When Shadows Pass

by Sean English

Chapter 12

What Real Families Are Made Of (Part II)

Agnes Filch sat at her desk, rubbing her temples and trying to make sense of the blossoming headache working its way forward. Stunned did not even begin to describe her feelings. She recalled not only the words of Mr. Flavell, but also from other students who had come to see her that afternoon, in strictest of confidence of course. The similarities in their stories lay bare a disturbing pattern which, until that day, the headmistress had mostly overlooked.

No, that was not true. Agnes had seen the signs, had known something was changing, and not just recently. She glanced down at the multitude of academic records that covered her desk. There were pages of data representing over 5 years of details, pages Agnes had scoured through with a deep intensity. Although opinions can be skewed or biased, the data from both current and past terms left little doubt. One of her teachers was in trouble. A teacher who was also a very close, and personal, friend.

The English Grammar and Literature course was not, by most standards, an easy one. Although some students excelled in the mechanics of language arts, most found the course tedious and cumbersome. Often, a person's perception of the material depended heavily upon the one teaching it. There were good - very good, in fact - educators in the field, who relished and brought English and literature to life more than others. Martha Crabtree was one of those, among a select few who could do it with little effort. Agnes recalled when, earlier in her career, Martha received top recognition from the Department of Education, even winning various awards for her ability to promote an interesting environment where her students seemed to excel.

As of late, however, that had steadily declined. As the Headmistress looked over the sheets again, she shook her head. Admonishing herself, she couldn't understand how it had happened, and how she herself had overlooked the obvious. A feeling of dread enveloped Agnes, and she sighed deeply, knowing in her heart what she had to do. It was a task she dreaded, because she knew how painful it was going to be. Since the death of Agnes' husband some years prior, the Headmistress had sought out friends with whom to quietly pass time. Martha Crabtree had stepped up and become one of those companions. They had shared many luncheons together and visited endlessly since. If ever there was a truer friendship developed between two people, Martha had met and surpassed all expectations.

As Agnes reflected, she also believed she could recall signs, hints along their journey together. Now, however, it was harrowing to realize that some of those telltale signs were signaling change. Martha no longer spoke lovingly of her craft as she once had. Her views and opinions of students, politics and more had become harsher, and more centrally focused.

Agnes' thoughts were interrupted as a knock sounded at the door. She hastily composed herself and rearranged the papers on her desk before taking a deep breath. "Come in," she announced, and heard the latch trip. The door swung inward, and standing there was Martha Crabtree, smiling and carefree as always.

"Agnes? You wanted to see me, I hear?" came the sweet voice as she entered the room.

"Yes Martha. Please, come in and have a seat. You might, uh, want to close the door, if you will."

Martha reacted with an expression of mild surprise, but she complied before sitting down in the offered chair. Settling herself, she looked across the desk. "I take it then, this is not a social call," she observed lightly.

"No, I'm afraid it isn't," Mrs. Filch stated formally. She thought for a moment about calling in one of her administrative staff to be a witness. After careful consideration, however, she decided against it. Whatever her friend's current state of mind might be, Agnes felt the woman deserved some dignity and privacy in this matter. Their friendship, although one which might become precarious in the next few moments, deserved at least some benefit of the doubt.

Taking another deep breath, the Headmistress smiled grimly at her friend before she began. "Martha, we need to talk about something rather urgent. Can you please tell me your account of what took place yesterday morning, in your first-period English class? Specifically, I'd like to hear the details regarding a Mr. Jason Mathews and a Mr. Elliot Flavell, if you will."

Another look of surprise crossed Martha Crabtree's feature. "Mathews and Flavell?" When the Headmistress did not respond, Martha continued. "Well, our young Elliot decided to slash a discussion that we were having of sorts, crossing my opinion with his own. That is not unheard of, I know. In this instance, however, it was somewhat vulgar altogether, I think. So, I dismissed and sent him to detention. It was as simple as that."

Mrs. Filch considered that briefly. "A vulgar difference of opinion? I see. And what of Mr. Mathews?"

"I- I don't know what you mean. There is nothing I recall regarding him. Perhaps, you could enlighten me...?"

Agnes sighed, her patience already wearing thin. She could make out the traces of a game about to be played between them, and she didn't like it. "Martha, I've had several students, YOUR students to be precise, stop by at varying times today. Each one painted a rather interesting picture of events yesterday. I must be honest and up front here, however: their accounts do not quite stack up in line with yours."

"Really? How so?" the English teacher inquired.

"Well, for example, my understanding is that you were heckling Mr. Mathews, the reasoning for which we will get to in a moment. But it was due to this interaction that Mr. Flavell spoke up. Is this true?"

Martha Crabtree pursed her lips before answering. "I- Yes, that may be the gist of it, if you look at it in that manner."

The Headmistress studied. "And this is what, as you referred to, a slashed vulgar discussion?" She shook her head. "That is bothersome, I'm afraid. One of your students in particular, gave an account that you were chastising Mr. Mathews for having done poorly on a report of some sort. One, if I understand correctly, which the class had been studying for a rather large period over the previous month or so."

Martha nodded. "Yes, he did do rather poorly, compared to the rest of the class."

"Really? Tell me, how long was he involved with your material, compared to the rest of the class? Because, if my information is correct, he didn't even arrive until, what, over half-way through the text?"

Martha frowned. "What are you getting at, Agnes? Are we questioning how I conduct my class here, or are we addressing a specific issue of some sort?"

"Well, I think both, to be frank," Mrs. Filch replied. "Tell you what, let's put that aside for the moment. I am interested in hearing your thoughts on what happened afterwards, as well. So, to be clear, your conversation with Mr. Flavell ended up with him in detention. What transpired afterwards, between yourself and Mr. Mathews?"

Martha hesitated briefly. "I do not recall anything, specifically," she replied, but a change of countenance could be detected in her expression.

Agnes sighed, noticing that change. "Really? Are you certain? Because, forgive me, from several accounts I'm told you made a reference of some sort. One that suggested these two boys were, how do you say, not following a certain level of norm." She removed her glasses and stared at her old friend. "Did you infer that these two may be, perhaps, homosexuals?"

"I certainly did not!" Martha exclaimed with indignation. "I do recall referring that... that Mr. Flavell was exhibiting rather female-ish qualities! But that is not the same-"

"Really?" The Headmistress interrupted. "That's interesting. So, you're going to sit there and tell me that, in no way, did you insinuate these two students to be involved with one another?" Agnes raised her hand before the woman could object. "Consider this, please. One person said you called Elliot a 'lady friend' to Mr. Mathews. Another student stated that you insinuated the Flavell boy was somehow exhibiting characteristics as being a female, like you just said. In another class later, however, with a different set of students, you referred to your morning ordeal. As a part of that, you admitted having to deal with a spat between two male students, who were quote 'obviously having relationship-like difficulties as a couple'." Agnes looked up sternly at the woman across from her. "I'm surprised at you, Martha! Where on earth did this come from? Is it true?"

