The Storm That Turned the Tide

by Sean English


It was a very spring-like day throughout the valley, the air warm but mild, and without humidity. The past few weeks had seen a gradual transition from the colder temperatures of a late winter, into the early blossoms of an oncoming spring. In the wider landscape, many local residents were already deep into plowing their land for plots to serve as vegetable and flower gardens. Farmers were also getting into the act, preparing for the upcoming growing season on a considerably larger scale. In the townships and other places though, yard debris had been removed, hedges clipped or trimmed, and lawn equipment was given due diligence - all in preparation for the changing weather that would leave a long, cold winter behind.

On this day, however, Jesse was sitting high above the ground on his perch, as he quietly looked out over the nearby scene. A good portion of his view was hindered, as the growth of leaves and other tree limbs began bunching around him, making any view outwards or within denser. The teenager liked it that way, really. In rare instances, the platform on which he now sat gave him a sense of privacy, away from his brother, his family, and the rest of the world. Not that he necessarily needed it that often, but there were times it allowed him to escape into a quiet void where he could breathe deeply and relax for a while.

As the teen looked out, however, there were still plentiful gaps that he could peer through, some toward the road and the entrance to their driveway, while others further off into the four corners of the horizon overlooking neighboring lands. Jesse peered out and sighed, though with contentment, as he leaned back further into the overly large cushions supporting him. He and Benji had procured them by luck as it were, after learning the Davies family were preparing to discard them. Glancing about, he smiled with genuine satisfaction at the entire effort. Much like Noah's platform above his own front lawn, Jesse and Benji had built this inevitable treehouse two seasons before. Jesse recalled how his little brother had cackled with delight at the older teen's announcement that, on the boy's 10th birthday, this would be his present to him. Within weeks of that event, and with a little help from both their father and Noah, they had carefully laid out the platform, built with plenty of support beams underneath and along with a sturdy handrail. The platform resided several feet above the ground, in one of the three large trees that stood guard across their front lawn. The floor itself was about twice as large as Noah's had been, and given the configuration of the tree itself, the group had even been able to construct a partial roof above them. It wasn't an enclosed space, but the elevated project was able to guard against most of the falling rains and other precipitation. Once finished, the two brothers had spent a lot of hours in the treehouse, reading, playing games of one sort or another, and more. In Jesse's case, it provided a nice place to take a nap, or do some deeper studying when needed.

In his lap sat an Advanced Mathematics book, one based on Calculus and Trigonometry, opened to a chapter well beyond that of the book's center. The high school senior had a math test scheduled in the coming week, and although he had little real concern about the material itself, he thought he should at least refresh himself on some of the methodologies it painstakingly put into practice. Calculus, he found, was unlike any other math subject he had ever been introduced to. Although some of his peers found it difficult, Jesse found himself enjoying the challenges it presented in his last year before heading off to college. Even Noah had joined him in finding the math, though challenging, at least satisfying. It also helped that the credit they earned would also apply in college, and advance their journey as they began their coursework.

Jesse smiled suddenly, as he thought of how much his life had turned out for the better the last few years. Since the tornado had devastated their little family and forced them to begin life anew, the family's fortunes had turned for the better once they had initially recovered. He recalled how the four of them had sat down at the dinner table one evening, and talked it out as a family with no real, preconceived verdicts. True to their parents' word, James and Makalah let the two siblings voice their own thoughts on the matter, and openly listened to them freely as a family. Did the boys want the old house rebuilt, or something else - perhaps seeing if they could buy their temporary house as it was now and remodel, or add expand it? Or did they want to start over somewhere with a new layout? They discussed everything , including the ability to rebuild where they had been, or altogether find a totally new place and simply begin again? The four of them talked it out for hours, discussing the pros and cons all together. Surprisingly, the answers did not come immediately - as they contemplated over the next few days what each choice would, or would not, bring them in the end.

The choices did gradually get narrowed, however, much to their parent's pleasure. The decision was made to build again, but not necessarily on the property that had originally been theirs. Both Benji and Makalah voiced more than once that every time they looked across the property, deeply unsettled feelings floated to the surface from the memories of what had happened before. James wisely recognized the impact the storm had had on his family, and quietly relented to the fact it might be for the better in the long term.

Once the decisions had been made, many things changed for the family of four yet again. Jesse turned and glanced toward their new house, observing the more recent construction with a smile, all while recalling the events that had played out so well. The insurance company had been found guilty, just as Mr. Carmichael had suspected they would. Thankfully, the judge ruled that the company had been being derelict and criminal in their responsibilities - not just for the McAllisters, but several other claims around the state, too. In the end, the group ended up paying substantially when all things were said and done. Thanks to Mr. Carmichael and his firm, the McAllister's ended up with a settlement and then some extra, which allowed Jesse's parents to finally build their new house nearby where the old one had resided, and set aside a college fund for both boys afterwards. Jesse was careful to label it as a new 'house' though, as opposed to a new 'home'. In fact, he scoffed at himself before grinning, recalling how his mother had been quite strict in that regard: "A home can be made anywhere", she had said. "Look at where we are here, next to Jennifer, Allen and Noah. Even though this is an older house, and one which they own, we still think of it as our 'home', right?" When Benji had frowned, she leaned in close and embraced her son. "I know, it sounds funny, doesn't it? Seriously though, honey, just think about it: this is still our home, all because it is what we make of it for ourselves. That building over there is just a house though - just a bunch of wood and plaster and stones assembled together really. And it'll stay that way until we are settled inside of it. When that happens, THEN we'll be making it our 'home'. Get it?" Although Jesse accepted the sentiment right away, Benji was a harder case - at least, for a few days. It was a reminder that, although the youth was advanced in a lot of ways for his age, he was still quite young in others.

Jesse looked over the craftsman-style construction though with a satisfied eye, thinking back over the two-years since they had moved in. His mother's explanation stood out clearly, perhaps more so than ever before. Their home wasn't necessarily an overly large house, but instead it was now a two-story design that held the main living quarters on the ground floor, along with their parents' bedroom, and two sizable rooms upstairs with a bathroom. It had neither the creaks nor other sounds that were so audible like their old place had, nor the subtle smells they had been so accustomed to and grown up with. Instead, it was solid and laid out well, offering the four of them a renewed level of safety that they could now call their homestead.

The lower level had ample-sized rooms all around. The kitchen, designed and styled using barnwood cabinets and white-walled trimming, was twice the size of any they had ever enjoyed before. The living room, complete with a fireplace and built-in shelving, was reminiscent of older Cape-Cod designs with large windows overlooking the front porch and driveway. Their parents' bedroom, fashioned in an old-colonial trim, large with walk-in closets and a master bath that made even Jesse blink when he set foot in it the first time. Their parents had originally planned for all the rooms in the house to be open and spacious - even for the boys, but the two brothers had their own input and say for the upstairs that raised an eyebrow or two.

Originally, their parents had intended to make the space upstairs into two separate bedrooms for the brothers, along with a sizeable bathroom. That would have made the layout compatible with most other layouts found in modern architectural design. Jesse and Benji had challenged the idea though, coaxing their parents to make one of the bedrooms larger so that the brothers could both share yet again. That request had not only surprised both parents, but puzzled them as well. At least until Jesse sat down one evening and explained that it would not be long until he would be off to college. It was his thinking that, as long as Benji didn't mind the occasional visits when he came home on weekends and holidays, it would leave the youngster with a large room to call his own. Benji, seated nearby, brightened at the idea considerably. Seeing the doubt in their parent's faces though, the youngster quickly explained how much he loved being able to share a room with his brother - even if it were only for a little while. Something in his tone caught his mother's attention, and when she pressed him further on the matter, her son confessed that when he had Jesse around, it made him feel not so alone at night time. Without him now, he thought, he'd always be reminded of how soon it would be before his brother would be leaving for good. That was the argument that had won both parents over eventually, and thus it was made so. They now shared a rather large single bed, almost unheard of in most situations with families, on an entire floor that was now all their own.

"Oy, are you up there?" came a sudden sound from the ground, interrupting Jesse's reverie. Leaning over the side, he grinned when he saw a familiar figure standing beneath the tree looking up at him.

"Yep! Come on up!" Jesse called down. He watched initially as the tall, lithe form of his best friend took a few steps and then began climbing the makeshift ladder that had been attached to the tree's base. As he pulled back, seconds later a head appeared, followed by the rest of the body as it clambered up onto the platform. "How goes it?" Jesse greeted him as the boy scooted inside and nestled up close, leaning back against the cushion Jesse arranged to share with him.

"It goes great, I think!" Noah responded with a toothy grin. "How about you?"

"Not bad, thanks," Jesse replied, folding and tagging the corner of the page before closing his book and setting it aside. "Just looking over some stuff for that math test next week. It's on Tuesday, right?"

Noah nodded. "Yeah. You know old man Richardson doesn't like giving tests on Mondays, or other days for that matter."

Jesse scoffed. "Oh yeah, I know." He wrinkled his nose before continuing. "When you think about it, I don't think it's that bad of an idea, really. I mean, he says Mondays are bad because you're coming off the weekend and everything, and on Fridays you're too excited and waiting for the weekend to get here. So that really does just leave the middle days of the week, doesn't it? I know on Mondays I'm always dragging, so a test then would probably be worse for me, at least."

"Yeah," Noah acknowledged. "And don't forget, he also thinks Thursdays are bad because you can't stop thinking about Friday being only one day away."

Jesse laughed. "Yeah, I know. That makes leaves Tuesdays and Wednesdays. You know though, you could use that same kind of logic for a Tuesday, too."

"Oh? How so?" Noah asked.

"Well, if Mondays you're getting over the effects of the weekend, you could say that Tuesday you're getting over the effects of Monday," Jesse quipped with a grin.

Noah laughed at that, then nodded. "Damn straight, I guess!" He shook his head though. "Maybe we ought to find a way to present that to him. He always gives his tests on Tuesdays, I think."

"Yeah, but I think that's because he knows Wednesdays are always so hectic and everything at school. Tuesdays are a lot calmer in the short term," Jess replied. He glanced at his companion then, who looked up into the bright blue eyes that met his own. Both smiled, the silent exchange speaking volumes before Jesse slid closer and they both began to lean in against each other. Though they wore their usual jeans, both had long-sleeved dark-colored thermal shirts, something that Jesse had become fond of after being around Noah in recent years. As they came together, the teen also reached out and grasped Noah's hand, interlocking their fingers. Noah squeezed the grasp gently, before leaning over even further until his head was resting against Jesse's shoulder. A deep contented sigh emitted from the young man just then, one which did not escape Jesse's notice. "So, are you sure you're, like, okay?"

Noah lifted his head and smiled. "Oh yeah! I'm always okay around you, you know that," was the quiet reply, before he stretched his neck further and closed in. Jesse grunted, but bent down and met the lips that connected with his own in full force. The kiss was sensual, something private but yet fulfilling. Theirs was an exchange of feelings, more matured than their earlier puppy-love that had grown between them so fast, yet so completely. This was an exchange that showed nothing had been lost, even after all this time. As they pulled apart, it was Jesse's turn to sigh, which caused Noah to then giggle. "Talk about me! How about you?"

"Now that you're here, things couldn't be better," Jesse whispered. Noah smiled, but then went back to leaning his head against his friend's shoulder.

"I'm kind of glad it's as secluded up here as it is, you know?" he commented. Without waiting for a response though, Noah added quietly, "It's really nice today, isn't it?"

"Very," Jesse agreed. "Perfect day for Benji's little party, I think."

Noah nodded. "I know, yeah. So, the runt's going to be 11, right?" When he felt Jesse nodding, he scoffed. "About blooming time, don't you think?"

Jesse laughed. "Yeah, I guess. He's been talking about this one for months, really. He thinks he's finally becoming a teenager, although I've been telling him he still has a couple of more years to go." He then grunted. "And then, he's also asking about all kinds of stuff again, like what will happen to him this year and all, until he gets to be 12."

"Oh, wow," Noah remarked, then shook his head. "I think I know what you're talking about, too. We'll never hear the end of it though, will we?"

"Not for a while, no," Jesse replied. Glancing down, he squeezed the hand he held again lightly. "Uh, you do know that he knows about us now, right?"

