When Shadows Pass

by Sean English

Chapter 8

Picking Up Pieces Is Not Always Easy

There was a sound in the distance, a thump out of place in the screaming crowd around him. It inadvertently registered just enough, within his subconscious, to bring Jason out of his slumber - and to realize that he truly was not in a pool. He was neither racing the length of the lane, nor competing as fiercely as he had thought. He was not pulling ahead of the other participants, and he was not about to stretch and win the match. Once he opened his eyes and got his bearings, Jason inwardly groaned, realizing what he had just missed. Closing them tightly, he tried to hang on to the dream, hang on to the feeling of euphoria that had thrilled his senses so completely. It was no use, though. He realized that it was a moment now long gone, and like so many dreams of his past, it would soon be forgotten. Opening his eyes, he sighed as he found their room again, filled with a monotonous grey overcast stemming from the early morning light.

Peering through the window to the outside world, he saw little activity from their second-floor perch. It appeared as if it had rained most of the night, as most everything was vastly wet. The wind was gusting once again, racing strongly at times while leaving a shrill behind in its place. As Jason lay back, he noticed a thin layer of frost creeping in at the corners. Staring, it finally registered with him: their week of exceptional weather was coming to an end. Although fully covered and snuggled under the quilt, his nose already felt cold. Sighing, he burrowed himself deeper into the bed, drawing on what warmth he could find.

Thinking about the night before, Jason smiled to himself. Somewhere deep down, there was a new happiness gripping him. Thinking back, he realized with a start that Elliot was no longer behind him. Reaching out and finding he was gone, it dawned on him that the 'thump' he heard must have come from the closing of the door. Just then, his own full bladder chose that moment to make its presence known, and he surmised that must have been what happened to Elliot. Most of the time his bladder lacked any sense of urgency when he awoke. Although he noted the pressing need, Jason sighed and decided he would ignore it for the time being. Instead, he rolled onto his back and began staring at the ceiling.

Throughout the night, they had both drifted into a peaceful sleep, each either holding or snuggling against the other. Jason had lived most of his life sleeping alone, and since moving to England, had been adjusting and getting used to having Elliot in the bed with him. The first night had not been that bad, probably because he was exhausted from the trip over. Afterwards though, the transition wasn't nearly as easy. He had been sensitive to the movements they made to each other, and the sharing of cover between them. There were also the inevitable bumps each made during the night, as the rolled over. Elliot had been great about it, however, always laying still compared to Jason's restlessness. His cousin never once complained, which was a relief to Jason. A week or more passed, before Jason felt more comfortable with the arrangement, and since that time it had become second nature to him. However, within the last few nights, it all changed again...

Jason could not help but smile again. There was something about that fateful moment, only two nights before - though now it seemed much longer since. Jason had finally taken hold of Elliot and pulled him up close, and found he craved Elliot's closeness as much as his cousin craved in return. Elliot never admitted it outright, always afraid he would cross some line that he shouldn't. Why, Jason didn't know at first, but now, Jason had gained a deeper understanding. Somewhere, somehow, he had been missing out on that feeling, too.

When he had closed his eyes, Jason recalled pulling Elliot up close. Feeling the teen spoon behind him had elicited another memory, but Jason wanted to shut that out, choosing instead to cling to the moment with his cousin. After feeling the power in that initial contact, Jason wanted to have Elliot hold and hug him even more. Whatever transpired, forced or not, Jason knew it had changed him. It was because of that trust Elliot so endowed to him, it led Jason to finally dissolve the barriers that surrounded him.

What a barrier it had been, too. Since his father had died, Jason had been scared to trust anyone. From the law enforcement officials, to the social services, to the foster parents, and even to the various doctors and nurses - all of them had let him down. He fled Tennessee and it's so called foster system, because all the intricacies and falsehoods it nurtured were, in his opinion, worthless. Jason recalled that, in his initial escape, he honestly didn't know if it would be any better here in England. He figured, though, it would at least be a chance to start fresh.

Starting over was the right choice - Jason felt sure of that without question. Especially after only being here for his first few days. In the short weeks that followed, he had gone from being alone, and from feeling like a nobody, to at least being a somebody. He was now living with a family who didn't treat him like a reject. None of the Flavell's laughed, or made fun of him, for being who he was - an orphan. Jason's new family was one he gradually began to accept, and he was beginning to love down deep. He saw a lot of similarities between Simon and his own father, and it helped knowing that these people were more than just acquaintances. They were a family, in a weird sort of way, and seemed to be as close knit as Jason and his father had been.

Then, finally, there was Elliot. Jason could not describe how he felt about his cousin. He had always been hesitant to use the word 'love' with any one person or place. To him, to love somebody was to give them a part of you completely, without strings attached. His Dad had always told him that love was such a strong force in the universe, and that it could never be managed. Instead, it was a connection that managed you, that taught you to unconditionally give of yourself, without looking for anything in return. Then if someone loved you back, you would always reap the rewards of getting as much in return. To him, that was the measure of an individual. No one was perfect, by any means, but if you found someone who could forgive you for your faults, as much as you forgave theirs, then it was worth everything the universe had to offer. Although at the time Jason only partially understood, he knew his father was trying to teach him something important. That lesson became all the more apparent now.

But wasn't that what he and Elliot had just done the night before? There was a physical sharing, born of curiosity and just being kids, he guessed - but wasn't there something more? Jason had told Elliot his deepest secrets, and Elliot had not even flinched. Nor did his cousin preach to him about finding help. Sure, he suggested Jason think about a few things - and he had very sound reasoning to back it up. More than anything, however, Elliot had accepted Jason for who he was, despite everything that had happened to him.

If that wasn't a love of sorts, Jason didn't know what else could define it.

While he pondered that, the door to their room quietly opened, and Elliot sneaked through before closing it. Jason smiled even wider, seeing his cousin was as naked as the day he was born. As Elliot hurried toward the bed, Jason threw the covers back enough so the teen could slip in quickly. Pulling them back up, Elliot cuddled up close to Jason, shuddering.

It caused Jason to grimace, as the cold skin mingled with his own nakedness. "Sheesh, you're freezing!" he whispered. He put his arm around the shivering figure and pulled him in tightly. As they lay there, Jason looked down in kindness. There was a change now in how Jason saw his cousin, in a good way. Jason felt happy inside - a level of real happiness he hadn't let himself feel for a long, long time.

Elliot eventually turned and lay his head into the crook of Jason's shoulder, while wrapping the covers tightly around him. "It's c-cold," he stuttered. Seeing the smile on Jason's face, he asked, "What?"

"Nothing, just thinking, that's all." Seeing the look of curiosity, Jason explained. "I don't see how you can go all the way downstairs naked and everything. I mean, like what if your Mom caught you or something?"

Elliot grinned and then shrugged. "Sometimes that's the adventure, though! You know, trying to not get caught!" He giggled. "Still, I guess I'd probably hide or something. It's too early for them to be up anyways."

Jason rolled his eyes. "Duh, 'rents go to the bathroom like we do too, you know!"

Elliot looked at Jason strangely. "Not ours, though. I mean, not downstairs. Don't you know? Mum and Dad have their own bathroom. It extends out the back, over the one downstairs and everything. It's not as big, but..."

Jason was surprised. "No way! I mean, no - I didn't know, you guys never told me! At least, wait, I'm not sure. Maybe you or Derek did say something..."

Elliot grinned and then cuddled in tighter. "Sorry, it doesn't matter though. I was thinking we had. Well anyways, now you know, doofus. So, how about warming me up some more, okay?"

