The Storm That Turned the Tide

by Sean English

Chapter 31

Pete Finds Forgiveness

Benji hopped into the van, waving goodbye to his buddy Petey, just as his mother was waving to her counterpart standing in the doorway to the house. As they backed out, the youngster began giving his mother a play-by-play description about his stay – including an interesting turn of events: Petey's brother actually spent time with them, even sharing one of his own Christmas presents – a hovercraft drone, with a built-in video camera.

"Whoa! I bet that was a lot of fun!" Makalah announced, as she turned onto the highway.

"It was a blast, Mom! I mean, it couldn't go very far out, but we did get it to go around the house, and over their barn… it was so cool! We could see everything from the air, like ourselves and stuff!" her son replied, excitedly. He then sat back as he glanced up at her. "No, I'm not saying I want one. At least, not now, because I know they're not cheap. Petey says they sell for about a hundred dollars or so."

"And up, if I remember right," Makalah added. "Don't worry, I don't see one of those in our future, at least not very soon."

"Good," Benji replied cheerfully, causing his mother to take note and observe her son closer.

"Something wrong, honey? I mean, it sounds like you had a good time and all, but…"

Benji shook his head. "No Mom, it was actually one of the best nights I've ever had staying there, I think. They even invited me to come back Friday night if I want to come, saying they were going to shoot some fireworks and stuff."

Makalah nodded. "Saturday is New Year's Day, so there are a lot of people celebrating the new year, I think. We've done it before too, remember? You and Jesse would stay up, or I should say, try to stay up until midnight. You'd play games, drink hot chocolate, put on party hats – all to ring in the new year."

"Yeah, I remember now," Benji replied quietly.

"Do you want to go then? I don't think your father or I would object if you did," Makalah offered.

"I don't know. Like you said, me and Jesse usually spend the night together and do all kinds of crazy stuff," Benji replied.

Makalah made a turn onto another road before she spoke again, still sensing something her son wasn't telling her. "Well, whatever you decide, honey. What else is it, though? What's got your undies in a knot?"

Her attempt at humor did little to change Benji's mood, however. "It was just, I don't know, kind of different, that's all. Especially with Petey's brother hanging out with us. You know, he apologized to me this morning, too – which was totally weird, but kind of cool at the same time, too."

"Oh? What did he apologize for?" Makalah asked guardedly.

Benji stared out the window at the passing landscape for several seconds before turning back. "For spoiling my Christmas by telling us that Santa wasn't real and everything, you know, that he doesn't exist. He and Petey both told me they were really sorry."

Surprised, Makalah began to slow down as they entered the outskirts of town. "Really?"

Benji went silent again for a moment, before he continued. "Mom? I… I'm really glad and all, now that I know the truth, but… I don't want anyone being sad over it, you know? I get it, really. Jesse and Noah both told me that its more about the magic of Christmas and everything, and… and I understand that, honest."

"Then, you're better off than a lot of young girls and boys your age, honey," Makalah replied, smiling but really pleased with her son's simple view of the topic. "But I promise you, we won't be sad anymore. Do you know why?"

Benji turned and suddenly smiled brightly. "Um… because you still have me?" Makalah laughed, and were it not for driving through a busier area of town, she would have pulled over and given her son a hug right then and there.

"Always because we still have you, honey, but also because we love you, too," Makalah informed him. "That goes for me, your Dad and your brother."

"I know, Mom," Benji replied, but then looked out the window and noticed for the first time where they were. Frowning, he turned back. "Um, aren't we going home?"

"No, we need to go pick up a few groceries first. Your Dad and I, well, we didn't get to go last night like we had planned," she answered.

"Oh," the youngster replied, but then sat back. "How come you and Dad didn't get to go?"

Makalah sighed, hoping to avoid having to explain right away, but now that the topic was out, she knew she had to fill him in. "Um, your Dad and were at the hospital again last night, with your brother."

She had no sooner than said the word 'brother' when Benji suddenly snapped his head around and fixed a hard gaze upon her. "What happened? What's wrong with Jesse?" he barked, more forceful than he had intended, but all thoughts of his stay with Petey were set aside. "Is he okay?"

"He's all right, Benji, I promise," Makalah stated hastily. With a reassuring smile, she continued. "Jesse collapsed at work yesterday afternoon, see. Noah and your Dad found your brother unconscious, and then rushed to take him to the emergency room. He's going to be okay though, and he even got to come home this morning. He's there now with Noah, taking it easy."

Benji processed her explanation, but then frowned as his shoulders sagged. "Why didn't you call me, or come get me then?" he whispered. "I mean, I would have come home too, you know!"

Makalah smiled again. "Because there was no need to, honey. It was a while before we got everything figured out, see? And there was no use in you having to worry about anything so soon."

"But… Mom…" the youngster started as she turned into the Walmart parking lot. "What… what was it? What was wrong?"

"Nothing too bad. You know how he's been so tired lately, and not eating as much?" Benji nodded, so she continued. "Well, it seems your brother's iron and sodium counts - that means salt - have been really low lately. That's what was causing him to lose energy, see… and then evidently, your brother pushed himself a little too hard these last couple of days, and his body had one of those awkward reactions to it all. Does that make sense?"

Benji thought for a few seconds and then nodded. "Yeah, it does."

"So, we're making him stay home now and get some real rest. That's why Noah is there now, watching him while you and I go and pick up a few groceries." She parked and then looked down at him. "Then, when we get home, it's going to be your job to take over and look after him. That way Noah can finish helping your Dad tomorrow with setting up the inventory work at the store."

Benji's face brightened at that point. "Really? You mean, I get to take care of him then? You promise?"

"You sure do!" Makalah laughed. "You get to boss him around for a day or two, I think. You'll like that, won't you?" As a wicked grin met her along with an emphatic nod, she stopped to caution him. "Be careful though… if you abuse your privilege too much, it might come back and haunt you later!"

"Meh," Benji replied good-naturedly, unhooking his seat belt. "I'll be good to him." Once he was out of the truck, he joined his mother as she hobbled toward the entrance. "Mom? I am glad he's okay, really… but, I wish you or Dad had told me, you know?"

Makalah stopped and knelt down there in the parking lot, coming almost to eye-level with her seven-year-old son. Before speaking, she hesitated only slightly to realize he was growing up on her even more than she'd noticed as of late. "I know, honey. If it had been something more serious, we would have, but… it just didn't make sense to, alright? So, forgive me. We were doing what we thought was best, so you wouldn't be worrying about it all night. Okay?"

Benji finally smiled at her and leaned in, giving her a kiss on the cheek. "Okay. So…. Can I get some more cheese puffs while we're here?" he asked innocently.

His mother could not help but laugh.

"Now listen, I'm not a paraplegic, or whatever you call those people," Jesse complained, a hint of indignation in his voice.

Noah backed away with a look of annoyance. "No, you're not, but…"

"But what?" Jesse shot back, before laughing. "I know, you like catching me in my birthday suit every chance you get, but come on… Can't I at least dress myself every once in a while?"

Noah scoffed, but then sat down on the edge of the bed with his hands held wide. "Okay, okay… Sorry!" he muttered, as Jesse finally pulled a pair of boxers up into place. He had just come from taking a shower, and his midriff had been wrapped with a towel when he re-entered his bedroom. The teenager had been lucky this time, not having to endure the nurses giving him a sponge bath during his brief hospital stay. Once he had gotten home, however, that desire had changed. As soon as his mother left to run an errand and then pick up Benji, and his father had taken off to work again at the store, he announced his intention to Noah and had stripped easily enough. Noah smirked as he watched his best friend leave the room, but remained behind as he was bidden, all the while attempting to straighten the room up. When Jesse returned feeling more refreshed, he had attempted to dry off and acquire fresh clothing, only to have Noah step in once again to 'assist'.

Jesse glanced up and suddenly felt guilty. "No, I'm the one who should be sorry," he replied. "I know, you're just trying to help is all. I just… I feel so useless sometimes, you know? I want to be doing stuff again, and… and… Well, at least doing something other than lying around like a piece of furniture!"

Noah nodded. "I understand, Jess. I mean, I've not been where you are now, but I've been sick before and it left me feeling like that sometimes. Frustrated or annoyed." He picked up Jesse's fresh t-shirt from the bed and tossed it to him. "So, make yourself useful then and put that on, before I decide to start sucking on those nipples, or poking and tickling your belly button."

Jesse laughed. "You wouldn't… or rather, yeah, you probably would…" he declared as he slipped the shirt on. Moving over, he stood in front of his friend and reached out, helping him to his feet. Once done, he slowly wrapped Noah with his arms. Seeing the look of surprise, Jess smiled weakly and explained. "We hug a lot sometimes, and we do a lot of things, really… but we're always having to be so careful when there are other people around, you know? Right now, though, no one else is home, so for once I want to do this and not have to hide it from anyone," the teen whispered. "I owe you, a lot…" he added, nuzzling into Noah's neck.

"No, you don't, but… you won't get a complaint from me," Noah murmured, succumbing to the warmness of the embrace. "It's always nice when you let me hold you … or when we sleep together, or… or… you know."

Jesse nodded before finally pulling back. "You should have gone with Dad to help out, but… I'm still glad you stayed behind."

"Meh. He told me I'd be welcome to go back with him tomorrow if I wanted, but for today maybe someone should stay and keep you company," Noah acknowledged. When Jesse rolled his eyes, he quickly added, "NOT because you necessarily need looking after, Jess. He just didn't want you to have to be alone, I think."

"I guess… yeah, that makes sense," Jesse conceded as he turned and noticed he had yet to pull out any sweatpants. "So, your turn then. Do your duty and go find me some bottoms to wear, especially before my sausage decides to freeze off."

Noah laughed, shaking his head. "No, it won't… my mouth will warm it up before it ever does that!" he whispered, eliciting a grin from his friend. Noah moved over to the dresser and opened the usual drawer before frowning. "Um, unless you have any somewhere else, you're out. I think your Mom forgot to wash them yesterday."

Jesse grunted. "More likely, I think I forgot to tell her about it."

Noah then approached his overnight bag and pulled out a pair of his own. Handing them over, he teased his friend. "Don't worry, I didn't cum or anything in them. They'll do you for a little while, at least."