Noah nodded. "Yeah. He was up here a couple of Saturdays back while you were at work. Mom had sent me over with some stuff for Makalah, and I climbed up here with him for a few minutes. He and I ended up talking, I don't know, I guess almost an hour. He told me he had started to suspect something for a while." He looked up before speaking again, his voice falling even quieter. "I kind of figured he would find out, you know, even before now. I mean, I know we're trying to be careful and all, but... There are just some things, you know? No matter how hard we try, when it comes to our little brother, well..."

"Yeah, I know," Jesse replied, nodding in agreement before sitting back. "It's okay, honest; I'm really not worried about it with him. I think I've always known he would be okay with it, I just wanted to put it off until, like, he was ready. He loves us both too much to care, I think - especially given all the things we've done for him."

Noah smiled. "Hey, like I said, he's our little brother, and... like you told me once, some things just don't seem to faze him any." The teen glanced away thoughtfully for a few seconds before turning back. "To be honest, I was just glad he told me not to worry about anything. He knows we sleep together naked most of the time, and jerk off and stuff. He... he seemed pretty cool about it all."

Jesse grunted. "As much as he and I do it now, he'd better be," he stated, before shaking his head. "Especially after what the little runt went through the other night with me."

Noah looked up in surprise. "Oh? What happened, if you can tell me?"

"What do you think? I've never hidden anything from you yet, have I?" Jesse smirked, but then turned away before he went on. "He's... Benji's starting to kind of experiment a little now, I think. On his own, I mean." Glancing back, he watched his friend's expression. "You do know what I'm talking about, right? He has started having some, uh, dry orgasms and everything."

"Seriously?" Noah whispered, and when Jesse nodded, he suddenly burst out laughing. "Wow! It's about time, then! I think some of us got them long before his age, you know? How the heck did that subject come up anyway? And... by himself or... or with somebody?"

Jesse laughed. "Well, kind of both, I think. Part of it is kind of Petey though, who else? I don't think they, like, have any affection for one another or anything - at least not like you and I do. They're just... friends, more or less. Friends with benefits, in this case." He gazed bemusedly at Noah. "Benji isn't like you and I were, Noah. Despite the fact he's younger than when we kind of came together, he has more friends than we did growing up. It's kept him pretty active and busy at just being a kid, you know? I mean, he stays so busy, he doesn't really think about stuff sometimes, at least not like I did. He and I talk and stuff, and play together when we can, but... it's just not like it was a few years ago and all. He knows I'm growing up ahead of him and have a lot of things I have to be more responsible for, so... he kind of has this group of people closer to his own age now. Make sense?"

"I get that, yeah," Noah nodded. "In a way, I guess I'm not really that surprised, Jess. You knew there had to be something that would change as we got older, right?" The teen sighed. "At least he still gives us hugs and stuff. I mean, at least he still gives them to me, and I assume he does to you, too."

Jesse smiled. "Oh yeah, almost every night. Sometimes when we get in bed, he'll roll over and we'll cuddle up to me just like old times, like nothing has ever changed. Those are the moment I live for, I think, because it just feels... I don't know, it just feels special between us."

"I bet," Noah replied. "I mostly only have you now, but... I can remember a few times, and I know how different, but how cool it was for me, too." The teen shifted. "So... him and Petey, huh?" When Jesse nodded, the teen pressed on. "So, details man, what did he tell you?"

Jesse sat back further against the cushion, still holding onto Noah's hand gently, but scooting ever closer to the other boy. "Well, he told me he and Petey took a shower together for the first-time last week, and then that was the first time he's kind of gotten to compare and everything with someone his own age. They, uh, checked each other out and all, apparently up close, too. Supposedly, Petey's got a longer dick, but he isn't uncut." Jesse grunted as he stole a glance at his friend. "Like you."

"Yeah, yeah... okay," Noah scoffed, leaning in against the shoulder there. "You know, I don't know which is more common, but I kind of like it your way rather than mine."

Jesse laughed suddenly, amused at the sentiment. "What if I told you that, to me, it's the exact opposite?"

"It wouldn't surprise me. I mean, you've told me that before," Noah nodded. "I don't care though, to each his own, I guess. Was that all he told you?"

"Oh, no, there's more." Jesse spoke in low tones, even though he well knew no one could hear them. "Supposedly, they both tried to get a glimpse of Petey's brother while he was in the shower. Ben said they got to sneak a look, and that he did have a pretty big willie, but he thought ours was bigger."

Noah laughed hard after that. "Really? Crap! S-so they d-did the Peeping-Tom thingy, huh? Wow!" Sitting up, he turned so he could see Jesse's expression, and found the amusement there as he had expected. "Well, I don't guess that's anything I should be surprised at. He's probably caught us more times than we know, right? And he's always been the curious type and all, hasn't he?" The question was more of a statement than anything else.

"Oh, yeah, even about himself. I catch him every once in a while, in our room, pulling out his waistband in front and checking his own stuff and all. I think he's still waiting to grow some hairs of his own," Jesse replied quietly, all the while grinning.

"No doubt. Say, is he getting any bigger yet?" Noah asked, his voice just above a whisper.

"Yep," Jesse replied. "Not really big in size or anything, but he's definitely 'growing'. Even now, he's starting to change in little ways and everything. Like, I don't know, maybe his marbles are starting to drop more now, you know? And... um, like his skin isn't as loose as it used to be, if that makes any sense." He sighed before glancing up again. "You haven't been able to be around him as much lately, have you?"

"No, not really since school started. I don't know, it's mostly just that I've been really busy and all to, like, have any kind of special moments or anything with him. I think the last time I saw him, you know, 'that way', was last summer, like in the boys changing room up at the pool. And then, it wasn't the kind of place to, you know, outright... uh..." When he saw his friend nod in understanding, Noah sat back again, letting go of a big sigh before he continued. "I feel kind of bad about that sometimes. I mean, between you and me finding time for one another, and work, and then all this stuff at school..."

Jesse nodded again. "You don't have to explain it to me, I promise. I'm with you; life has gotten a little more, I don't know, complex I guess, compared to a few years ago." He shifted then, and wrapped an arm around Noah's waist. "Let's just leave it at that for now. No pubes yet, but... he's changing. You know you'll see him again before long anyway, I'm sure, and not just at the pool this summer. Remember what he always promised us both, though? I mean, he sees me naked plenty and all, but only because we share our bedroom and stuff. We also still cuddle up some nights when I can't be with you." He suddenly sighed, realizing where he had taken that remark. "I'm sorry, bro. I didn't mean to, you know..."

"Don't worry about it," Noah grunted. "It doesn't bother me any, Jess. Honest. I've always known you two have your moments together, and even I get to have one every once in a while, so it's cool. I just, uh, don't get to have them as often as you two do, I guess."

Rubbing his nose, Jesse then sighed again while squeezing his boyfriend. "The only thing I CAN say though, is that he still talks to me - a lot. He doesn't hold back, either. Just like what happened with him and Petey, he couldn't wait to tell me everything, and even, uh, ask more questions. That... I don't know, it just means everything to me, Noah. The fact he did it with you, too? Well... It's awesome, really." Smiling, he leaned his head over until their foreheads came together. "Just like you. You've never bailed out on me either. You and I talk about things differently, being older and all, but still... I'm happy it's just us, you know?"

"Yeah, I know, just like I know you won't bail on me," Noah whispered in reply. "I mean, after everything we've been through together, why would we? We're best friends, brothers and, who knows what that means for us down the road. I don't know really, but - I don't care. As long as you'll have me, we could end up being mates for life, you know?"

Jesse smiled again. "What are you talking about? You're the one who has to decide how long you'll have me, remember? Just wait till we get to college this fall, and we finally get to share a room, together. Just the two of us, hopefully for the next four years, too. Not that we don't have plenty of fun now, but... then? We'll be living together, Noah... really living together."

Noah laughed, rolling inward and wrapping himself around his friend, before climbing to his knees and then straddling him on top. "I know we will. We'll probably end up sharing everything even more, too! Our clothes, toothpaste..."

"Underwear?" Jesse whispered, grinning. "I won't even care if you cum in them," he added with a whisper, touching the tip of his finger to Noah's nose, causing the other boy to giggle.

"We're going to have so much fun, you know? Like you said, it's going to be our own room, with our own bathroom, and just you and me. Maybe a little studying here and there, but mostly we can wrap up with each other, get naked, watch TV and cuddle, and play and... other things..." He sighed heavily. "I know, like you said, we have plenty of fun now, but... I honestly can't wait, bro. It's going to be something different for us, you know?"

"Yeah, and in a good way," Jesse whispered back, totally relaxed as he stared up into the face watching him. "No hiding, no worrying about Short-Round waking up and catching us trying to top one another or anything, no-"

"Not that stuff, Jesse. I mean, I don't care what Ben sees - well, for the most part anyway. Like you said - he knows we play and cuddle. I was just thinking about you and me," Noah admonished him. "Just... us. Understand? With Benji, we have our own thing, even the three-ways we kind of did and - like when we went camping, remember? But... I'm talking about just... us... you and me."

Jesse nodded, his eyes becoming moist as he smiled. "Yeah, I know. I was hoping for that, too. It will be kind of nice, every night and every morning, to be able to finally sleep together - well, except for the weekends or breaks when we come home." He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "I don't know about you, but we've been doing stuff for more than three years or so now, right? Sometimes though, it still seems just as cool and awesome as the first time we did stuff, you know? Just the holding, the feelings... all of it. I know I sleep a whole lot better when it's just you and me, and I can pull you up to me and everything, naked, and... and...."

"OOOhhhh yyyeeaahhh," Noah replied, before leaning in and kissing Jesse fully on the lips, lingering there and drawing in a deep breath. After a moment, as they stared and smiled at each other, Noah relented. "Don't worry, I know we can't do anything. Runt's party starts in, what, an hour or so?"

"Less now, I think," Jesse replied meekly, but then reached out and pulled his friend fully on top. He struggled to push his hands underneath the waistband of Noah's jeans, but after a little maneuvering, he got his fingers to tuck inside. Hugging his friend close, he spoke into Noah's ear. "I can still have a few minutes to hug and hold you though, right? At least until Mom gets back from the store with Benji."

Noah grunted. "We can hold each other for as long as you want," he replied, hugging back. After a few minutes however, he suddenly sighed and lifted his head to look down into the eyes that met him. "So, still planning on coming home with me after we go to Pete's cookout tonight?"

"As long as you'll bring me home tomorrow. My car won't be out of the shop until Monday or Tuesday," Jesse readily replied.

"It's a shame that guy ran into you like he did, though I guess it could have been worse," Noah remarked thoughtfully.

"Yeah, it could have been a whole lot worse. It wasn't totally his fault though, I realize, but... it did shake me up a little." Jesse grunted. "It did more damage to his car than I think it did to mine."

Noah nodded. "Have you heard anything more from the body shop?"

"Supposedly the rear fender and hood work is all done, but they had to rework the paint and some other molding in some way." Jesse replied, sighing. "It was supposed to be finished yesterday, but they called Dad and told him it really needed to have another day or two before it would be totally complete. Until then, uh, I guess you are kind of my personal chauffeur..."

Noah laughed. "That's okay, it's cool. We'll go over after school Monday, maybe you can get it then. If not, then we'll do it again Tuesday," the other boy suggested, visibly relaxing even more. "Either way, we haven't had much of a weekend together for quite a while now, so it'll be kind of nice... right?"

"You bet it will," Jesse agreed. "You know, thinking about it, if you wanted to stay with me and Ben tomorrow night..."

"Hey, that's not a bad idea, really!" Noah enthused. "I'd be up for that! We can sleep late in the morning, and then, uh... yeah!" He grinned as he lowered his voice again. "We can maybe do all our fooling around tonight and in the morning, so we won't be so, uh, tempted and all when we're back here... you know?"

Jesse giggled, shaking his head before glancing up and placing another gentle kiss upon his best friend's nose. "I'm glad you still want to do stuff, you know... with me..."

Noah reared back slightly, looking amused. "We promised each other, right? And hey, you and me... like, I said..."