"I- He was-" Martha Crabtree stuttered, obviously in shock. When she could not continue, the Headmistress leaned forward.

"My dear, if these are your words, paraphrased of course, but still authored by you ... then we have a much bigger problem at large. Would you not agree? A 'couple'? Putting 'two males' and a 'couple' into the same reference infers a hell of a lot! Even you, with your mastery of the English language, cannot deny the poor choice of judgement you used in that instance, can you?"

Martha found her voice. "Now, wait a minute, Agnes. Those two boys have been joined at the hip since the first day the Mathews boy showed up in class! Every time any of us see them - hallways, class, lunch periods, breaks - they are hanging off of one another. If teachers and other students can deduce the same conclusions as I had, then is that not such a lost conclusion anyone else can make?"

"Really?" The Headmistress gave her a piercing stare. "Tell me, why do you think that may be so?"

"I- I don't understand the question," Martha replied.

"Well, let me spell it out clearly then," Agnes replied, sitting up straighter. "Why would two boys, joined at the hip as you say, take up with one another in such close proximity and all? Why do you think that to be the case?"

Martha snorted. "Well, I would think that to be rather obvious, don't you?"

The Headmistress frowned. "No, I would not. Many of our students have best friends, or close relationships with their peers in this school. I've seen many cases where young ladies will share brief displays of affection with one another, hugs or the like. And although far less frequently, that is not beyond the boys, either. Thinking of sports, many young men celebrate victories or accomplishments in a variety of ways. Or, when in groups we see the slapping of hands, or knocking of fists in the air - and more." Her eyes narrowed. "Tell me, did you observe something in these two that went beyond that? Were they holding hands? Kissing? Or something more personal?"

"Well, no, not that I-"

"Then what?" Agnes interrupted, her voice raising a notch. Once again, her friend lapsed into silence, so she continued. "What would make you jump to such a conclusion, without gathering more information beforehand? If you saw nothing that promoted the idea they were a 'couple', then what on Earth possessed you to think that?" The English teacher sat in stone silence as the Headmistress stared at her. When she did not continue, Agnes softened her voice. "Martha, tell me something. What do you know, by chance, of Jason's history? Do you know why he appeared here, with us, in mid-term?"

Martha studied. "Well, I understand he grew up with the Yanks across the pond, if that's what you're referring to. Somehow, they sent him here, right?"

"Yanks," Agnes repeated. "Since when have you slipped to the usage of slang terms, especially for a body of people? A body, at that, who happen to be our American cousins?" Once again, she held her hand up and deeply sighed. "No, don't go there, please. That is something else we can discuss offline. Right now, we have a much bigger issue to address. Martha, did you assess Jason's skills, or do anything to ascertain his prior history, when he arrived in your class? Because, I have to tell you, several other reports have come to me from your peers, stating the young man excels comparatively to our own students. In fact, Mr. Frost tells me that Jason is one of the brightest in his group of history students. I find that remarkable, wouldn't you? And, to be fair, I pulled up his grades from American English - he seems somewhat gifted in that arena, too. I would think this would be interesting, considering his history."

"And what history is that? One where we let our American cousins grandstand and thumb their nose up at our own values, our own times gone by? We know what they're like over there. We've seen it many times, before and now, and we will see it more so in the days to come," Martha declared.

Agnes sat appalled. "What on earth are you talking about? I am not discussing politics here, or socialism. To the contrary, I am talking about the history of one particular student! If I didn't know better, you seem to have built your own prejudicial attitude around him - without even taking the time to get to know who your student is in the first place!"

"I don't need to know who he is. What he is, however, has been very apparent. Why, the way in which he has ensnared the Flavell boy into it, only-"

"Shut up!" Agnes declared, anger now beginning to surface. Martha Crabtree gasped in indignation. The Headmistress rapped her desk for attention. "You are about to go into very dangerous territory with that line of thinking, my friend! Very dangerous, indeed!" She paused to lower her voice again. "Martha, I would listen to what I have to say in this matter and, were I in your shoes, I would listen carefully. Did it ever possibly occur to you, that our young Mr. Mathews is an orphan? Consider that for a moment, and in addition consider that he happens to be the last surviving family member of an extended family apart from the Flavell household." The Headmistress paused to let that sink in. "They are, as you surmised, very attached indeed, but I would be far from jumping to homophobic conclusions if I were you. Those two boys are, perhaps not technically in terms of the law, but nonetheless the two are practically brothers. They do live together, they do eat together, and probably much more, I'm sure. Jason does not come from a broken home, you see. He came from NO home at all. He had no home in the States, and by some miracle only discovered he had a family here, with us. A long-lost, hitherto unknown family prior to the death of his father. Let that sink in, please, and consider: the boy was pulled across the Atlantic into our society. As Moses once declared, Jason was, and is, like the proverbial stranger in a strange land. How would you feel in those circumstances, especially at 14 years of age? How would you feel, to go from having no one left in the world to care about you, to discovering you had one last remnant left - uncovered for you in the end? Would you not consider that to be exceptional, in this case?"

Martha Crabtree sat with her mouth open, in pure shock. "H-How...?"

"We don't know all the details, nor do we need to know all the details. All we have to know, at face value, is that Mr. Mathews came to us a troubled, scarred young man. He was known to have endured some considerable disrespect and abuse prior to arriving here, but nonetheless he did arrive here, into the care of that family. That includes, Martha, being in the care of Elliot, as you might expect, and perhaps the older brother, too. Derek, I believe is his name. That, my dear friend, is why he arrived mid-term."

Martha frowned. "Then, he... they... are not..."

Agnes sighed deeply. "No, they are not. Even if they were, tell me - where did you get the idea you can start spreading rumors and participate in idle gossip such as this? About these two, or ANY student for that matter? We are teachers, we are here to guide and instruct, not to pass judgement or incite riots because of an individual's sex, religion, orientation, or race! It is our utmost responsibility to protect the children in our care! Do you think, for one minute, you protected your charges, by subjecting them to a trail of falsehoods inside this student body? I, for one, would say not! Especially when it causes a teacher to be attacked, a student to end up in the hospital, and another to be arrested by the local authorities!"

The blood in Martha Crabtree's face began to drain. "What did you just say?" she whispered.