"Thanks," Jesse said while taking them, and then made an overly exaggerated display of checking inside for any signs of the so-called dried-up semen. When he added a sniff in the crotch, Noah finally lost it and began laughing out loud, making his friend grin before slowly pulling the garment on. Once completed, however, he then searched about and grabbed the other pairs of sweats lying nearby, including those belonging to his brother. "Be right back," he announced. "I'm going to go thru the bathroom hamper for any others that might be in there, and then go and put them all in the washer."

"I'll come with you," Noah offered. Over the next few minutes, they gathered what they could find and then carried them to the back porch, where the washer and dryer were currently located and not being used. Since most of the garments were of various colors, they dumped the load into the washer together, before Jesse added detergent and set the machine in action.

"There, that should do for starters anyway. I just need to remember to come back and check it after about an hour or so," Jesse remarked as they started heading back to the bedroom again.

"Do you do a lot of laundry like that?" Noah asked out of curiosity.

"Not really. Mom does most of it, but Ben and I have to let her know when we're running low on anything," Jesse replied. "She's kind of taught me how to do it before, and meh, I've done the basic stuff somewhat. You know, just to help out every once in a while."

"It's the same for me for me. I can wash most anything, and fold towels and stuff, too – but I'm not very good with shirts and things," Noah confessed as they entered the room. "She keeps saying she's going to work on that with me, but… you know how that goes, I guess." He glanced around. "So, do you feel like doing anything? I mean, do you want to watch a movie, or play a game or something? Make out, or…"

Jesse laughed as he plopped down on one of their new bean bags, before reaching up and pulling Noah down on top of him. "Sheesh! I was just naked a few minutes ago! If you wanted to mess around, why didn't you do bring it up then, doofus?!"

Noah began to blush. "I don't know… I guess I was just letting you ride in the driver's seat for a change. It seems like I'm doing a lot of the driving stuff with us lately, and… I don't know…"

Jesse reached up and touched the end of his friend's nose with his fingertip. "I'm sorry… It's not just you, Noah, but I admit, my horniness has been up and down all over the place lately." He wrapped both his arms and legs around his friend, holding him fiercely before letting go. "I know, okay? I'll do better, I promise. For now, how about we just get 'Aggravated' at each other for a while?"

Noah grinned, recognizing the play on words. Within minutes, they had the new gameboard out and was setting it up between them. As they began play, Jesse also turned on the TV and found an old war movie they could watch in the background. For the next hour, they traded barbs, laughed, playfully punched at each other and more as the marbles worked their way in progression, only to either succeed or get sent back to their starting position.

It was during one of the exchanges that Noah became thoughtful. "Hey, have you had any thoughts about what you're going to do about Pete?"

Jesse glanced up and then frowned. "I don't know. I mean, a part of me says to just leave him alone – you know, water under the bridge and everything. I never thought of it being up to me to make that kind of a decision though. I figured it would be left up to my Mom and Dad, actually."

Noah nodded. "Yeah, I know. But… just so you know, Pete's expecting something big, in some way or another. He actually sounded desperate to me yesterday. He kept saying he wanted to make things right with you, as he put it. Evidently he's still under the impression you're going to bust his balls again or something."

Jesse suddenly laughed. "Did he really say that? What was it, that we could string him up in the locker room and skin him, and then let everybody use him for a punching bag for a change?"

"Yeah, he did," Noah nodded, grinning as he rolled the die to make his next move. "I'm not so sure that would be worth putting him on a show for, but…"

Jesse agreed. "I know, and no - I don't think I would be interested in skinning him, either. Your ass is all I'm interested in, anyway," he teased. "Well, other than just being curious, maybe…"

"Oh… really?" Noah snorted. "Like all those butts we get to see on the basketball team?"

"Meh, you mean the couple we've seen so far? I admit it though, what we've seen were kind of cute, or at least interesting, but… you know what I mean," Jesse replied, beginning to blush again. He took his turn on the game in silence, contemplating the question again before he continued. "I don't know, Noah. I… One part of me wants to just let it all go, but then, another part of me… well…"

"I'm not defending him, okay? It might sound funny, coming from me anyway - because I sure as hell wanted to pulverize him after what happened that night in the locker room. But… as much as I don't like to admit it, I do think that people can change. I mean, look at me - I changed and all. If it hadn't been for you…"

"I didn't do that, Noah. I just… I was just trying to make a friend, and you fell into my evil snare!" Jesse teased again. "Besides, how do you know you haven't been the ultimate pawn in one of my masterminded, evil plots to take over the world!!" When Noah rolled his eyes, Jesse laughed out loud, but then became serious again as he stretched his foot out and rubbed it against Noah's side. "You changed because we found each other, bro," Jesse whispered. "And yeah, the rest is history now."

"Yeah," Noah agreed. He thought about that for a moment before sighing. "Pete, he's certainly shown that he can change too, ever since that night at the game. In more ways than one, I think." The teen then grunted and then looked up. "Just like you taught me."

The two continued their current round with Jesse winning, before he sat back and sighed deeply. "I don't know, Noah. I think I'm just going let it all go. Maybe he's learned enough at least to not slip back into his old habits and start bullying people around again. If nothing else I'd say that's a good reason to let him off the hook, you know?"

"Yeah," Noah commented, surprised but feeling pleased all the same. "Again, I'm not trying to sway you or anything, but… If it makes any difference, I just don't see him doing the things he did before. I mean, now that we know what his life was like before he was expelled, I kind of think I understand now how some of that made him like he was. But with a lot of that in the open now, and knowing he'll go into a foster family and get some kind of help and all… I just don't see him becoming that kind of person again. The funny part though, is that I think he realizes it all, too." He caught and held Jesse's gaze. "I know, it may be too soon to really tell, but… I just don't see the old Pete in his eyes anymore. He never was perfect, but… he does seem to be sincere about trying to be better about everything, you know?"

"Yeah, I think you may be right," Jesse agreed after a moment's hesitation. Shrugging his shoulders, he added, "I guess we'll find out soon enough."

After several more games, the two turned to curling up on Jesse's bed and watching a movie. It did not surprise Noah at all when, stretched out behind his friend, he eventually heard sounds of soft snoring in the air. In a way, Noah was glad. He had been feeling stiff and wanting to get up and do something, anything really, to work the kinks out of his muscles. They had been taking it easy through the holidays quite a bit, thus working in the storage rooms had been a blessing in disguise. The abrupt halt, or rather their stopping to deal with Jesse's troubles again, had caused Noah to become restless. With great ease and care, he extracted himself from bed and left the room quietly, making one last check to make sure his friend was still sound asleep.

Entering the kitchen, Noah noted it was already early afternoon. Making his way to the back porch, the teenager found and moved the freshly washed garments from the washer to the dryer, and turned it on before returning. When a rumble emitted from his stomach, he realized his breakfast biscuit was long gone, so the teenager began rummaging through the pantry and various cabinets, looking for something to eat. Finding a can of soup that looked interesting, he opened it and dumped it into a bowl, before placing the dish in the microwave and activating it. While it warmed, he then looked further and found some crackers, so when the appliance notified him it had finished, he gathered the food onto the kitchen table and took a seat.

About half-way through his meal, Noah heard the rear door of the house open, and soon the voices of both Makalah and Benji reached his ears. Seconds later, the seven-year-old made his way into the kitchen, carrying bags filled with groceries. "Noah!" Benji exclaimed again at once, setting the bags down and taking off at a run.

The teenager put both arms up, however, to fend off the impending attack before catching the youngster in mid-stride. Laughing, he swung the boy off his feet. "Hey, squirt!"

"Benji!" a second voice called from behind as Makalah appeared, admonishing her son. "My Lord, what have I told you about doing that!"

"Sorry, Mom!" Benji offered, despite his continued grin for effect as he set his feet back to the floor. Once he stood under his own power again, he retreated in the direction of the bags he had dropped.

"Good afternoon, Mrs. McAllister," Noah offered.

"Hello, Noah!" she replied cheerfully. "How is everything? Did Jesse behave himself?"

"Oh yeah, he did fine," Noah replied, before picking up his spoon again. "Um, I kind of got hungry and found this soup in the pantry. I hope that's alright."

"What? Of course, it is!" Makalah replied, giving him a look of annoyance. "I'm sorry it took so long for us to get back. Walmart was an absolute calamity to get through the line and all, and I had to stop at Food Lion on the way back to pick up some pork chops." She turned to Benji. "Go get what's left out of the car, Ben. I'll start putting these things away."

The boy nodded and then dashed out the door. "Be back in a bit, Ms. Banana Split!" he called out, causing the other two to giggle.

"He wasn't too happy that James and I didn't call him about Jesse, yesterday," she confided quietly to Noah, all the while opening some of the bags and removing their contents. "You might want to warn Jesse about that, just in case. Where is he, by the way?"

"He fell asleep while we were watching a movie," Noah answered, his voice lowered just as quietly. "Nothing wrong, I think… it was kind of boring anyway."

"Well, I believe you. After what the doctor told us, I'm tempted to just let him move at his own pace again, as long as he isn't looking pale or flushed. It'll take a few days being on these supplements before he gets back to a more normal routine," Makalah declared. She then smiled at the teen. "Are you looking forward to your Mom and Dad getting back this afternoon?"

Noah shrugged. "Not really, but then again, you guys will get a break from me hanging around, I guess." He had started to consume more of his lunch, but did not realize the boys' mother had stopped what she was doing and approached, until she sat down next to him.

"I think I need to say something here," she began encouragingly. "This isn't the first time it's come up, and knowing you boys, it probably won't be the last. So, listen to me: you know that Jesse is going through a lot of emotions right now, I'm sure. It's one thing to feel so physically trapped with all this other stuff going on, but Noah… you know as well as I do that on the inside, he's a strong-willed person having to wrestle with a lot of other changes, too. Although he acts like it doesn't faze him, I can promise you there is a lot going on inside that head of his. I mean, our lives are nothing like they were, honey - you, of all people, probably realize that, right?"

Noah nodded. "Yes ma'am," he whispered. "I do."