Jason nodded, not speaking at first as he observed his cousin in the morning light, his arm moving under the covers as he rubbed Elliot's back. As he nuzzled him, he felt the silky softness of his hair. Right now, Jason felt lucky to have Elliot there, but luck was an understatement. He honestly had no idea why he deserved what he was experiencing right now. "How is you?" he finally whispered, knowing his use of the phrase wasn't exactly proper. It was one of those expressions, however, they had made up on their own.

Elliot liked hearing that, also understanding it as something unique between them. Glancing up, he smiled. "Other than being cold? I is super," was the quiet response, playing along.

The look in Elliot's eyes reaffirmed to Jason that his cousin was feeling just as happy. "I'm glad," Jason responded. "Any regrets, Elliot? You know, about last night?"

"Funny, I was thinking about asking you the same thing," Elliot quipped, amused. Seeing Jason raise an eyebrow, however, he leaned in quickly and planted a soft kiss on the teen's lips, before pulling back to gaze deeply into the blue eyes that met his own. It expressed, Elliot hoped, how he felt. "Regrets? Fuck no, not me. I don't think I've ever slept better in my life, feeling you around me."

"I like that, when you kiss me like that," Jason replied. "I know, it's weird, maybe stupid... but I like it," Jason whispered as he hugged Elliot again.

Elliot nodded. "I know what you mean. Boys don't kiss and stuff, especially like we're doing - but the secret is out, Jase. I like it too, at least between you and me. I'm kind of glad you asked me about it last night." He grinned widely. "Actually, I liked all of it last night though, not just that."

Jason giggled, thinking back to the other stuff that had happened. "Fuck man, we are in so much trouble if, you know..." He scoffed, leaving the sentence unfinished. He pulled Elliot closer as the teen grinned at him in return. Thinking back, Jason recalled how they had re-dressed before Derek got home. Somehow, the three of them ended up playing another long game of Monopoly again, lasting until the early hours of the morning. When they finally separated and Derek returned to his room, both he and Elliot had once again undressed each other. This time though, it was in the privacy of the darkness - and neither had the shyness that had accompanied their earlier shower. Climbing into bed, they had jerked each other again before falling asleep. The intensity had been strong, but the late-night hour combined with their exhaustion, had taken its toll. "I liked it last night, too. All of it," Jason finally replied, his voice still soft.

Elliot lay his head upon Jason's shoulder again. "Good, I'm glad. You took so long there, I was beginning to get nervous - like you might be having second thoughts or something."

Jason quietly shook his head no. "Nope, never, nada, no way." Sighing deeply, he continued. "The only thoughts I have now, is how do we, like, control this stuff between you and me. You know? I mean, Elliot, we... crossed something together last night, you know?"

Elliot peered into Jason's eyes and found not worry or concern, but something else he could not quite place. "Do you trust me?" he asked gently, already knowing the answer but using the expression for good measure.

Jason stared back at his cousin, bewildered. "How can you STILL ask me that?"

For some reason, Elliot giggled. "No doofus, I mean... look, nothing has really changed between us, not to anyone else anyway. Maybe we're a little happier, or closer. At least, I'm happier - no, I'm serious Jase," he pressed when he saw the look of incredulity cross his cousin's face. "I'm not afraid of letting people see us, umm, you know, hanging out closer and stuff. Some things are okay, you know? Some stuff isn't frowned on so much, not like it was where you came from. I mean, we don't want to act gay or anything, sure ... but - you understand, right? I don't know how to explain it, just - like I said, some stuff is okay. Just kind of follow my lead, that's all. You'll see it's not so bad hanging out, bumping into each other, goofing off and all that. The rest of this stuff, though..." He paused as he moved his free hand over Jason's body, feeling around until he reached Jason's soft groin. He cupped it to make his point, and inwardly it gave him a thrill when Jason didn't flinch or roll away. If anything, he detected the slightest smile on Jason's lips as he continued. "The rest of this stuff only happens in here, in our room. And I mean it that way too, okay? It's OUR room - not my room, not your room - but OUR room. In here, I don't care what happens, so long as we trust each other. Understand?"

Jason nodded and smiled. "That can work mostly, I think. Um, what about the showers and stuff, though? Remember, that's sort of what got us in trouble to start with."

Elliot rolled his eyes. "Yeah, I know - me and my big mouth and everything." He grinned when Jason pinched the top of his butt underneath the covers. "We might have to be careful some, that's all. I mean, it's not too often we get left alone anyway, you know?" A bemused expression crossed his face as a thought came to him. "Besides, you mean you would shower with me again? Even after last night? It wasn't like, a one-time thing or ...?" he teased.

It was Jason's turn to roll his eyes. "I refuse to answer on the grounds you'll incriminate me," he replied, which made the English teenager laugh at him. Their eyes met however, and Jason smiled at him. "You know I will. Especially if what you told me is right - about having to shower after gym class and all."

Elliot nodded. "Yeah, but I meant..."

"I know what you meant," Jason teased. "But the answer is yes, I would do it again. In a heartbeat." He hugged Elliot again. "Answer me something though, one more time, and be honest: did I really surprise you that much?"

Elliot hesitated, thinking about how he felt when it all went down. "Kind of, yeah. I mean, don't get me wrong, I didn't think you were so much a prude anymore or anything. You kind of convinced me of that before then, but... I don't know Jase, I just - believe me or not, I think I was more scared and nervous when it all started."

Jason wrinkled his nose. "Really? How come?"

"I don't know. I mean, you know me - I can get hyper sometimes, and well... We were just beginning to get to know each other, you know? I mean, I've wanted to kind of do something. I kind of wanted to get you sort of use to the way things are over here, with guys and peeps our age. I wanted to help you not be bashful or anything, but I also wanted something more, too. That part of me was probably just my hormones kicking in or whatever. But after what you told me last night? And then, when you started to take me back into the bathroom and I understood what was happening, I was like, whoa! Does that make sense? I got scared, not for my part - I didn't care about being skinned in front of you. I think you've known that since the beginning, right? But last night, I was afraid you might be doing it for the wrong reasons. And... and knowing what happened to you now, I just, I was scared. I was afraid you were doing it because I pushed you into it. You know, me and my big mouth and all. You - you've had all this bad stuff happen to you, and... I don't know what that does to a person, honest, but you... you..."

"Hey," Jason whispered softly. "It does what it does, okay? I mean, yeah, it eats at me some what they did to me. But Elliot, the sex stuff those creeps pulled on me was nothing like what we were doing. You know that, right? I was okay with us, honest! I thought you understood that!"

"I know, I did! I mean, you tell me that at least. But Jase, think about it. Here I come in, wanting to mess around and stuff, and not even know about it..." He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "I'm sorry bro, I'm really sorry. I did push you, and... and, I felt like I went too far or something. I just wish you had gutted me or something, honest. I just, even with the simple stuff we did, like the shower and everything - I was scared you might end up thinking I was ... you know, you might end up hating me."

"Why would I hate you? Sheesh! Do you think I would have thought you were gay or something?" Jason asked softly. "I wouldn't have cared, Elliot, honest."

Elliot couldn't let it go, he had to make sure Jason understood. "No, not that." He thought hard for a moment. "Because getting naked is one thing Jase, all by itself. It shows a certain kind of trust between two people and everything. But getting close? And... and... like we did? That's a whole different level and everything, it's more personal. It's like, you let me inside of you, and I let you inside of me, and..." Elliot didn't have to finish the sentence. He saw Jason smile in understanding. Still, he plunged ahead. "I would let you inside me any day, Jase. If it helps you heal and feel better, here I am. I just, I'm so glad you let me inside of you, too. I never thought you would do anything more than maybe, you know, just jump in a shower with me. Having that much trust, when just the two of us are together, oh man..."