The Headmistress sat back in her chair and stared at her friend across the open space. "Your actions caused Elliot an enormous amount of grief. He was admitted to the hospital, yesterday morning, following an altercation initiated by our own dear Eric Williams. You remember him, don't you?" Seeing recognition in her friend's eyes, Agnes continued. "In addition, Eric flattened the monitor for detention during that period, by assaulting and knocking the man out clean. From investigating the cause, it appears that Eric was under the assumption that our young Elliot was one part of a pair of homosexuals in our school. A piece of knowledge he picked up on Monday, it seemed, sometime during the day after listening to students' idle gossip. Gossip, mind you, running rampant throughout the school following a certain incident in a certain classroom. Students who, within minutes of leaving that classroom, YOUR classroom Martha, literally invited the rest of the world to join in and take off."

Martha Crabtree sat in stunned silence. As the dots began to connect, her lower lip trembled as her entire countenance changed. Agnes sat forward slowly and placed her hands under her chin. When she spoke, her voice was softened. She did sympathize with her friend, but Agnes was in no position to compromise the gravity of the situation. "Elliot was rather brutally beaten, at the hands of Mr. Williams, and is currently in the hospital over near York Street. He will recover, I've been assured, but he will probably not return to classes this week. That, I am grateful, we can at least be relieved for." She looked deep into her friend's eyes. "I understand, Martha. You have always been a headstrong woman, and for the most part I've always left you alone with many of your views and opinions on matters. You have a right to them, and although I may not agree with the bulk, I do respect your rights. However, when it comes to the protection and integrity of this student body, there is a line that must never be crossed when it endangers them. I'm sorry, but I see no way around the fact that you have single-handedly crossed it, and in this case, crossed it severely."

The Headmistress gazed quizzically at her friend. "Tell me something, what has happened to you? Close to 30 years you have been in this profession. You're a gifted and exceptional instructor, one who has been recognized and awarded time and again for your accomplishments. Unlike in recent years, students looked up to you, adored having you for classes that were fun, interesting and involving. I look at these declining grades now for the last 5 years or so, and I look at the remarks left behind - and they paint the picture of an entirely different woman. When I look at you for myself, you haven't been the cheerful, bright person I came to befriend all those years ago either. What is it? What has happened?"

Mrs. Crabtree stared down into her lap, silent for a full minute before she sighed. There were tears in her eyes just then, as the weight of knowledge pushed down upon her. "I- I guess... I guess somewhere I've lost my way." Looking up, she nodded. "I understand now, and ... I understand. I- I apologize Agnes. I sincerely apologize to you."

Mrs. Filch looked upon her teacher with sympathy. "And that carries a lot of weight with me, my dear lady. It truly does. But, you understand, there are several things that need to be discussed now, and I do not have a lot of freedom in how this will be handled."

Martha Crabtree gazed on, nodding slowly. "I understand, yes," she whispered.

Agnes stood and walked around her desk to stand by her friend's side. Encouraging Martha to stand, Mrs. Filch gave her friend a warm embrace. "That, my dear lady, is from someone who will not forget what our friendship has yielded over these years. Especially in the times I needed you the most, and still need you now, more than ever." She pulled back momentarily and addressed the teacher again at arms-length. "You understand, I cannot help you with where this goes. It is set upon a path that is out of my hands. I can always promise you, however, I'll be by your side. As a friend, should you need me. Should you desire me to be there."

Martha Crabtree smiled and nodded her acknowledgement. The days ahead were going to be rough, indeed.

Jason brought a card deck with him the next day, and much of the time between physiotherapy sessions was passed by teaching Elliot the art of 'Rummy'. Since the evening before, Elliot had been subjected to new interns and other personnel visiting at all hours. First, they worked on getting the youth up to walk, before moving on to getting him to use some of his other muscles in the extremities again. It was painful at times, which was surprising to Elliot. One dark skinned, older man noticed this, then explained to him, however, that muscles had to be used regularly after being stagnant for very long periods of time. If Elliot could deal with the tenderness he felt now, he could avoid paying a higher price later. The man also explained that dealing with it now would mean a much quicker route to recovery. The alternative, though, was dealing with it later, where retraining his muscles to return to their normal state would be much more difficult. Grudgingly, Elliot agreed with him, but not without trepidation.

Mrs. Filch had just visited earlier, and offered a warm hug to the boy, telling him all would work out and be taken care of at school. She also insisted that he should concentrate on getting well first and foremost, before worrying about getting back into the swing of things. With Simon in the background, he had smiled at the lady and nodded as best he could, before yawning uncontrollably. While the adults were parting ways, Elliot remarked, "You know, she's not such a bad sort for an older gal." Both Jason and Derek agreed.

As the late hour approached, the doctor on staff returned and shooed everyone away, insisting that Elliot needed rest. Reluctantly, the Flavell clan obliged. Natalie considered staying the night, but the doctor encouraged her otherwise. "He will be given a muscle relaxer and, quite effectively, be out for the night. Why don't you go home where you can rest, hmm? He will be well cared for here." His logic eventually won her over.

Back in the flat, both Simon and Derek sat down with Jason and explained what they now knew with increasing detail. They had together decided not to mention the note that started it all, but let the remaining details unfold as given. Simon seemed somewhat gentle, a state the teenager could not help but notice. Was there something being held back? He wasn't sure, but he didn't push it. Like the rest of them, Jason was tired, and he figured he would get Elliot to fill him in on it later. Already, Mrs. Filch had given both boys an extra excused absence for the following day, to take advantage of before they returned to school - something they were exceedingly grateful for.

The entire family then turned in early, but for the first time since his arrival, Jason found himself alone that night. As he climbed into bed he was, in a word, unsettled. The thoughts of the day played over repeatedly in his mind, and despite Derek and Simon's attempts, questions still lingered unanswered. He wondered about Elliot, and if he was okay. If not, what might his cousin be thinking about at that hour? There was also a worry, somewhat, about returning to school, too. How were things going to be affected when he and Elliot were ready? For some time, he tossed and turned, unable to settle. Jason missed Elliot, missed being able to talk and figure things out. A feeling crept into he hadn't felt in a long, long time. He felt... alone.

Sleep might have escaped Jason throughout the night, if not for something miraculous that happened. Somewhere close to the midnight hour, he heard the door to their bedroom open and shut. Before he could roll over, however, he felt a presence not only sit, but also climb into the bed with him. Propping himself up on an elbow, he was surprised to see Derek moving in close. As the older teen stopped to look upon him in the faint moonlight, he smiled. "How...?" the American whispered. "How did you know?" Derek, however, silently shook his head before holding up the screen on his mobile for Jason to see. There was a text message there, from Elliot: 'Please check on Jase, bro. If he's like me, he probably feels weird being alone right now.'