"Good, then let me tell you something, alright? And you can take this to heart, too: I do not believe, for a single minute, that Jesse would have made it through to where he is today, without you by his side. You're a good friend, and yes - even I and your mother can see there is a lot more between you two than just that. I think it was you who told all of us the other day, when you were saying grace at the Christmas dinner, that you three were almost like brothers to one another now. Well, there is no doubt in my mind where you stand with Jesse, and with Benji, too. He trusts you, and Benji trusts you… and I know that you trust them back just as much. Noah, you see - there is no single binding characteristic that exists, that's greater between human beings. Nor is there anything that makes you feel more powerfully moved on the inside than when you feel trusted, feel wanted, and appreciated… even loved. Because when you trust someone like that, then you're sharing a part of yourself with them, just like they do with you. You three boys do that without a care in the world, and we see it - your parents, me and James. We understand it, and honestly? We're proud of it. So, believe me when I tell you, that you are not 'in our way', nor do any of us need a 'break', okay? Promise me that you understand that, please?" Makalah asked quietly. In the distance, they could hear Benji opening the storm door again, and only seconds away from returning.

"I do ma'am, I promise, on my heart," Noah whispered. If it were not for the youngster appearing in the doorway, he would have reached out in some way, perhaps even hugged her, but the moment between them was ended, so instead he offered her a weakened but sincere smile. He had made his statement as an offering, one to excuse himself from being underfoot so much around there. Especially, he thought, if they needed an excuse to gather themselves again without him interfering. Without even thinking how that statement might have been interpreted though, he suddenly felt chagrined with himself. Nevertheless, whether called for or not, it felt reassuring once again to know how they felt about him. Indeed, even the past few days had shown that - the undeniable loyalty Jesse's parents had fostered with him, the inclusiveness of letting him in the room when the doctor presented his findings the day before, and letting him spend the night at the hospital with his best friend, without even asking – all of it had made him feel warmed inside.

As Benji entered, Noah quickly picked up his bowl and finished off the contents directly, before rising and placing it in the sink. The teen then helped Makalah put the groceries away, before she brought out a loaf of bread and fixed both peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. "I'm not too sure about tonight yet, but you're welcome to stay for supper if you like," Makalah remarked at one point. "Benji and I bought the ingredients to try and make a homemade pizza again."

"That would be great, but… well, I should probably wait and see what Mom and Dad are planning first," Noah replied, eliciting a disappointed frown from Benji.

"You're gonna stay at least a little while though, right? I mean, I just got here!" the youngster complained.

"Oh yeah, I won't go home before Mom and Dad get back from their trip," the teen answered. "Besides, I've got to whoop your butt in that new game of yours, right?" Makalah scoffed, but then giggled as the two began to head off toward the bedroom.

Jim Hunt walked through the door of the hardware store and paused, looking about. There was an area off to his right, where various seasonal merchandise was still on display, with accompanying sale tags stating that everything in that section was offered at 50%-75% off. It was clear that a lot of the merchandise had already been picked over extensively, with the shelves either bare or disorganized in places where people had just pitched items out of their way. Even the Christmas trees were almost gone, with only a few of the larger ones still remaining. He thought that was amusing, as it was often the exact opposite situation in his experience, where everyone scooped up the discounted deals on the larger trees and then left the smaller ones behind.

Grunting, the man took another step further inside, and was surprised to see how many of the other shelves had been transformed from their pre-holiday state. Sections were marked off with masking tape, each penciled along the front with a pre-arranged set of coded numbers and letters. It was impressive, but as the man continued further, he began to see that a great deal of the sales floor had been marked similarly. There was not a shelf, pallet or ledge anywhere within sight that did not have some classification assigned, and given the size of the sales floor, that was impressive.

As Jim rounded a corner, however, he came to an abrupt halt as a familiar man stepped into view. That man, too, stopped and grinned widely after seeing the Sheriff was standing there. "Ah, Jim! I'm sorry, I don't think I heard you come in!"

Sheriff Hunt smiled pleasantly and nodded. "And, truth be told, I didn't hear you coming around that corner there either, so no harm done!" he replied with a chuckle. "Ah, well, it looks like your bunch is getting ready to do some inventory, doesn't it?"

"That's the plan, yep. We've just about finished organizing the floor out here, so come Sunday night we're going to get started." James turned and invited the man over to the counter where two stools sat nearby, on which they both moved over and seated themselves comfortably. "So, is there something I can help you with? I was just actually getting ready to lock the doors. Everyone else has left for the evening, I think."

The Sheriff looked at his watch and then grunted. "Whoa, sorry about that. I don't think I realized how late it was getting, to tell the truth." He looked up. "I thought you boys were open until seven?"

"Oh, never mind that. We were for the Christmas holidays, but now that its behind us, we started closing at six. Besides though, I needed a break anyway. Some of us have been going at this stuff non-stop today, getting these sections all taped off and marked up," James explained, before looking around with an appreciative eye. "I think we're going to fare better this year than we have in the past, to tell the truth."

"Oh? Are you about finished then?" Jim asked.

"Not quite yet, no. Jesse and Noah took care of the stockrooms for us, with all the stuff that was already sealed up in the boxes and accounted for. Then between them and the rest of us, we've gotten maybe, I don't know, three-quarters of the floor-space covered out here. There are still the display cases behind the counter to deal with, too, and the rest of the sales floor over there on the other side. Oh, and then there's the lumberyard, too, but I've had a few of the guys taking care of that already this week. That's why I said we might not be so bad off this year. With all the prep work and everything, we don't have to do so much when we actually start getting it officially done. Come Sunday night, we'll start printing sheets and everyone that's tagged will come in and start confirming the locations and quantities, that sort of thing." James paused, but then waved. "For this year, we took a leap forward in getting started, so the overnight tasks won't be so grueling, I think. In the past, it used to take us all night and most of the next day to get it done and into the computers."

"And now?" Jim asked.

"Now, if we've done most everything right, we'll get it done in less than half that time. At least, that's what I'm hoping for," James explained.

"I hope you get to pull it off then," Jim replied, impressed. He had never been involved with such a task as this, but he understood its importance to the business owners all too well. After a silence developed, the man sat back on his stool and crossed his arms. "James, I know, given what you told us last night, you probably haven't talked with Jesse about the assault yet, right?"

"No, I haven't," James shook his head. "Honestly Jim, it has just been a little too crazy altogether, dealing with getting this done and then with getting him back home from the hospital again. Then Mr. Stout called me on the way home last night, talking about wondering if we were going to get all this done by Sunday night. I know, in some ways it probably doesn't seem like a lot, but really…"

"No, no, no… I understand, completely. I'm only asking because I wanted to make sure we're on the same level here, that's all. I didn't want to leave anything unclear from our earlier conversation, especially with Martha sitting in with us." He chuckled. "Sometimes I have to be a little guarded about how I bring certain subjects up around her, as you might imagine."

James laughed. "I know how you feel. It's the same way with me and my other half." He sat and studied for a moment before continuing. "I will say that I did bring it up with Makalah last night, though, and she agreed with me: Jesse is old enough to decide this one for himself. Granted, the whole thing probably took five years off our life expectancy, with all the worry and tense moments we've had lately, but… in the end, it was Jesse who was the one that got physically hurt. I don't know how he feels, really - it's the one thing he hasn't talked about with either of us to any extent, and honestly? I've been kind of reluctant to even bring it up. You understand what I'm saying, right? We've talked about his injuries, his issues that have developed from them, and more - but Jesse has yet to ever sit down with either of us, and open up about what happened itself, that night at the gym."

Sheriff Hunt grunted. "That does seem a little unusual, I agree."

"I can assure you, it's totally unlike him, really. Jesse has never really not talked with us about stuff like this, but this time – it's just different, I think. He's holding what happened close to his chest, and well, we've just been trying to let him have some time to process it on his own terms," James went on. "I don't know if that's necessarily good or bad, but sometimes - it's something we as parents have to play by ear. You know that as well as anyone, having brought up those daughters of yours. We, as parents, don't always have all the answers, especially when it comes to young people who are trying to find their way through the world, with a whole new set of circumstances that develop every day. Were Jesse younger, then sure - we could step in, but... Jesse is one of the sharpest young men I've ever encountered, I think. I'm not saying that because he's my son, mind you, it's just, Makalah and I have watched him develop these last few years, you know? You'd never believe someone his age could be so insightful like he is, or do some of the things he does, or have a special attachment to his little brother." He sat back and sighed. "Of course, you didn't come here to hear any of that, I know."

"No, no… I am interested, believe me," Jim Hunt replied in a low voice. "And you're right about the parenting part, sometimes we have to just figure it all out as we go. We can't parent our kids like we were brought up, you know? That world we grew up in, it doesn't exist anymore."

"You are so right on that one. Today's kids have the internet, and technology and a whole lot more sophistication to have to deal with. It's not as simple as it was, say three decades ago." James paused, glancing about before continuing. "So, is this all you're worrying over? What about Pete's other dealings, such as the one with the school and all?"

"Well, I've decided I'm not going to punish him for escaping our care when we first picked him up. Although I could push it, I really don't see the need to, given how lazy my boys were to begin with. As far as the school goes, we've all since found enough evidence to suggest that the drugs didn't necessarily belong to him. When he gave himself up, we ran a toxicity and urine scan, and believe it or not, the kid didn't have a single trace of anything in his system, drug-wise at least. Nor were there any fingerprints on that package we uncovered in his locker. So, if one takes those issues away, the kid's mainly just looking at misdemeanors - one for the ambush at the game, and the other to convince the school board to give him the benefit of the doubt. I know, it certainly didn't have the makings of a misdemeanor as far as what happened, and how it affected Jesse in the end, but being a minor, in the eyes of the law… you understand, right?" When James nodded, Jim Hunt cleared his throat and shifted on the stool. "So, in a way, I guess you could say that's why I'm being a little persistent about this right now. I honestly don't know whether I have a basis to keep him under scrutiny in the system, although we're hanging onto the boy as long as we can for the moment. I've seen so much change in him as of late, I'm not opposed to give him the chance to turn his life back around on his own – but, there is still the assault itself to deal with, and he'll own up to it for everything that its worth. When all is said and done, however, I have to make some decisions soon, and not to put any pressure on you and Makalah, or Jesse at all, mind you – it would really help me if I could see where he wants to go with all of this."

James nodded. "That makes sense to me, Jim, so don't worry. Do you want me and Makalah to bring it up with him then? We can sit down with him, maybe later tonight, and talk it over and all."

Jim Hunt considered the offer for a moment, but another idea crossed him as he glanced up. "I've nothing against that at all, but… you know, I wonder what you'd think about us bringing them together again, one more time? I mean it, just Pete and Jesse, to see if they can talk things out before any of us have to stir up the beehive? Especially considering that last week went down particularly well, all things considering. I know, the three of us old-folks were hanging around and all, but still – without us, they can have the chance to just be honest to each other, right?"