"I know, Noah," Jesse replied. "I'm just glad, that's all bro. That's why I love you so much, I think." Hugging again, he nuzzled Noah in the crook of his neck before he continued. "If you can put up with me, I admit it would be kind of cool for us both tonight, and then maybe with Squirt tomorrow, too." Wrinkling his nose, he observed his friend. "Listen, we don't have to hang out with Pete for long tonight, if you don't want to. He just invited us, and I felt bad about trying to back out of it. He's tried a lot of times to get us to come over before, but it just, you know, it just never really worked out and all. I never wanted to go by myself, and I think you were the same way, too. Still... we don't have to stay long if you don't want to."

Noah shrugged. "I don't care, really. I know what you're saying, too, but - it's just a cookout with some of his buddies, I think. Like you said, we've promised him more than once we'd come sometime. Besides, I think I heard they were going to make some homemade ice cream afterwards, and well, you know..."

Jesse suddenly laughed before shaking his head. "I shouldn't be surprised, I know," he gasped in between breaths. "You and ice cream..."

"Hey now, don't be rude! I can't help it if I happen to LIKE ice cream, you know!" Noah retorted, feigning mock indignation. Afterwards, however, he grinned. "Besides, how come you guys aren't having ice cream for Squirt's party today? That's almost a given for birthday parties in general, you know!"

Jesse shrugged. "I honestly have no idea. I think Mom kind of took over for this one, because I really haven't had much to do with it," he added dryly. "He's not having too many people over anyway. Petey, of course, and us, and a few others. I think he even invited Addison, which - I'm not sure if she'll be here or not, but..."

Noah laughed. "Well, can't say he's shy about inviting girls, can we?"

"Oh no, he's not shy about that by a long shot, even if they are older!" Jesse replied. "I get the feeling he was hoping she would come. You remember her babysitting him a few times, right? Especially when you and I were off at some of the ballgames and stuff? My guess is that they got to be pretty close as friends and all - as much as a girl like Addison would let either an eight- or nine-year old be. Which in this case, I think she honestly really likes him, too, so you're right: it's really not surprising." He looked up. "Anyway, I figure we'll try to stay for some cake, and maybe watch him unwrap his presents, then kind of slip out afterwards - if that's okay with you. He knows we got hoodwinked into the cookout before the party plans were all set, so I know he'll be okay with it. Just, I have no idea what the time will be like, but we can kind of just wing it and see how it goes. Okay?"

"Sounds fair enough," Noah agreed. "I hope he likes what I got him for his birthday. It's not like what your present is going to be, but..."

Jesse grunted. "I got lucky, Noah, that's all. It took some convincing Mom and Dad to agree to it, but in the end, it all worked out. As for yours, you got him that big stuffed Pelican, right?" Jesse asked, and seeing Noah nod, he agreed. "He'll love it. He still really likes his stuffed animals and all, more than a lot of boys do. Did I tell you I found us another fishing net, kind of like the one we used to have before the tornado? It's a little larger, I think. That's what he is unwrapping tonight, sort of as a fill-in. He won't get his other present until tomorrow."

"Yeah, I remember," Noah acknowledged. "We're supposed to pick it up, right?"

"Yeah," Jesse replied, before sighing. "I'm just hoping he'll take care of it, you know?"

"He will, Jess. You know he will," Noah replied.

Just then, both boys started and turned as they heard a vehicle approaching down the driveway. "Well, I guess that's the end of my study time, for now," he mused as they both sat up. Jesse grabbed his textbook, but quickly leaned in and gave Noah a quick kiss on the cheek. "Love you, bud," he whispered.

Noah grinned back as he grasped an arm and hugged it tight. "Love you, too." Both boys then made their way to the edge of the platform and began their descent.


The shout came expectantly as the teenager climbed the steps to the back, wrap-around porch. The exciting, youthful exuberance displayed by the younger McAllister never ceased to amaze the teen, even though Benji was now turning eleven years old. It had taken on a new depth over the years, but yet there was still a boyish charm that had never changed. Noah saw it ever more plainly as he watched the rapidly approaching youngster appear and launch himself, just as Noah reached the top step. There was a quick, tight embrace that was filled with even more warmth and sincerity, as Benji buried his face into the older teen's neck and pushed it in close. If there ever was any doubt of it being a well-deserved welcome, it was immediately pushed aside as the younger boy finally let go and stepped back, looking up happily. "You came!"

Noah feigned a hint of annoyance. "What do you mean, 'I came'? Of course, I did! Good grief, what made you think I wasn't coming, you little fart?" He let the last part fall to a low tone, just in case Makalah was hanging around anywhere nearby. Regardless however, there was a jubilant response from those around him as they broke into laughter. The birthday boy blushed, but in typical fashion just shrugged it off as he and Noah traded a few playful jabs at one another.

Another individual suddenly materialized behind the youngster with a smug expression. "Ha! See? I told you!" Petey intoned, giggling.

"Told him what?" Jesse asked, stopping to lean against the rail momentarily.

"That his farts were legendary," came the self-satisfied reply, although like Noah, with a lowered voice. From somewhere inside, however, they all heard the sound of a woman quietly laughing in the background.

The others joined her by laughing heartily at the ribbing, just as Benji turned on the boy and stuck out his tongue. Instead of following up, however, the youngster once again just simply shrugged it off. "No worse than yours are!" he finally retorted, before reaching out and grabbing Noah by the hand and pulling him along. "Come inside and see the cake Mom and I just picked up! It's awesome!"

With a knowing eye to the others, Noah allowed himself to be dragged inside the house and out of sight as they made their way toward the kitchen. Petey, obviously uncertain of what he should do, finally decided to follow them. Jesse was about to also join in, but hesitated when he noticed the approach of another vehicle coming down their driveway. Once it had parked, a familiar looking girl alighted, waving at him enthusiastically. "Hi, Jesse!"

"Hi Addison!" the teenager grinned and called back in response. Descending the steps again, he moved towards her as she approached. Meeting along the walkway, Jesse stopped and caught her, engulfing the girl warmly. "How's it going?" he asked cheerfully, holding the girl briefly before letting go. Unlike earlier encounters over the years, the teenager had finally pushed aside his shyness and openly embraced this girl with no hesitation. It was something Addison had finally taught him not to be so timid about, and she in kind responded just as warmly, smiling brightly by the time they parted.

"To tell you the truth, I think I'm doing fabulous!" Addison replied. "And how about you?"

"Not too bad, really. Just a few weeks of school left now, so they're turning the screws on us a lot tighter before they finally set us free," Jesse replied. "You know, tests, school events - stuff like that." He stepped back and out of the way, letting the girl step up by his side slowly before both began a leisurely stroll toward the house. "How are things at, uh, Eastern isn't it?" the teen asked, referring to Eastern Kentucky University, where Addison had won a scholarship the year before and was just about to complete her freshman year.

"Kind of rough, really. The first semester wasn't too bad, although I had to kind of get used to it. This one though, ugh. Our semester finals begin next Wednesday, and although I'm pretty comfortable with most of my classes, I took a chemistry class this semester that has made me work my ass off just to keep up!" the girl replied while rolling her eyes. Seeing the mischievous grin that met her, she scoffed. "I'm serious, Jess! I think I do about twice the work in that class than all my other classes combined together! Our instructor is a foreign graduate student, and she doesn't speak the best English in the world. Not that I hold any bias against her, really, but I don't honestly think she's learned how to teach, either. Everyone still in the class is having a hard time dealing with her, you know?"

"I'm sorry to hear that, really," Jesse replied, relenting before a thought struck him. "I thought you guys could, like, drop a class in college when things didn't go so well. You know, like, maybe take it again later under someone else if you found out you didn't like it, or couldn't get through it very well."

"Well, yeah, you usually can - at least up until a certain cut-off date. The thing is, she started out not being so bad, so none of us had any idea of what to expect, see. We even took our first test and didn't really do that bad, so the bunch of us thought that yeah, all would be okay. Then before we knew it, it started to change, and as we progressed, it turned out worse. Before we knew it, it was too late to get out. She started getting deeper into stuff that we couldn't always follow along with, see? And her tests... whoa, since that first one they've been really murderous, and she refuses to grade on a sliding scale or anything. So, those of us who are left are stuck trying to do our best." Addison paused to sigh deeply. "Besides, I'm also on a scholarship see, so I'm more restricted by what I can do. I mean, I have to take a minimum 12 credit hours per semester so that I don't lose a part of my funding by dropping a class. I took a lab that gives me two credit hours, but if I drop this one, see, I'd end up with 11 overall."

"Oh, I get it, I guess," Jesse replied quietly, looking off into the distance. He had remembered seeing similar rules in other scholarship programs that he and Noah had filed applications with. "I guess that does make it kind of rough."

"Yep!" Addison replied, nodding. "It's not quite as simple as it is for other kids, that's for sure. I'll be alright, though. A bunch of us formed a study group and hunkered down. It helps - at least enough we think we'll get by it with a 'C' or better," Addison explained. She then glanced sideways at her friend. "So, enough about me! How about you and Noah? Are you two still planning to go to Western this fall?" When Jesse nodded, she smiled. "That is fantastic! Have either of you gotten word on any of your scholarships you applied for yet?"

Jesse shrugged. "No, not really. Dad's boss, Mr. Stout, put in a word for us both with the Ace Hardware corporate offices, and we both got a small scholarship through them. It's not a huge thing, but we're getting $500 each that we're allowed to use toward housing and books. As long as we keep our grades up, it's renewable each year until we graduate." Wrinkling his nose, he glanced at her. "I know some scholarships are kind of awarded early, but our advisor told us not to be discouraged, that a lot of them didn't send out notices until the beginning of next month. So... we've both got our fingers crossed, and we're hoping we can at least get some kind of a break through the university itself."

"You might, sure. That one from Ace is not bad though, really," Addison replied, nodding in understanding. "Even $500 awards are nothing to sneeze at. If you get a few smaller ones and all like that, they can add up quickly. Is that per semester? Or is it for the whole academic year?"

"Luckily, it's for each semester," Jesse replied, climbing the steps with her. "So, yeah, it's really $1000 for the year."

"That's even better then! Like I said, don't discount it. Every little bit helps," the girl replied as they both reached the top of the steps. Their discussion was interrupted, however, by the running of lively feet once again, and the arrival of a certain birthday boy who appeared and practically collided with the girl.

"Addison! You came!" he gurgled, laughing extensively as he hugged her as fiercely and warmly as he had Noah, all the while dancing in such a way as to keep them both from falling down.

Petey looked on at the two before he glanced up at Jesse. "Sheesh, I'm glad he didn't jump me that way!" he chortled.

"Hey, Short-Round!" Addison exclaimed, laughing at the remark as she braced herself and then continued to pace together awkwardly around the porch and away from the steps. She then looked down at him and grunted. "Except... you're not really so short anymore, are you? You just about knocked us both over, jumping on me like that!"

"Yeah, I know... Sorry," Benji replied with a sheepish grin. "I'm just glad you came. I haven't seen you in, like, forever!"

Noah, who had sauntered back outside and joined them, folded his arms across his chest. "Sheesh! Is that what it does then? I mean, you don't see anyone for months or more, and then they all of a sudden get the infamous 'catch-me-and-hold-me' treatment? Especially if it's a girl?" He glanced up at the girl with an amused look. "He did me the same way just minutes ago," he offered in lieu of explanation.

Benji turned to the older teen and stuck out his tongue before snapping back. "You don't count! I get to see you almost every week, thanks to you and Jesse!" He turned back to the girl as he released her. "He's right, though... It HAS been a long time, hasn't it?"

"Yes, it has," the girl agreed.

Benji then turned on Petey with his hands suddenly propped on his hips. "And no, I don't usually give everyone hugs like that, but... if you want one-" he teased, then laughed as the other boy suddenly shirked away, causing the entire group to burst out laughing.

Addison reached out from behind and gave the boy a brief hug again, before pulling a small envelope from her back pocket and handling it around in front of the youngster. "Listen, squirt. I'm sorry, really. There was so much going on these last couple of weeks that I honestly didn't have any time to go and find you a big card or anything this year. Not like I've done in the past anyway. This, honestly - it's not that much, okay? Not for someone turning eleven, but... I'm hoping you'll forgive me and can still make use of it in some way or another."

