged by crawling forward into the melee of papers and toys all around. Pete watched them go at it then, feeling…

He didn't know what he was feeling, but he knew that no matter what it was called… it was definitely something good.

Christmas day arrived both cloudy and wet, with temperatures falling early into the 30s. The forecast was that the light rain which had been falling off and on, would change over to snow by mid-afternoon, and leave behind two to four inches of the crystalized whiteness before the system vacated the region later that night. Although it was not quite the highly desired White Christmas that many had hoped to wake up to, it did appease most with a renewed level of anticipation for the holiday. Combined with the fact that it would be falling over a Saturday evening and Sunday morning made it even more desirable, as fewer people worked on Sundays, or had reasons to get out on the roads. That was, at least in theory.

The McAllisters slept late on Christmas morning, having stayed up into the early hours of the morning the night before. When the clock struck midnight, Makalah happened to turn on the TV to find It's A Wonderful Life, an old black-and-white holiday movie that had been around for a fairly long time. It had just started it seemed, and as she and James cuddled up on the sofa, Jesse joined them only minutes later in the recliner. It wasn't long before Benji climbed into Jesse's lap and all four watched the movie quietly – at least until light snoring sounds could be heard coming from the youngster. Jesse, as usual, didn't mind it a bit, as he pulled a blanket over them both. He was tired, but the evening did not wear on him as harshly as others had, and thus remaining awake wasn't that big of a challenge.

The late hour, followed by the grayish morning clouds had given each an incentive to roll over and ignore the morning for a while. When the time finally approached half-past ten, however, Makalah began rousing her crew. "Come on sunshine number one and sunshine number two!" she prompted the boys. "We don't want to sleep the whole morning away, do we? It's Christmas!"

It wasn't long after that they were gathered around the old wood stove, which James had decided to fire up. Their supply of wood was limited, but there was easily enough for them to enjoy for at least a few days. There was the scent of wood-burned smoke that lingered in the air, a welcoming aroma for the season itself, something they enjoyed while absorbing the stove's heat. All the while, Makalah set about making fresh mugs of hot cocoa for them to enjoy, and they were not disappointed. They chatted freely, regarding different topics, and Jesse was proud to announce that he had now gone two days without feeling any light-headedness. Even when his mother asked about his other bruises, he smiled and shrugged, telling her everything was beginning to feel better. He knew it was her way of being discreet, but for once he didn't mind the probe. Admittedly, he still had to be careful when sitting or standing, but his strength and stamina he thought were improving daily, and that was all that mattered for now.

When they arrived at the Cooks' residence, again for the second time that weekend, Jennifer greeted them cheerfully at the door with another round of hugs for the boys, before taking their coats and setting them aside. They found the table was much like it had been the evening before, already adorned with many of their previous dishes, other than the ham which had been placed in the middle where the turkey had previously resided. What was left of the turkey had been transferred to its own, much smaller dish nearby, so it wasn't completely lost from the meal. There were no place-settings though, something which Benji pointed out right away.

"We thought we'd make you eat with your hands and fingers, like the caveman used to do zillions of years ago," Allen teased, joining them in the dining room. When Benji gave him a look of mock disbelief, however, they all laughed as the man placed both hands on the youngster's shoulders. "Okay, okay… guilty as charged!"

"We thought maybe we'd all just make a buffet out of it today. When you get hungry, there's a stack of disposable platters over here you can use, see? You just make up a plate and take it with you, but… do try to be careful, boys… alright?" Jennifer explained. Benji's eyes lit up before he then gave the woman an emphatic nod.

"We will, promise. Um, where's Noah?" Jesse asked curiously. "Is he still downstairs or something?"

Allen, however, shook his head. "No, actually he got called into the courtroom, I think. He's been in there a few minutes, so he should be out soon." Jesse understood the reference right away, grinning mischievously as did Benji. Noting it, Allen chuckled at them both before shrugging. "Go ahead, he probably needs a good jolt to wake up to. He's in the one around the corner."

Jesse laughed and, finding a temporary empty space on the counter, the teen set his boxes down. With Benji close behind, the two rounded their way quietly up the hall until they reached the closed door of the upstairs bathroom. With wicked grins at each other, both counted down from three, then simultaneously began banging on the door loudly. They were rewarded when a sudden yell burst from inside: "Crap! AArrgghhh!!!"

Giggling almost hysterically, Benji ran off and returned to the dining room. Jesse decided to wait, however, taking a place and leaning against the door's frame. Shortly thereafter, he heard the toilet flush followed by the expected running of water at the sink. After a short pause, the door then opened, but Noah was startled again when he saw his best friend waiting for him. "Shit!" he hissed, before laughing. "That's TWO I owe you both, now!"

Jesse rolled his eyes. "I guess. So, I take it you were jailed then? Because as long as you were in there, you sure didn't get released on parole!"

Noah flipped off the light in the bathroom before replying. "Well, I was already finished by the time you two ganged up on the door, to be honest," he whispered. "I figured Benji would get a kick out of me yelling, though." That, in turn, caused Jesse to raise an eyebrow, but he let it go as he started following his friend back down the hallway. When they entered the dining room, they found Benji had already begun loading a platter up with food, his mother not far behind him with her own. "So, NOW can we eat, huh?" the teen breathed. Jennifer looked up and grimaced.