"Well…" James started, but then Jim continued.

"I'm just thinking, put the two teenagers together where they can talk it out amongst themselves, without any of us overshadowing them. Of course, if you don't want to do that, then sure, it's all fine. We can even put the Cook boy in the room, if you feel it's necessary. You get the idea though, right?"

James considered the suggestion briefly. "Honestly? I do think that might be worthwhile, yes. I doubt they would get into a fight or anything though, so I wouldn't be worried about that part of that. I admit, I was impressed when you guys came by that morning. Pete did seem to have come a long way in offering the boys an olive branch, whether they saw it that way or not. I never met the boy hardly before, but his father was a totally different deal. It was kind of refreshing to see that Pete wasn't following in his old man's footsteps, if you know what I mean."

"Oh yes, I agree," Jim replied. "Like many of us, I've had a few dealings with Pete Senior as well. He was, to put it bluntly, a crafty piece of work." The man shook his head and then leaned forward. "James, honestly - I don't want to seem like I'm pushing here, but I have to ask you, if for no other reason than to get an idea at least. If your wife agrees to this, too, how soon do you think we can arrange getting them together?"

"I don't know," James replied, shrugging. "I would think we could do it as early as tomorrow morning, if you wanted. As far as Noah goes, I'm going to have him up here with me tomorrow to finish helping out. Like I said, they've both been helping us get everything ready for next week, and what they've accomplished is quite a bit, despite Jesse's episode yesterday. So, at the house should just be Jesse and his brother. Oh, and of course Makalah will be there. I'm sure she and Benji can find something to occupy themselves with, so that Jesse and Pete could be left alone for a bit and maybe, as you said, work things out."

Jim nodded, thinking quickly. "If that's possible, then I'll arrange to bring Pete over there around, what, ten-ish or something? Would that be sufficient?" The Sheriff's expression suddenly turned more serious. "Again, please understand: I know it probably sounds otherwise, but I'm really not trying to push this. If we need more time to work parts of it out, then by all means, that's what we'll do. I promise to even not bring it up again until Jesse's ready. I'm just exploring possibilities, and well-"

"You don't have to explain it to me, Jim. Believe it or not, I do think I understand. Especially after our conversation at the buffet last night," James interrupted the man with a smile. "I am like you, when it comes to thinking that if we could get all of this behind us, we'd be better off in beginning the new year without having it overshadowing anyone, right? Just… understand me, too, okay? I don't think anything has changed about our decision: Makalah and I are going to let Jesse handle this in the way he wants to do it. I know, we could get involved here, but… honestly? He's old enough to understand what's at stake, and then some. We both agreed last night that we'd abide by whatever he decides. If he wants to press charges, then we'll support him, 100%. If not, then we'll leave it at that. Okay?"

Jim Hunt smiled. "Honestly, it's more than Martha and I had hoped for, really. I don't mind telling you, we've taken a particular liking to the boy, and it's no secret how we've felt about how ugly things turned out for him at home - especially these last few years. He is, I think, just a little lost is all, because he hasn't had anyone to really guide or point him in the right direction." The man studied at some point in the distance momentarily before turning back. "James, believe me, if I didn't think he was sincere, well… we wouldn't be having this conversation. Indeed, things would probably be easier on us all the way around otherwise, but… it's just a feeling I have. Martha does as well. I feel like everyone that's had anything to do with him just gave up before even getting started, you know? That's the real reason that troubles me the most, I think, and that's why I'm trying to give him the benefit of the doubt. I've met so many of these teenagers, some of them so messed up its heart-wrenching to even deal with them, or their families. This one though, as sad as it started, I think might be one we can save. If it all works out reasonably, then that is so much for the better - for him, and everybody else. It might take a little work, but…" The man then grunted. "That's all I'm willing to say right now, because I don't want to suggest anything else that might interfere otherwise, at least until we get all of this done and behind us."

In the silence that followed, James observed the man with a keen interest. He knew that, beyond any doubt, there was something more that had to be lurking in the shadows here, but exactly what it was he didn't foresee. Instead, out of respect for the man, he simply nodded. Jim Hunt was well liked in the county, as he held a high respect for its people, and they reflected the same kind of respect in return. "I understand, Jim. So, is it okay if I shoot you a text a little later tonight? I still have the cell number you gave me a few weeks back."

"That would be perfect. Thank you, very much." Clapping his hand down to his thighs, the Sheriff stood and reached out to shake the other man's hand. "I'll leave you to it now, so you can close up shop. Thank you though, for having this little chat with me. Tell your family I said hello, okay? Y'all have a good evening."

"And the same to you, too," James called out, following the man as they walked to the door.

"He wants to do what?" Makalah asked, surprised.

"Well, since you and I decided to let Jesse determine the outcome for Pete, Jim asked about letting the two of them get together for a little while tomorrow. I think he's hoping they can work something out for themselves, and maybe avoid the particulars that come along with pressing charges and the like. It's like you noted to me last night, Jesse hasn't said so yet, but I kind of get the impression he doesn't want to do that," James explained. "Trouble is, I don't think he's expressed any thoughts at all about it – not to me, anyway.

"Same here," Makalah nodded thoughtfully. "I… yeah, I kind of get that feeling. Still… you said that Jim is the one asking for this, right? Not another Pete thing, but…"

"Yep. He acknowledged that he sprung that little visit before Christmas on us on the spur of the moment, even though it was kind of unannounced. That was supposedly more of Pete's doing than his own, and Jim had no idea at all what it was supposed to be all about. He was just as surprised about the outcome the same as we were, I think. One thing is for certain though: something about that visit, and maybe some other things, seemed to stir both Jim and Martha up."

"How so?" Makalah asked her husband.

James paused to think about it before replying. "It was as if Pete was trying to settle his debts in some way, at least those that he could, I think. Instead of sitting sullen and defeated, he was trying… I don't know, to make things right? Does that make sense?"

"Maybe," Makalah answered, just as quietly as her husband.

James sat back in his chair and crossed his arms. "That's the best I can come to it, I think. This time though, Jim didn't want us to be caught unaware like we were last week. I don't know honey, it's just that I got an odd feeling while talking with him, really. He kept telling me he didn't want to push us, but at the same time I think he was trying to find a way to bring closure to the whole mess. One of his last remarks was something along the lines that, is they could work it out, perhaps everyone can then get on with their lives for the better. If that is it, then I honestly admire and respect the man tremendously. He's a funny sort in some ways, but he hasn't stayed in his position as long as he has, without having earned that kind of admiration from most of the folks around here."

"Well, I agree with you, and yes, that IS what it sounds like," Makalah confessed, sitting back in her own chair. She fell into deep thought for a moment before looking up and shrugging. "If you think it's safe, then by all means, sure - I can go along with it. It would be nice to see if Jesse can move on. All I have to think about is those nightmares, and how they worked him up so tightly. I know, things have changed since them, but at the root – they were brought on by all the stress he was having with that boy. I know he'll never fully move on, not for a while anyway, but still…"

"It would be a veritable step in the right direction, I agree. You and Benji can stick around, too, you know. Or go next door and spend some time with Jennifer if you like. Whatever you feel more comfortable with, I'm sure will be just fine. In fact, I could probably even arrange to come home for a spell, if you'd rather," James offered, but then his wife shook her head.

"No. Honestly, I think this is more men-folk's business than anything else. Besides, Jesse knows how to take care of himself. I think if we grant him that freedom, it will go a long way in him building his own self-confidence too." Makalah hesitated for a moment, but then nodded to herself. "Benji and I might park ourselves somewhere around here though, just in case. That way I can send the little sleuth to peek around the corner every so often - just to make sure the two are still alive and not slugging it out with one another," Makalah grimaced.

James chuckled. "Believe me, there won't be any fight. I'm sure Pete knows better, and Jesse… well, he really isn't the type," James theorized before smiling. "If I thought one could break out, then that would be different, but no… there won't be any of that trouble, I think."

"Don't forget what he did to those boys in the school cafeteria that day," Makalah reminded him, though with a thin smile. "I doubt Pete would want to avenge that any, but still…"

"Yeah, I forgot about that," James admitted, laughing. He did, however, shake his head. "No, nothing like that is going to happen here tomorrow. I firmly believe that, so don't worry about it." He then climbed to his feet. "What you can do though, is call me and let me know how it all turns out afterwards. Or better yet, have Jesse call me for a change, and use his new cell phone. That way, I can get it straight from the horse's mouth." He glanced about. "So, do you think we should tell him now, or…?"

"Honestly?" Makalah replied, shaking her head afterwards. "I think we should probably wait until in the morning, and that's only if we tell him at all. I mean, think about it: if we tell him now, all he's going to do is fret and worry about it all night. I say we let him save that brain-power of his for the morning when it gets here." She took the hand her husband offered her before standing up. As they began moving to the kitchen, a light suddenly shone briefly through one of the windows, causing Makalah to stop and peer outside. "Ah, Allen and Jennifer are finally back in." She glanced at the clock. "Wow! Late night, too! It's almost seven!"

"They may have run into some traffic or something along the way, or had a late dinner," James intoned. "I'll go and let Noah know."

"Um, wait just a second…" Makalah studied briefly before lowering her voice again. "Do you think that Noah should stay home with Jesse in the morning? At least, until this meeting-thingy is over?"

James studied for a few seconds before sighing. "We could arrange it, if it'll make you feel any better. But… honestly, I really don't think he needs to. That was something Jim and I discussed, too. What happened was between Pete and Jesse. As much as Jesse and Noah are like brothers now, I still think our son needs to be the one that deals with this on his own. He was the one on the receiving end of that ambush, and he's the one who has had the most to suffer with regarding what happened. Whatever he decides, he knows he'll have to live with it for the rest of his life." James paused, but then glanced at her. "Given that though, I say it's still ultimately up to you. If you think it's better for Jesse's benefit, then by all means we'll do that, but…"

"No, I think you're right, as always," Makalah replied with a calmness she had not felt in years. She sighed, but then nodded. "It's another one of those signs, dear. You know, the kind that says he's growing up on us. That's still hard for a mother to watch sometimes, even though it's inevitable."

