When Shadows Pass

by Sean English

Chapter 24

Learning Has Many Sources (Part I)

Beginning in the early hours Friday evening, the Flavell family officially introduced the first Star Wars movie, in sequence, to their new charge. Both brothers had to exercise patience, while trying to educate Jason to the significance that Chapter One implied. Although it was the first chapter of the series, it wasn't the first movie of the series to be made. That was confusing to him, after being told chapters four, five and six were originally created starting in the mid-1970's. More surprising, however, was the fact that the entire series had taken over 30 years to be produced and filmed thus far! The fact it was still going strong intrigued him, and as Jason listened to the brothers try to explain it to him, he began to get a glimpse of what the cult following was all about. That led into another discussion about George Lucas, and his production company, and how the man kept such a tight control over the franchise. Jason finally sighed after listening to the two brothers debate over it. "Honestly, it sounds to me like he was just a control freak, and didn't want anyone to butt in," he remarked.

Natalie walked into the room at that moment and, surprisingly, nodded in agreement. "You're spot on with that, Jason. George Lucas was, and still is a very controlling individual, we all agree. If you ask me, he was not really that great as a director, either. You'll see what I mean when you get to the fourth episode. He kept everything tight to his chest, and that made his story line very hard to keep up with in development. Now that Disney has control, I think it may go a bit better, but we'll have to wait and see." She sniffed and then blew her nose into a tissue before announcing, "Boys, I'm going up to my room tonight to nurse this nose of mine. Try to not get too rowdy, please?"

Before she left, Derek got up from his perch on the sofa, and gave her a surprising hug. "Need anything, Mum? Before we get started?" The lady shook her head though and gave him a kiss on the cheek.

"Just don't get too loud, that's all I ask," Natalie replied before quietly disappearing.

Each of the teens had created a nest for himself, beginning with Derek stretching out on the sofa. Elliot and Jason perched themselves in front, on the floor, using bean bags pushed together for support. It had turned cold and damp outside by then, and a part of those conditions seemed to seep their way inside the flat. When they first settled in, it did not take long for the teenagers to don sweats and long-sleeved t-shirts. As additional insurance, however, they also found a supply of casual throws which they employed over themselves.

Just before starting, Derek turned off all the lights in the downstairs, leaving only the illumination from the TV to fill the void. Upon reflection, Jason thought it was rather agreeable. Given the larger TV screen before them, he thought the setting was not unlike that of being in a movie theater, albeit, although they were gathered and sitting much more comfortably.

As the movie began, each had a sandwich and crisps by his side, which they began consuming. Once eaten, Jason curled up under his cover and watched, finding the movie both interesting and complex. As it progressed, the brothers tried to slide in remarks, such as "Watch out for this guy, he becomes more important later". They also tried, with only partial success, to explain to Jason what the Force was about. Their takes, however, only confused him more, enough so that Jason eventually held his hands up. "Stop guys! I appreciated it, but… just let me watch it, okay?" Grinning at each other, Derek and Elliot complied.

Jason eventually remarked about something else which caught his attention. "Hey guys, do you think they're using, like, models and everything?" he asked out loud, referring to the eye-popping special effects used throughout the film. "In the space battles and everything?"

"Some maybe, but I bet most of it is CGI effects in this one. You know, computer generated stuff," Derek replied. "The first three are kind of like this one, but when you get to chapters 4 through 6, you'll see more stuff that they did differently. Those probably used more models and everything."

Roughly half-way though the film, Elliot started edging closer to his cousin. The moves were subtle at first, but as time progressed, it didn't take long before they were now very much side-by-side. Once Jason realized what was happening, he met Elliot likewise and they stretched out together. Making sure that Derek's view wasn't obstructed, Elliot settled in, reaching out from underneath his blanket, and finding Jason's hand without any difficulty. There he held onto it while the movie continued, but after a short respite, he nonchalantly let go and placed his hand on Jason's thigh. The American grinned, but before he could process it, Elliot suddenly backed away and stood up. "Pause it Derek, I need to go pee!"

Derek did as he was asked without comment. Once Elliot was out of sight, however, he leaned in close to Jason's ear. "Hey, you two want to do something kind of cool?" Jason's curiosity aroused, he turned back and nodded. Derek rose then and, extending his hand, helped pull Jason to his feet. Without a word, Derek proceeded to rearrange their bean bags, resetting them so the two could lie crosswise on the floor, parallel to the sofa. Upon finishing, Derek explained. "Elliot and I used to do this all the time when we watched movies. I would hold him, like, forever. Sometimes we'd do little things, too."