Benji turned and looked up at her with a wide smile. "Thanks, but... don't worry about that stuff. You didn't need to bring me anything, really. Just you being here is worth it all, trust me!" the youngster replied back, accepting the envelop and then giving her another quick embrace afterwards. "Come on, I was just showing Noah my birthday cake! It's awesome, really! Want to see?"

Within seconds, Benji had pulled her along inside the house, the older girl laughing as she fought to keep her balance. Jesse snorted, shaking his head but otherwise remaining behind on the porch again. This time, having already been through the routine, both Noah and Petey remained behind with him. Although the three initially just stood, watching the screen door as it closed, eventually they crossed over to where both a swing and porch chair awaited them nearby. Petey, taking the chair, watched as the two older teens sat down together in the swing. "So, uh, nice day... isn't it?" he spoke, although hesitantly.

The older teens did not overlook the attempt by the youngster trying to engage in small-talk. "Yeah, pretty nice," Jesse responded before sitting back. "So, how's your brother doing? I haven't heard from him in a long time."

"He's finishing his first year of high school," the youngster replied. "I figured you two would have crossed up though, in the hallways or something."

"He's in my lunch group, I think," Noah responded, but then shook his head. "That doesn't say a lot though. Most of the younger groups tend to avoid us seniors."

"Oh," Petey replied, nodding in understanding. Glancing back at Jesse, he shrugged. "Well, I guess he's doing okay. I actually don't get see him very much though, at least not like we used to. He's always hanging out with his friends now, or working with Dad down at the shop."

"That's right, your father runs The Glass Shop, doesn't he? Down off the square, I think?" Noah asked curiously. When the boy nodded, he grunted. "Yeah, I think I met him a couple of weeks back. Dad and I were working on getting a glass top cut so it would fit our breakfast table. Kind of a custom thingy, I think, since it has six sides and all. He came out to the truck and measured it and everything, then went inside and cut one out for us. Got it right on the first try, too! He fixed the edges so it wasn't sharp and then we took it home."

"That would be Dad, yeah. He pretty much does all of that kind of stuff," Petey replied quietly. Glancing around, he then spoke again. "When is everyone else gonna get here? Isn't it, like, getting close to time to start already?"

Jesse glanced at his watch. "Meh, there's still about 20 to 25 minutes to go. There'll probably be some more to show up pretty soon."

Noah glanced at the younger boy and then grunted. "Why, getting tired of talking with us two 'oldies' here already?"

Petey rolled his eyes. "Bullshit, you're not oldies... at least, not yet!" he exclaimed softly, before sitting back in his chair and blushing slightly. "Sorry, hope no one heard that." Both of the older boys grinned at him before he sighed. "Yeah, I know. I try to watch my mouth when I'm out and stuff though. As to you two and all, it's not that. I just, well, I don't know what to say, really."

"Well, Benji will be back out here in a minute, I'm sure, and then you won't have to worry about it anymore," Jesse replied, before scooting forward. "In the meantime, why don't we go shoot some basketball? Maybe we can play some 'Horse' or 'School'. You know, something simple until some more people show up?"

"Really?" Petey asked, his face lighting up.

Noah also scooted forward while Jesse was climbing to his feet. "Hey, I'm game!" he replied. For good measure, he extended a hand toward the youngster, who gave him a toothy grin in return as he grasped and pulled, ultimately rising to join them. The trio set out down the steps toward a nearby basketball goal. After Jesse detoured to get the ball from the garage, they each then began taking turns and shooting various shots. As predicted, before long Benji and Addison returned and joined them.

Over the next half-hour, several other guests arrived and began mingling with the group until the numbers grew. When a sufficient crowd had gathered, they all switched to playing volleyball, which more easily accommodated them. It wasn't long before the group was well intoxicated by the ongoing play, rapidly exchanging serves and going all out. People would jump, bump into one another, even fall in places, laughing and having a blast. It wasn't long before Makalah appeared and set up a portable player on the deck, which then filled the air with a mixture of lively tunes and popular music.

As the evening wore on, Noah finally glanced at his watch and grunted with surprise, pulling up short. Looking up, he quickly got Jesse's attention and then pointed to his wrist. "Uh, if we're going to go, we should probably get a move on, you think?"

"Oh wow, yeah," Jesse replied after observing the time for himself. "I was thinking that a little bit ago, but... uh... whoa!" He looked out over the teams and quickly located his little brother. After approaching him, he leaned down and spoke quietly. "Happy birthday, little bro! Noah and I have to go now, but I promise you - when I get home tomorrow, I'll spend the whole evening with you. We both will, if you want - just you and the two of us, or just you and me!"

Benji looked up at him with a kind smile. "Don't worry, Jess, it's fine. And yeah - you and Noah hanging around tomorrow would be super as far as I'm concerned!" He offered his brother a fist bump which was returned, alongside one with Noah, who had also approached and gave the boy his own well wishes. With that, the two older teens shared their goodbyes with the rest of the assembly before backing away to make a quick exit.

Before they could completely vacate the group though, Addison caught Jesse by the elbow. "Hey, I'll probably stop by for a few minutes at Pete's tonight. He invited me, but I told him I was already kind of committed here. Still, I think I'll swing in for a few minutes, at least."

"Oh, okay, then we'll see you in a little while," Jesse replied, giving the girl a fist bump, which was soon followed by Noah, before both boys continued on into the house. Only minutes later did they reappear and head for Noah's car, which they entered and began backing out of the driveway.

"Wow, I didn't realize it was getting this late!" Noah remarked as they pulled onto the road and started heading toward town.

"Yeah, it's kind of my fault, really. I wasn't watching the time any at all," Jesse responded.

Noah only grunted. "Nah, we both were having fun," the teenager replied before letting the issue drop. Instead, he reached out to the radio, and turned it on to fill the air between them with tunes from one of the local stations. Both boys then fell silent while sitting back, relaxing while making the drive into the outskirts of town. Before long, they slowed their approach to a familiar driveway that led into the Hunt's residence.

"Whoa, there's several peeps here from the looks of it!" Noah remarked as he worked up the driveway and maneuvered amongst quite a few vehicles before finding a place to park.

"Pete told me there would be a few, yeah, but I didn't expect this many," Jesse replied quietly. Both boys alighted quickly, however, and began heading toward the rear of the house, where they heard both the sounds of laughter and music resonating. Once they rounded the corner, both pulled up short. A crowd of around 15 to 20 people were scattered into two groups, one of which were further off toward the rear of the lawn and playing their own game of volleyball. A few were closer by, however, standing and mulling about with drinks in hand, laughing and having a lively conversation with Pete himself. They caught sight just in time to see older boy suddenly ducking out of a playful shove by another familiar girl in the group, before glancing up and observing their arrival. "Hey!" he cried out rather loudly, breaking from the group and scurrying over quickly.

Noah and Jesse glanced at one another with grins as Pete arrived. "Sheesh, it's about time you two geeks showed up!" he greeted them, grinning widely himself as they bumped fists. "I was beginning to think you weren't coming! Jim just announced a few minutes ago for us to get ready. You can see Martha and Chelsa bringing the food out, so you're just in time!" Indeed, both boys saw the two women, along with a younger girl near Benji's age carrying food to one of the tables. Beyond the table farther back stood Jim Hunt, who looked up and waved, smiling at them as he continued to pull burgers and hot dogs from the grill onto a serving platter.

"Sorry about that, we kind of let our time get away from us," Jesse offered.

Noah nodded in agreement. "It all smells good, though! It's making me hungry!" he announced clapping and rubbing his hands together.

Pete laughed, but then jerked his head. "Good! Come on, there's a couple of people I'd like to introduce you guys to quickly, if I can - and to one in particular, who has been waiting forever to meet you." Both teenagers glanced at one another in surprise, but then turned and followed Pete as he retraced his steps to the group he had broken from. "Hey, everyone! Some of you may know these two, but for those of you who don't, I want you to meet Noah Cook and Jesse McAllister! These two are some of my closest friends from back in our high school days!"

Jesse grinned in amusement at the reference to closest friends, and he heard Noah quietly grunt under his breath. Still, both boys were welcomed by the group, which Pete began pointing out and introducing. They recognized Linda, of course, who stepped forward and gave each of them a quick hug, before letting them continue on to the others. As it turned out, most were either from Pete's newly acquired family in the last few years, or otherwise people they had all seen or interacted with at school. Each either waved, nodded or bumped fists with the teens as they exchanged greetings. That is, until one boy in particular who looked to be about 16, decidedly stepped forward and stood before them with crossed arms. "I don't believe it! I'm actually going to get to meet you two bozos for a change!" he announced crisply.

At first, the blank expression and taut voice that broke the air heavily, caused the others in the group to pause, including Pete himself. Jesse, however, saw the young man's eyes begin to betray a certain amount of merriment. Glancing at Pete, he immediately presumed this was individual who had been waiting to meet them. Stepping forward, he reached out a hand. "Hey, I'm Jesse," he announced, intending to shake the younger boy's hand.

All might have been fine at that point, except the boy pushed the hand aside and closed the distance between them. With a quick move, he engulfed Jesse lightly, giving him a hug. "We don't shake hands unless we have to," he heard the boy speak softly, and then laughed when he saw the look of surprise, along with the grin that reacted to his move. "All I can say is, it's about friggin' time!" he added, letting go and giving Noah an identical, quick hug.

It was Pete, however, who laughed before shaking his head. "Sorry guys, I should have warned you. This is my cousin, Justin. He's kind of been begging me to get you over here for a while now." He grinned and glanced at all three. "And yeah, he's kind of one of those hugger-types sometimes."

The small crowd surrounding them all laughed, which made Justin grin as he stepped back. If he was embarrassed, it didn't show as they watched him shrug. "Me? A Hugger? Well, maybe... I don't care, though. The world needs a few more hugs if you ask me."

Jesse and Noah smiled in return, and both relaxed, finding themselves taking a liking to the kid. "I agree," Jesse replied.

Justin observed them both as others started to join them. "Sorry guys, but Pete's right - I've been waiting to meet you two for a long, long time."

Jesse finally put forth a genuine smile. "It's all good, I promise." He then glanced at Pete. "Did you say he's your cousin?"

It was Justin, however, who responded. "Well, yeah, more like step-cousin or something, I guess. I mean, I could care less about the 'step' part, he's just Pete to me." Glancing at the other boy, he added, "We've never really defined it, I guess. I mean, we're close friends at least, but-"

"He's my pain-in-the-ass best friend and, if you have to put a label to it then yeah, he's my 'adopted' cousin!" Pete interjected. While the others laughed again, he grinned and lowered his voice. "Seriously, though, this here is my sidekick and a whole lot more." Justin blushed slightly, but then offered a fist-bump which Pete met without hesitation.

It had been some time since Jesse had been around Pete, and hearing this exchange actually surprised him candidly - not just Pete's confession and actions, but the reaction of the younger teen as well. It showed both a level of maturity in the younger boy, as well as another aspect of their friend's behavior that was altogether changed from their earlier encounters. Thinking back, he did recall a few conversations where Pete had brought up the subject of Justin at times. The kid lived in Russel County, but had been keeping a close relationship thanks to the Sheriff and others. No doubt it had been an immense factor in helping Pete to get life back together. Observing them both now, Jesse could see they had become quite attached. Gone was the Pete of old, who would have sneered and created a huge ruckus over the simple things, such as the hugs. In its place now stood someone he and Noah already knew to be a much-improved man. When Pete had graduated the previous year, he and Noah, along with several other of their friends, were there cheering him on when he mounted the stage, shook hands with the principal, and accepted his diploma with honors. Glancing beside him, he saw the welcoming smile Noah gave him, suggesting perhaps he was thinking along the same lines.

Just as the introductions were wrapping up, the group turned to see Martha standing at the edge of the tables and swinging an old cowbell in her hand. "Alright, all you youngen's better get on up in here, before Jim decides to throw you in the jail tonight! There is way too much food for us to eat by ourselves, and I'll hang anyone here if you up and disappear on us!" The sounds of laughter rang throughout the air as the crowd began gathering round. The group from the volleyball game sauntered in as well, and before long, a wide semi-circle formed around her. Jim Hunt also stepped forward then to join his wife, and both smiled pleasantly at the group until the noise died down. It was Martha, however, who spoke again. "Now, I know all of you are here for just some plain-old fun and food, but in case you don't know it, we're also sort of having a celebration tonight, too."