Jason nodded. "Well, from what you tell me, I'm going to have to do it anyway some day in school, so it's not that big a deal. Right?"

"No! I mean, fuck, don't get me wrong here! When you do stuff like that, the showers in school and all, it's sort of like you have to and everything. Guys expect it, and it's just different. What we did last night, though - that wasn't something we had to do. It was way different, because the reason came from a whole different place. See? You wanted to do it, and I wanted to do it, and ... and..."

"Hey, calm down, Elliot! I understand, I promise!" Jason exclaimed quietly.

Elliot saw the expression that met him and felt relieved. "Jase, listen. Before, I think I would have been happy with just getting you willing to be naked around me, in here, in our room! Seriously, like when we get dressed and stuff, or change for bed and all. That would have meant so much to me all by itself. And you know why by now, right? Because, it would have let me know you did trust me like, maybe like a real brother would or something."

Jason hugged his cousin, nodding in understanding. They were silent for a moment, before Elliot took a deep breath. "Last night, Jason, you did so much more than that. You showed me a part of you on the inside. You showed me a real something that went beyond what we see. I mean, taking each other's clothes off? Hugging me - naked? And... and washing me everywhere?" The last came as a whisper. Elliot realized then he was still cupping Jason's groin, so he slowly pulled his hand away. "And then there was, like I said, before all of that. The things you told me and everything. It kind of hit me about how bad you were treated. That's why I was scared, for a while. It made me understand why you were the way you were, and it made me realize how fucked up I was pushing you like I did, and... and..." Elliot sighed, stopping his ramble. He was running out of words to explain. "What we did afterwards, that was something beyond anything I ... I ..."

Jason surprised Elliot by giggling quietly, before he stopped and nodded. "I know, it's not funny, I just... Trust me Elliot, I know what you mean." Jason thought about it for a moment. "You're not fucked up, honest. I never thought that before, and I still don't think it now, even after." Cuddling, Jason reflected. "Listen, I didn't think we would do as much as we did, either. I was just planning to shower with you, and let you touch me all over, and I was hoping you would let me touch you. I didn't plan anything else, at least not until, well, we just did it! I mean, some of that stuff last night? I think it just kind of happened because we went with it, you know? We didn't plan it or anything. To me, that was what made it fun!" He reached under the cover and found Elliot's hand. He held it for a second before pulling it back on top of where it had been before. Jason was soft, but he recognized how much it meant to his cousin, and he wanted to show him it was alright. "You want to know the truth? I was sort of nervous, too."

"But, you were okay with it?" Elliot whispered. "You still don't have any regrets, right? For everything afterwards?"

"No regrets, Elliot. I promise. It was cool, all the way." Jason stared deep into Elliot's eyes and smiled.

Elliot relaxed. "Why- Jase, why did you even let me? Can you tell me that much?"

"I don't know, Elliot. I think, different times I sort of got the impression you wanted to do something more, and it just took me a while to get used to the idea, that's all. So, when I finally let my guard down last night, I didn't care anymore, because I felt free with you. Everything else, just sort of happened." He wrinkled his nose again. "Listen - I'm GLAD we did it, Elliot, honest. You don't have to worry so much about explaining anymore, okay?"

"I'm glad we did it, too. I'm way glad we did it." Elliot sighed, and then buried his nose into Jason's neck. "I didn't want you to be mad at me or anything. I- I was ..."

"Just horny?" Jason whispered. "You know, maybe I was, too."

"No way, Jase. I know better," Elliot scoffed. "I mean, yeah, I'm always horny sometimes, but... but... You don't even come close, you know? I watch you, and now after last night, I know why."

Jason shrugged. "Meh, I don't know. Like I told you - I haven't jacked off in a long time - a really long time. Who knows, I might have never done it again. Think about that, Elliot: if it hadn't been for you, I might have never stopped to even think about that stuff anymore. Don't forget, then there's that part you did to me, pumping me off and everything. You were right. I thought you might be screwing with me, you know, when you told me how it was different and better to let someone else do it. But then, it DID feel tons different, better even!" He saw Elliot smile, and was happy the mood was changing. "Listen, for me? It was, like, super cool. You know why? Because you didn't force it on me, and it wasn't dirty or ... or any of that crappy stuff like those creeps pulled on me. It was just you and me, you know?" Jason grunted. "And honest? Compared to my last few months? You gave me something back, Elliot. You taught me that I could have a friend again, a real friend, and not just someone that would push me away. Everything last night, I would do it all over again in a heartbeat."

"Even the sex stuff?" Elliot asked, his voice barely a whisper.

Jason wrinkled his nose. "Especially the sex stuff. I know it sounds corny, but... it was awesome!"

Elliot's felt a lump building in his throat. "Thanks bro, I mean... really, thanks." Hugging his cousin tightly, he whispered, "I love you, you know that, right?"

In reply, Jason leaned in and gave Elliot another soft kiss. "Yeah, I know. I love you, too." They rubbed noses together, relaxing and breathing each other in. "Listen, I'll admit something else if you want to know," Jason teased. When Elliot looked up expectedly, Jason whispered. "I understand now why you were so curious and everything. You kind of looked cool, too. I mean, naked and everything. Even your sausage, it was ... different."

"Really? I told ya!" Elliot replied, grinning. "Like I said, you just - okay, you more than surprised me, you shocked me I guess. Even now, we're even talking about each other, and you're talking stuff about me. Like, down there and all. And... and you're not afraid, and ... I just... you're awesome, Jase."

"I'm not afraid to talk about sex, or dicks, or balls or asses or any of that stuff, Elliot. At least, not with you! I just, I had to get to know you. On the inside, and then I had to, I don't know, learn to let myself trust you that way. When I couldn't trust anyone else, I learned to trust you." Jason kissed him on the nose again, then leaned back grinning. "I shocked you, huh? Not as much as you shocked me, I think," Jason replied. Seeing the questioning expression that met him, his voice fell to a whisper. "You know, later, when you sucked my dick!"

Elliot blushed, but then shrugged it off nonchalantly. "I know, that one was really pushing it. I wanted to do it, though, just for you. It was pretty cool, too," he replied as he shifted and lay his head propped upon Jason's chest. "I'm glad you liked it. At least you didn't beat me away or anything."

Jason thought about teasing him, but then decided against it. They were working this out for themselves now. "I wouldn't do that, Elliot."

"Um, you did like it though, right?"

Jason rolled his eyes again before reaching down with both hands and pinching Elliot's bare butt. "Good grief, you ask the dumbest questions sometimes!"

Elliot grinned back. "So? You do too, sometimes!" They both observed the other with a knowing look before Elliot leaned in closer. "You know what? I think you like pinching my arse," he teased, which made Jason giggle. Elliot lay his head down and listened to Jason's heartbeat for a moment. "Jase? Honest man, I don't care what you ask me, just so long as you know you can ask me anything. And I don't care about the sex stuff either; we can do anything you want, or nothing at all - just so long as I don't lose this thing between us. At least, not for a while, okay?"

"What if I want to do stuff?" Jason asked, amused.

Elliot grinned. "To be honest, I kind of hoped you might say that," he replied, again in a hushed whisper. "It's kind of cool having someone to sort of, you know, figure things out with."

Jason nodded. "No kidding," he whispered. "So, I can ask you anything, right?"

"Anything," Elliot replied.

"Okay, then tell me some about you and Derek," Jason whispered.

Elliot looked up and grinned. "Okay, what do you want to know?"

Jason studied for a moment. "You two have done stuff - THAT much I know now. Is that where you, like, learned things, or...?"