Once Jason glanced back up, Derek set the phone aside. Without a single word, he gently tugged on the younger teen to lie back down. Turning around, Jason complied and felt Derek spoon up next to him. Jason was hesitant at first, his heart pounding harder and his breathing increased to match. All sorts of thoughts ran wild through his head, increasing his apprehension as they huddled together so closely. He could feel the older teen and his whole body, including his nether regions, sandwiched between them on his butt. In his mind, he knew he had nothing to fear, but the fear itself was having a mind of its own.

Jason held his breath nervously as he lay motionless. After a moment, however, he took a deep breath and finally tried to relax. That was when he heard Derek's voice finally whisper into his ear. "You're safe Jase, I promise. It's just me, okay? I won't leave you tonight, unless you want me to. Besides, I needed you, too. This day has been, well, it's been bad for all of us, I think. I'm here, though. Tonight, if you'll let me, it's just you and me, okay?" Derek even nuzzled the youths neck for a moment, hugging him, hoping something would pass between them that Jason could feel - and believe.

It worked. Jason slowly let the tension seep away. Feeling Derek behind him was different, but it still had its place, and he reminded himself he did trust the older brother, too. Although obviously prompted by Elliot, Jason began appreciating his bigger cousin, now more than ever before. Within minutes, he felt a peace come over him as Derek continued to hold him. Jason melted into the arms of the bigger boy, and Derek noted a deeper rhythm in his breathing. It was no time before he, too, fell asleep, joining his younger cousin.

Arriving at the hospital that morning, Jason was unsure what, or how much, he should say to Elliot. Derek remained with him throughout the night, holding him gently, or at least staying close at hand. His presence had a calming effect, different from that of Elliot, but no less impactful. When the older teen first awoke that morning, he observed Jason staring at him with a peaceful expression. "Hey," Derek said softly, smiling at him.

Jason had responded back with a simple hug, embracing the bigger teen fully before whispering into his ear. "Thanks, Big D." Derek returned the hug, smiling widely. They held each other for a moment, before Derek quietly pulled away, got up and left the room.

Right now, though, Elliot was steadily improving all the way around. Not only in his physiotherapy sessions, but in his skill at cards in general, including his apparent understanding of this game. "Rummy!" he exclaimed, beating Jason for the third hand in a row. He grinned lopsidedly, watching as Jason grimaced.

"Okay, okay, you got me!" Jason was pulled from his thoughts long enough to look up and smile. "You're getting pretty good at this, you know?"

Elliot shrugged. "I have a good teacher, I guess." After a moment, he looked up and spoke again. "Okay Jase, fess up, where are you? What has got you thinking so much this morning?"

Jason smiled. "I can't get anything past you anymore, can I?"

Elliot grinned. "Nope! Now, out with it."

This time, Jason shrugged. "Not anything really, just thinking. About different things." He hesitated and then looked up. "So, how did you sleep last night? Was it okay?"

Elliot shook his head. "Honest? I kept waking up looking for you, and you weren't here." His voice was wistful. "How about you? I texted Derek and asked him to check on you, but..."

"He did. He came in, and..."

"Really?" Elliot replied, surprised. "He came in and stayed with you, didn't he?" When Jason nodded, he sat back to stretch before continuing. "That's awesome. Seriously, it's cool, Jase. I'm glad he did it. I told you, he can be really cool sometimes."

Jason nodded again. "It's just like you said, for a while I felt weird and alone again, and then he came in and... and spooned up to me. It was weird at first, because I... you know, I felt him and everything, but... then I didn't feel so alone anymore." He admired Elliot just then. "You know what I think was awesome? It's that somehow you knew it, too. Weird, huh?"

"No, it isn't weird at all. You went for a long time without having anyone watching your back for you, you know? And those fuckers that messed with you, well... they messed with us both, big time. I was missing you - a lot. It got me thinking last night, you probably were having it a lot worse, and it, well, it worried me some. So, that's when I texted Derek." Elliot wrinkled his nose. "You know, Derek understands that, too. He did the same thing to me, a long time ago, and more than once. Somehow, he just knew when I really needed him, and then he was there. I don't know how he does it, he just does. And he just, like, wraps me up and holds me and everything. It's the best feeling in the world, especially when you and me do it, you know?"

"Yeah. He couldn't replace you, but... yeah..." Jason replied.

"So, you know what this means, right? Now you've got not just me, but you've got him, too." Elliot giggled. "Makes me appreciate him even more, though I doubt I could ever tell him that to his face."

"You could. I know you could," Jason whispered, smiling.

Elliot lay back against his pillow. "Yeah, probably. In some ways, I wish you could have been here with me, you know? But I'm glad he was there for you. And me? I'm getting out of this fish tank today, I hope. So, I'll be back and you'll have cuddling duty again with me! "

Jason giggled. "No sweat, I'll do anything you need me to do."

Just then Derek appeared from nowhere. He surprised both Jason and Elliot as he sat down in silence next to them. Elliot observed him curiously before giving him a knowing look. "You heard," he whispered. Derek acknowledged him with a kindly smile.

Looking over at Jason, Derek commented. "He's right, you don't have to be afraid of me. I've got your back, okay?" He leaned closer and added in a hushed whisper, "And you know, the other stuff? Never be afraid of me that way, either. I'll never hurt you. Not that way, ever. Okay?"

Jason was awed at how much had gone unspoken, but was yet so understood. His voice squeaked as he whispered back, "T-Thanks!"

Derek turned to Elliot. "Doc is outside talking to Mum and Dad right now. Looks like he's going to send you home in a few hours, but not before you go through some more of that physiotherapy shit first."

Elliot rolled his eyes, but then perked up. "Finally!" he exclaimed. "Now these creeps can quit trying to look at my arse all the time!"

Derek laughed. "Well, I don't know why. It's not that great looking if you ask me, but..."

A pillow landed on his brother's head as Elliot retorted with a hiss, "You think yours is something to write home about?"

Jason could not help but laugh. He loved these two when they kidded around like this...

Later that evening, the entire family arrived back at the flat, welcoming the familiar scene that awaited them. Simon and Natalie both were especially grateful, because now their family back was back under one roof. The three boys felt blessed, as the various trips and time spent in the hospital ward had taken a toll on them all physically and emotionally. Elliot sat gingerly on the sofa and reared back, happy to be free from the constraints of their cramped vehicle. He loosely stretched his legs with their newfound freedom, while turning to his mother. "Where did Dad go?" he asked, suddenly noticing Simon was nowhere to be seen.

"Pharmacist, to get you some of that ointment for those bruises. He may bring us back a snack as well, we'll see."