"Pete's birthday?" someone called out from the crowd curiously in the silence.

Jim, however, shook his head. "No, we still have a couple of months to go before that one," the man said before clearing his throat. "It just so happens though, that yesterday afternoon I got a call from the academy upstate, where Pete has been attending training for these last six or seven months. As it turns out, I was informed that Pete here has passed all of his finals, and will graduate next week." An outcry of surprise went out among those present, but no one was more surprised than Pete himself. With a stone-still expression of shock, he stared at the man speechless. Jim laughed as he walked over and grasped the boy by the arm, pulling him into the center of the open space as a round of applause went up.

Off to their side, Justin suddenly laughed and squealed, adding his own shouts of approval to the rest of the crowd. When the noise died down, Pete finally turned to the Sheriff and sputtered. "H-how did y-you, I mean, they said they... huh?"

"The captain up there and I are old friends," Jim finally explained, after laughing heartily. The man then looked out into the crowd. "In case you've not heard, Pete has been working to get into law enforcement, and graduating means he can work as a State Trooper now, or come join us at the office here in Adair County, if he wants to. It's not an easy course to undertake, as they have upped the ante somewhat in recent years, and graduating has become a little bit tougher. As I understand it though, Pete passed very favorably when they got finished. It goes without saying, Martha and I both are right proud of him, as you might imagine." Another round of cheers went up, causing the Sheriff to pause before he could continue. "So, assuming he joins us here, you young men and women better be careful from here on out, and stay off of the sidewalk. Deputy Haskell is going to start up in a couple of weeks, and I'm going to have to hang him by his gonads if he let's too many people slide by the law!" Yet another round of laughter rocked through the group at the implied joke, causing even Pete to blush again before the man clamped a hand upon his shoulder and squeezed it reassuringly.

When the noise subsided, the atmosphere took a more serious turn. "Okay, enough of that. Now, I know some of you here are not much of a church-going group, but as a family, we are. I'd appreciate it really, if you'd willingly let us have just a moment to at least say grace, if that's alright?" Seeing and hearing no objections, the man then bowed his head, which most in the crowd followed suit with. It was a simple, quiet prayer that was invoked, one to bless the food and each of them with safety and security in the days, weeks and months to come. When the man added a quiet "Amen!", both he and Martha were quite happy to hear several of the others in the crowd resonate their respects in a similar manner.

The mood suddenly changed again, becoming lively. Someone in the background restored the music that had been playing, as conversations began again throughout the guests. Going around the table, each began filling their plates from the multitude of dishes found there, laughing and carrying on as teens typically do. Noah glanced across the crowd, thinking about the different ones he had known before, and was impressed with how they conducted themselves now - compared to only a few short years earlier. It was the same with himself and Jesse - they had matured, leaving behind a lot of the boyishness that had defined them in junior high and lower grades. This crowd no longer seemed to have the class clowns, or the 'wildcats' - as some had been called. It wasn't so much anymore of the me-me-me generation that had identified young adults in the past, either. At least for this crowd, it was more of the share and share alike attitude, something his father had always labeled from time to time as being the cusp of adulthood. Although Noah had understood the implications before, seeing it now made it seem more surreal.

As Noah's gaze fell upon Justin, he saw the boy standing on the opposite side of the table observing him. "Well? Are you going to finish with that potato salad, or do I need to go and find another spoon?"

Noah suddenly jerked out of his reverie, blushing as he handed the spoon in question over to the boy. "Oh, uh, sorry... I got lost there for a moment, I guess."

Justin laughed, however, shaking his head. "Lost? I'll say! Where were you at anyway, Disneyland?" When no reply was offered immediately, he looked up to find the other teen blushing deeply, but trying to move on. After shrugging his shoulders, the younger boy lowered his own voice to add, "Hey, no sweat, it's fine. I'm just ribbing with you, you know."

Noah suddenly grinned before shrugging the mood off. "I know, and it's okay, really. I was kind of out of the loop for a bit. So, you guys say Pete went to the academy, huh?" He asked, changing the subject. "Jesse and I heard that he had found somewhere to go after graduation, but I don't think either of us knew where it was. It does sound pretty cool, though. You guys will get another cop in the family, right?"

Justin nodded. "Yeah, I guess. As to finding out, I think Pete kept it kind of hush-hush and all. I mean, he got into the training camp right before Thanksgiving, I think. Grandpa pulled a few strings for him, from what I heard." He looked over at a plate of tomatoes and onions, then helped himself by piling a generous portion onto the edge of his platter. "I, for one, am glad for him, honestly." Looking up, he pointed with his fork down to the platter. "How about you? Want some of these?"

Noah nodded. "I like onions and to-mah-toes, as some peeps call them!" he quipped as the younger boy absently nodded and speared a set of each for the newcomer, which Noah then thanked him for. Noticing a change in the boy's demeanor, he paused. "Talk about me being in Disneyland.... You okay over there? Why so sad looking?"

Jesse just then joined the two, overhearing the last remark before looking up. "Huh? Who's sad? What's up?" he asked nonchalantly as he fell into step behind his best friend. Noah nodded across the table.

"Justin and I were just talking about Pete graduating and all," Noah replied.

Justin, however, grunted. "Well, I'm not exactly sad, just... I don't know, I'm kind of dreading it in a way, I guess." He looked around and then shrugged. "Let's just get our food for now. I'll explain in a bit... okay? You got enough tomatoes? Oh, wait, you called them... huh? Do you guys really call them 'to-mah-toes'? Isn't that like some kind of a British thing or something?"

Jesse laughed, shaking his head as Noah grunted. "I said it to see if you were listened, goof ball!" he retorted, but then laughed as well. The three then went about finishing their work before moving away from the food and into the lawn. Several lawn chairs had been setup for the group, but Justin nodded toward a corner of the lawn off to the right. "Hey, how about we go sit on that old quilt over there? It's like, huge!" The older two nodded and followed him to the corner of the yard. The quilt was indeed an older one, looking rather aged and worn overall. Not surprisingly though, the large bedding piece did cover a respectable area on the ground, easily providing a place for several people to sit and relax. Once they had settled to the ground, Justin was quick to take a large bite of his burger. Feeling rather hungry themselves, both Noah and Jesse followed and did likewise.

Some minutes passed as they ate in silence and watched the others grabbing seats at the picnic table, or finding other places around the lawn where they could enjoy their own food. In the distance, Pete stared at the trio momentarily as if trying to decide whether he should join them or not. That decision was made for him, however, as several of his other peers called for him to join them. As they scooted aside and made room, he smiled impishly at the trio. Jesse only laughed and shook his head, knowing fully well that they would have a chance to catch up later.

"Well, Pete is going into law enforcement, yeah," Justin finally piped up, catching the other two boys' attention afterwards. "Like I mentioned earlier, I'm really am happy for him. It's just that, well, now it carries more danger and all for him - more than a lot of people realize, I think. Not to mention, too, the fact that there are a lot of long hours that go with the job. Most people in law enforcement see, work anywhere from 55 to 60 hours or more, per week. Grandpa, well, he's a little more fortunate I think, so it's not as bad for him. He's still on-call though, for like, 24-hours a day, 7-days a week. So, whether or not he's home or out in the field, he's always on the clock."

Noah hesitated slightly, but then nodded. "I think I understand what you mean, yeah. I know they never have enough people to really cover the area."

"Yep. Grandpa is always talking about how they're limited on funds and everything," Justin replied, before shrugging. "Oh well, politics, I guess."

Jesse snorted at that while he was taking a drink. The others laughed, and then suddenly Linda was standing beside him. "What, do I always give you that kind of a reaction?" she hissed, laughing herself.

"Urg, uh... nnoooooooo..." the teen sputtered before laughing. She asked she could join them, and both he and Justin made a space for her to sit. The four then chatted amicably for a while, while enjoying their food and catching up on recent months of events and news.

It wasn't long, however, before they noticed another familiar person at the food line, along with Pete - who had obviously gone back for a second round with some of his friends. When they reached the end, the newcomer noticed the group and began steering herself in their direction. Pete began to follow her, but was once again interrupted when Martha called out to him from the area of the rear porch.

"Hey, guys!" Addison greeted them as she sat down. Turning to Justin, she proceeded to introduce herself. "Hi there, I'm Addison. I used to live next door to Jesse and his family before the tornado hit a few years ago."

Justin beamed at the girl as he held out a fist, which Addison readily bumped. "Glad to meet you, Addison! I'm Justin, uh, Pete's long-lost cousin, of a sort."

Linda snorted. "Don't believe that one for a minute, girl. He's far from long lost!"

Addison laughed as she settled in, arranging her plate of food in front of her. "Justin... Justin... yeah, I've heard about you. You're the one Pete goes on all the camping and fishing trips, aren't you?"

Justin raised an eyebrow. "You've heard about those?" He immediately feigned a suspicious expression. "Okay, confess - what has Pete been telling you guys about that stuff?" Seeing both Jesse and Noah look on in surprise, he immediately turned his attention to the two girls, who were by then grinning widely at one another. "Like I said, come on! Spit it out - good, or bad!"

Linda finally laughed. "You forget, Pete and I were pretty much buds through high school. And Addison, well, we're kind of best friends, you know? So, I kind of hear stuff from Pete, and Addison-"

"I kind of keep up with our gang a little bit, yeah - even though I'm in college," Addison piped up for herself. After taking a bite of food, she looked at the younger boy straight in the eye. "I promise, it's all been good stuff, nothing dirty or bad."

"Whew!" Justin finally replied with a sigh of relief. "I mean, it's all cool, just..."

"Well, I did tell her about your little white-river-rafting-thingy last summer," Linda admitted slyly with a look of amusement.

Immediately the younger boy became crestfallen. "Oh, no... not that, please..." When both girls began giggling, the group watched as the boy began blushing deeply.

Jesse and Noah glanced at one another, lost in the conversation. "Uh... huh?" Jesse finally asked.

It was Justin who then grunted, however, and then decidedly shook off his mood - something that did not escape Jesse's notice. "It's nothing horrible, just... I ended up getting dethroned by Pete, over at Rough River Gorge." He looked up with a smirk. "You... you guys do know what that means, right? Getting dethroned?"

Both girls began giggling, and Noah grinned widely in understanding, but Jesse continued to look on in confusion. Addison finally leaned in closer, lowering her voice to explain. "He means he lost his bottoms, underwear and all."

Jesse started to laugh, caught up in the amusement with the others as Justin blushed once again. "What? Oh! How the heck... I mean..."

Surprisingly, the younger boy laughed, shrugging aside his apparent embarrassment. "Not a story I readily want to get into here. Maybe later though, if you really want to hear." He sighed. "Suffice it to say, I think Pete must have told everyone from the sounds of it and all. Well, maybe not you two guys, but then again..."

"I wouldn't say that, Justin. I mean, like I said, Pete and I were kind of buds and all. I don't think I've ever told anyone else except maybe Addison," Linda offered.

"Well, I know I've never told anyone either," Addison added.

Justin sat for a moment before shrugging, once again tossing the event aside. "It's okay, I guess I don't really care." Looking up at the other two boys, he explained. "Long story short? We went kayaking, and we both ended up capsizing - you know, flipping upside down. I was ahead of Pete see, and we went through this stretch of rapids and all when I lost control. It wasn't too bad for me to get out and all, but I had a hard time standing up afterwards where we were at, and after I fell a couple of times, Pete came by me and reached out. See, he grabbed me by my belt, and then, well, for some reason it broke, and as I went down again, he's like hanging onto me for dear life and all!" The others giggled as he sat up straighter. "There I was, moving headfirst downstream and so, um, yeah - Pete had no idea what he was holding onto. I mean, he was just trying to keep from capsizing himself and everything, without letting me go, you know? But... he had grabbed my pants, and everything at my waist, and... well... you know, with my belt broken and, they were kind of loose cut-offs and all ... he, uh, ended up stripping me down to my ankles." When the others began giggling harder, the younger teen just grinned. "I mean, I didn't mind it, there wasn't anyone else around, but... life got interesting for the rest of the day, see. Because I didn't have a belt anymore, and well... Sitting was okay, but walking and everything, in those cutoffs and all, it uh, well..." He fell silent then, grinning, but obviously blushing as the memories of the adventure returned.