Elliot wrinkled his nose before he replied. "Some things, yeah, but umm... some things I kind of learned from listening to the guys at school. You know, locker room stuff, showers, places like that."

Jason's eyes got bigger. "No shit? Are you serious? Guys talk about, about... that stuff and everything? I mean, I've heard some sex stuff, mostly about girl stuff and everything, but... guys?"

Elliot laughed. "I told you, you've got some things to learn! Especially about guys over here." Settling his chin down in his arms, he stared into Jason's eyes. "You really don't think guys mess around and stuff much, do you?"

Jason blushed with embarrassment. "Where I come from, if you even hint at any kind of gay stuff you would end up living in hell for the rest of your life. I mean, like I said, all I ever heard was talk about how guys would get their feel of a girl's boobs or some pussy or... Sorry," he added, clearly embarrassed at his choice of words.

Elliot grinned at him. "You think I don't know about pussy, and cunts, and breasts, and tits, and..."

Jason laughed. "Okay, okay! You know what I meant, though. Guys like to brag sometimes, about knocking someone up, you know, screwing someone, or getting their feel. Honest though, I never heard of anyone talking about doing stuff with another guy, like jacking off, or..." His voiced dropped to a whisper, "sucking a dick or anything." He shook his head. "If something like that ever got out though, it would have been worse than hell. Probably even worse than what I went through, you know? I know of teens that committed suicide because of that stuff. It's bad over there." He studied for a few seconds. "You were right though, I think a lot of American kids ARE prudes and everything."

Elliot studied Jason for a moment before replying. "Maybe, but I got news for you, Jase. Some guys still do it, even in your country. They do it with cousins, or best friends, or... just peeps they trust, you know? Don't get me wrong, okay? They won't advertise it or anything, mostly because of the same reasons you just said, but I promise you - there are lots of blokes who do. And that doesn't mean they're gay or anything, they just, I don't know, maybe they're just like you and me. I'm not saying everyone does, because lots of guys just don't put out or anything - but you would be surprised at what you'll notice sometimes. Especially if you're looking out and just listening."

Jason stared at him. "How do you mean?"

"Well, like, I was riding on a bus a few weeks ago, before you came here. We were on a field trip, and these dudes sitting behind me were talking about how they would love to feel up this girl or that," Elliot explained. "Somehow, one of them was teasing the other, telling him it would be hilarious to see how his red patch would look mingled with some girls' black patch." He grinned. "You know what I mean by patch, right?"

Jason's eyes went wide. "Pubes, right?" When Elliot nodded, Jason let out a low whistle. "What the heck, his 'red' patch? You mean, guys can have red pubes? No shit?"

Elliot giggled as he nodded. "Yep! If we ever follow Derek back into the dressing rooms after one of his games sometime, you'll see. But yeah, guys can have black, brown, red, even blond ones, I think."

"No way!" Jason whispered incredulously.

"Yeah. Derek told me it is kind of rare to be red like that, because most everyone's pubes are black or brown. Anyway, back to that bus ride, just think about it Jase: these dudes were talking about something like that, oh and yeah - one of them was a red head, you know? And he didn't deny it, or have a comeback to what his friend said, you see? So, how is it he knew the dude had a red bush? You know, red pubes?"

Jason thought for a few seconds. "Well, gym class maybe?"

Elliot considered that answer but shook his head. "Okay, maybe, but I don't think that's likely. I think both those blokes were from different grades. I knew one of them, but not the other. Still, you might be right. It doesn't matter though, the red headed dude just laughed, he didn't deny it or anything - he just went along. So, they have probably done something together, or at least been around each other some way, you know? All kinds of stuff like that you can hear and figure out between, if you just listen!"

Jason wrinkled his nose. "Maybe all red headed guys have red pubes. Honestly, I don't know, though."

Elliot shook his head. "Nope! Trust me on that one, too." He grinned when he saw Jason's annoyance. "I've been in showers Jase, with as many as 20 or more kids at a time. Trust me - I've seen lots of red-headed guys, and their pubes are as black or brown as yours and mine."

Jason grinned at Elliot. "So, you're a looker I guess." He shook his head and sighed. "We could never do that in America, not in my school anyway. I mean, my classes never had showers or anything, but I think if you got caught looking, you were dead meat."

Elliot shrugged. "Not here. I mean, no one is going to go and pull out their plumbing and say 'hey, look at what I got here!' or anything." They both giggled at that thought, before Elliot settled close to Jason again. "It's like I tried to tell you, there is nothing gay about being curious. Everybody here is a looker to some degree, some more than others, you know? And that includes kids our age. Sometimes younger, sometimes older even, but kids our age are always curious. We compare, we look at each other, yeah... sometimes just so we can make sure we're as normal as we're supposed to be, you know? I mean, you don't want to like, just openly stare at someone or anything, but seriously, its' okay to let your eyes kind of float around the room, or the showers and stuff. Some guys strut their stuff, like all proud and everything. It's like they WANT to be seen, or at least noticed. Other guys are sort of shy, always wearing towels and stuff, but even then, in the showers they don't try to really hide their junk or anything. In the end, everyone ends up seeing everyone else most of the time, you know?"

"Do people get boners? You know - hard-ons?" Jason asked.

Elliot nodded. "All the time. Sometimes full mast, sometimes half-way. Hell, for my first month in the showers, I think I got a boner almost every day. Derek told me he did, too. I think lots of kids, who are just entering puberty especially, you know, maybe grade 6 or grade 7, do it. Nobody makes fun of anyone though - well, mostly anyway. Sometimes guys will kid around some, maybe crack a joke like 'Extra short on the plumbing today?' Or, you know, if someone gets really boned up, maybe 'who's the hot date with tonight? Want to make it a threesome?' - just crap like that is all. That stuff though, its' just in fun, it isn't serious. And no matter what, like I said, no one gets made fun of their dick or anything - not that I ever heard or saw anyway. No one gets teased about their stuff down there."

"Wow," Jason replied in amazement, contemplating what Elliot was telling him.

"See? That's what I've been trying to tell you! It's different here I think, and it's nothing to be embarrassed about or anything." A gleam entered his eye as he added in a whisper. "Trust me, you look pretty cool down there, even if you aren't natural."

Jason was amused. "Natural? You mean, um, because I'm cut?" When Elliot nodded in acknowledgement, Jason lay back, a pleasant expression crossing his features. "Maybe. You do too, I guess. Not that I would know - the only other real dick I've ever seen is the one we saw on TV that night, and it was... uh... not that great."

Elliot laughed as he watched Jason make a face. "It was old and wrinkly, yeah! If you stay with me long enough, though, I promise: you'll get to compare yours with a lot more besides mine, especially with peeps our own age. You might even get to see some girls too, if you want."

Jason laughed out loud before catching himself. "I don't think I'm really interested in girls right now." He got quiet as Elliot watched him with curiosity, before he cleared his throat and tried to explain. "I mean, I don't know... It's like, no one's ever been interested in me, that's all. And... and I've never had much-" He stopped as Elliot put a finger to Jason's lips, silencing him.

"Jase, don't worry about it. I'm not worried about you, and you're not worried about me, right? This sex stuff between us, it's just stuff, but it's also more personal and everything. It's us, though... right? It will probably stop, sometime. I know that, I'm not a dummy. But while we have it, while we're cool on it and everything, I don't give a fuck about worrying whether I'm gay or anything else, okay? I think I'm just curious, you know? Maybe even bi, but who cares - I just know I trust you, and you trust me, so I don't care. Like I told you before - if it feels so right, how can it be all that wrong, you know?"

Jason nodded. "Bi?" That was a new term to Jason.