James engulfed her in his arms from behind. "He'll be fine, and as far as mothering goes - you'll be right here, and his brother will be here. And yes, Jesse's growing up, but don't forget that he is still ours. That's something that is not, nor ever will be, negotiable… you know?" The man smiled, and was glad that his wife recognized the intended amusement. He leaned in closer. "Jesse will always be our son, no matter how old he gets, just like we will always be his parents."

Makalah reached up and took her husband's hand and squeezed it against her chest, nodding in appreciation. A moment later, James let go and left the room to inform Noah of his parents' arrival. Upon reaching the boys' bedroom door, however, he stopped in surprise. Inside, Noah was already zipping up his bag, dressed and ready to leave. Seeing the amusement in the older man's eyes, Noah blushed. "Mom just called, and told me to get my grumpy butt over there and give her a hundred kisses and hugs. Or something like that anyway..."

James laughed. "Well, you should always try to do what Mom's tell you to do, that's for sure!"

"Brother, ain't that right!" Benji quipped from the floor, sitting back in one of the bean bags and glancing up at their guest. When it appeared that he was finished, the older teen reached out and offered the youngster a fist bump, which Benji gladly accepted. As the teenager started for the door, he saw James taking notice of Jesse, who had once again fallen asleep on his bed.

"Don't wake him, Mr. McAllister," Noah quietly pleaded. "He's actually done pretty good today, I think. He hasn't had a nap or fallen asleep on me or Benji even once - at least not until about an hour ago."

"You don't say?" James nodded, pleased. "Well, we'll let him stay out for a little while then. At least until dinner is ready. Do you still plan to go back up to the store with me in the morning?"

"If you need me too, then sure!" Noah responded immediately.

"Oh yes, I can still use another pair of hands, I promise! Tell you what, come on over about eight in the morning, and I'll treat you to breakfast again on the way in," James offered. The teen nodded and then said good night, before moving along. In the meantime, James crossed over the short distance to where his younger son sat and then squatted down. "So, Short-Stuff, do you think you can handle being the big-britches cowboy tonight with your brother?"

Benji gave his father a look of annoyance. "Dad! You know I can, come on!" he exclaimed softly, making his father chuckle.

"Just, don't be too hard on him, okay? Remember, he's still in recovery."

"I won't," Benji promised.

"So, Noah just took off for home, huh?" Jesse asked, after bumping his brother's last marble back to the starting gate.

"Man, nnooo!!!!" Benji exclaimed, before picking up the dice. Although disappointed, he shrugged it off, as he had just done the same thing to his brother only moments before. "Yeah, his Mom called and told him to get his butt home. He said to tell you to call him on your tablet later though, if you wanted to." He looked up. "He didn't want to wake you up, that's all Jesse."

"It's cool," Jesse responded. Although he was slightly sad at not being able to see the teen off, he understood why. He and Benji were in their third round of the game, awaiting the call to dinner which was taking more time than usual that evening. The unmistakable scent of pizza was drifting through the house, however, and for once Jesse found himself growing hungry again.

Benji confirmed that notion by sharing his own anticipation. "Pizza sure smells good, doesn't it?"

"Oh yeah," Jesse acknowledged, but then frowned as he watched Benji bump one of his two remaining marbles back to the starting gate. "Sheesh, this game takes forever to get through sometimes!"

Benji laughed. "Yeah, but I've got only one marble left to get home. You have to get two more in!" he pointed out, before glancing up with a wicked grin. "Want to bet I'm going to beat ya?"

"No," Jesse responded, shaking his head. "Because I'm going to just give it up right now. You win, Short-Stuff." Standing, he saw the look of disappointment on his brother's face, so he explained. "Don't look so sad, buddy. I've got to go make the bathroom all stinky again, and you know it won't be long before Mom or Dad calls us in to eat."

Benji relented. "Oh…" As his brother left the room, the youngster gathered their pieces and stored them within the board, before closing it up and pushing it underneath the bed. Rolling over, he picked up one of the stuffed animals his brother had given him when he came home from the hospital, and held it briefly while looking around the room. Since Christmas, the space had changed somewhat with the addition of the new pictures, a video game poster and various other toys and paraphernalia associated with boys and teenagers. Not that the youth had ever disliked the room, or the fact that he was sharing it with his brother, but he suddenly sighed with contentment. He liked their little space away from the rest of the world, and it showed.

Benji was still sitting on the bean bag when Jesse returned some minutes later. "Not yet, huh?" he asked pleasantly, to which his brother simply shook his head in response. "Why don't we go on in and see how much longer it'll be?"

"Sure." Setting the stuffed toy aside, Benji climbed to his feet and followed his brother out of the room and into the kitchen. Makalah was just opening the oven door when she saw them. "Oh, there you two are! I was just about to give you a yodel!" she remarked.

"A what?" Benji asked curiously.

Makalah laughed. "Never mind. You two get us some glasses and paper plates out," she instructed.

Within minutes, the family was gathered at the table when James finally walked in and joined them. "Sorry, that was Sir William Carmichael on the phone. He's that lawyer I told you about, the one I met a couple of weeks ago at the store. He's taking over some of the handling regarding the house."

"I remember you mentioning him, yeah," Makalah replied. "That was a pretty long conversation though, wasn't it? Is everything alright?"

"Oh yes, as far as we know. He's going to be in the area here tomorrow afternoon, and he wondered if he could come by for a few minutes and have us sign some paperwork. As I understand it, he has a whole stack of things he's planning to submit to the courts as early as Monday morning," James explained.

"Wait… who?" Jesse asked quietly, clearly confused. This was the first he had heard of the man.

James turned to his son and then smiled. "You see, this man came to see me while you were in the hospital Jess, about all the insurance problems we've been having with our house and all. He's charging ahead on filing all kinds of injunctions and things with the court on our behalf."

Jesse's face brightened instantly. "Really? Wow!" A few seconds later, however, he frowned. "Uh, why…" He stopped and then fell silent. Maybe there was a reason his parents had withheld this information from him, or perhaps for Benji's benefit.

Makalah, however, turned to him as she started passing a bowl of mixed salad greens with garden vegetables around. "We didn't tell you about it honey, because really, we didn't want you or your brother to build your hopes up, only to have them dashed again. Some of these lawyers, you see, they promise everyone the world and all, but then don't really deliver, or if they do, it's usually a really long time before they do it."

"Your mother is right," James picked up. "I had a talk a few days ago with Mr. Denison, though. That's the original lawyer I hired to look into this mess, remember? He's the only one I have much confidence in outright, but even then - one has to be cautious. Anyway, according to him, these guys know their business inside and out, which was why he turned our case over to them. He told me that if Sir William says it will likely be so, then we can pretty much count on it. He had some pretty high praise for the man, really. He and his firm are supposedly world renowned. That means…"

"It means a lot of people around the world know them, yeah," Benji interjected before he, too, made a face. "But, why do you call him Sir William, uh, whatever his last name was?"

James laughed. "Sir William Carmichael. I think I heard that he was bestowed a sort of a British honorary knighthood of some kind. Exactly how or why, I have no idea, but Mr. Denison seemed to think it involved some sort of services he provided to the British crown at one time." He paused to study for a moment. "I have to say, the day he came to the shop, he presented himself with quite a flair, but otherwise he was a seemingly, down-to-Earth gentleman, too."

"But…" Jesse started, hesitating only slightly before going on. "This man, he thinks he's going to help us, right? Or rather, help you and Mom?"

"He'll help all of us, Jesse," Makalah stated. "He'll help us as a family, and that includes you and Benji, too."

"Again, your mother is correct," James chimed in. "In fact, he believed we could get some temporary rulings as early as the end of January - so, yes, it seems Sir William may be the real thing, and perhaps the sort of person we need to have on our side."

Slowly, Jesse smiled, but fell silent afterwards. As the conversation shifted on to other topics, both parents were pleased to see their teenager finish off three sizable slices of the homemade dish before quitting. It was a notable improvement in his appetite, and one for the better.

An hour later, both Benji and Jesse returned to their room after helping with the dishes, where Jesse plopped down onto one of the bean bags and reached out, grasping hold of his little brother before pulling him into his lap. Once there, he began smothering the boy with hugs and tickles, something he had not done in a while, all of which made the youngster squirm and start giggling, loving the attention.

"Hey, now! No fair!" Benji exclaimed after a short spell, finally offering little resistance to the onslaught.

Jesse raised his eyebrows. "What do you mean, 'no fair'? I've missed you buddy!"

"Maybe, but… you're supposed to be handicapped, and I'm not!" the boy declared, before rolling over on his belly and scooting backwards until he was on his knees. "I can't tackle you like I want to, see… and… and…"

Jesse held both hands up in his defense. "Okay, okay! I get it!" he declared, before encompassing the boy once again and gently holding him. "It's still pretty cool to just hang out with you though, you know that…. right?" He meant it, too. Their alone time had been hampered enough as of late.

Benji stretched out beside his brother and tucked his head up into Jesse's shoulder. "I like hanging out with you, too," he declared, albeit more softly this time. "How are the marbles, anyway? You know, down there… Is the swelling going down?"

Jesse smiled. "You tell me," he whispered, and then pulled the front of his sweats out and down, along with the front of his boxers.

Benji, surprised but pleased, leaned up suddenly to take a peek inside before frowning. "Um, I don't know, really…" He reached out and took over the waistbands from his brother before pulling them down further, letting more light shine into the exposed crotch. Jesse decided to accommodate him better by gently pushing the sides of his garments partially down as well, thus giving his brother additional room. Benji moved closer, taking a single finger and pushing his brother's penis off to one side, and observed the area underneath before raising both eyebrows. "Wow! They… yeah, I think the swelling really has gone down now! And… and, they're not so darkish now, either!" he whispered, obviously impressed. Glancing up, his expression changed. "Do they, like, feel any better? Or do they still hurt you and everything?"

Jesse nodded. "They do feel a lot better now, but every so often they still, umm, get uncomfortable. Honestly though, I can tell a big difference compared to yesterday though, and even the day before that. It's like, they're getting better, but doing it faster now, you know?" He stilled himself for a moment, watching as his brother turned back and observed them once more. Jesse wanted the youngster's curiosity fulfilled, and he did not have to wait long before Benji finally nodded and pulled the garments back up into place slowly. He then returned to his previous position, snuggling close to the older teen before falling silent again. "See? I told you I'd get better, didn't I?" Jesse whispered.

Benji nodded. "Yeah, you did," he whispered, but then turned to look up. "Jesse? Is it okay if I ask you something? Please?"