"That's not so bad, I guess," Jesse admitted finally, reaching out and lightly punching the boy on the shoulder.

"It wasn't, trust me." The voice came from Pete himself as he appeared, carrying a tray of bowls filled with what appeared to be homemade ice cream. After taking a seat, he started handing them out. "Sorry, Martha said to bring these along, since it looked like you guys were about finished, or close to it anyway." Once distributed, the young man relaxed. "I wanted to give him hell about it, but he was being a good sport and all, and well, it was okay. It's not like weird shit doesn't happen sometimes, you know? The only bad thing about that day was seeing Justin's white ass! I mean, it was so blindingly bright it scared all the fish away for miles, I think!"

Laughter erupted all around the group again, except for the younger boy. He grinned, however, not seeming to mind the ribbing as he started to stir the ice cream in his bowl. Once again, Jesse noted the carefree attitude he seemed to have, and it made him warm up to the boy even more. Moreover, he also noted that Pete's attitude was different, too. Something in the older boy had definitely matured in recent years. He could imagine Pete's reaction in a different time and place years ago, not being so accepting. With everything now combined - including the graduation, news of going into law enforcement, the change in demeanor and personality - this was the kind of Pete no one years ago would have given any hope for turning out this way. To Jesse, it was cool that their once bullying nemesis, a definitely troubled kid, found a life beyond the barren road he originally traveled.

The group continued to chat for some time, all the while others were coming and going at various intervals. Pete himself rose to join other groups and mingle with his guests as a host should, receiving praise and accolades for his recent accomplishments, something the boy started to slowly take an immense amount of pride in. It was some time later that both girls finally stood and bade the boys goodnight, giving Noah and Jesse deeply satisfying embraces alike. In fact, while Linda was reaching out for Jesse, who had stood to see them off, she pulled him in close and tight, making the boy grunt in surprise before she whispered something in his ear. Jesse then giggled and blushed deeply, but then slipped both arms around her and returned the embrace full-bodied, before promising he'd do his best to try and stay in touch.

It wasn't until after they left, when the trio returned to the quilt that Justin took a moment to stare at Jesse, before sliding a little closer. "Wow! So, what was all that about? Was she trying to get a feel of you or something?" he whispered, although loud enough that Noah picked it up and snorted.

Jesse hesitated, but then shook his head. "Nah, not really. You see, I used to have this thing about hugging girls and all. Like, how should a guy really hug and all, when you got those two, um, squishy things in front and everything, right? I used to think they were like, you know, kind of taboo and stuff, except for maybe boyfriend-girlfriend types. That made me feel weird, so I wouldn't really, uh, hug anyone up close. Well, girls, I mean. That is, until Addison kind of scolded me one night and taught me different." He nodded toward the two, who were suddenly laughing with Pete over something unintelligible. "So, Linda just said she'd heard all about it from you-know-who, which doesn't surprise me any. Especially after she told us about you earlier. She, uh, threatened to de-ball me though, if I didn't give her a nice hug too, right now."

Noah laughed quietly beside them, while Justin turned to grin at Jesse. "That's effing hilarious, you know?" the younger boy finally announced, giggling. "I do kind of know what you mean, though. I was that way for a while, too. At least, until my sister kind of grew some boobs, and well, I kind of learned it was okay to, like, not be afraid of them and all."

Jesse raised an eyebrow in surprise. "So, you're not nervous or anything about it then?"

"Heck, no!" Justin hissed, before laughing again. "The way I look at it, it's like reaching home plate and getting ready to go to bat - before you start trying to get to first base!"

Noah snorted, then started laughing, rolling over and falling to the quilt. The other two grinned at him, all the while Jesse shook his head. "I- I-, uh, never quite thought of it THAT way!" he replied.

Justin shrugged his shoulders after quieting down. "Meh, it's cool. Sex is sex in my book, guys, no matter how you dice it up with girls. Besides, honestly? And I'm not being sexy-minded here, or dirty, okay? It just, um, hugging and everything, it just kind of feels nice, you know? Hugs are one thing, but... when they're being close and all, it kind of feels more special and everything."

"We know what you mean, don't worry," Noah replied. The three fell silent for a moment before Noah, looking out over the thinning crowd, commented. "So, you were stripped bottom-bare and all. Anything else go with that secret? I mean, you kind of made it sound like there was more to it, earlier."

"There was, in a way. We caught up to our Kayaks and all, and then got them pulled up on one of the banks there. My pants and undies though, well, they were soaked totally through and all, and the trip was just a simple overnight thing, see? So, I didn't pack any spares or anything."

"So, what did you do?" Jesse asked.

"Well, I kind of had to set them out on some rocks in the sun to dry out for a while. I couldn't do just one and not the other, and... well..."

"Oh, so you had to go au naturel for a while, is that it? In front of Pete?" Noah asked, grinning again. "He didn't freak out, I hope!"

Justin simply shrugged. "Nah, he didn't. Besides, I didn't mind really, since it was just him there with me, but... there were others out that day, too, and well, I kind of had to hide or do something, you know? I mean, I didn't want just anyone seeing my family jewels, good grief!"

Jesse grinned, nodding. "Yeah, I get it. It's cool man, trust me."

Justin smiled in return, before stretching his legs out and shifting, propping on his side with his head elevated by his hand. "Thanks. I wasn't sure what those girls might have been told, so I was, you know, just kind of holding that out." The boy then sighed, looking up into the night sky. "So, how about you two? What have you been doing the last few years and all? Aren't you about to graduate high school?"

The next thirty minutes were spent chatting back and forth, Jess and Noah filling the teen in one what their lives entailed, all the while listening to Justin talk about both similarities and differences. After a while, he finally reared back. "So, you two don't seem like dweebs or geeks to me."

"Huh?" Jesse asked, frowning. "What makes you say that?"

"One of Pete's friends tonight, said he heard you were coming over. He called you dweebs, I think, saying Pete finally roped you into coming out here and all," Justin explained. "It's not like it was a bad thing, really. I just said that because, meh, like I said... You seem okay to me. You'd have to be really, if Pete likes you. Seriously, he's pretty hard on some guys, especially those with his old gang and everything. They gave him a lot of shit for a while, and he just dished it right back. They don't have much to do with him anymore, which I think is just fine. It doesn't mean it's all roses for him, though. Now days, he kind of just keeps to himself and, I don't know, hang around family and a few close friends here and there, I think."

Noah looked out across the crowd, but then turned back. "I don't know what makes a dweeb, but Jesse and me, we're not into a lot of things that some guys are, I guess. We didn't get into cars or motors, or fishing and hunting much. No one in our families really went out for it, so we kind of, I don't know, we just didn't get interested - other than for camping, I think. So, maybe that's why they'd say or think that about us. To be honest, it's not the first time I've heard someone say something like it, but meh, it doesn't bother me. Or rather, I don't think it bothers either one of us, really."

"I know it doesn't bother me," Jesse piped up in agreement.

"Yeah. As far as coming over here and all... Jesse and I really have tried to come before," Noah explained. "It's just, it never really worked out, you know? Honestly Justin, I mean, this last year at school has really been kind of busy and all - and then there's working up at the hardware store, and -"

"You don't have to explain it to me," Justin interrupted. "I know what it's like, honest. I just... For me, I've just always wanted to meet you two, that's all - especially the guy who handed Pete his nuts to him in the school cafeteria on a certain day a few years ago."

It was Jesse's turn to blush then. "I, uh... well..."

Justin giggled, before going on. "I told you, it's cool. I just... you really turned things around for him, you know that, right? I mean, Pete and I have had some long talks a few times. Those nights we went camping and all, or fishing... it lets you really talk about stuff and everything, and trust me, we talk about everything - families, girls, sex, you name it! He told me a lot about how big of a jackass he was back then, and how things were just spiraling down around him and all. Then when he went on the run, alone and everything, he started getting really scared. Especially after the night at that basketball game, where you were... uh, you know."

Jesse sat up a little straighter stretching, but then relaxed as he faced the other boy. "A lot of things changed that year, Justin. Not just for Pete, but for all of us. My little brother, my family, even for me and Noah. We were all in a funk, I guess, but life does that to people sometimes, you know? Pete was in a funk, too - though I can imagine it was probably a whole lot harder on him, at least for a while."

"Oh yeah, I know. From the very first time I met that oversized grump, I knew he was having a hard time working some stuff out. Don't ask me how I knew, I just... I did. I learned something out of all that though, you know? I learned that it was you... well, both of you, I think, that really turned it around for him. I mean, hell, you could almost write a book or something, you know? One of those drama stories or something about going from bad to good and everyone has a happy ending, right? That's what happened here, for Pete. From what I'm told, he totally turned from being a first-class jerk-wad into a really decent human being. I know, I know... it wasn't the best for him when he started back in school, but-"

"He told you about that?" Noah asked.

Justin paused, thinking. "He just said it was really hard for a while, because even though the school let him come back, nobody - no one in the classrooms, even the teachers - would trust him for a really long time. Most everyone thought he was a loser, and in the end, I guess he really just ended up being kind of a loner - except for maybe you two and Linda. Maybe Addison, too, but honestly - I don't think I ever knew much about her until I met her tonight."

"She is as nice as girls come, really," Jesse agreed. "You're right, Pete did have a really hard time, but Noah and I did our best and stayed with him. The basketball team really had it in for him, too, but eventually one of them gave him a chance, and then another person sort of forgave him. Before long there was another, and then later it started going through school and all, and... it just started getting a lot better."

"That's kind of what I heard, yeah," Justin nodded. He held Jesse's gaze steadfastly with his own, before continuing. "I meant what I said though, okay? Don't downplay it any... I mean, I don't know how much you've heard or anything, but Pete... for a while, he admitted to me there were some nights when he was all alone, that he actually cried. I mean, bawled like a little kid and all. I can remember, when you got hurt at that game, him telling me about it because he didn't want to hide anything from me. I could tell Jesse, it scared the shit out of him, and then when he met you two, he was practically peeing in his pants. But somehow, you forgave him, and it was like someone flipped a switch in him. He became the Pete I've come to know since then, and really respect. That's kind of hard to do to someone, you know? After being a hard-ass and all, then turning himself around."

"I hear you," Noah interjected, but also lowered his voice. "I can tell you though, Justin, the switch was already flipped before that. Pete was already beginning to change. He was already beginning to break free from his dad, and that sucky life he had with the gang and all, when he realized what he was missing out on. Then your grandparents taking him in? He got a lucky break, and I think he knew it way sooner than you think."

Justin nodded before turning and staring off into the night sky again. A moment later, he spoke in almost a whisper. "That reminds me, have you guys heard about his dad? I mean, his real dad?" When he saw them shaking their heads, Justin spoke again quietly. "Pete Sr. died last year. Got into it with someone up at the prison and they knifed him one night. Supposedly across the throat and all..."

Both of the older teens frowned. "Shit!" Noah muttered under his breath. "I'm sorry. I mean, I know he wasn't the best of people, but still..."

"Yeah, I know," Justin whispered in reply.

"How did Pete take it?" Jesse asked, quietly.

Justin shrugged. "He acts like it doesn't matter to him, but sometimes... I don't know, like I said, we get to talk sometimes on some of our trips and, well... it's the little things you hear, you know? That man was an ass, and worse. I always swore if I ever met him, I'd tear the man's dick and balls off and shove them down his own throat," Justin declared, equally as quiet, before sighing. "It's not hard to believe what made Pete who he was before, really. Why my grandparents ever gave him the chance they did, I don't know - but I'm glad they did. Honest, I can see now what comes from it all, and for that I'm really happy."

The trio grew quiet once again for a moment, as Justin stretched his neck, turning back toward the dwindling crowd and watching as others were taking their leave. As he turned back, his face was one of appreciation. "Anyway, none of that matters anymore, see? I got a cousin out of the deal, and maybe he's not a blood-cousin, I don't really fucking care. He has a heart, and I mean a really big heart, and best of all? He's not afraid anymore. You guys remember that, okay? I mean, just... you know, don't tease him about that part of it. He- He thinks a lot of you both, and now, after meeting you tonight, I think I understand why. I just wish... well, I just wish we had met long before now."