"Of course! I told you we were only waiting for them to get here!" she admonished him, wrapping an arm around his neck and playfully running her knuckles along his head. The two scuffled slightly before Noah broke free with a grin. "Come on, Jesse. Let's get a plate and then go down to my room. You too, squirt!" he added, directing the invitation to Benji.

On Christmas morning Pete Haskell III awoke to the smell of bacon drifting through the house. It was funny, really, as he had just had a dream about having breakfast in the forest, with the aroma all around in like manner, but he had been unsuccessfully looking about to determine where it was originating from. What stirred him from his reverie, however, was the feeling of someone lying beside him, facing the other way and laughing. At first, he thought he imagined it, but as the cobwebs dissipated quickly, Pete could hear the telltale rhythmic breathing again, followed by another giggle.

Pete sat up quietly, as his memory slowly began to return. Chelsa and Roger had decided to spend the night, which was all well and good, except for one minor detail. As large as the Hunts' home was, there were not enough beds for all of them, unless Pete would be willing to share his bed with Justin. The older teen smiled weakly and went along with it, trying to pretend that all was okay, but internally he had alarm bells going off at full blast. He had always been used to being on his own, and thus his sleeping habits had developed in a similar way. Now, to share a bed with another boy caused him to worry and have second thoughts. He had learned to be more accepting of Justin throughout the evening, as they began to talk and become fast friends, but Pete wasn't sure he could treat him as closely as this would require.

Without any hesitation though, Justin had gone into the bedroom with the older teen and stripped, right in the open, to a t-shirt and boxers before climbing in on one side. Pete purposefully turned away to keep from watching, and eventually switched off the light before doing the same, but at a much slower pace, and definitely more nervously. Once he was in the bed, he started by hugging its side, stretching himself uncomfortably along the edge. After a minute of contemplating whether or not he could do that for an entire night though, he suddenly heard Justin giggling behind him. "What?" he asked hoarsely, both anxious but curious.

"You," Justin replied. "You're just, I don't know…" There was a pause before the younger boy rolled toward the teen and propped his head up on the pillow. "Let me guess: you've never slept in a bed with anyone else, have you?"

Pete, totally taken by surprise, let a long sigh escape and blushed quietly in the darkness. "Is it that obvious?"

Again, Justin giggled, but then reached out and grasped the older boy on his side. "Come on, roll back here."

"Huh? I don't know…"

"Trust me, okay? Just… roll back… like that… yeah…" Justin encouraged him patiently, as Pete finally rolled onto his back. With his eyes adjusting to the light shining in from outside the window, he could make out the shape of the teen facing him quite easily. Justin then pulled up and leaned over the bigger boy, seemingly measuring how far Pete was from the edge of the bed before he pulled back. "Okay, now, give me your hand," he asked politely. When Pete simply stared at him, he could see the boy roll his eyes. "Good grief doofus, just do it, okay? Trust me for a minute, you big oaf!"

Pete slowly reached out and allowed the boy to take hold of his hand. "What are you going to do?"

"Well, I'm not going to tie you up, or hit you in the balls or anything!" Justin snickered. The boy then rolled onto his back like Pete, but scooted, positioning himself on his half of the bed, hugging the edge similarly to how Pete lay. "There… now, reach between us here, like this… yeah, and feel where I'm at." The boy pulled Pete's hand over until it touched Justin on his side, and then he pushed it back again against Pete's side. "Get it? Now, use your other hand and see how close you are on the other side over there."

"Okay," Pete responded, still perplexed. "But… I still don't understand."

"The point is, I'm lying against my side over here, at about the same distance from the edge as you are over there, and this…" He paused, dragging the hand he held between them once again. "This is how much room we have in the middle. Get it? It's a queen-sized bed, Pete. We both have plenty of room to ourselves, so you don't have to be so, uh, stiff and scared, like trying to cling to everything over there. See?"

Pete, finally understanding, relaxed his grip. "Yeah, I do now," he said sheepishly. His tone sounded much like a whipped puppy, and Justin picked up on it immediately. Rolling over, he faced Pete again, although somewhat closer than he did before.

"Just relax, okay? It's not like I'm going to rape you or anything. Shit, you'd probably bust my balls anyway, I bet! Besides, I'm not gay, so you're safe… for tonight at least!" the boy said cheerfully, speaking in a low tone.

"I… uh, I wasn't thinking that, I promise. I, uh… well… I'm sorry," Pete stuttered, trying to find some middle ground.

Instead, Justin giggled again, lowering his face into his pillow to stifle his reaction before coming back up. "It's fine man, just… chill, okay? You worry too much, I think!" he paused before settling back. "Yeah, I can tell you're not used to some stuff. It makes sense, I guess. In a weird sort of way, at least."

"How so?" Pete asked.

"Um, well… Mom and Dad told us, I mean, Shelby and me, that you were staying here a while because you didn't have a home to go to for Christmas. When I asked why, they said you weren't exactly homeless, but that you hadn't been looked after very much the last few years, and that Grandpa was letting you spend it with us. Something like that anyway. They kind of made us promise not to bug you about any of it, but meh." Justin paused briefly before continuing. "That kind of made me think that you must have been by yourself a lot, so… that's why I kind of figured with you not knowing about some stuff very much, it just, well, kind of makes sense."