Elliot nodded as his mother sat down next to him. The afternoon had been long but satisfying. Simon had brought him a set of sweats and a hoodie to don before they left. The weather had turned considerably colder outside, thus causing the boys to huddle closer than usual on the ride home. The wind had steadily increased throughout the afternoon, enough that a distinct howl was now heard. Natalie commented on it. "Listen to that! It really is unusual for us to get this kind of weather down here, especially this time of year!" she remarked.

Jason nodded as Derek left to go upstairs. "We would get that sometimes back... uh, when I lived in the States."

Natalie smiled at him. "I understand. You know, you don't have to be quite so formal about everything. For example, we know this isn't so much what you call home. At least, not like when you lived with your Dad. We understand that, honest."

Jason, however, shook his head. "It's not that, ma'am, honest. I, uh, actually do think of this as home now. At least, I want to, as long as you guys keep letting me live here. I mean, I like being here! I just hope I'm not, you know, being too much trouble and all that."

Natalie shook her head. "I don't know what I'm going to do to pound that part out of you. I'll keep at it, though, so help me..." She smiled, but then turned her attention to Elliot. Leaning in, she gave him a warm hug, but couldn't help wrinkling her nose when she smelled his hair. "You've been sweating again, I think. Ugh, worse than that even. I think you need a shower or something."

Derek had entered the room again. "No kidding! He wouldn't let those nurses anywhere near him with their soap and scrubbing cloths!"

Elliot stuck his tongue out at his brother before shrugging. "All they wanted was to just get all touch-y feel-y over my naked body, and probably see my willy, Mum. I didn't want them around me!" he retorted good naturedly.

Natalie laughed at that, first chuckling before it advanced into a hard, hearty response. "I'm...I'm sure that would not have been ... the reason... son..." she gasped between breaths. Her laughter spread infectiously though, and all three boys began grinning and chuckling with her. Eventually she settled down, then looked wordlessly at Derek, who rolled his eyes before responding.

"Yes Mum, we'll take care of him later." That seemed to satisfy her, so Derek went on. "Do we have permission to drown him this time?" he added, which drew a swat to his head before she got up from the sofa.

"Just don't wait up too late boys, it's already after 7:00. And you two," she stated, indicating Jason and Derek, "have school tomorrow." She left the room then, leaving them to themselves.

Turning on the TV, they watched in silence for short while until they heard the outside door swing open again. This time Simon entered, closing it briskly behind him. As Natalie came back into the room, he handed her a small package before hanging his coat up.

"Without a doubt, it is quite brisk out there! So, are you boys prepared for the morrow?" Simon asked pleasantly.

Derek responded straight-away. "I guess we have to be. Just so you guys know, I have practice after school both tomorrow and Friday. Honestly, I don't know how late we'll be running. Our last game is Saturday, and I've already missed today's training."

Simon nodded. "I'm sure coach Edwards understands though, but yes, we'll be rooting for you all the same." He had a thoughtful expression while turning to his wife. "On the way in, I was thinking about something, dear. Elliot may be a bit much for you to handle alone tomorrow, don't you think? I mean, I desperately need to get back into the office, and I was thinking about it. Maybe it might be wise to let Jason stay home an extra day, just in case you need a little more muscle. You know, so he can help you both out." He nodded toward Elliot, who had just now begun to pay attention. "He needs to do his physiotherapy, and I'm sure he will be bored stiff sitting around the rest of the time otherwise, with nothing to really do except count the bruises and stitches to see if they are going away any faster." Simon laughed at his own humor. "Besides, Elliot, doesn't your gaming group get back together tomorrow evening? Maybe you'll be well enough you can go down there for a spell. You know, start getting back into your habits. Assuming of course, you still want to go."

Elliot's eyes lit up. "Do I ever! Really? Honest? You'll let me go?"

Natalie wasn't too keen on the idea at first. As she studied the youth, she remarked. "I don't know, you know what the doctor said about doing too much all at once. You really do not want to rush into things."

Simon, however, shook his head. "I agree insofar if there's anything strenuous, but I think going down with the group should be safe and pampered enough. Besides, with Jason along to help him, he should be fine."

Natalie thought about it. Seeing the hopeful suspense building in her Elliot's expression, however, she relented. "Okay, IF you're still doing well, you can go. Besides, you seemed to have out grown me somewhat this summer anyway, haven't you?" She smiled as she said it, but there was a wistful expression they all saw as her words hit home.

As best as he could, Elliot turned and embraced his mother as hard and as solidly as ever. Everyone could clearly hear the emotion in his voice when he finally spoke. "I will never outgrow you, Mum - never. I will always love you, just the same as the day I was born, if not more." It was clear he meant it, too. Natalie smiled, her eyes misty as she turned and kissed him on the cheek.

Afterwards, Simon broke the spell and rose to his feet, looking down at Jason. "I'll call Mrs. Filch in the morning and explain. I'm sure all will be well with her." He stopped suddenly though before snapping his fingers. "I was going to bring a snack back, wasn't I?" All laughed as he shook his head, but after a brief discussion, no one was really hungry. Natalie announced she would get up the next morning and fix everyone a good breakfast for a change, before they headed on their way. As Simon made for the hallway, she rose to follow her husband. Announcing they were going to turn in for the night, Natalie reminded Elliot he needed a shower before heading up, to which he grimaced good naturedly. Their parents then left the room, and the boys were alone.

A half hour later, Derek rose and moved to stand beside his brother. "Come on, doofus." He glanced at Jason as he turned the TV off. "You, too, squeaker." Once Elliot was on his feet, he grumbled a bit, but good naturedly made some tentative steps. All the while, with his brother to lean on, the three carefully made their way toward the bathroom. Stopping at the steps, however, Derek turned to Jason. "Go fetch us some shorts, okay? My boxers are in my top left chest drawer, and I figure you know where his are at." Jason nodded, then quickly bounded up the stairs two at a time.

Finding no one when he returned, he proceeded back toward the bathroom, carrying the requested items. Derek stood just inside the door, waiting for him when he arrived. Jason started to just hand them to the teen, but Derek grasped his arm instead and ushered him inside. Closing the door behind them, he locked it and turned around. Jason was surprised this time, but also amused as he observed Elliot already sitting on the lid of the toilet, removing both his shoes and socks. Derek, he also noticed, had already shed his own and was starting to remove his shirt. Jason walked over towards Elliot and picked up his cousin's shoes, neatly setting them to the side, making a mental note to collect them later.

Elliot glanced at him curiously though, as he started to remove his own shirt. "Aren't you going to join in?" He made a quick sideways glance to his brother, where Derek nodded in response.

Jason hesitated. "Uh... you guys, uh... you sure? I mean, that shower is big, but, uh... 3 people?"