Jesse smiled. "Well, we made it tonight. There's no reason we can't do it again soon, you know. Maybe we can get together and go with you guys on one of those camping trips or something."

All at once, two eyes opened wide as the boy beamed. "You guys would go with us sometime? Really?"

Noah scoffed. "Sure, we would! Why not?" He suddenly laughed. "Just, uh, no streaking in wide open spaces!"

All three giggled at that while Justin rolled onto his back. "Ah, nothing to worry about there, I promise. I'm not one of those California free-spirits or anything! I don't practice nudism or anything!"

The older two laughed. "It wouldn't bother us either way Justin, I promise," Jesse announced. "Noah was just teasing. But yeah, if you two wanted we could definitely go camping some weekend. Or, I don't know, maybe take a day trip up to Kentucky Kingdom or something. I've heard Pete talk about loving to go up there and all."

"Yeah, he does like it. We've been twice- no, three times, I think." The younger boy sat back, reflective for the moment. "You know, that would be okay, but do you know where I'd really like to go? Have you ever heard of a place called King's Island?"

Noah frowned, studying hard. "That's... that's the one in Ohio... isn't it?"

"Yeah, just north of Cincinnati. It's about a three-to-four-hour trip or so from here, I think. It's got all these water parks and slides that I think would be a blast to see and do, plus it has a lot of other stuff, too, like wild roller coasters, and... and..." Justin explained before running out of steam and catching his breath. "Dad's brother, my uncle, told us not too long ago that he could get some discounted tickets for us if we ever go, but so far none of us have really planned it or anything. We didn't know if Pete might have more training to repeat, or... you know."

Noah glanced at Jesse and saw his best friend nod. "I get it, yeah... Then, maybe we can do it - but only if your parents are okay with it. I mean, okay with the four of US going up there."

Excitedly, the younger boy suddenly wheeled around until he was sitting cross-legged and facing the other two. "Seriously? You're not kidding me, right?"

Jesse nodded, but then cautioned the youth. "Like Noah said though, your parents have to give you the okay. I mean, that Justin. Think about it: as far as they know, Noah and I are just strangers to them, you know? They may not like the idea of-"

"Shut up!" Justin hissed, but then followed with an absolute grin that betrayed his growing elation. "Remember what I told you, about Pete, and the two of you? Believe me guys, my parents know all about you both, too. Well, mostly anyway. I've heard Grandpa talking before with my dad, telling some of the stories about you guys back then. That's how I come to know a little about you too, you know! Anyway, I'm sure if Pete goes along with it, my parents will, too! Honest, that's... that's..." The boy glanced around to make sure no one was nearby before he whispered. 'That's fucking fantastic!"

Jesse and Noah could not help but giggle, both being drawn in by the warmth of the boy. Jesse raised his hand flat, and accepted a high-five from their new friend, which was reciprocated by Noah. "All we have to do then, is figure out the when, and then Jesse and I have to save up a little money," Noah remarked, settling back and stretching his legs out as well. "But - you get your parents to okay it, then work with Pete on a couple of dates that you can get free and let us know. We'll get back to you afterwards. Deal?"

In reply, Justin launched himself at Noah, surprising the boy as he was tackled back onto the quilt and engulfed in a bear-like embrace. Before he could respond, the boy let go and rolled off, only to rise to his knees and do the same to Jesse, who laughed. He did, however, take a few seconds to not only return the embrace, but also to nuzzle him in the neck as he brought the youth in full-bodied as well. He held him without fear, as up close and personal as he could make it between them. It was something the younger teen, although surprised, seemed to relish as he pressed in and did the same in return.

It was only for a moment, an instant in time perhaps, but something passed between them before Justin finally pulled back. If it had been up to him, he would have clung on longer, but that was the way of things for the moment. Instead, as they smiled at each other, his mouth formed in the voiceless words that Jesse and Noah had shared endless times before between themselves: 'Thank you.' In return, Jesse simply nodded, knowing full well the impact was felt both ways. It wasn't just a thank you for planning a trip, but a symbolic thank you of trust and gratitude that had opened up between them. He glanced at Noah and saw the knowing smile there, before his friend nodded in acceptance, fully understanding the sentiment.

As the teen rolled off, Pete walked up to them quietly. Jesse, noticing the boy first, quickly glanced around the yard and saw they were literally alone just then, as everyone else had finally departed. Without hesitation, the older boy dropped onto the quilt and pulled himself up close to his guests, before heaving a sigh. "Yeah, we're it now. Everyone else has gone home." After a moment of silence, he gave his cousin a wry look while turning his attention to his guests. "Well, I guess you've now met my pain-in-the-ass, doofus of a cousin, Justin."

The younger boy turned and punched Pete playfully on his arm. "Hey, be good now! I've been playing nice tonight, haven't I?" he retorted, before rearing back to prop himself up on his hands again and he nodding at their two remaining guests. "You might could say that though. We've met and then some. I knew you liked these two, but I don't think I ever really understood the why of it until tonight."

Pete grinned sheepishly. "They kind of rub off on you, don't they?" he quipped.

"He rubbed off on us too, though," Noah himself retorted, scoffing as he shifted around more comfortably.

"He's pretty cool, too, I think. I understand now why you've talked about him some of the few times we got to see you," Jesse added.

Pete laughed. "He's a nut case, really." Glancing at his cousin, he went on. "You two wouldn't believe what we went through that first Christmas. I mean, this guy here, gets in a bed with me, because that's all we had room the way everything worked out that night out, see? He gets in bed with me, which is a kind of a first and all for me, and then has to spend the next half-hour or so, teaching me how to be a human being. You understand, right? I had never slept with anyone before that night-"

"Oh, heck yeah," Justin laughed as he recalled the evening. "He was hugging the edge so close a mouse could have pushed him out onto the floor!"

Pete smirked, but then nodded in agreement. "He was, well, like this ball of energy or something all night long, see, but then he stops and, well, he taught me how to stop being afraid of him like, raping me or something!"

The foursome laughed quietly at the remark, until Justin scoffed. "If you think that's funny, you should have seen him the next morning. He practically had a friggin' heart attack or something at seeing my naked ass!" More giggling ensued, but the look of curiosity on the newcomers faces prompted the boy to explain. "I mean, it was nothing, really. I just changed clothes in the room with him is all. Big deal, right? But this big oaf freaked out like... like some prude or something in a ... in a..."

"I did not spaz out like some prude," Pete retorted, laughing. "Well, not exactly anyway. It was, I don't know, just not expected. Especially with you changing your underoos..."

"Hey, I never wore underoos, thank you very much!" the younger boy declared, playfully punching his cousin on the arm. "Now, I might have had some Batman shorts back then, but..." They all four laughed as Pete and Justin traded more jibes, but eventually settled in to agreeing to disagree.

Jesse caught Pete's attention and smiled knowingly. "In other words, you got introduced to something you'd only so much as heard about up until then, didn't you?" Seeing Pete's look of curiosity, the teen lowered his voice again. "You got to see and feel what it means to have a real family around you, Pete. Up until then, that's something you'd never really had before, was it? I mean, you practically grew up alone when your mother disappeared, right? Your Dad and those friends of his... that was the only family you had for a while, and we know how that turned out." Jesse was trying to be careful with his choice of words, not knowing if Justin knew the full story or not, but Pete understood.

"It's okay, he knows," Pete observed quietly, turning to glance at Justin.

The younger boy hesitated, but then whispered, "You mean when you got, um, rear-ended?" Pete nodded.

Jesse observed them both momentarily but then returned to his point. "That wasn't what family was about, Pete. Between you and Justin here, and their family, you finally got to feel something from the inside, though - with people who cared, and who were willing to trust you. Right? You got to understand what having brothers and sisters and cousins and all that was really like."

Pete became somber then, and looked up into the sky briefly before bringing his gaze back down to the three of them again before speaking. "I- I know. I mean, everything, Jesse... everything you had been trying to tell me up until then - in school, on the bus, and even in the damned cafeteria that day? You're right, I didn't really get it. I could use the excuse and just say it was because I was being me, an absolute asshole about everything, I know... but really? I can look back at it now and... and I just, I know better. I didn't get it then because I didn't understand, and that scared the shit out of me, I think. A lot of feelings were opening up inside, the kind I had never even imagined existed before, and I just... I just lost it for a while. I thought of a lot of stuff as just being gay, or sissy-like, or just... just wrong, you know? That is, until that Christmas Eve night and the next morning. After being in this family, and seeing and living it, and... and then when Justin, he... he..." Suddenly Pete was choked up, unable to continue. A full range of emotions were on display, and although the older boy did not hide it from the others, he did smile weakly as tears began to escape and run down his cheek. "It isn't what this rug rat did that got to me, honest. I know, sometimes he still thinks it is, but... but really, what it came down to was exactly what you had been trying to teach me, Jesse... you know? That... that family... family was a whole different game, and that there was something okay with actually believing in it. Then Justin, he- he did that to me, and, and thanks to you, I finally learned. I finally understood it, on the inside. It took a few days after, I know, with everyone forgiving me before I could learn to finally forgive myself, but that's when I realized and understood it all." He suddenly laughed. "You know something? That was the best fucking therapy I EVER got from anyone. What you guys gave and did for me that Christmas, you know? I'm sorry, I don't... I mean... I don't mean to be so mushy about it, I just... I just..." He then fell silent.

Jesse smiled, his own eyes growing moist as he listened, knowing what he heard was coming from the heart. He offered the teen a fist-bump, which Pete accepted gladly before engaging one with Noah as well. It was then that Justin quietly moved over next to his cousin and placed an arm around behind him. Seeing Pete blush, the younger cousin quietly admonished him. "Hey, it's okay. We're all allowed to be mushy every once in a while. Besides, you gave me something that night too, remember? I gained someone to hang out with, and I've never traded you in for anyone else since, have I? That's not going to happen, I promise."

"I know," Pete agreed, smiling. "But... guys, those few days, those few weeks - it helped. Oh God, did it help! I know, I've said this before, but I'll say it again: I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for all three of you. I mean, I can't tell you what that time was like back then at Christmas, and what it did to help me get myself straightened out again. I know, I owe it to a lot of people - your parents, Martha and Jim, and this family, and even this scrawny butt-head sitting here." The last was said with Pete leaning into the boy, a gesture to say he was anything but what the words implied, which Justin took amicably. Glancing in the direction of both Noah and Jesse, however, Pete added, "But I owe it to you guys, too - both of you. It is something for the rest of my life, that I will never, ever forget. I swear it."

"We believe you, Pete. We won't forget it either, buddy," Noah whispered. "The way I think we see it though, is it's just like you and Justin. We gained something out of it, too, that will last a long, long time."

"Yeah," Jesse added. "We kind of gained a new friend, too." Glancing at Justin, he smiled. "And we're still gaining even now, I think." The other boy returned the smile with an equal amount of warmth.

Pete suddenly took a deep breath and smiled. At one time in his life, such a reminisce would have been uncharacteristic of him, but not anymore. Not with these three seated around him. "Don't worry, I'm not turning into a wishy-washy wimp or anything. I just - I've got to say, I'm glad you two got to come, and I'm really happy Justin finally got to meet you. That alone made this whole night worth it, I think, just seeing you walk around the corner of the house."

"Hear, hear!" Justin reemphasized.

Pete suddenly laughed. "Hey, how about we all get together and do something sometime? And soon, too, before we get too tied down with other stuff. You guys are starting college this fall, right?" Seeing Jesse nod, the boy sat back, propping himself up on his hands. "Then, what do you say?"

Noah grinned at that point. "Well, it's interesting that you brought that up, really, because the three of us were just discussing something that might be kind of cool. That is, if Justin can get permission, and you can arrange a couple of days off and leave your uniform behind."

"Oh?" Pete voiced in surprise, both eyebrows raising in curiosity, which caused all three of the others to laugh before they began filling Pete in.

It was past midnight before Jesse and Noah were able to leave Pete and his cousin, having spent several hours laughing and joking with each other over events both past and present. Both boys had enjoyed the time immensely, finding themselves catching up on all Pete had been doing the last couple of years and then some. It also served in letting them get to know Justin even more, and finding the younger teen of the foursome to be as wholesome and original as his personality hinted to them from the beginning. He was a good friend, cousin and more to Pete, and it showed.