"Thanks… uh, I think," Pete responded, after considering carefully. "I- I didn't know what Jim told you guys," he admitted sullenly, before sighing. In a leap of faith, his nerves finally settling down, the older teen turned to face the other boy, and he even shifted inward from his side of the bed. Justin, noting it, grinned and nodded in approval.

"Yeah, now you get it. See?" the younger teen told him quietly. "And as to the other, I don't think anyone has said much of anything, really. At least not as far as I know about. We just know you're spending the holidays with Grandpa and Ma. Which to me is pretty cool, because that means I get someone to hang out with, see?"

Pete grinned. "Yeah, I think it's pretty cool, too."

"Good. I wasn't sure if you liked me or not." The younger boy then sighed. "You see, around here, there's not much of anyone I have to hang out with that's close to my age. I'm the oldest of my cousins, but, well…"

"I get it, yeah," Pete reasoned. "Why would you think I'd not like hanging out with you, though?"

Justin laughed. "Um, maybe because I just turned 13? That means there is at least, what, more than two years between us, doofus! Maybe even closer to three."

"Oh…" Pete shook his head. "I didn't think about that… but, really, it doesn't bother me, though."

"For some people it might," Justin replied and then fell silent for a moment before he moved his arm and hand, fanning the space between them again. "See? There's still plenty of room between us and all, but even if you needed more, I wouldn't care. You could end up throwing a leg over here or something, and it wouldn't bother me. Like I said, I'm not gay, but it doesn't bother me if we bump into each other or anything. Just, uh, try not to kick me in my twins, that's all!"

Pete laughed, liking the kid even more for some reason, but then he frowned. "But… why? I mean… why would it not bother you? If I can ask, I mean."

"Of course, you can ask me anything you want," Justin replied, propping up on his side once again. He thought about the question a moment before answering. "Well, why not? I mean, for one thing, we're both guys, right? Think about it: if you were a girl, or if my sister was in bed with me, I'd be like 'Holy shit!', you know? I don't want to wake up and find them trying to play with my willy or anything! Or, like, get a feel of me down there! That would… I mean, that would kind of freak me out!"

"Really?" Pete replied, whispering.

"Oh, heck yeah! I mean, I like girls and all, and maybe someday I might, like, do some stuff… but for that, I want to be awake and in full control! I mean, in full control of ME when something like that happens! IF it ever happens, you know? I don't want to NOT be in control, in case, well… you know…"

Pete giggled. "I think I understand, yeah."

Justin lay his head back upon his pillow again. "As for guys, well, it's different, I think. I mean, it doesn't matter to me so much. We all got the same stuff between our legs, more or less, although there are a lot of guys who are probably a lot hairier than I am down there. Still, so what? We're all the same, when it comes down to having a hot dog and a set of twins underneath, you know?" He giggled. "That's all that really matters in the end."

Pete became thoughtful, because what the boy had stated made a whole lot of sense. He had never thought of things like that in such candid terms, but then again, he had never had the kind of upbringing to nurture that kind of acceptance. "I guess you're right. I've never thought of it that way."

"Of course, I'm right, at least for me, anyway. I mean, you might think differently, I don't know, but - I don't really care. You're okay, I think, or I wouldn't be in here, in the bed with you right now, I promise." The boy then grunted. "Look, I'll make you a deal: don't try any sex with me or anything, and we'll survive the night. Okay?" The latter was added teasingly, and Pete could hear the amusement in his voice.

"I promise, no sex. Not from me, anyway." Pete hesitated and then relaxed. "Thanks."

"Good!" Justin said. "So, promise me, you're okay now, right?"

Pete nodded. "Yeah, I think so." Even in the darkness, there was just enough ambient light that he could make out the younger boy smiling at him. "I'm sorry, you know. You just surprised me, I guess. You're right, this is kind of a first for me. You make it easier, though, believe it or not. Your, well, your kind of nice to talk to and all."

Justin scoffed. "Humph! Never heard that one before!" he said wryly. Pete could imagine though, that he saw the younger boy roll his eyes again before nodding. "See? I told you, we'll survive," he said, then explained. "You know, I wanted to give you a hug earlier tonight, but not in front of all the 'rents."

That statement came out of the blue, which surprised Pete to no end. "Why?"

"I don't know, I guess I just thought it looked like you could use one there when we were talking to Grandpa. Don't worry though, I won't embarrass you or anything. It's all cool." He sat back then and found Pete's hand one last time, before giving it another gentle squeeze. "Just chill, that's all. Everything will be great, you'll see."

"Okay, I'm trying to," Pete whispered, squeezing their grasp in return.

"G'night, you big oaf! See you in the morning, okay? And remember, if we bump or anything, don't worry about it... honest, okay?"

"Yeah, you bet," Pete whispered back, before the boy made for his half of the bed and got comfortable.

What had surprised Pete the most, however, was the fact that he had slept, totally and soundly, all night long. He only remembered waking once, and that was when he actually did feel the teen's knee or something draw up and brush against him, before retreating afterwards. In its own way, purposeful or not, it showed the kid respected the fact that they each had their own personal space. Somehow that led Pete to understand what the boy had been trying to tell him earlier, and that in turn set his mind at ease. Unlike many of his restless nights before, this time the older teen slept peacefully.