"Sure, what's up Short-Stuff?" Jesse whispered.

"Well, why didn't you want me to see you before? I mean, your you-know-what and everything, like when we were at the hospital, or when you first came home? I know you were trying to hide it from me and all, but… why? Especially from me?"

Jesse regarded his little brother for a moment before sighing. "A couple of reasons, I guess. For one, I was afraid, bro. I didn't want you to see something and, like, regret it… maybe get nightmares, or even scarred for life or something, seeing your big brother's nuts ballooned up to the size of tennis balls."

Benji giggled at first, but then quieted. "You're teasing me," he whispered, but then Jesse shook his head.

"No, I'm not… that really was a part of it, but I guess there was another reason, too. I… I was scared, Ben, and hurt, see? I wasn't thinking very good, I guess. I mean, I was coming out of a fight, and then dealing with some hard stuff for a while. I, well, it took me a few days to get my head screwed back on again, okay? But I promise you - it had nothing, NOTHING to do with my not trusting my little brother! I just, I don't know…" Jesse sighed. "I have you and Noah both to thank for that, you know. For letting me get myself straightened out and all again. In the beginning, I just felt lost for a while, not sure about anything bro. I thought I didn't want you - or anyone for that matter - to see how much I was really hurt, and… does that make sense? And at the same time, I was trying to save you some pain, I guess."

Benji frowned. "But… you've always told me you trusted me - for the good and the bad, and everything else in between, remember? I knew you were hurt Jesse, you were in the hospital, sheesh! And… and you had all these cuts and bruises and… all that stuff! Stuff I could see, at least some of anyway. But… it felt like, I don't know, like you forgot your promise you made to me. The one that said you would always trust me, remember?"

"Oh yeah, I remember," Jesse confessed before sighing. "I'm sorry Short-Stuff, I just… I had to be reminded of it, that's all. Seriously, Noah kind of kicked me in the ass about it. He reminded me that I still had you both here, and that you both were still with me. The three of us have a pact for being brothers like that, and as brothers we help each other no matter what happens."

Benji glanced at the TV again before nodding. "Yeah, we are brothers. You're the one who taught us both what that means, though." He glanced up. "I'm glad he did that then, because… because, well, it hurt, inside. Sorry bro, but it did."

Jesse wrapped his brother in closely and hugged as if his life depended on it. He was suddenly fighting his emotions, which had threatened to surface. "I- I'm sorry little b-buddy, honest," he whispered. He could think of nothing else to say really, as he knew this was all on him. "I'm sorry," he repeated.

Benji finally hugged him back then. "Okay, okay… I forgive you, but only because you're so stinking cool, you know that? For a big brother, anyway. For being MY big brother," he whispered.

Jesse almost lost it then, but was able to smile, though a tear had escaped. A moment went by before he could speak again. "Thanks bro, but… I'm not the cool one here. You are, little bro. Who else lets me pinch their butt, or tickle them all over, without a care in the world?" he whispered. "Or lets me hug you like this? Not many brothers will do that, you know? For what it's worth, I happen to love you, and you're right - I should trust you just as much as you trust me. Maybe even more, sometimes."

Benji giggled. "You got that right!" he giggled. "But meh, what big brother lets me do the same things back to him?" he whispered. "Plus, all the, uh, naughty stuff, like we just did? What brother would just, like, do what you just did for me?"

Jesse grunted. "That wasn't being naughty, Benji. Maybe kind of personal, but it was far from naughty. I just… well, you asked, and I thought what the heck and all. I don't have anything different than you do. Maybe bigger…"

"Or with more hair?" Benji snickered.

"Yeah, that, too," Jesse whispered.

Benji rolled in closer and put his arm around Jesse. "I don't care, though. It was still cool. You know something? I'm kind of glad we have this coolness between us. Petey and his brother don't hug or do anything, or even take baths or showers together. None of that kind of stuff like we do."

Jesse's raised an eyebrow. "Really, and how do you know this?"

Benji blushed. "We kind of talked about it a little the other day. I mean, I just told Petey how close you and I are and everything, and about how we trust each other and stuff. Don't worry, I didn't tell him about everything, just… It was kind of weird, bro. He, well, he sounded kind of lonely, see? And we, I don't know, we just started talking about stuff some, I guess."

Jesse nodded. "I understand, yeah. Listen, I'm not worried about what you told him or not, okay? I trust you to know what you can tell anyone and what you can't. I always have."

"I know you do, but… there are some things that, well, they're kind of just between you and me, right? Well, and Noah too, I guess," Benji added as an afterthought.

"Yeah, he's in my heart too, just like he's in yours," Jesse admitted. They continued to lie there momentarily, but then the teenager gave his little brother another squeeze before sitting up again. "Okay, you better go take that shower Mom told you to do."

"Uh, yeah, but you're coming with me," Benji replied craftily.

Jesse grunted. "I've already had a shower today, buddy," he replied, but Benji shook his head.

"Doesn't matter. I get to keep my eye on you, remember? Come on, you can sit and wait for me and all," Benji stated, fully aware he was in control for the moment. Jesse thought about putting up a fight, but he suddenly realized something. Knowing this was all just a game, it was still a new one in its own right that put Benji in charge for once, and that was something his brother seldom ever got to enjoy. He relented, though with feigned annoyance to add the necessary effect of letting his brother think he was winning an imaginary battle. Elated, Benji grabbed what he needed from the nearby drawer and then grasped Jesse by the arm and tugged so that the teenager would follow him.

Once in the bathroom, Benji was as good as his word. He lowered the toilet seat and told his brother to sit, which Jesse obeyed without trouble. Turning to the tub, the youngster then activated the shower and began stripping. He glanced back with a wicked grin as his briefs came off, but otherwise remained silent until he stepped inside the tub. As he began to pull the curtain around in place, the younger brother halted, leaving a gap at the back and poking his head into view. "Don't… you… move!" he warned, a single index finger pointing purposefully at the older boy. "Remember? I'm watching you!" Jesse rolled his eyes to keep from giggling, but nodding his submissive acceptance.

While sitting there, Jesse's thoughts retreated to earlier when his brother had asked his question. He felt guilty for some reason, not because he saw his brother in yet a different light than before, but because Jesse's actions had called into question how much he loved and trusted him. Silently, he shook his head. His emotions had been running rampant for weeks now, in ways he felt helpless at understanding. As always though, he continued to move ahead, hoping it was something that would work itself out. Noah had been far more patient and tolerant about it, and had put up with him in so many ways that Jesse was surprised they were still as close as they were. Was it the sex that kept them so close? No, Jesse refused to believe that. If it was anything in that regard, it was the intimacy they enjoyed with each other that kept them so close. Noah had even admitted to it earlier that morning, about how they were able to hold or be held by the other, and feel totally comfortable about it without worrying if it was right or wrong.

Jesse scoffed at that thought. He was still firmly convinced that there was no right or wrong about the things they did, certainly nothing that should be so questionable that people should worry. His attitude had not changed: if two people were comfortable enough to let their inhibitions go, then why should it matter to anyone else in the world? True, if it were a boy and a girl, then maybe some, uh, precautions needed to be in place, to keep one from getting pregnant. He understood that, but between himself and Noah? It just felt… right, and just… pure. It was hurting no one else in the slightest and, certainly, neither of them was afraid of the other. When it came right down to it, that's the way Jesse really felt about his little brother, too, and he knew that feeling was mutually returned. As he turned his eyes up to watch the youngster behind the curtain, who continued to peek out at him every now and then, it made the teenager smile. Benji continued to wiggle and move about incessantly in the tub, oblivious to the eyes watching him, but Jesse knew he wouldn't have care either way. That was their affection and belief in one another speaking.

It took only a few minutes before Benji turned off the water and pulled the curtain back out of the way. His eyes were shut tightly, as the water from his head continued to drip down over his face. Groping about, however, he found no towel hanging on the rack as usual, so Jesse pulled one from beneath the sink and thrust it into the youngster's hands. "Thanks!" Benji exclaimed, wiping the excess moisture from his face before using it to towel his hair. Once done, he handed it back to Jesse. "Okay, do your duty, Sir Jess!"

Jesse giggled at the reference, and suspected that it would not be the last any of them would be hearing over the next few days. Taking the towel, he wiped at the shoulders and chest, before making his brother turn around and letting him proceed with his back. Before continuing any further, however, he wrapped an arm around the youth from behind and easily lifted him up. Benji, drawing his legs up tightly, grunted smartly as he was lifted over the side of the tub and brought back to the floor, where he sat his feet down accordingly and stood once again. Jesse made quick work of squatting and running the towel up and down each leg, before turning the boy to face him. Once again though, because he knew it would mean something to his brother, he feigned an interest in the boy's crotch as he dried it. What faced him at eye level was just that of a normal, almost eight-year-old hairless boy, whose uncircumcised member was exposed to the room - totally soft and unassuming. Briefly, Jesse wondered how similar they might have been if he could roll back time and compare it to himself at that age. Although he had gained an interest in boys at some point in his life, he never had much of an interest in his own toy then, and thus never thought too much about anyone else, either.

Surprisingly, Benji must have been having similar thoughts as he made a comment. "Does my stuff look anything like yours did, Jess? Like, when you were my age?"

Jess grinned and reached in, fondling the boy for good measure, pretending to examine everything up closer, before he shrugged. "Honestly? I have no idea Ben," he replied quietly, secretly impressed at how much they seemed to think alike at times. "All I know is that I didn't pay much attention to myself, or anyone else back then. I was too busy being geeky and goofy, I guess." He looked up. "But - I do know this much, bro. You wait and see - you'll be as big as me before you know it, probably even bigger."

Benji giggled, but then shrugged. "I don't care, so long as it just happens. I mean, so long as I get bigger, and have hairs, and… and…"

"Make the white stuff?" Jesse whispered. Benji actually blushed, but nodded all the same. "You think that's cool, don't you?" Jesse continued, asking in a hushed voice the question he already knew the answer to.

"Oh, heck yeah… way cool," Benji whispered back. "I'm hoping you'll let me do you again someday, like we did to Noah."

Jesse giggled. But then leaned in and placed his lips right at his brother's ear. "Of course, you can, I won't stop you. Well, most of the time anyway. But… we'll see, okay? Heck, maybe someday we can even do it together, you know?" He saw the grin and the surprise that met him, and knew he must have scored a point in some way. As an afterthought, he added, "I'll promise you something else, too. If you want me to, I'll be right here with you when you start doing it, milking the best of your boy stuff out of you that I know how."