While leaving the driveway and turning onto the road, they headed in the direction of Noah's house. Both boys became quiet, lost in their own thoughts for some time. It wasn't long before Jesse noticed that his friend had turned off onto a different road than was expected, and glancing sideways, he raised an eyebrow. It did not go unnoticed as Noah simply smiled and shook his head. "We're not going far, I promise." Jesse nodded and said nothing more, making note of their surroundings as best he could in the night. The new-moon was shining high on the horizon, and although it's brightness provided some illumination over the valley, high clouds could be seen floating in and out of its beams.

Before long, Noah slowed the vehicle and turned off onto a rougher track, one only denoted by the space it provided and the outline of ruts that were made by previous vehicles over the years. The country roadway had no gravel, no pavement of any kind really, but it turned into a short field where Noah navigated to one side and stopped. Turning off the engine, he opened the door. "Come on, I want to show you something." Complying with his friend's request, Jesse stepped from the passenger side as well, quietly closing the door behind him before he started to make his way forward, following close behind his friend as they reached a tree-line and entered. Scarcely 50-feet beyond, however, they came out of the tress on the other side and suddenly stopped.

"Oh, wow!" Jesse called out softly, gazing out. Before them was the lake, stretching for miles in both directions. In the still moonlight, there was little activity to be seen, short of a few boats crossing in places, their running lights blinking non-discreetly. It was easy to see the shoreline, as the water itself was distinct enough to separate it from the outlines of the lake. They both could hear the waves lapping beneath them as well, as Jesse realized that the embankment they were standing on, merely dropped no more than twenty feet to the surface below them. The breeze from the west was gentle, but it still carried the faint odors familiar from a body of water, such as the lake.

Noah sat down with his legs hanging over the ledge, and patted the space next to him. "Come on, bro. Sit with me a few minutes." Jesse smiled and complied, still taking in the scenery around them. When he raised both eyebrows again, this time Noah could not help but giggle. "My Grandpa used to come up here and fish late during the night, sometimes. It was one of the few things he could do that Dad would never try to stop him from doing. At least, until the last few months he lived. His mind started to go bad, and he would get so confused, see. But, still... he'd come up here for hours at times, and this is where we would find him most of the time when he disappeared." Noah took a deep breath and sighed. "I even came up here with him once, maybe twice when I was like seven or eight. It was kind of boring to me, but I did okay. He would bring a quilt and I'd wrap up and sleep at his feet and all. It was kind of relaxing, really - just the quiet, and listening to the sounds on the lake and all."

"I'll bet," Jesse readily agreed. "How come you've never mentioned this before?"

Noah scoffed. "Honestly? I'd mostly just forgotten about it, I think. When I did remember it, I had to ask Dad where the turn-off was and how to get here." He then scooted back, but closer to Jesse was until they were practically leaning against each other. "Jess, today you said something about us, and... and it got me to thinking some tonight, you know? It's not a big deal in one way, but in another, well... I wanted to make sure you understood, especially what I tried to tell you afterwards. It was about our future, about being there as long as I would have you and everything. It's the kind of stuff that we don't really talk about that much, and I think... well, maybe it's because we, well, both of us are always so uncertain about the future and everything."

Jesse turned and stared at his friend for a few seconds before slowly nodding. "Yeah, I guess you're right. I just... sometimes, I'm afraid if we do talk about it, it might do something to us, or change us in some way. I mean, something that'll break this trust and everything we've built together, like we have right now."

"I know, and I think I feel the same way. I avoid talking about it because, I'm always afraid of how it will end up and everything. But... I think I have to do it now, whether I want to or not, because if I don't, well... we'll just, we may never do it, you know? We might never talk about it, or if we do, it might be like, a long time away and all." He shook his head. "I just... I want you to know something, okay? You know I'm not the best when it comes to words sometimes, not like you are, but... so just... just hear me out for a minute, okay? Give me that... please?"

Jesse broke their gaze and reached down, grasping Noah by his hand again and locking their fingers together. "I promise," he whispered, but there was a certain nervousness in his voice, and it did not escape Noah's attention as he squeezed back.

"It's okay, Jesse. I promise, too, to listen to you. You know I will, I always do, right?" Jesse considered responding with a tease, but he let it slide as Noah's attention shift while he stared out over the water. "Jess, I love you. There is no question about what you do for me, about what you fill me with on the inside. Before we ever met, I was resigned to the fact that, well, I'd live the rest of my life being alone, more or less just because I was gay. I mean, I tried hard for a long time to fight it, you know? But doing that made me a bastard, and I wasn't good to anyone around me, or even myself. You know all about that, with the way you and your family came into my life." He then turned to Jesse. "But now, ever since then... Ever since we kind of found each other, my life has changed. I'm not alone anymore, and us going to Western this fall, makes that reality even more important. I mean, I know I'm not dumb or anything, but college is different, and if I didn't have you to help study with and all, well... I don't know if I'd make it very well. At least, not as well as you and I have made it through high school and all, you know?"

"You'd have made it okay, bro. Believe me, I know you would," Jesse whispered, but then fell silent again.

"Well, maybe I would, or maybe I wouldn't. I do know this much - being away from you would tear me up inside, in ways you'd never understand, I think. I mean, I love you, but I can't imagine trying to go through college and you not being there with me. See? And... and... it's not just the college and studying and stuff, that's not my reason bro, so help me God! I promise, it's just... it's just... it's you, Jess. We've invested time together, in each other, just the two of us, into everything we have, and a whole lot more. You get it, right? You're in my heart, you're in my head, and... and forget about all the things we do for a minute, okay? Being gay and fooling around is one thing, but... but... you're in a part of me beyond all of that that, bro. It's like, you're in my soul even sometimes, you know? As far as I'm concerned, we're like... like peanut butter and jelly, like bananas and ice cream, like bacon and tomatoes, like-"

Jesse giggled as he squeezed his friend's hand again. "Okay, I get the idea, Noah. Trust me... I do."

Noah smiled as he gently squeezed back. "I hope so, I really do. I hope so because that's something very important to me, Jess. I mean, I didn't know how you'd feel about our future, but... if I could have you, for me, all the days I have left to live, I'd be happy bro. That's how I feel, right now, and I bet it's how I'm going to feel for a long, long time. See? it's not a question of whether or not I'd have you, or whether or not you'd have me. You'll always have me, as long as we're together. If something happens where we're not together for some reason, well... I think, I mean, you know it - on the inside, I would still never let you go... not completely. In my heart, we'll always be best-mates together, you know? If... I mean, if not physically, then at least in my heart we will." Noah paused, tears freely falling down his cheek. He saw Jesse about to say something, but he shook his head. "Please let me finish first, okay? I'm already about to lose it, and well..."

Jesse nodded, but unclasped and moved his hand in behind his best friend, circling his mid-section and hugging close. Noah smiled and leaned in before he continued. "Jesse, our future is, it's just... I know, being gay, being in our families, what we have in our church, and more... it, it's just... around here and all... it's not a good thing. You understand that as well as anyone would. We never talk about what could be down the road though, I guess because we know college is still ahead and all. That's okay, honest, but I just - I want you to know that, if we make it and all, I'm not interested in ever leaving 'us', okay? I mean that bro, coming from my heart. If we're still together and all, if you want, then... then it's okay with me. If we have to get married or something, then... we'll deal with it when the time comes, but... can't we, can't we just at least think about, maybe... maybe..."

"Always being together?" Jesse whispered, a tear escaping down his cheek as well. When Noah nodded, and it appeared he had finally finished, Jesse pulled back and rose up onto his knees. Taking care of their closeness to the drop-off, he shifted and straddled his best friend in the front, before pulling him as close as they could manage. By then Noah wasn't the only one losing trails of tears down his cheek. Jesse, too, was openly weeping, but not with tears of sadness. Instead, this was everything he could have ever have hoped for. For a long, long time Jesse had wondered, and worried about what would become of them. When they ended up being accepted and getting into the same university, they each had a reprieve knowing they would at least have a few more years together.

Now, hearing this, Jesse almost laughed out loud, knowing that now it not only opened a door to talk about it, but it opened a door within his own heart, and as he held his friend, he could feel the exchange came from that still small part that connected them even more than ever before. "I'm sorry," he whispered, but then pulled back enough so that he could physically sit in Noah's lap. Even in the dusky moonlight, they could each still see the other's face, and observe an unusual level of happiness between them. "I'm sorry I said it that way, bro, but I'm glad you didn't take it the wrong way. You see, I'm like you: you'll always have me in my heart, too. I just... I was being clumsy, maybe even dumb saying what I did. I don't doubt what we feel for each other, you know? I never have, Noah. I mean, it's easy to get side-tracked and busy with stuff sometimes, and maybe I get a little lonesome, wishing you were around. But you know something? When I think about you, I almost always end up smiling."

Noah nodded. "I feel the same way sometimes, too. I'm, well, I 'm just glad we still have some more time, but... after college, I mean..."

"After college, what? We'll just find us some jobs, close together, and then find us an apartment to share. Then, down the road, we'll find us a house, and we'll live together." Jesse voice began to break as he lowered his tone. "We'll always be close, and we'll always have us to take care of each other, too, you know?" Shaking his head, his eyes suddenly fell toward the ground. "Noah, I wish... I wish I had said something like this before, too, instead of avoiding it. You know I love you, too, but maybe it just doesn't always show up sometimes like it should. I mean, I am in it for the long haul, bro. That's how I feel, too. Just like you did, I don't, I mean, I can't really imagine us ever being apart, you know?" The last came out as a whisper, but when he looked up, he saw the smile and the expression that met his own. It was there now, in the open, and neither had any reason to doubt the other. "We'll make it, bro. I swear it, on my heart and everything I have. We'll be okay, I promise. As long as we have each other, we'll make it work."

"And our parents?" The question came as a whisper after a long pause, but Jesse understood the significance of what it implied.

"They'll already know, bro... long before that, trust me. So will Benji, and so will a few of our closest friends. The rest of the outside world can think all they want though, because honestly? It's nobody's business what we do on our own, you know?" Jesse smiled. "Believe me, I worried about it for a long time, too, but you know what? Benji still see's us as we are, and he's okay with it. Our parents, it might take them a little bit longer, but I doubt it will be anything worse for wear with them. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if our moms don't already have a bit of an idea already, but meh. It really just boils down to you and me bro. It always has, I think."

Noah finally smiled. "Then... you'd really be okay? Living together and... and... and all that stuff afterwards? Just us?" he whispered.

"'Be... okay?" Jesse shot back, but then smiled as another tear escaped. "Noah, you and me... yeah, bro. I'd be okay, I'd be more than okay." He leaned in then and kissed the other boy on his lips, and within seconds both had engulfed and were sharing the one thing that bound their trust together. When they kissed, there was a symbolic overture that just gave them each a feeling of freedom, and acceptance, in that lie deep within their hearts.

When moments had passed, Jesse finally broke the kiss and pulled back smiling once again. "Me? Oh yeah, I would be fucking fantastic!"

Noah grimaced. "Jess..."

"Don't tease me about swearing, Noah. I can say fuck with the best of them, I think, can't I?" Jesse asked amusedly. He then cocked his head to one side, however, and ten added, "But then again, if it came down to the doing it part, you'd be the only one that already knows the answer to that one, right?"

Noah smiled widely and then hugged his friend fiercely again. "God, I love you!" he whispered. When he looked up again, he whispered back, "Yeah, we'd both know all about that one with each other, and honestly, I'm kind of glad of it, too."

"Damn straight, we would," Jesse whispered back, before giving another quick, gentle kiss on the lips. "So, what do you say? Are you up for it? And if so, uh, do you want to strip and do it out here, or go home, or...?"

Noah only smiled, before hugging the other boy close again, feeling the warmness and intimacy they shared so freely with one another. Something just felt right with their world just then, and they both knew it.

Something that made them feel at peace.

It was all they could have ever asked for.

* * * T h e E n d * * *

Author's note: A special thank you to everyone reading, and for being patient for this last little bit to finally get finished. Any and all feedback is welcome, as usual. Provided life doesn't throw me any curve balls, I'll be back before too long, with a new effort. Thanks again!

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