As he rose from the bed, he paused. The door to the bathroom was only a few feet away on his side of the room, but staring at his pants, he wondered if he should pull them on first. Looking back, Pete saw that Justin was still facing the other side of the room, so he decided it wasn't anything to worry over. Climbing to his feet, he crossed the short distance and entered, but closed the door.

Once Pete completed his morning ritual and opened the door to return, he saw to his surprise that Justin was sitting on the bed waiting for him. "About time! I was afraid I might wet the whole bed!" the boy announced, before making a beeline around him and taking his turn. Pete felt sheepish, but also felt strange when he returned to the bed and noted that Justin hadn't bothered to close the bathroom door as he had. Nothing seemed unusual for the kid though, as he peed and then could be heard washing his hands as the toilet flushed. When he re-entered the room, Pete had just pulled his jeans up to his thighs and was standing up to finish the task. Justin seemed to take no notice, however, as he calmly walked back to his side of the bed and began picking up not only his garments from the night before, but a backpack deposited there as well. Pete watched from behind as the kid pulled out fresh clothes, including underwear, before stuffing his older garments back inside. What really surprised Pete the most, however, was when the younger teen simply stood up and skinned right there, completely, before donning the new outfit.

Justin had just pulled a fresh set of boxers into place when he glanced up into the mirror and saw Pete watching him from behind. He grinned, causing Pete to suddenly blush with embarrassment at having been caught. The kid could have used the moment to his advantage and teased the older boy, but instead he just grunted and shrugged, deciding instead to pull the rest of his outfit on and into place. By the time he had finished, so had Pete. The only difference, however, was that Pete was still sitting on the side of the bed, with his eyes downcast and berating himself over what had just happened.

Justin rounded the end of the bed and approached, before sitting down beside him. "Okay, spill it. What is it THIS time?"

"What do you mean?" Pete asked sullenly, not raising his eyes to meet his new friend.

Justin giggled. "You know what I mean. Did it bother you to see my ass or something?" he asked merrily, but then relented when he saw the serious expression that met him. "Okay, maybe I should have taken my clothes into the bathroom. Sorry, I just didn't think anything about it, that's all."

"It's not so much that, I…" Pete started, finally raising his gaze to meet the boy. He had started to deny he had seen anything, but it wasn't true, and he knew the lie would end up being empty anyway. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to stare."

"So? I probably would have done the same thing, sheesh!" Justin laughed again, but this time leaned in and bumped shoulders with the bigger boy. "You going to perve on me or something? Come on man, relax!" When he saw it wasn't working, however, the younger teen tried a different tactic. "I guess you really have been sheltered a lot. Haven't you ever been in gym class, and changed clothes in the locker room and stuff?"

"Of course, I have, but… that's not the same!" Pete exclaimed quietly, but feeling more confused than ever. "Justin… you…" He finally sighed with frustration. "You just don't understand, that's all."

"I understand more than you might think," the younger boy replied. "It's scary sometimes, I know. Especially if you catch someone with a boner or anything."

Pete nodded. "Well, yeah, but you don't know… you… I've done things, along with some others, when we catch guys like that," he whispered in shame.

Justin, surprisingly, just shrugged. "So? I've teased guys, too." He suddenly stopped, however, as the realization hit him. "You've done worse though, is that what you're saying?" When Pete didn't reply, he added back in his own whisper, "How bad?"

Pete looked up again, but he still didn't see the fear, or the loathing that he expected would be there in the younger teen's expression. "I don't know," Pete whispered eventually, before tearing his eyes away and staring up at the ceiling. "I… I guess I've just given them mostly shit. I mean before, I was, I don't know… it was just hard to understand, and… you know?"

Justin looked away for a moment, before turning back. "Okay, so you said that was before. What about now?"

It was a full minute before Pete sighed and replied. "Now, I don't know… I mean, I'm learning there is a lot more to… to life and stuff now, than what I ever understood in those days, you know? Now, it's… it's just different."

Justin smiled. "Then, let it go. I don't care if you saw my ass or not. Hell, I don't even care if you saw my dick either, for that matter. It's not something I would go advertising around or anything, mind you, but meh – it's like I told you last night: we're just guys, you know? I'm not worried about it, so neither should you be."

Pete observed the boy for a long time, trying to discern why he was feeling so ashamed. "Okay, but… I'm still sorry, though," he whispered.

Justin shrugged. "Okay, well, then be sorry all you want, but do it on your own time. I, for one, am not going to let it ruin our day, or our Christmas together either. Come on, you and I have got stuff to do - beginning with Ma's pancakes and bacon, from the smell of it!" He stood and offered a hand to the older boy, who finally smirked and accepted it. Bouncing up, they both headed toward the kitchen where, indeed, a stack of blueberry pancakes and a platter of bacon was waiting for them.

Afterwards, both boys dressed warmly and headed out to the shed, taking along Jim's compound bow for Pete to try out. Initially, the teen found the bow overly difficult to pull back, but he noted that after it reached a certain point, the tension changed. It still had the same resistance as before, but the change made it easier to hold in place. After a few rough tries to begin with, Pete began to eventually get the hang of it. Then, with Justin's guidance, the teen found he was able to shoot most of his arrows and actually hit the shed, or the ground immediately in front of it. The air was quite chilled for the moment, reminding them of the oncoming forecasted snow, but neither seemed to mind it as they took turns. Jim, Ed and Roger even joined them later, where all three spent time trying the sport.