Benji giggled, but then placed both his arms around his brother and hugged him tight. "Oh yeah, I hope so," he replied.

"Hope?" Jesse teased him, pulling back. "I told you, it's a promise. I can't promise some things, bro… but this I can and will do. As long as I'm able, I'll do it… all for you. Just like you've helped me and Noah."

Benji gave him a doubtful look. "But… even I know that by the time I'm doing it, you're going to be, what, 18 or 19? You'll be off doing other stuff by then… won't you?"

"Um, not that long. I might be, oh, 16 or 17 by the time you're doing some stuff," Jesse replied before shrugging. "Even if I do have to wait, so what? I will always be your brother, and I'm telling you – just between us – I won't care. I'll be right here with you, all the same, pinching your naked butt, and tickling your willie and whatever – but only as long as you want me to do it."

Benji rolled his eyes. "Quit saying that, doofus! Of course, I want you to be here with me! Why wouldn't I?"

Jesse laughed, but then became serious. "Ben… I say it because I always want you to know that you can say no to any of it. Not with just me, but anyone. Your friends, Petey, Noah… anyone. No one will think any less of you, if you decide someday you don't want to do stuff, okay? It just… like I said, it has to be okay with you. That's all that matters."

"But… what about you, Jess? It has to be okay with you, too… right?"

Jesse smiled. "It won't matter bro, ever - not between you and me. That's how much I love and trust you. That's what makes us brothers. Understand?" Jesse whispered, hoping the sincerity of it would come across right.

Evidently it did, as Benji suddenly had hold of him by the neck again and hugged him tightly. "That goes for me, too," the youngster whispered, before beginning to giggle. He reared back and touched the tip of his brother's nose briefly, before turning and grabbing his clothes. Handing them over, he didn't have to say a thing. Jesse tossed the towel at the hamper and took the articles, before 'assisting' his brother in getting them on.

When both boys made it back to the bedroom, Benji pulled out his own smaller tablet and began climbing the ladder to his upper bunk. Jesse watched briefly, before commenting, "You know, you can sleep with me if you want to."

Benji stopped and looked down, but shook his head. "Your gonna chat a bunch with Noah, I figure, so nah. But…" he hesitated, before adding in a softer voice. "Don't be surprised if I don't join you sometime later tonight."

Jesse grunted, but then leaned in close. "You can join me anytime you want to. Just, don't be surprised if you wake me up enough and I decide to cuddle you up inside." He winked, causing Benji to giggle but move on up to his bunk.

"Make sure you tell Noah I said goodnight, okay?"

Jesse McAllister stood by the kitchen counter with a mixture of confusion and indifference, as Pete Haskell III walked in from the back porch. "Uh, hey," he remarked, uncertainty laced within his voice.

The teenager had just put away a set of recently washed glasses at his mother's request, and began to wonder why she had kind of pressed it right at that moment. In fact, Makalah had also gotten him out of bed earlier that morning to serve him what was a respectable breakfast, and to ensure that he was dressed in suitable clothing for relaxing around the house. Strange, it seemed, as Jesse rarely had had so much scrutiny for such punctuality – especially since it was not a school day. When a knock came from the back door, however, his mother had excused herself, only to return quickly and announce to Jesse that he had a visitor. It had only begun to register with the teen that, perhaps, it had all been a plan of some sort – but he stopped cold when he saw who his visitor was. Then, with swift but determined steps, she immediately grasped hold of Benji and gently led him at once into the living room without another word, a step that further confirmed Jesse's suspicions. He couldn't dwell on it though, as now there seemed something more important taking over his thoughts and feelings.

"Yeah, hey," Pete responded with a half-wave of his hand. "How's it going?" the other boy asked, who was clearly exhibiting signs of acute nervousness.

"Going okay, I guess," Jesse replied, relaxing before he shrugged. "Um, how about you?"

"Good, I guess," Pete replied. When an awkward silence began to set in, his gaze turned to the younger teen sheepishly. "Yeah, good. I'm, uh… sorry. I just found out about this a little bit ago. On the way over here, actually."

Jesse grunted. "That sounds a little better than me then. I just found out when you walked through that door." He smiled pleasantly, however, and pointed to the table. "Um, want to sit down?"

"Well yeah, but… uh, could we, like, do this in your room or somewhere? You know, somewhere a little more, uh, just us?" Pete asked haltingly. "I was uh, hoping we could talk for a few minutes."

Jesse nodded, all the while fostering a suspicion that he knew what was going on by then. The suddenness of it happening right then and there, however, did not help calm a certain level of nervousness that he himself was beginning to feel. He motioned for the older teen to follow him, before leading him through the few turns and steps necessary to reach his room. Once inside, he pushed the door up, not completely, but still enough to effect privacy. Turning around, he indicated the two bean bags on the floor. The older boy hesitated, but after watching Jesse take one and sit, the bigger boy got the idea and duplicated the effort. Once situated, he was surprised at how well they conformed around him. "Hey, not bad! What are these things, anyway?"

Jesse laughed, breaking some of the growing tension that had settled between them. "They're called bean bags. You can use them to sit on, or as a pillow or cushion when you're sitting on the floor... or other things, too. Benji makes a table kind of, and plays with his toys and stuff on them. They're kind of cool for just about anything, really. These are a little bigger than others, I think, but we like them. We each got one for Christmas this year."

"That's cool, yeah," Pete nodded, before looking around. "You have a nice room, too. I mean, I…" The teen stopped before completing the thought, leaving Jesse clueless as to where that line of thinking might have been going. Not knowing how to respond, he waited patiently until Pete's gaze returned to him. "Oh, sorry… I was going to say, nice room, really. Nicer than mine where I grew up, at least. A lot cleaner, too."

Jesse finally nodded, but then his curiosity could no longer be tamed. "So, what's up?"

"Mr. Hunt… I mean, the Sheriff," Pete began, but becoming more nervous as he progressed. "He thought m-maybe you and I could talk some, so he… he dropped me off."

Jesse scratched at his head for a second, but then nodded again. "Well, okay…. but, I guess that usually means there's a reason, right? What gives?"

"There is," Pete began, but then let go a huge sigh before facing the younger teen directly. "Look, I'm sorry… I didn't know this was happening, okay? I- I haven't even got a clue where to start and all, and… and… If you want to throw me out, then I'll understand. Just…"

"Pete… I'm not going to throw you out, so relax. Quit beating around the bush though, okay? Just… spit it out," Jesse encouraged, his voice turning somewhat softer.

Pete stared off into the distance for a moment before turning back. "It's about that night at the gym, Jesse. I… well, I was wondering if you and I could somehow, I don't know… maybe you could decide what you want to do about it and all. Like… press charges, or bust my balls, or… something." The teen sighed again and dropped his gaze to the floor again. "I really wish it hadn't happened, but it did, and… and… I know, I want to do something, anything really, to try and make it as right as I can, between us."

Jesse grunted. "Pete, there is nothing that anyone can do to take it back, if that's what you mean. Like you said, it happened, okay? Nothing is going to change that." When he saw the other boy wince, he knew he had somehow hit a nerve. Relaxing deeper into his bag, he continued. "Why, are you thinking I'm going to press charges or something? I… I admit, maybe I should. It might keep you guys from doing that to someone else, you know."

Pete lifted his gaze to meet the other boy again. "Then do it," he whispered. "I know, I would deserve it."

Jesse frowned. "You… you 'want' me to do it? But… why?" he asked, his voice just above a whisper as he stared at the other boy dumbfounded.

Pete tore his eyes away and looked at some distant point out the window before shrugging. "Like I said, maybe… maybe because that's what I deserve, Jesse. I mean, think about it: if I hadn't treated you like shit in school, then maybe none of it would have ever gotten as far as it did. Maybe the guys would have left you alone then, you know?"

Jesse thought about that for a moment, but then shrugged. "Sounds like a lot of 'maybes', doesn't it? How do you know what would or would not have happened? Or better yet, how am I supposed to know? I mean, if it wasn't you, something or someone else could have come along eventually, right? You do know that, right? You're not the first person to ever harass me about being weird or gay, at least in school anyway. There were others before you."

That revelation seemed to surprise Pete. "Huh? No, I mean…"

"How did you ever pick up on it then?" Jesse asked suddenly. When Pete couldn't answer, a smug expression crossed the younger teenager's face. "I would bet it was probably some of those guys you hung out with. Whether it was true or not, once the idea was planted, well… then you just sort of took off with it." Jesse then shook his head. "That's how rumors usually get started, you know. Somebody may have seen me hug my brother or something, or been around when I did something that they considered weird. Who knows, right? Guys look for excuses all the time to harass, or play like some kind of badass or creep. Even I know that, Pete."

Glumly, Pete nodded. "Yeah, I know it, too."

Jesse smiled at him, though. "Not that I'm like some kind of preacher or anything, but see? That's what I was trying to tell everybody that day in the cafeteria. I tried to warn you, well, tried to warn them anyway… anybody, really, to be careful how you judge someone."

"I know that now," Pete admitted, feeling very flushed. "I'm… I'm sorry. I wish…"

When he did not continue, Jesse slowly sat forward, carefully scrutinizing his guest. "I wouldn't have done it though, except you had dragged Benji into this little war of yours, and… and that's when I couldn't let it go on any longer. He… He was my brother, and he was getting hurt. The worst of it for him though Pete, was that he couldn't understand why. He couldn't understand why he was getting picked on about me…"

Pete raised both of his hands, palms out. "I know, Jesse! Honestly, I understand all that now! I just wish… just wish I hadn't been such a bastard about it all in the beginning, okay?" There was a level of pain that registered in his voice then, one which caused Jesse to relent. It was another tell-tale sign that his guest, once his enemy, was still struggling to make peace with something more than his relationship with Jesse. He was struggling to make peace with himself, too.

"Okay, I'm sorry, too. I don't mean to drive a nail in it, either. It's just… you confuse me sometimes, okay? I mean, the last couple of times I've seen you, I know you're getting some sense kicked into you and all…. but, it's just difficult for me to see you now, as opposed to who you used to be. Does that make sense?" He sat back again. "Of course, that has changed things, too. A lot of us didn't know, or understand what kind of hell you were living through, right? I mean, let's face it, I don't know if you've said anything to anyone else, but you told Noah and me about how you were, well, 'invaded' I guess. I kind of figured that's why you had so much hatred built up about gays and everything. Right?"