Elliot rolled over until he lay on top of Jason. Crossing his arms, he settled himself on his cousins' chest. "Yeah, I think that's what Derek told me once. Something like bisexual. It means you like girls, or at least are not afraid of them or anything, and you like guys too, or at least you're not afraid of them either. Kind of a neutral ground, but in a good way. Bi's get to have fun with either one, I guess."

Jason thought about that. "Makes sense, in a weird sort of way I guess."

Elliot stared deep into Jason's eyes. "I'm not afraid of you," he whispered.

"And I'm not afraid of you either," Jason quietly replied.

Elliot smiled, then slowly leaned in and kissed Jason again, this time lingering for a moment before parting his lips so that they could play tongue-hockey again. They continued for a moment before breaking. "That's something else you did that surprised me last night."

Jason smiled but said nothing at first, instead leaning up to meet Elliot's lips again. This time, however, he only lightly pressed upon them before pulling back. Rubbing Elliot's nose with his own, he replied, "I kind of surprised myself, too. Before last night, I would have never kissed another guy, especially like that."

Elliot nodded. "Me neither." The returning grin was all he needed. "I'm glad you asked me, though."

Jason nodded. "I asked because I trusted you."

"And I answered because I trusted you, too," Elliot whispered.

Jason giggled. "Some answer." Smiling, he added, "I'm glad you answered."

"Yeah, I am too."

In the silence that followed, they watched each other, lost in their own thoughts. Jason finally giggled, renewing his curiosity. "So, you and Derek? I mean, brothers...?"

Elliot smiled wistfully. "Yeah, me and Derek have done some stuff." Seeing the curiosity there, he went on. "We've sucked each other off a lot of times, and you know, stroked each other off, too. We used to do it a lot, for a while anyway. We kind of accidentally, um, spooged each other in the mouth, too. I know that sounds kind of gross, but it's what we call it. It's how we learned what it was like. Both on the giving and the receiving end. It's like, wow ... and that's why I wanted to do it for you."

"Wow, I wondered about that," Jason admitted.

Elliot nodded and hesitated, looking deep into Jason's eyes. "Please don't get me wrong, Jase. I love my brother, you know I do. There are just some things we are really close about. So yeah, he taught me some of this stuff, like jerking off and everything - but it was just, you know, sex stuff. He didn't teach me anything about what it feels like to hold or be held, or to kiss or share things like you and I just did. It's not like serious stuff, we just used to do it to mess around sometimes."

Jason nodded. "Yeah, it's okay, you don't have to tell me everything; I mean, I know you two have to have moments and stuff, too."

Elliot nodded. "Maybe I don't have to, but I got nothing to hide with us. Tell you the truth, you were right - he's not really as big a royal pain in the arse as some brothers are." When Jason giggled at him, he cocked his head to one side. "What?"

"You guys and this arse thing!" That brought him a pinch from Elliot and both ended up laughing.

"Yeah, I know, you guys love to say 'ass', but to us an ass is a donkey, not a butt!" Elliot mused.

"Okay, okay... point taken!" Jason replied. He slipped both arms around Elliot, and there they lay pleasantly, each gazing upon the other. "Do you two still do stuff?" Jason asked, quietly.

Elliot shrugged. "Not really. We haven't done anything in a long time. I don't know if he just wanted to stop, or just got mixed up with his mates more, or whatever. But yeah, it's been a long time, I guess. I mean, I can still climb into his lap some, he still pinches my butt, and we sort of hug sometimes. And when he's being serious, it's... it's awesome. But all of that's different, you know? Like, the hugging, he won't hold me, not like you and I hold each other."

"How then?" was the whisper that reached him.

"It's like, since the other night, when you held me, I could feel... could feel this warmness between us, like we were sharing something. And... we held each other, all the way, not just our arms or our chests, you know, but e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g. Derek and me, we hug, but not like that. I don't get to FEEL him, or feel what's inside, you know? You and me, I - I can feel you, Jase. Or at least, I like to think I do, because it's what makes me love you even more, and trust you even further. It's like I'm baring all of me to you. Not just the naked stuff, but the inside stuff too. All with the stuff inside of me. I'm sharing and feeling it with you. When you hug me, you do a whole lot more, and it's just awesome. Does that make sense?"

Jason answered, with a tear sliding down his cheek. "More than you'll ever know."

Elliot lay his head down to listen to Jason's heartbeat again. "Me and Derek... It's not sex stuff that binds us together, you know? It's just being brothers, and he has always watched out for me, especially when he isn't wrapped up with his mates and all." He paused, remembering the question posed to him. "The last time he and I did anything was when I wanked him off. Ummm, a couple of months ago, I think. He was being kind of horny one night, and we were wrestling and goofing around, and ... and we hadn't done anything in a while, and..." Elliot listened to Jason's breathing change ever so subtly. He asked cautiously. "Um, is that, like, going to be something between us? You know, something bad?"

"No. Why would you think that?" Jason asked, frowning.

"I don't know, Jase. I just ... I just don't want it to get between you and me, that's all. I don't want you to think us weird, or him being a pervert or anything."

Jason rolled his eyes. "Are you kidding? I think all three of us are weird!" Giggling, he moved his hands to the small of Elliot's back. He rubbed up and down his cousin's sides and across his butt. "I promise, I'm not jealous or anything, if that's what you're worried about." Staring at the ceiling for a few seconds, he looked back down at Elliot with a mischievous grin. "So, just Derek, or have you...?"

Elliot shook his head. "I told you that last night - me and Derek, and now me and you. No one else."

Jason nodded. "You're right, sorry - I forgot." He blushed as he asked the next question. "So, Derek, is he like, really big down there and stuff?"

Elliot grinned back. "Oh yeah, he's bigger, a LOT bigger - and hairier, too." He wrinkled his nose. "Didn't you notice it in the shower the other day?"

Jason shook his head. "Nope, the doors were too foggy to see anything, plus - I didn't, like..."

Elliot smirked. "You were afraid to look, weren't you?" Sheepishly, Jason slowly nodded. Elliot relaxed and stared deep into his eyes. "Just look, he won't care. Honest, he probably even hopes to check you out, too. I mean, you should try to remember that. You're an American, a 'Yank' as some of us over here call you guys. They sort of know you're going to be different, down there I mean. There are some kids, some of us guys who would probably just die to know how much different you really are. In a good way, though - not like creeps or anything. Like I told you, no one is going to make fun of you, or rape you or anything-" Elliot suddenly grimaced. "I'm sorry bro, I don't know why I can't watch my mouth sometimes. That was not exactly a good thing to say."

Jason giggled. "It's okay though, I understood."

"I guess that's why you forgive me so much. Anyway, with Derek," he paused and grinned. "With Derek, if you're lucky, you might even catch him naked in his room or somewhere. He's not that modest when he's up here, and he knows it's just us guys around." Elliot wrinkled his nose. "I don't know, in some ways he's pretty cool looking, for a guy I mean - for a brother. Just don't tell him I said that!" Elliot propped his chin on his hands again, their noses only inches apart. "All my life, I've always horsed around with him in one way or another. We took baths together when we were younger, but then later I used to catch him in the shower. I'd open the shower door throw glasses of cold water on him, stuff like that. And he would always horse around and do stuff with me, too. I remember once, he and Jimmy, that's one of his mates, they both skinned me naked and held me upside down in the shower - with cold water running down over my balls and everything." He laughed before shaking his head. "I mean, we always goof off sometimes, you know? THAT water was COLD, though! It gave blue balls a new definition, I tell you!"

Jason laughed, visualizing the site. "I bet," he replied, before settling back to relax again. "And it didn't bother you that his, uh, mate, was watching and doing stuff to you, too? Naked and everything?"