Derek grinned and whispered. "That just makes it better, you know? What, nervous or something? Besides, you never know, it might make it more fun!" Seeing the youth blush, he giggled. "You don't have to, Jason, but um... I think we're pretty safe for a bit, if you want to."

"But... your Mom and Dad..."

"...Are gone to bed, and they won't be back downstairs tonight. Trust me, we'll be alone. We just have to be quiet, that's all," Derek replied.

"Jase, come on. We don't get too many excuses to do this as it is, especially when they're home. This is one time we can, though. Come on, it's okay, I promise!" Elliot implored.

Jason glanced between them again, and then saw Derek's expression soften. "Yes, it's fine with me too, I promise." Jason felt incredulous as, once again, he was being included in something so personal and private. Figuring 'what the heck', he relented. Jason certainly had no inhibitions being with either of the brothers now, and it was not like he hadn't done this already. He started removing his shoes and setting them beside Elliot's sneakers. "Okay, if you guys are sure," he whispered, which made Elliot giggle for some reason, before raising his fist and meeting Derek's in the air.

While Jason pulled his polo free, Derek moved to help his brother stand up and remove his sweats. Within minutes, all three were standing in the center of the room in their underwear. Elliot put his arm around Jason's shoulders, leaning for support while Derek started the shower. Once the water's temperature was acceptable, the older brother returned to stand in front. "Okay, El," he grinned, speaking just loud enough to be heard over the running water. Without preamble, and before Elliot could react, Derek reached out and stripped his brother in one quick motion. Elliot grunted before stepping out of his briefs, and then, again with a little help, made his way to the shower door. Reaching the glass, Elliot stepped just inside and waited. As Jason let go, Derek brushed by him, already stripped as naked as the day he was born. Grinning, Jason quickly shucked his own briefs before following them inside and closing the door behind him. As suspected, the shower didn't have an abundance of maneuvering room with all three inside, but it was not as tight, either. As they moved about, each made plenty of contact with the other two, but no one seemed to be bothered by it.

Derek grasped his brother by the shoulders and guided him under the heavy stream. As the water started running down Elliot's body, Derek handed Jason the shampoo. "Here, you take the top, I'll take the bottom." Jason giggled somewhat as Derek took command, while Elliot just looked on amused.

Dunking his head back to get it wet, Elliot closed his eyes and waited as he was assaulted from top to bottom. Starting at his feet, Derek brought the scrubber and shower gel together in quick motions, maneuvering around Elliot's legs and thighs. When he saw the bruises there, perhaps for the first time up close, he hesitated and treated them tenderly, but not without shaking his head and commenting. "I would so love to knock Eric's teeth out, for him doing this to you."

Elliot shrugged. "It doesn't hurt that much, just looks worse than it is." Derek grunted as he continued his task. With a look of concern, he glanced up to Jason and pointed, but his cousin shook his head.

"I've already seen them, yeah, I know," Jason responded.

Above, Jason quickly poured shampoo into his hands and began massaging Elliot's head, lathering the hair in no time. At one point, Elliot stepped back to rinse off, but grinned wickedly. "Okay you two, be easy..." Jason was unsure what that meant until he looked below. Derek had just advanced upwards into his brother's groin, where they both saw Elliot was sporting a rapidly hardening boner. Derek ignored it however as he gently worked his way into and around the area.

Once he completed the shampooing, Jason was unsure of what else he could, or should, do. He did start to take some of the shower gel and, using what he could with his hands, he scrubbed it onto Elliot's back. In no time, however, Derek stood and roughly ran the scrubber across the youth's belly, chest and neck. They had finished quickly, and surprisingly, Derek had been quite gentle about it.

Elliot opened his eyes, an expression of content about him. Standing the closest, Derek quickly steered his brother to lean against the wall for support. Turning around, he whispered to Jason, "Okay, quick, do me."

"You s-sure?" Jason asked.

Derek grinned but nodded, putting the scrubber and soap in his hands. "Yeah, I don't care, it'll be fun! Just be quick about it is all."

Jason grinned and did as he was instructed, following Derek's lead and starting at the feet. Derek assisted him by raising first one leg and then the other, giving easier access where it was needed. Even as Jason moved upward, Derek spread his legs wide for his cousin to reach between them. That caused him to blush, but Derek just encouraged him. "Go on!" When Jason glanced and saw that Elliot was looking on in amusement, he stuck his tongue out before moving forward. Reaching up, he cupped Derek's scrotum and proceeded to lather up everything around and underneath. In that quick moment, he noted how Derek's testicles hung a lot lower, and that the older teen didn't shy away as the larger and fuller penis hung in front of him. Jason grasped hold and proceeded to scrub Derek quickly around his groin, including the larger pubic patch that lay there. He wrapped his fingers around the boner that was steadily building up, but he did not stay long enough, other than to make sure the job was done.

Jason thought briefly about doing something else, still being as curious as always. Taking advantage of the moment, he quickly pulled Derek's skin back to see the glans peek out from underneath. Letting water flow over it at first, he then let it go and was mesmerized at how the skin retracted its way back - but not completely. As Elliot had already mentioned, Jason was now seeing Derek with what amounted to a full erection. Indeed, in that state, the skin did not completely shield the thicker dick at the end. Looking up, Jason grinned at Derek, who was obviously enjoying the attention, but then quickly moved on. He heard a sigh from Derek as he moved away, but he ignored it for the time being. This was not the time or place to indulge himself, and he knew it. Moving upward again, he made short order of moving around the older teen's navel and abdomen, before quickly taking care of his chest and upper body. As he finished, he heard Derek hiss. "Hey, you're not done yet!" The older boy then quickly turned and face his brother, exposing his backside. With another blush, Jason quickly completed his task there, as Elliot continued to watch with a smirk. Although Jason could not see it, Elliot had grasped Derek and was slowly massaging the pulsing member in his hand. Derek briefly shut his eyes, but then quickly shook himself out of it, awakened by the fact they were on a shortened schedule as it was.

As Jason finished, Elliot let go of his brother and reached out to take the soap, this time lathering his own hands up steadily. Still leaning against the wall, Elliot then grasped hold of his cousin and pulled his back up to him, embracing and holding him there in his arms. Elliot moved freely, lathering Jason's chest and belly, and anywhere else he could reach. All the while, Derek knelt and worked on rubbing down Jason's feet and legs. Derek too, was extra careful of the youth's groin, but he did not dwell any while there, choosing speed over curiosity for the moment. Within minutes, the two brothers had given Jason plenty of attention as they finished. Derek shut off the flow of water, and then started flinging water from his head.