"Well, yeah, I guess so," Pete whispered, frowning even more. It was several seconds before he could continue. "I mean, I don't know anymore, Jesse. Honestly… everything around some of that is like a fog now. I don't remember what drove me to do the things I did sometimes, other than when you made an ass out of me and all in the cafeteria that day. I know, I started it long before then, but that day… well, it made me madder than I had ever was, I think, and yeah… for a while, all I could think of was how I wanted to get you back, but…"

"But then they caught the drugs in your locker, and everything got spun in a different direction... right?" Jesse filled in for him, quietly. When Pete nodded in agreement, Jesse scoffed. "All of that is gone now, Pete. There is nothing I or anyone else can do about it. I didn't put drugs in your locker, or make you get caught, man. So, I didn't do anything back to hurt you, you know that."

"I know," Pete replied, but then gave him a thin smile. "But Jesse, you're wrong. You did do something - something that no one else did. You saw, or at least you thought about, something that got other people thinking, too. I just… I still don't understand why you did it. I mean, all you had to do was just keep your mouth shut, about seeing other people using my locker and all. I would have been punished then, see? I would have probably been sent to a detention center or somewhere, at least out of your hair for good, you know? You could have just kept quiet and really let it sink in on me… but, you didn't."

Jesse recalled the conversation he had had with the Greens that day before he left the hospital. "Maybe, but… someone would have thought of it eventually," he mused thoughtfully, before shaking his head. "It wasn't that big of a deal, though. All I told Mr. Green that day was that I couldn't not say something. I mean, if you were guilty, then you should take responsibility for it, but if you're not, then you shouldn't. To me, well… it just wasn't right for you to be blamed for something if it wasn't your fault."

Pete stared at him for a moment before lowering his voice. "Not that big of a deal? Shit, Jesse, it did everything though. I'm… I mean, I'm off the hook, for the most part anyway. Mr. Green is going to let me come back to school when it starts next week, if everything else works out and I don't get shipped off to Siberia or somewhere."

Jesse smiled, his eyebrows raising in surprise. "Really? I'm glad then. Honestly, I was hoping it, well… I'm just glad it helped you."

Pete's gaze fell to the floor again, and in the silence, Jesse could tell there was something else still turning over in the teen's head. It wasn't until Pete looked up again, however, he saw the helplessness that was evident. "Jesse, I… I don't know what to say, okay? I mean, I'm sorry. I'm so fucking sorry…" he whispered. "I think I could tell you that from now on until forever maybe, but it still wouldn't be enough. I just wish… I just wish you'd do something, anything, you know? I… I deserve… I want…"

"Stop it, Pete," Jesse whispered back, before getting up and scooting his bag closer. "I keep telling you to relax. I mean, I'm not going to have you skinned and hung up in the locker room, just for me and the guys to bust your balls or anything, okay?"

Pete scoffed. "Noah told you about that, didn't he," he whispered.

Surprisingly, Jesse laughed. "Of course, doofus! Do you really think he'd keep that from me?" Jesse shook his head. "Look, I think I understand - you want to be punished for it. Okay, I get that, honestly, although I think it has something more to do with what's in you your head, instead of your heart."

Pete started shaking his head, however. "Jesse, I tore everything I had into you. I accused you of being gay, I outed that to the whole damn school, and I beat you down every fucking chance I had… in the hallways, on the bus, in the cafeteria… and then in other places too, some you never even knew about! I mean, I made it my mission to drag you through hell, and… and… then I did the worst of it all: I got your brother involved, too." His voice dropped to a whisper. "For that one reason alone, you ought to beat the shit out of me for real, you know?" He let go a nervous sigh, trying to fight his emotions. "Maybe that's… I don't know… Maybe that's why I feel so bad about it all now. I've learned a lot about brothers and family since then, but… still, that was the worst I've ever done, I think."

Jesse thought about that for a moment, but then he saw a tear fall from Pete's cheek into his lap. That cause him to actually smile and sympathize with the older boy even more. "Look at me, Pete." When the other teen looked up slowly, Jesse lowered his voice again. "I'm alive, right? And I'm okay, for the most part. So what? You gave me a bunch of grief at school, but then I gave it back to you too, right? It's nothing more than us just having a fight, more or less, right? And… okay, it would have been a lot better if you had left Benji out of it, but… he's okay, too. Remember last week? You two bumped fists, right? Remember that smile he had?"

"Yeah, but Jesse, I-"

"Let me finish, okay? I'm not done yet…" Jesse stated quietly, which caused the other teen to stop. "There is something you may or may not know about kid brothers, Pete. They don't think like you and I do as we get older. I mean, they don't have all the stuff on their shoulders, or in their heads like the rest of us when they're just seven-years-old. That's half of why I got so mad, see? Not that I'm bludgeoning you with this, but consider - it was one thing to drag him into a fight that should have stayed between you and me. But you did more than that - you started laying things on him that he had no right to have to get into yet! And he was introduced to it in the worst possible way, right?" It was Jesse's turn to sigh then. "I know, some people feel different about having brothers and sisters, younger or older. A lot of them think they're a constant pain in their ass, more or less, and they don't want anything to do with them - outside of what their parents make them own up to. You and I see shit like that all the time, right? It's just that, you have to realize, not everyone does that. I mean, not everyone feels that way about their family. Some of us care, like you found out. Because some of us see ourselves, and the fun we had at their age and all. And some of us, Pete, care because we were brought up that way."

Jesse sat back against the side of the bed, stretching his legs out. "Some of us care for other reasons, too. For me, Benji is my brother, but he isn't a pain in my ass, see. He's just someone who gives me a lot of unconditional support, and he knows I'll be there for him no matter what. That's what brothers do. That's what family does. I'm sorry you never got to have that, really, because I'm telling you, you've missed out on something that's pretty big."

"I'm beginning to realize that now," Pete whispered.

Jesse grinned. "It's about fucking time, don't you think?" he whispered back, causing the other teen to glance up sharply at the outburst. "See? I can curse, too, you know…"

"Jesse, I know," the older boy responded sheepishly. "Sorry, I mean…"

"Pete, all of this though, is making my point: Benji forgave you last week, remember? That's why I told you that you needed to come and apologize to him in the first place. I knew it would do not only him, but you some good, too. I mean, ever since that day we met at the park, I suspected you needed something good in your life to happen for once, you know? Your apology to my brother, and seeing you both when he accepted it? That was one of those good things, believe me. Okay, so you crapped on us both by getting him mixed up with your shit, I know… but, it's over and done with. Everyone has left him alone since, and he's back to being his usual goofy self again. You See? That's why I say you need to let that go. Learn from it, sure, but let it go. He forgave you for that."

"And... you?" Pete whispered after a moment.

Jesse shrugged. "I forgave you, too. Remember? I just… Well, I don't want to see the old Pete come out of it again, where you start terrorizing everyone, and… and-"

"That isn't going to happen anymore, Jess," Pete interjected.

"I'm glad," Jesse responded. "Still, I forgave you a long time ago, Pete. I can remember hearing you even now, when you were trying to stop the others that night in the locker room. I know you didn't plan for it to go as far as it did, although I admit – it took me a while for that to sink in. Maybe… maybe it hasn't been that easy to see or believe, because I never really knew much about you to begin with. But then again, you didn't really know me that well either. I forgave you, because I saw something on the inside that said you needed it. And you know what? I think, well, maybe I needed it, too."

Pete glanced up again. "Really?" the teen whispered.

"Yeah, really," Jesse whispered back. "The way I see it, you've already been punished enough, you know? We forgave you, see? Now, all you have to do is find a way to forgive yourself."

Both boys sat for a moment, before Pete finally sighed in relief and looked up again, unabashedly displaying the tears that were still streaking down his cheeks. He reached out awkwardly then, but not being used to the way a bean bag worked, he found it awkward. Grunting in frustration, he climbed to his knees instead. "Oh, fuck it," he whispered, before turning to face the other boy. "Would you, like, maybe just this once, let me give you a hug and s-say t-thank you?"

Jesse smiled, and shifted to his own knees before putting his arms around the other boy. The entire time he had been there, Pete had never removed his coat, and finding it both awkward and impersonal, Jesse pulled back and pulled against the sleeves. Pete, uncertain at first, eventually helped in getting the garment off before he was suddenly tackled by the younger boy. The result was both of them falling to their side and into the bean bags together, embracing each other awkwardly, until Jesse settled in. Near the other boy's ear, he whispered, "Just shut up and take it like it's meant to be, Pete. Hugs happen to be a nice thing, at the right time, you know? Don't be afraid, either, because all that's happening here is just me, giving you a little something from inside. I'm telling you, with my heart, that everything is good between us, okay? We're okay, I promise."

Pete clung tightly to the other boy. "I know, Jesse. Believe me, these last few days, I've been learning." He felt Jesse nod, and the two remained there for a long time. "I'm still sorry… but… t-thanks. I- I really mean it."

Jesse pulled back finally and nodded. "Now, go tell the Sheriff Hunt he can forget all this garbage about me pressing charges. Tell him… ah, tell him I've promised I'll get my revenge some other way one of these days. That'll keep him on his toes, I bet!" He stated the last mysteriously, and it caused Pete to laugh as he collected himself and finally sat up.

"I don't think I even want to know what that could be," Pete stated, shaking his head. In his heart, he felt relief once again, akin to nothing he had ever felt before except in the last few days. He glanced up to see his host still grinning at him, which caused the boy to laugh. A deep chuckle that was as genuine as they come.

It was a good laugh, too – one that was heard elsewhere in the house at that moment. It was a laugh that made Makalah smile.

Talk about this story on our forum

Authors deserve your feedback. It's the only payment they get. If you go to the top of the page you will find the author's name. Click that and you can email the author easily.* Please take a few moments, if you liked the story, to say so.

[For those who use webmail, or whose regular email client opens when they want to use webmail instead: Please right click the author's name. A menu will open in which you can copy the email address (it goes directly to your clipboard without having the courtesy of mentioning that to you) to paste into your webmail system (Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo etc). Each browser is subtly different, each Webmail system is different, or we'd give fuller instructions here. We trust you to know how to use your own system. Note: If the email address pastes or arrives with %40 in the middle, replace that weird set of characters with an @ sign.]

* Some browsers may require a right click instead