"Nope, not at all. Like I said, he's got plumbing just like I do, I figure. Why should it?" Elliot asked, then grinned. "I mean, he was Derek's mate, and... if he wanted to see a younger hairless dick, then okay, I didn't care. It's not like they tied me to the bed and skinned me just to gawk and everything, you know? I was cool with it."

Jason looked on, admiringly. "It really doesn't bother you guys, then?"

"Nope, especially not with family," Elliot replied. He looked up again and peered at Jason. "Derek has never hurt me, Jase. Neither has anyone else. It makes a difference, you know? Oh, and don't forget, you are family now, too. Not that we'd ever do that cold shower thingy to you - at least, I don't think we would!" he smirked, but then hugged his cousin again. "I'm just saying, Jason. We like you and everything. BOTH of us do - a lot. So, don't get mad if... you know..."

Jason nodded. "I know," he whispered. "I don't think you could ever know how happy that makes me feel inside. I-" He hesitated before finishing. "At least now I feel like I belong somewhere, now."

"You're wrong about the feeling inside stuff. I guess I can't know it exactly, because I've never been where you're at. But trust me bro, I know how I feel inside, and I know how happy I am right now. It's like I told you last night, too - you were trusting me, and willing to share stuff and let me share stuff back with you. It's all still like - still like a dream or something!" He grunted. "I'm afraid you'll keep pinching my butt back there and I'll wake up, only to find out it really was all just a dream."

Jason giggled and then stretched, reaching down until he could get a sizable grip on both of Elliot's butt cheeks. Squeezing them tightly he whispered, "Not a chance." They cuddled in silence for a few minutes before Jason finally broke the silence. "Thanks man, for everything. These little talks and stuff, it just makes me like you more. And it helps, too. It's like in some weird way, they help me catch up on stuff I should probably already know, but just don't."

Elliot responded by giving his cousin a warm embrace. "I love you. I keep saying that more now, I know, but you know it, right? Just don't be afraid of me. Be afraid of anything else here you want, just don't be afraid of me." He grinned. "Okay, maybe a little bit, but..."

Jason giggled. "We'll make it work."

"Damn straight we will. I mean it though, okay? If you ever get mad at me or annoyed or anything, just - in here, at least in our bed, truce, okay? No matter what."

"That sounds pretty serious," Jason replied as he observed the change in his cousin.

Elliot nodded. "Yeah, I know it does, but not any more than everything else we've talked about. I just - nobody's perfect Jase, you know that. Especially me. I can take it if we fight and stuff sometimes. I mean, it happens, okay? Even me and Derek... I just don't want to even think about how it would feel if anything worse came between you and me. At least in here, we can still be friends, even if we don't talk to each other or anything, okay? We can still not be afraid of one another. We can still try to like one another." Elliot laughed. "Listen to me, I'm rambling - that probably didn't make any sense, did it?"

Jason nodded. "Yeah, it did. I promise, Elliot. I'm not perfect either. I screw up sometimes too, and I make mistakes." He slowly pushed his arms around his cousin's butt and pulled him close again. "Elliot? Just so you know, last night? I don't think that was a mistake, okay? I'm glad we did it."

Elliot grinned at him as he hugged back. "No regrets?"

"Asked and answered," was the giggled reply. "No regrets, I promise." He ran his hands up and down Elliot's back. "God, I wish you knew how good this feels to me, you laying on top of me like this, letting me feel you all the way up and down..."

Elliot grinned at him. "Our dicks making out together," he added in a whisper.

Jason smiled and thrust himself upwards a little in response. "Yeah, that too... everything, Elliot! It feels... it just feels awesome!"

Elliot whispered back. "Don't you think I know?" He wrinkled his nose. "You belong here, Jase. I know it, I feel it. I think my whole family feels it, too. Don't forget that, okay? That, bro, is what makes all this feel so great."

"Okay, I promise to try," was the whispered reply. They lay for a few minutes longer before Jason finally sighed and gently pushed Elliot away. "Okay, enough serious stuff for a while. My turn to empty my bladder. What are we gonna do today, anyway?" he asked as he crawled from under the covers and began looking for his underwear.

Elliot handed over both briefs and a t-shirt, then watched him as he pulled them on. "No idea, weather outside is crappy. Dad's home though, he might do something with us." An idea struck him. "Hey - want to go see a movie?"

Jason grinned. "That would be cool, if you think we can afford it," he replied as he pulled on a pair of sweats and hurriedly left the room.

What started as another normal day was anything but. After being away for more than a week, students were alighting early from their homes all over the city, to make their way toward school. Although a few students relished the opportunity to return, and thus hopefully get back into a normal swing of things, others were far less enthusiastic. It was hard for most to get up at that early hour, including those in the Flavell household. All three boys fell behind their time, dressing slowly before making their way downstairs. Natalie had risen earlier and prepared a hearty breakfast of bacon (or 'ham', as Jason still liked to think of it), eggs and toast waiting for them. Once hurriedly consumed, they made their way out the door to face the day.

Entering the school, both Elliot and Jason made it to their classroom just as the second bell sounded. They were not alone, as the body of students making their way in at the last moment immediately drew disapproving looks from their English teacher. Before she could remark however, two more girls rushed in behind everyone else, drawing her attention away for the moment. Silently Jason grunted, glad that for once neither he nor Elliot would be receiving the brunt of the teacher's ire, should any be forthcoming - or so he thought.

For some reason, Mrs. Crabtree, as was her unusual name, seemed to seek Jason out that morning. Not that it was any real surprise. Since his very first day in class, she found some reason or another to single him out for the most callous of things. Some days were better than others, but there were a lot of times when the woman got down to business in a whole new way. She loved pointing out errors in his grammar, or the way he wrote and answered questions. Although he tried to be careful, she also seemed to relish belittling him when he continually to repeat them. If he had not known better, he thought he could glimpse an occasional look of triumph in her voice, along with a sort of gleam in her eye.

"Everyone should be seated immediately, with no talking by now. Miss Garmon, if you want to keep that mobile, I had better not ever see it again - and I do mean ever." Glancing over the crowd, she paused while another pair of students slipped through the open doorway and quickly took their seat. With a frown as deep as one could ever invite, she addressed the class in a tone as cold as the frost collecting on the windows to the courtyard outside. "Now, for once I will make an exception, this being the first day back from break, but be forewarned young ladies and gentlemen: the door to this classroom will shut on the second bell, and if you are late, you will NOT be permitted to enter. You would do well to report to the office and get a pass for the library in such instances. So, note it carefully - you have been cautioned!"

Turning to her desk, the elderly lady picked up a stack of papers. "These are your reports, dismal as they may be, stacked highest to lowest. The scores range from a single high of 94%, down to 43%. As I call your name, I want you to come forth and get them. Then I want each of you who scored below 70%, to turn in a second report to me by the first of class tomorrow, entitled 'Why I Failed to Do My Homework'. One lucky trouper will have the distinguished honor of reading that report to the class, so I suggest you take the time and attack it with some diligence, wouldn't you say?"

The last words were delivered just as the elderly lady's eyes connected with Jason. The smirk in her expression held an intensity beyond any he had yet experienced, and he soon discovered why. Instantly he was filled with dread, and knowing his own personal history with the teacher, short lived as it was, his status within this class he was already on shaky ground. This made it feel even worse, and he was certain that was the whole purpose for her callous attitude to begin with. As he watched, slowly students began moving to collect their papers as their names were called. Somewhere in the middle of the group Elliot's name was called, and when he looked at the paper he smiled widely, turning it to show Jason the 85% score he had received. Jason smiled weakly, happy for Elliot, but knowing deep down already he would not be so lucky.