Jason glanced at the clock in the room and was amazed. The entire episode, from the moment the three entered the shower until now, had lasted less than 8 minutes! He would have never thought that possible before. How long had just he and Elliot taken that first night? Wasn't it almost 25 minutes? The thought made him shake his head. What they had done for themselves that night, however, was a lot more sensuous, and they had taken their time with each other for a lot of other reasons. Here, Derek wisely understood their parents were upstairs, and running the hot water created a level of noise that easily could be heard throughout the whole flat. Derek was thinking ahead, for all their benefit, and Jason was grateful.

Elliot also noted the time on the clock and smiled. He, too, understood its significance. "That was quick!" he whispered.

Derek leaned in to whisper to them. "Okay you two, we don't have to rush so much now, we can slow down a little." With that statement, he then proceeded to embrace his little brother, slowly and warmly, one which Jason noted with feeling. The older teen had lain his head on Elliot's shoulder, his eyes closed. Jason respected it, feeling it was more their moment than anything else. After a brief pause, however, Derek opened his eyes and observed Jason standing behind and to the side. Reaching out, he grasped and pulled Jason inside with them, where with Elliot's help, they each threaded their arms around and held each other.

It was a quiet moment for all three, where nothing was held back as they pressed upon one another. Nothing was said for a time, yet nothing really needed to be. Once again, Derek was giving them both a more personal, private moment of his life. As he closed his eyes and relaxed, Jason could feel the arms of the other two encompassing him, rubbing his sides and back. Not for the first time, Jason was unsure what he was feeling, being with the two like this. He did know one thing: he felt a level of happiness springing inside, and he encased it as it enveloped him. He rubbed their sides and backs, too.

Derek eventually broke away and pulled a towel from the rack. First, he quickly dried himself down before turning and doing the same to Jason. While his cousin stood quietly and watched with amusement, Derek slipped to his knees and, this time, paid extra attention to the details in his groin. Jason had a partial erection like the other two were now sporting, something Derek was not avoiding in the slightest. As he looked on, he wondered why the older teen would even be remotely interested in him. Yet at the same time, Elliot's words came back to him about how Jason was different. He smiled as he looked on, pleased all the same.

Derek eventually glanced up and saw Jason watching. "Not bad for a skinless Yank, I think!" he whispered. Elliot giggled and Jason blushed, as he started to pop a full boner in Derek's hand. It impressed the old brother immensely as he watched it grow to its full rigid length. Derek was not shy, as he played and stroked it a few times, causing Jason to gasp. Looking up, Derek grinned wickedly, then leaned forward and swallowed the entire shaft whole, in one motion. With closed eyes, he flicked his tongue along the sides, sucking gently while pulling off ever so slowly. When he reached the end, Derek spent extra time at the head and glans, flicking his tongue around and probing him gently. Jason suddenly felt weak in his knees as he moaned. Elliot had somehow wrapped his arms around him, giving Jason much needed support. He blushed as he moaned again, embarrassed but loving it. Derek, however, grinned and repeated the performance, only this time when he finished near the end, he let go with an audible pop. "Mmm, definitely not bad there, either!" he whispered with a twinkle in his eye. He repeated the performance twice again, and the devotion was giving Jason serious problems to deal with. It would take little to bring him over the edge just now, and he wasn't sure that was something he wanted to do just then.

Jason was contemplating this when Elliot saved him from further deliberations. Grunting, the younger Flavell brother whined. "Hey now! What about me?"

Derek looked up and grinned at him. Without hesitation, Derek turned and moved over, taking his brother's already hard cock inside in a similar manner. Derek mouthed him once before pulling off and whispering up. "Okay, little bro," the older boy intoned before returning to his task.

Derek's treatment of his little brother was different, giving Elliot extra consideration as he stroked him from underneath. Derek worked his fingers in and around the whole area, massaging and strategically tugging at his testicles, and pushing a finger toward the back. It was done so quickly that Elliot shut his eyes suddenly and swallowed hard, especially as he felt one of those fingers enter him from behind and wiggle around. In literally no time at all, it was obvious to Jason what was about to happen. He wondered if Derek knew, then mentally kicked himself. 'Of course, Derek knew!' he told himself. That was why Elliot was getting the full effect now.

It didn't take long before Elliot suddenly thrust his midsection forwarded, something Jason imagined would make Derek gag, but didn't. As he grunted, his eyes shut tightly, Elliot started spooging deep into his brother's throat. How much he gave up, Jason could not tell, but he imagined it must have been a fair share. The suctioning mouth that continued working him over, suckled and vacuumed the shaft that was feeding him. Jason was amused while watching them, but he was also fascinated as he observed Derek take and swallow all of it in. It was an action that made Jason wonder about it again. He had yet to return that particular favor to Elliot. It wasn't that he so much against the idea now, but Jason, admittedly, was still working up the courage to commit to it. As he watched Derek, however, the older teen seemed to accept it in a natural stride, with no inhibitions. In a sense, Jason came to terms that maybe it wasn't so gross after all. He also caught onto Derek removing his hand from behind, and with a start understood what the older teen had done there. Although weird, he filed that away to ask Elliot about later, when they were on their own.

When Elliot seemingly finished, he collapsed against the wall and had to reach out to steady himself. Jason, recognizing the change, immediately moved over to stand next to his cousin and give him his own support. As Elliot was coming down from his high, Jason knew then, just by watching them from the outside this time, there was something between them that had to be special.

In the meantime, Derek slowly disengaged himself and stood up, facing his little brother. When Elliot opened his eyes, he saw something he had not seen in a long, long time. Derek whispered into the space between them. "See, little brother? I still love you. Always have, always will." Derek turned slowly to Jason, blushing but not hiding. "You too, you know."

Jason surprised the teen by leaning in and embracing him from the side. "I know you do," he said quietly. Derek smiled and reached in to grasp Jason's groin. To his surprise, he didn't find an erection waiting for him as before. He raised his eyebrow and was about to say something, when they suddenly heard a thump in the ceiling overhead.

Jason smiled at him, but just shook his head. Without a word, he separated and bent over. Grasping the fallen towel, he started wiping around Elliot to complete the task of drying him off. Jason was not jealous, but his thoughts had started down another path. He did not want to get into it any right now, so instead he found the night clothes he procured earlier and handed them out.

Derek hesitated, unsure of something as he kept watching Jason move about. Their cousin noticed, then smiled. "Not now. I'm okay, I promise." One by one, Derek and Elliot donned their garments until covered, before noticing Jason was still standing there, naked as before. Seeing their questioning expressions, he shrugged. "I uh, didn't like, expect to join you. You know?" That broke the tension as they all three giggled. Grinning, Jason grasped the towel and tied it around his waist. What was it Elliot had said once? 'That's kind of the adventure of it, you know, not getting caught!'