Not surprisingly, Pete found both of the in-laws were capable archers in their own right. Both men stepped in and gave Pete additional pointers on how to align his sights, and to watch for the effects of cross-winds - which were not strong at the moment, but definitely present nonetheless. It wasn't long before the teen was doing better, which seemed to satisfy Jim Hunt immensely. The group watched as Justin continued to try it, but the boy's physical development still proved the task to be too difficult overall. That was when Jim left and, returning moments later with his recurve bow, handed it over to the younger boy. Justin, thrilled to say the least, found that bow to be much more to his liking. He and Pete then began spending time trying different angles and challenges, especially after the men left to return indoors. "This is a lot like the one I have at home, only mine is a little smaller," he announced to Pete, while the two took a break.

"Really? So… they come in different sizes?" Pete asked.

"Oh, heck yeah! This one is made more for hunting, I think, but most recurve-styles are made to fit the person, especially the beginners. Then, the next ones up from these are called longbows. They're similar, but made different, and you talk about bigger - they can be huge sometimes! Most are maybe, I don't know, at least half as much bigger than this one!" Justin explained. "Then there's the compound bow, like the one you're using, and then last is the crossbow. They're like a gun almost, except they shoot smaller arrows instead of bullets."

"I've seen those before," Pete acknowledged. "In the movies, I think."

"Yep! Lots of medieval movies have them in there. They're okay, I guess, but… to me, they take the fun out of just, you know, shooting arrows for yourself like this," Justin went on. "So, how do you like it? You can try this one, if you want. You don't have to pull back so hard on it, but then again, it won't shoot as fast or far like that one does."

Pete raised both eyebrows and then set the compound bow to the side, taking the one offered by Justin and trying it out. He noticed the difference immediately in the weight, and in the effort that it took to mount an arrow and shoot it. "Wow! You're right, BIG difference!"

"See what I mean? Yeah, it IS different!" was the ready reply. The boy watched Pete try a few more rounds, before the older teen shook his head.

"I honestly think I prefer the compound. It's a lot harder to pull back, but once you get the hang of it, well…"

"I agree," Justin informed him. "Grandpa has helped me shoot it a couple of times, so I know what you mean."

"How?" Pete asked. "I mean, how did he help you do that?"

"Oh, easy, really! Here, let me hold it and put an arrow up to the line," Justin said, taking the bow as setting it up. "Now, put your arms around me and set yourself up like you're looking over my shoulder." Pete, dubious at first, stepped up as instructed, but his arms were both clumsy and awkward around the younger boy. "Come on, doofus! I'm not going to break, I promise!" the younger boy hissed, laughing all the same. "Hug me up close, except put your hand on the bow like I have it, just below here, see?" Pete complied, prompting Justin to nod. "There, see? No big deal, right? Now, I'm going to raise it up and pull the arrow back, and when I do, you take your other hand and help me get it pulled back the rest of the way so that I can shoot. Okay?"

Pete grunted and then the two, in unison, brought the compound up and pointed at the target on the shed. When Pete felt the younger boy begin to increase the tension on the arrow, he added his own strength until suddenly the bow was back, cocked into position. "Now, don't let go until I tell you!" Justin hissed. "Just let me… yeah, like this… Okay, I think I can hold it now, so just carefully let it go… like that, yeah… whee!"

The arrow was let loose and immediately found its destination across the short distance, landing less than two feet below its intended target. "Wow! No shit – look at that!" the boy exclaimed, turning and suddenly giving Pete a high five. "That's the best I think I've ever done with this thing!"

"It's a good effort. Better than a lot of mine, I think," Pete agreed. He leaned back against a tree, studying the distance. "What would you say the distance is, maybe 35 feet or so?"

"Yeah, at least. Grandpa has told me lots of times we ought to measure it, but we never seem to get around to it," Justin replied, walking over and joining him on the other side of the tree. After a brief silence, he crossed his arms smugly. "Okay, confession time. How do you like it? I mean, shooting arrows and stuff?"

Pete smiled. "Truthfully? I think it's a lot of fun. Although, I am getting kind of cold out here."

Justin nodded, sighing in relief. "It's about time!" he exclaimed, and then laughed when he saw the older boy's confusion. "I am, too. I just didn't want to be the first to admit it, in case you weren't!"

Pete laughed. "I wasn't wanting to admit it because I thought you wanted to stay out here!"

"I was, but… yeah, you get it. Come on, maybe Ma will let us have some hot chocolate!"

"Okay, but…" Pete hesitated, but his curiosity got the better of him. "Can I ask you something first, before we go inside?"

"Sure! What's up?" Justin replied, while picking up his bow and several arrows nearby.

"Well, I was just wondering, okay? I don't think there's anything wrong with it, I promise… but, how come you call your grandmother 'Ma', but your grandfather 'Grandpa'?"

Justin broke out laughing as he stood up straight. When he saw the sheepish, yet serious look on the older teen's face, he quickly relented. "Well, I used to call Ma 'Grandma', and Grandpa I used to call 'Gramps'. I think I thought he was always looking grumpy a lot, see, so… yeah, go figure. He didn't like it though, because he said it made him feel all wrong and everything, so then I tried calling him 'Pa'. But Shelby and Greta, they've always called him Grandpa, and I think somewhere along the way I started doing it to. He seemed to like it better."

"Okay, I get it," Pete nodded. "What about your grandma, then? What made you call her 'Ma'?"