Scott Beaker, a classmate who was known, time and again, for being one of the weaker students academically, looked up from his perch, waiting. He was the only one in the school Jason had seen thus far, who was in a wheelchair. As Jason observed him, he suddenly felt guilty. In that fleeting instance, he realized was hoping that perhaps Scott might be called last. The rest of their classmates, however, were surprised when roughly two-thirds of the way through the stack of reports, Scott's name was called.

As he wheeled forward, Mrs. Crabtree met him half-way to ease his journey through the rows of desks. She handed him his paper with a curious expression, and then made a remark that caused everyone to stop. "It would appear something must be sinking into that thick skull of yours, Mr. Beaker. Congratulations are in order, I believe."

Scott's eyes went wide as he turned his paper over. Letting out a whoop, he exclaimed. "Whoa, 74%? I got a 74! Holy shit!"

The expression drew an immediate look of disdain from the elderly lady as she returned to her desk. As the rest of the class snickered in the background, she turned to gaze at him in a stern manner. Instead of admonishing him, however, she curled her upper lip. "I do believe Mr. Beaker, that the good Almighty would not think poop is considered 'holy' - but your enthusiasm might make an interesting case in this instance." A round of raucous laughter erupted from the rest of the class, and Scott, red-faced but still extremely proud of his accomplishment, wheeled back to his allotted corner. Several students he passed in route slapped him on the back or offered high-fives.

By this time, however, Jason felt the pit in the bottom of his stomach open and swallow him whole. As the few remaining papers were delivered across the classroom, Mrs. Crabtree made a rather insistent clearing of her throat when she reached the final paper. Many fell silent as she handed it to Jason with an all-knowing smirk. At first Jason ignored the paper, choosing instead to meet the woman's gaze head on. Not so much in defiance, but he felt he was holding his ground as being a human being. Jason felt he was sending an equal message in return: I will not let you get to me. However, after several seconds, Jason finally reached out and accepted the paper slowly, never breaking from the gaze that attempted to pierce into him.

The reaction was not what Mrs. Crabtree expected, so she decided to take a more direct approach. "Well, I don't suppose you have anything to say for yourself, MISTER Mathews?" With the emphasis that she placed on his name, he could not help but feel the gathering of a lump in his throat. A lump which, in fact, prevented him from finding any words at all that he could respond with.

Disappointed at the ensuing silence, Mrs. Crabtree grunted as she spun on her heel and returned to the front of the class. Addressing the students, her voice carried distinct annoyance. "Personally, I would have thought the text was among the simplest that exists, certainly in context to the modern era. However, it would appear that while some people have no problem grasping the dynamics of early prose..." She lingered as she observed the Beaker teen again, but eventually turned her gaze back to Jason. "... others must be coddled and nurtured if they have any opinions they want to offer for themselves."

Elliot was clearly struggling to contain his rising anger, shaking his head a few times before he was called out. "You have something to say MISTER Flavell?"

Looking up, he paused only to steady the irritation in his voice. "How can you honestly say that? That book is almost 400 pages of some of the weirdest writing any of us has ever seen. We spent weeks going through and dissecting it. Jason arrived while we were in the middle of it all, before he picked it up. He had no help, other than what I could offer him. Yet, you failed his grade because of - what, exactly?"

"Careful young man, I warn you, I will not tolerate grandstanding in this classroom," Mrs. Crabtree replied in a cold, monotonous voice, full of barely controlled anger.

"Grandstanding? I'm grandstanding? That doesn't make sense! All I'm doing is answering your question! What the hell...?"

Mrs. Crabtree's expression turned ugly. "Gather your things and march to the headmaster's office this instant! I'll have no student addressing me in such a frivolous manner, Mr. Flavell! How dare you!"

Elliot stood up. "How dare... me?" He started to retort, but suddenly hushed as he felt a firm hand grip his shoulder. Turning, he was surprised to see Jason staring at the elderly lady. The silence deafened around them yet again, and all three stood for several seconds before Jason let go. "It's okay, Elliot. I can look after myself."

Defeated, but clearly exasperated, Elliot slowly stacked his books and quietly left the room. Before he exited through the door, however, he could not help but turn and throw a look of utter contempt at Mrs. Crabtree as she passed him. She regarded him with a smirk, her gaze following him still until the door slammed shut behind him. Raising an eyebrow, she spoke bemusedly to the class while moving behind her desk. "If I didn't know better Mr. Mathews, I would say your lady friend has a rather caustic crush on you." This brought a lot of mixed reactions around the room. Some of the students gasped in shock, while others snickered and made subdued catcalls that punctuated the moment. Their teacher made no move or attempt, surprisingly, to admonish them. It was another factor that convinced Jason her growing discontent was focused on both Elliot and himself.

Jason, however, had yet to sit down. Upon hearing her remark, he wrinkled his nose before speaking again. "Lady friend? Excuse me madam, but did you just refer to Elliot as - as a girl?"

The knowing gloat that crossed her face at that moment, told Jason he had not been mistaken about her intent. As his classmates continued murmuring around him, Jason realized she must have been trying to goad him. Smiling, he decided two could play at this game. "I guess what they say must be true, then," he offered nonchalantly as he sat back down.

Once again, the classroom fell to a deafening silence. Mrs. Crabtree slowly frowned. "THEY say? My dear young man, if you believe you can spar words with me-"

"Oh, no madam! Not with an all-knowing English expert as yourself! With all due respect, I was just referring to the fact many people say and believe that, you know, the first thing to go with age is one's eyesight. So, if you believed Elliot is a girl, then..."

A new round of snickering, laughs and catcalls erupted within the room. Everyone broke out with a new round of laughter at the exchange. That is - until they observed the cold expression that crossed Mrs. Crabtree's face.

The remainder of the day found Jason's mood had turned considerably sour. Elliot was nowhere to be found throughout the rest of their classes that afternoon. As Jason slowly progressed from one class to the next, he could feel the many eyes that fell upon him throughout the hallways. Upon entering rooms, many students whispered amongst themselves, gathering details as the news spread like wildfire. Most of the girls he noticed seemed to regard him with an ambiance of sympathy, if not with an air of indifference.

The guys, however, reacted differently. In fact, Jason considered their reactions were more in line with what he expected American teenagers would do. Taunts and snickering could be heard in varying corners, along with whispered conversations in others. When combined with numerous furtive glances in his directions, it was clear what their topic of discussion was. Some of his peers sidestepped the whole issue, not wanting to get involved, and that was fine with Jason. Others, however, made it more difficult: "So, you and Flavell are a team?" "Did you give Crap-Apple some arse to chew on?" "When is the big showdown coming?"

Overall, Jason was okay with the taunting, but he was uncomfortable with how rapidly the rumors spread. As the day progressed, he became more uneasy with Elliot's continued absence. What had happened to his cousin? Did he get sent home? For once, the harsh reality hit home of how much he was becoming dependent upon his cousin. Although walking about what was now familiar territory, without Elliot he felt the isolation creeping in around him. Compound that with the weird stares of the other students, he felt he was standing out like a sore thumb. It was THAT fact which unsettled him the most.

He was wrapped up in these thoughts as he headed for the last period of the day. Before reaching the history classroom, however, he heard his name called out. Surprised, he looked in the general direction he thought it came from but didn't recognize anyone singling him out. He was about to turn and move on when he felt a tug suddenly at his side. Looking down, he saw the teen in the wheelchair from earlier that morning. "Yo man, what's up? You look like crap!" the boy exclaimed.

Jason observed Scott Beaker, hesitating before shrugging. "Guess I don't feel that well," he offered as a weak excuse. He glanced at the doorway, wondering if he could make a clean break for it without offending his classmate.