When he looked at his cousins, Jason grinned at him, thinking about how this night was one turning into a lot of firsts. "Come on," he whispered to them, grabbing all their clothes and shoes together. His towel fell once, and Jason had to stop and rewrap it again, but Derek helped by showing him how to make it a snugger fit. Once ready, they opened the door to the kitchen and, after making certain the coast was clear, quietly exited. Derek followed in silence, providing Elliot the steady hand he needed as they made their way towards the stairs.

Reaching the bottom, Derek suddenly stooped and picked his little brother up in his arms, but not without difficulty. "Umph, you've gained some weight!" the older boy gasped briefly. Nonetheless, he hefted Elliot and carried him to the second floor, Jason following closely behind. When they reached the top, Derek continued down the hallway until they made it to the younger teen's room. Entering inside, he set Elliot down on the bed quickly, before falling onto the edge gasping for air. "Th-that was not easy!" he hissed, trying to catch his breath.

Jason closed the door and tossed all their clothes into the corner of the room. Approaching their chest, he opened the top drawer and extracted a set of briefs and t-shirt for himself. Unabashedly, he then dropped the towel and methodically put them on with the brothers looking on. When he finished, he walked over and stood in front. There was a wistful expression in his eyes, but also one of content. When he smiled at them, he finally broke the silence with a whisper. "I love you guys."

Derek reached out and pulled the youth into his lap, embracing him warmly. "Sorry about that mate, honest. I was going to take care of you, too, if you had let me, I mean." He held Jason briefly before he looked up at Elliot. "I'm not sure what came over me, just... I think it was just something long overdue, and I wanted Elliot to quit thinking of me as a big arse. I know he sometimes thinks I don't care so much anymore, but I do. Just as much as I always have," he added with a grin. Returning to peer deep into Jason's eyes, Derek relented. "It wasn't very fair to you though. I mean, I started out to just do something simple, for you both, because I wanted to. I kind of got carried away in the end, though. Like I said, I'm sorry mate. I guess I just wasn't thinking quick enough. I'm really, really sorry. I'll make it up to you, I promise."

Jason noted the look of defeat and guilt that met him. "No, no - don't feel that way, Derek... It was cool, honest!" He leaned back into their embrace even more. "I- I don't know how to take things sometimes, I know that. But you - what you did for Elliot? It was okay. More than okay, it was even kind of cool." Jason tried to search for words that escaped him. "Besides, you two are brothers anyway, and-"

"Stop that Jason," Elliot interrupted. Jason turned and suddenly he and Derek were both looking at Elliot questioningly. "Stop with the 'you two are brothers' crap, okay? You're our brother, too. I know you're mine, at least," he added, suddenly glancing up and seeking Derek's approval.

"Yeah, he's right. You're mine, too. Already said and done, you know," Derek replied. He turned to Jason. "El is right though, you need to stop thinking like that. You're not outside of us anymore, and I don't care if you are a Yank! You're 'inside' of us now - in more ways than you'll ever understand. If that's not what being a part of a family is about, then I don't know what is. After everything we just went through these last few days, it's been proven now more than before. And honestly..." He paused, moving closer so that all three were within each other's personal space. "If this isn't what family is about, then someone needs to examine our heads, because then we are all in some serious, fucking trouble. You know?" He paused as the other two giggled. "I'm serious you guys. Mum and Dad feel the same way, too. Just so you know, Jason, I overheard Dad saying something yesterday with Mum about it all. You know, you're here, with all of us. This is your home now, if you'll have us. You seriously need to start thinking about all of us that way. You need to start thinking about me and Elliot, too. You may be our cousin, but you're a whole lot more than that now. A whole lot more. I know we all love you." He lowered his voice. "Jason, no one is going to send you away, squeaker. No one is going to put you out. No one is going to send you back. You're here now, with us. With me and Elliot. You're inside us. Understand?"

Elliot watched the exchange, and noticed his cousin was on the verge of tears. They had been through this so many times already, but he didn't care. This time, Jason was getting it from Derek's heart. At some point, Elliot knew Jason was going to have to listen - and hear it - with his own heart. He was going to have to accept it, he hoped, sooner or later. He spoke up, his own voice edged with emotion. "Jase, we've told you before, and we'll tell you a hundred times, again and again if we have to. We'll drill it into you, until you believe it, okay? We're not like those creeps you stayed with before. They treated you like shit, and you know it. We love you, and we're not going to let that happen to you again. You just have to trust me on that. Trust both of us." He hesitated, then added, "You just have to start believing."

Jason did finally break down, pulling them in close. This time, however, his tears came from a happy place inside of him. He clung to them both, and never said another word the rest of the night. When he finally let go, Jason crawled up into bed and under the covers. With a little help from his older brother, Elliot followed, stretching out behind Jason until he was snuggled in close again. With an arm draped over his cousin, they settled down peacefully. Outside the wind continued to howl in the background, but otherwise it was a tranquil moment, one not lost on Derek as he sat and watched them.

As he stepped away from the bed and turned the lamp off, Derek too had tears falling slowly down his cheek - something he had not done in a long time. He took one last look at the two beneath him and smiled, almost in envy. He totally got it now, as he understood what Elliot had tried to tell him before. These two were close not only physically, but emotionally. Derek also picked up on the clue Elliot had given him. Without question, it made him realize further just how badly their cousin must have been mistreated, and for him to have so little self-worth for himself. He must have been subjected to another type of household, to another type of life far from their own. It was the only thing that could explain the insecurities all of them saw, and why Jason needed constant reminding that things were changed now.

Derek agreed with his younger brother. They might have to tell Jason a hundred times over again, to get it through him, before their cousin would, eventually, start to believe. Jason surely recognized he was in another world, right? But obviously not. It wasn't bad that he still felt unsure, but Derek knew that would evaporate over time. Especially if the whole family kept reinforcing how much they loved him - and wanted him here.

Jason was now, Derek concluded without doubt, a part of their family. And in their little group, family was everything.

Derek quietly walked out of the room, closing the door behind him. He was determined he was going be there from now on. Whatever the issue might be, whatever these two might need, whatever the cost. He felt guilty at being off the radar for so long, and for leaving his brother behind. He loved Elliot, and that was something that never changed. And the more time he spent around their cousin, he recognized how much he was growing to love Jason, too.

Now was the time Derek needed to turn this around. Now, Derek realized, he needed to be there more. At least, until Jason got better. He wasn't going to constrain how long that might be, though. In their world, family came first and foremost, always. Nodding, he smiled grimly as he entered his own bedroom, making a pact with himself. He would not leave them behind again, until they were both on a more solid footing.

No matter how long it took.

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