"That one is a little funnier, actually. See, Daniel, he has this lisp-like thing when he talks, so when he used to say 'Grandma', it comes out more like 'Gan-sah'. You know, the 'gr' doesn't come out quite right, and it throws off the 'ma'-part, too. So, the couple of years, he's just called her 'Ma' for short, and Greta started doing the same so that it would make it easier on him. Shelby and I started doing it, too."

Pete, impressed, smiled as he picked up what few arrows remained at the shed. "Wow, I didn't know that at all! It's kind of funny, but yeah, I get it. Daniel, huh? I don't remember hearing anything last night though, when he was talking with everyone."

"I know. He's gotten a lot better at it since, really, but if you listen close enough, you'll see he still has trouble with certain sounds and everything. I know, it does sound kind of messed up and all, but that's just how we ended up doing it," Justin explained. "Come on, we can leave the target up, Grandpa won't mind. It stays up half the time anyway." The teen then surveyed the yard. "You know, I hope it does come another good snow tonight. I didn't get to make a snowman or do anything in that last one. Mom made me stay inside because I had a head-cold I was trying to get rid of."

Pete nodded. "I haven't been able to play, either. Maybe we'll get that chance. Are you guys staying tonight, too?"

"Oh no," Justin replied, shaking his head. "In fact, I bet we're probably going to leave before long. We still have Christmas to do at my house, see? We always come up here on Christmas Eve and all, spend the night and everything, and then go home for the big surprise. Only, last year and this year there was no real Santa involved anymore. Not like usual, I mean."

Pete halted in his footsteps to turn back to the boy, thinking quickly. "You mean, your sister…?"

"Yeah, she found out the year before last, so we kind of, well, you know. It's still a lot of fun and everything, just without all the ho-ho-ho and stuff," Justin explained. "In the Christmases before though, we'd always play like Santa came while we were gone, see. So, it's not that big of a change, but you get the idea," Justin explained.

"Yeah, I understand," Pete said quietly, but then looked toward the house, seeing nothing but stillness inside. "Um, listen, one more thing, okay? I… Well, I've got to do something. Please don't ask me why, I just… it's just something I feel like I need to do, that's all. I just… I don't want you to get mad at me or anything…"

Justin frowned, but then shrugged. "Well, sure. What is it?"

For the first time in his life, or so he felt, Pete observed the boy closely, as if measuring him up. It was a thought that struck him ever since the night before, when the boy had admitted he thought about giving Pete a hug, but not in front of his parents. That statement had not troubled the older teen, but it did at the same time stir something up on the inside he didn't totally understand. At least, not until now. He put the evening before, the morning and just now all into one giant perspective, and realized that Justin was the real thing: someone different, but totally cool in his own way. Pete was learning new things rapidly, he acknowledged, and although some people did things that seemed totally strange, others just 'fitted' with the moment. Somehow, he knew what this moment meant to him, and he wanted Justin to know that he got it now, and how grateful he felt on the inside.

Reaching out before he could change his mind, he grasped the younger boy and pulled him in, giving him an awkward but well-meaning embrace. Justin suddenly laughed, although whether in relief or at the suddenness of the act, Pete was uncertain. When the boy warmly embraced him back, however, the older teen relaxed and, as before, Justin could sense the change. "You really haven't had much of this at all before, have you?" he whispered loudly, to which Pete just hung on, shaking his head in reply. Justin returned the embrace even harder then, making it more personal between them. "Look man, I think you've got some things to learn about, I know, but this? This is one of those good ones, I promise, when it's in the right place and time. And yeah, this is one of those times." Eventually he pulled back and saw the older boy had a pleased expression. "I've got something to tell you, too. I want to thank you, for not being a total prick about me, or you know, some other things. I'm really, really happy I got to spend yesterday and this morning with you. I mean that, I promise."

"I am, too," Pete replied, smiling. "I really am."

"Good!" Justin stepped back a little further then, offering the older teen a fist bump, which Pete gladly met and accepted. "Hang around the phone tonight, okay? I'll call you later so we can chat some more, and I'll tell you what I got for Christmas. That is, if you want to hear, and if it won't make you feel bad or anything," Justin advised.

"You bet I will, and no, I promise it won't make me jealous, or feel bad or anything," Pete replied. He nodded toward the house again. "Want to go see about that hot chocolate now?"

Justin broke into a grin. "Oh, heck yeah!" As they began walking again, he pulled up beside the teen and bumped shoulders with him again. "Thanks for the hug, too. Believe it or not, I think I kind of needed it," he added in a low voice. "Don't ask why, okay? Just… yeah."

Pete grinned, glancing sideways, wondering about that confession, but conceding that maybe it was for the same reason he himself felt like doing it. It just seemed… right. Before he could say anything though, Justin had pulled ahead by then and was holding open the door for them both to get inside the house.

Christmas day passed swiftly in the Cooks' household. The boys and their fathers sat back to watch special football games played on national TV, all the while the boys sat on the floor playing Jesse's and Benji's new Aggravation game. The trio broke at one point to go and play a new video game Noah had received, but before long Benji began hogging the controller. That was okay between the two older boys, as Noah began helping Jesse setup his iPad, and both boys began admiring and figuring out their new cell phones.