To his surprise, however, Scott began wheeling for the doorway, too. "You're not letting Crap-Apple get to you, are you? Man, you got some brass ones, I'll give you that! Honest, though? She had it coming to her, and most everybody knew it!" They reached the doorway and for the first time, Jason recalled that - strange as it seemed - both shared the last period together. As if dazed, Jason suddenly remembered a boy at the back of the room, one distinctly in a wheelchair. It never dawned upon him until now, however, that the two had been one and the same.

Leading the way, Scott entered the room and, once far enough inside that Jason could follow him, he turned. "What say you come back here with me today? Maybe we'll get to chat a bit."

Jason considered the request and then shrugged. From the beginning, he had been sitting near the front each day, as he had no shared interest with the rest of the class, and because there had been few empty seats to choose from. Not exactly rejects in any sense of the word, most of the students in attendance were not exactly academically inclined, either. The course was designed to give students history, but with a latitude when it came to certain aspects of English culture. There was a lack of emphasis remembering dates, or people, but instead a concentration more on the adventure and significance of events. Although Jason had anxiety at first, he found it interesting learning about European life this way. It was a far cry, in theory, than the history courses taught in the US schools.

When they reached the back, Scott turned and wheeled up into an alcove that had been neatly arranged to accommodate him. Settling in, he indicated an open seat next to him, where Jason sat down. "Yeah, Crap-Apple lost her virginity this morning, if you ask me. I mean, she really stepped over the line. What about that Flavell guy, ever see him afterwards?"

At first Jason smiled at the odd remark, but upon hearing Elliot's name, his face reasserted itself into an unreadable mask. "No, he's not been in any of our classes."

Scott nodded. "Right, so he probably got suspended for the day, which even adds more of a bad rap over the keg." Looking over, he studied Jason. "You okay? Seriously dude, you look like somebody pulled you out of a sewer or something! At least you don't smell like one, thank God!"

Jason gazed for a full half-minute before just shrugging. Looking down, he replied, "I guess I am, just - unsettled I guess."

"Well, take it from someone who has been on Crabtree's shit list all year - she's a rough one. Most of the staff can't tolerate her anymore, but the system keeps her around because she is almost ready for retirement, I think. She pisses everybody off in one way or another."

Jason smiled a little at that revelation. "Well, at least you got her better side this morning."

"Hell yes!" Scott replied, laughing. "I've been failing her for most of the term, or at least on the edge of it. Honestly, I think she just gave me a better grade to pull my average up, that way she can pass me in the end. Still, fuck yeah, I'll take that score any day!" He saw and heard Jason giggle. "What's wrong, you Yanks aren't used to swearing over in the States?"

In a low voice, Jason shook his head. "Yeah, lots of guys do, just not used to hearing it over here so much."

"Ah well, piss and pee, it's all the same. That's what my old man says. Of course, I do tend to watch my verbs a little more around these elderly women." Reaching out, he extended his hand. "Don't think we've ever really introduced ourselves, Scott Beaker here."

Jason smiled and took the hand, firmly grasping it. Unlike in America, teens here seemed to have no reservations with this custom. "Jason, Jason Mathews."

"Good to meet you, sort of. Officially, that is."

Jason cocked his head sideways. "Your accent is a little different. I don't mean that like, in a bad way, just..."

Scott nodded. "No worries, it's cool. I grew up in Scotland for about 7 years, before my family got moved down here. My Dad is in the military, so we get moved around a lot. I guess we were there long enough for me to pick up the local habits and sorts."

Jason nodded as well. "That's cool. So, if I can ask, like where are you from?"

Scott raised both eyebrows in surprise. "Um, America actually - like you, I'm 100% U.S. born, so is most of my family, I think."

"Really? That's cool then, I didn't know there were any other American kids here!"

"No shit? There are more I think, about 10-12 of us that I know of. Most are here with their families, sort of on an exchange program and all like us, but there are others too. Um, I think probably they are in the older grades though, so you probably would not get to see them as often." He leaned back just as the bell rang, but as the teacher was absent from the room, so he continued. "So how about you, what brings you to her Majesty's merry old court and all that?"

"Umm, I lost my Dad last Spring, so I came over to live with my relatives." Jason answered in a detached voice, though uncertain at first. It was the first time he had summarized it for anyone.

Scott grunted as he nodded in understanding. "Bugger, mate. I understand though." He paused as realization crossed him. "The Flavell bunch? Elliot and Derek, I think?" When Jason nodded, he whistled. "Okay, that explains a great many things, I think." Seeing the curiosity on Jason's face, he explained. "Well, you and Elliot have been pretty attached at the hip since you got here, and not that there is anything wrong with that, but I think some of the guys were starting to wonder. Then after the battle axe showed her tits this morning, I'm afraid she may have planted a few other ideas into some heads, if you gather what I mean."

Jason frowned, but nodded in understanding. "Yeah, I know." Scrutinizing Scott, he asked. "So, peeps think stuff. Is that what's going around the school all day?"

Scott laughed. "You got a lot to learn about English culture man," he replied in a low voice. "But, to answer your question, no - peeps don't always fly off and assume things quite that quick. Yeah, a few rumors have started, but most of us discard them right away. Honestly mate, your kind of a quiet type, so most peeps probably don't think that much about you at all. Which is fine - but the more they know about the basics, then that goes a long way in handling stuff like that. Take that name, for instance - your surname is different from Flavell, right? So, it would be hard for anyone to really guess you two were related in some way. At least, not without asking, right?"

Jason thought about that and then smiled sheepishly. "Yeah, I guess I never thought about it like that." He sighed. "Thanks man, I mean - just, thanks. I owe you."

Scott nodded. "Trust me, don't get too wound up over it. A few days and things will shake out."

"I doubt that," Jason replied, shaking his head. "Crabtree is giving me hell right now."

"She does have a way with things sometimes, I know. Afraid I can't help you much on that end though, I have my own problems dealing with her. If it's any consolation, I hear she is rough on all foreigners." Scott wrinkled his nose. "Not just me and you, thankfully. It's like she is prejudiced, I think, but if you watch her carefully, she always seems to stop before she crosses the line."

"She didn't this morning though, did she... stop, I mean," Jason commented.

"No, she didn't. That's bothersome, too. She tried to out you two as being gay or something, or at least insinuate you were swingers - and that was bloody wrong." Scott suddenly giggled quietly. "But, oh man! You came back on her though, mate - and I personally thought it was bloody brilliant! Better than anything I could have come up with! And to beat it all, you did it on HER level, where it struck her chord the hardest!"

"Why do you keep putting it like that? You know, that I got her back on her level and everything? What does that mean?" Jason asked.

Scott seemed surprised. "Well, she couldn't get back at you, I'd think. See, if she tried to take you to detention and all, she would have to risk admitting what she did, and what she did was far worse than someone backtalking her. Not that you did, mind you. But - what you did do was give her a taste of her own medicine, but on her level where she couldn't really do anything about it. See?"

Jason wrinkled his nose. "Oh, yeah... I guess so." He shrugged. " Didn't do me a whole lot of good though, did it, in the end. I'm on her hit list even worse now."

Scott observed him before responding. "You'll handle it okay. Elliot will help you, I know, but if you need another hand, just say the word. I won't promise the right verse or prose, but I'm sure we three can iron out the kinks and all."

Grateful for the offer, Jason smiled. Before he could respond though, their teacher entered the classroom. A hushed silence followed, and the rest of the hour was lost in details of long forgotten wars - a subject that most of the time interested Jason.

But not today. Today his thoughts wandered to the absence of his cousin...

... and the uncertain road that lay ahead.

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