"See, here? It's the restriction control thingy," Noah pointed out quietly to Jesse. "If Benji gets access to this thing, just toggle this configuration, and it'll keep him away from anything bad on the internet. Like porn, or the more violent stuff."

"Yeah, I understand," Jesse replied, before glancing up at his friend. "Is this how you figured out the way to turn it off on yours?"

"Yeppers," Noah replied, before explaining. "I have to be careful still though, because Mom has this logging thingy installed on my tablet that records what websites I go to and everything. That's why I restrict myself pretty much to just chat rooms and stuff. It records the overall chatroom site and location, but not the stuff you navigate to or chat inside of it. Besides, there's plenty to see and hear in there as it is. You'll never really need to go to a porn site if you want to see stuff, trust me," he whispered, making Jesse grin at him.

"I have you, bro… that's all I think I need. For now, anyway," Jesse whispered back.

Noah nodded. "Yeah, but wait until we start chatting, just you and me. See? This thing has a camera in it, too!" Jesse giggled, but he didn't totally understand what his friend was referring to, so Noah leaned in and whispered into his ear. "When it's just you and me, Jess, we can do almost anything we want. It's only a camera and all, but… you'll see. And it does great in low-light too, so you don't have to worry about always having lights around you or anything."

"Oh, you mean, like… the guys in the chat room you told me about?" he asked, equally as quiet. When Noah grinned and nodded his head, Jesse giggled again, but immediately quieted so as not to draw his brother's attention. "I love you - you know that, right? That is so… I don't know… wicked?"

Noah laughed. "Oh yeah, wicked is a nice way to put it!" The two then proceeded on to other things. The rest of the day was spent laughing and just enjoying their time together. At the Cooks' insistence, the McAllisters did not return home until well into the evening.

The rest of the weekend also proceeded quietly. As a common courtesy, only a handful of retail outlets and restaurants opened on Sunday, most remaining closed to allow their employees to enjoy the holiday weekend with their families. Not surprisingly, neither the Cooks nor the McAllisters gathered together, as if by unspoken rule as each family kept to themselves. Except for Noah and Jesse, who finally met up on Facetime, the iPads video chat application, late Sunday afternoon.

"Wow, this thing does work pretty good, doesn't it!" Jesse confessed, impressed with the clarity of the image.

"Yeah, you'll like it. How did it go there today?" Noah replied.

"Quiet, really. Benji and I played with his toys some, and with the car. He got a remote car, too, but it was one of the smaller ones," Jesse confided. "It felt weird, though."

"How come?" Noah asked.

"Because you weren't here, and I wasn't there, you know?" Jesse confessed.

Noah smiled at him. "Tell me about it! We're so used to being around each other all the time, I felt like I had lost you or something." Noah sighed. "It's okay, though; we'll have the next couple of days again. We're still supposed to help your Dad and all, right?"

Jesse smiled. "Oh yeah. I'm surprised your Mom and Dad didn't make you go with them to Nashville, though."

"Meh," Noah replied. "I don't really like going all that much. My cousins are younger, and more like Benji and all, except they NEVER stop pestering me. So, what time are we leaving in the morning?"

"Dad said he has to unlock everything in the morning, since he's on first call," Jesse answered. "We'll probably leave here around 7:45 or so. The store doesn't open until nine, but he said there are several things that need to be done right away."

"Okay, cool. I'll be there," Now replied. "So, want to play some Battleship now, or something? We set those up on your tablet, remember?"

Later that evening, with Noah's help, they found a way to setup Benji's tablet as well, and then it was an all-out three-way video festival of sorts. Benji, doubly excited, was learning how video worked for the first time, and then to top it off, when he was told he could record videos too, he started badgering the older boys about how to do it. By the time the evening was over, with all three coordinating their efforts, the youngster had made his first short, 20-second video and was showing it to his parents and anyone else who he could reach out to. Jennifer had also signed in through her own tablet and watched, laughing at the crazy antics and excitement the youth displayed.

It wasn't until they had gone to bed that night, with Jesse lying in his bed playing cards on his tablet, when it 'dinged' at him quietly. A message box popped open, beckoning him. 'You awake?'

Jesse smiled, seeing it was from Noah, and readily replied, 'Yeah, for now.'

'Your brother got a kick out of that stuff tonight, didn't he?' Noah asked. 'I have seen him get excited before, but not like that!'

Jesse smiled. 'Yeah, he did… It's your own fault, though. You showed him how to make a recording and everything.'

'I know,' Noah replied. The connection grew quiet briefly before he continued. 'Is he asleep? I don't see any light on in your bedroom, except I think I can see your tablet reflecting around some.'

'Yep, he's a goner. I think he wore himself out,' Jesse answered. He leaned over and glanced out his window toward Noah's room. 'It looks like your lights are out, too.'

'Yeah, they are,' Noah replied. Before Jesse could answer however, he suddenly got a request for video chat, which he readily answered. Almost instantly, Noah came into view, shirtless and lying on his side with his head propped up. "Hey, that's better!" Jesse said quietly, to which Noah nodded.

"Way better, yeah. I just didn't want to wake Benji up is all."

Jesse shrugged. "He sleeps heavy, you know that. Unless he has to go to the bathroom, I bet he won't wake up until sometime in the morning."

Noah gave Jesse a sly expression. "You're sure he's asleep, right?"

"YYYeesssss…" Jesse replied with a hint of annoyance, but giggling all the same. "Why? What's so important? What are you worried about?"

"Worried? Oh, nothing, I'm not worried about anything, I just… I wanted to be sure," Noah replied mysteriously, before leaning in closer to the camera. He mouthed something just then, but Jesse could not make it out. Seeing what he interpreted to be confusion, Noah rolled his eyes and came closer. "I'm horny, alright?"

Jesse, finally understanding, giggled. "Sorry, I… yeah, I get it now." He paused, then lowered his own voice. "Um, just how horny are you?"

Noah suddenly looked relieved, as if he had been waiting for the question. Instead of answering, however, he grabbed the tablet and moved it down, until Jesse could see that his best friend was not only shirtless, but totally naked on top of his bed, sporting a full, raging boner in his groin. "Oh, wow!" he whispered.

Next Noah's face came back into view, sporting a smirk. "Oh, yeah, THAT horny." Then, as if by cue, the teen rolled onto his back and turned the camera around, moving it closer so that Jesse could get a magnified view. He heard Noah whispering to him then. "I sssooooo wish you were here with me, right now!"

Jesse sighed, settling into his pillow. "I so wish I was too, bro. That thing looks totally suck-able to me." He reached down and rubbed his own boner, which had already begun to strain and stiffen in his boxers. "I would so be all over it, you know, taking all that cream you'd give me."

"I know you would, just like I'd be all over yours, too," he heard softly from the tablet's speakers. The tablet finally turned around so that Jesse could see his friend's face. "That blow job you gave me Christmas Eve was one of the best, most awesome you've ever given me. Benji's hand job wasn't too bad, either." Jesse blushed, which evidently was discernable enough that made Noah giggle. "Don't be embarrassed," he pleaded. "It was so cool!"

"It was cool for me, too," Jesse confessed, before sighing, having to rub himself yet again. "You're doing it to me, you know."

"Doing what?" Noah asked before grinning. "Getting a boner?"

In reply, Jesse glanced at the bed above him, but knew he had nothing to worry about, as Benji's light snores could still be heard. Pushing his covers down, he also lowered the front of his boxers as well, before turning the camera around. "Can you see?" he whispered.

"Oh yeah, I see you just perfect!" Noah's voice came from the speakers. "MMmmmm… If I were there, we could rub them together, too… you know, make them kiss and everything."

After a moment, Jesse returned the tablet to his face, and saw his friend was watching him as well, but there was a definite movement on the other end. "You're doing it, aren't you? Jacking off?" he whispered, to which Noah nodded.

"Oh, yeah… That's how much you turn me on, bro," was the whispered response. "I just imagined being there, licking you all over, and… and…" When he didn't say anything more, Jesse grinned and got an idea. Pushing the covers back even further, he rotated and started moving the tablet's camera all over his groin, leaving just enough distance that the ambient light allowed Noah to watch everything in slow motion.

"Oh, mmmmaaaaannnnn..." Noah moaned. Jesse could definitely hear his friend's pace pick up faster, so he briefly brought the tablet to his lips.

"Go on, suck me, bro. I'm all yours…" he offered, before returning the camera back to its previous position. It was only seconds later Jesse heard a louder groan and sigh come from the speakers. 'Yes!' he heard the excited response. 'Ohhh, yyesss…' After a sufficient amount of time, Jesse then pulled the tablet back up, along with the covers, before rolling onto his side and settling back in as before. In the view-screen, he saw Noah had done something similar, but the camera gave a long view where Jesse could tell he had collapsed while stretching the length of his bed. The teen was lying there with his eyes closed, but his mouth was parted to match his expression, as if in ecstasy.

A moment later, Noah finally opened his eyes and leaned in closer to the camera with a wicked grin. "See what I mean now, about this being wicked?" When he saw Jesse's smile, he relaxed. "Not saying we have to do this a lot, but…"

"When we can't be together and we're horny, then yeah, I get it," Jesse filled in for him. "Did you make a lot?" he whispered afterwards.

Noah grinned, and then once again turned the camera around, only this time he lowered it first to his groin, and then the dark-colored garment of some sort spread beneath it on the bed. "Uh huh," Noah purred, and indeed, Jesse could see several globs of cum standing out against the darkened cloth. Jesse giggled softly before Noah's face returned to him again. "I'm sorry you can't do it though," he offered apologetically.

"It won't be long now, I promise," Jesse replied.

"It better not be, sheesh!" the teen hissed, but then settled back. "Jess, how will you know? I mean, you're not going to ask your Mom, I'm sure, so…?" Noah asked.

"EEEww… no eff-ing way!" Jesse answered, his face screwed up at the thought before he relaxed again. He thought about the question for a moment before finally shrugging. "I don't know, really. Doc just said I would know, more or less, on my own."

Noah nodded. "Well, I hope that doesn't mean you'll have to wait too long, then." The teen then sighed. "I guess I better get some sleep, Jess. Mom and Dad are supposed to get up and leave kind of early in the morning, and I think your Dad said something about getting an early start, too."

"Okay, you got it! See ya later, terminator!" Jesse offered.

"After a while, in a stinky mile!" Noah replied.

After they signed off, Jesse put the tablet away and lay back, smiling. It had turned out to be a pretty nice day after all. Not as good as it could have been, but he was definitely willing to accept it as it was. Before long, he shut his eyes and quietly fell into a deep slumber.

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