Jason wondered what that meant, but never got the chance to ask because, just as the Derek was finishing, Elliot returned. Upon seeing the new arrangement, he grinned widely. "Cool!" Without hesitation, he took a diving jump into the assemblage, then reached to grasp Jason's hand, pulling him down in front. After settling in, sandwiching himself with his back to the sofa, he looked up expectantly. Derek grinned and then spread the blankets over them. Stepping over them, the older teen then returned to the sofa and wrapped up. After a bit of shifting around, they then resumed the movie.

It wasn't long before Jason understood how special their setup was, as Elliot cuddled and pulled his friend back close. "MMmmmmm..." he said softly, rearing his head back briefly to nuzzle with that of Elliot, before laying it down to relax. Elliot nuzzled his cousin's neck briefly in return, and there they lay for several minutes.

When they reached roughly two-thirds through the film, Elliot slowly eased his hand southward and cupped Jason's groin, causing him to smile. The teen was already relaxed, having pressed backward into the boy's arms behind him. As they lay there, Jason turned his attention back to the movie. After another moment, however, Elliot pulled away and worked his hand underneath, inside the briefs Jason was wearing and back down onto his crotch. He only let his fingers float softly about the area before settling. Jason pressed ever so slightly forward into Elliot's grasp, but that was the extent to which he reacted at the moment. At least, until he felt Elliot wrestling at close quarters with the clothes in that area.

Jason realized it was another one of those little things that brought continuing comfort between them. He finally stretched, shifting into a more comfortable position while lying back. Glancing behind him, he found Elliot smiling, and beyond him Derek also entertained a smile as he glanced down. He understood now what the little things were that Derek had hinted at. Looking between himself and Elliot, Jason decided to hook his own thumb in place, and push his sweats and briefs out and down, catching the band just under his scrotum. At first there seemed to be moderate resistance, so he also pushed down from each of his sides. His crotch was now totally open underneath the cover and freely offered to his cousin. Finding Elliot's hand, he guided it back down into place. Although he wasn't horny, and the movie still captured his attention, Jason found he wanted this. The fact Derek was as close, above them, did not deter him in the slightest. He needed Elliot to still feel the trust he offered, because he needed it for himself, too.

Elliot nuzzled Jason's neck, and there they both lay throughout the rest of the movie, in full trust and comfort with one another. Derek glanced down on occasion and saw the subtle movements. At one point he smiled, as he recalled the times he and Elliot had done the exact same thing with each other. He heard Jason sigh, obviously loving the attention, as Elliot massaged him all over his groin, and it wasn't long before he could see the telltale signs of an erection tenting underneath the covers.

Jason began having a hard time keeping his attention on the movie as things progressed. It didn't take long until he started feeling a certain tickle behind his navel, and it was then he turned to look into Elliot's eyes. Though wistful, he breathed deeply before whispering, "If you keep that up, I'm going to blow." He glanced up and noticed Derek heard him as well, but Jason didn't honestly care at that point.

"So?" Elliot whispered back. "You want me to stop then?"

As Jason contemplated his response, he and Elliot were both surprised as Derek paused the movie again and sat up. "My turn to go to the loo, guys," the elder teen said, before stepping over them and disappearing down the hallway. Elliot grinned just then and threw the covers somewhat back. Before Jason could respond, he felt a renewed attention being given to his boyhood. In hardly no time, he began breathing hard.

"Oh man…" Jason moaned, and slipped back further onto his back. Squeezing at the right time, stroking at a speed that gradually increased, Elliot didn't hold back. Within a minute, Jason didn't disappoint as he suddenly loosed 3 to 4 spurts that ended up dribbling on his lower belly and into Elliot's hand. Elliot stopped, sinking into nuzzling Jason's neck as he let his hand relax. There they both lay for a moment longer.

As Derek had not yet returned, Jason turned finally and kissed Elliot very softly on his lips. "Thanks," he whispered, causing his cousin to grin at him before pulling the covers back up in place. Seeing Jason's look of concern, he shook his head. "We got to wash this thing anyway, so no big deal." It was then Derek suddenly returned, half-stepping, half-leaping back onto the couch. Seeing the big grin oh his face, Jason blushed in the dim light. Elliot could feel the change in his best friend and giggled, before hugging him tightly. Derek added his own one-arm support to the hug, then continued the movie.

When the movie finished, Derek sat up and stopped the player. "Okay, so what did you think of it? The movie, that is," Elliot asked as he and Jason, too, turned their backs to the couch and sat up. In the twisting about, the blanket had come loose, and Jason's whole groin was briefly exposed.

Once again Derek grinned, making Jason roll his eyes. "Hush up," he smirked. He thought briefly about covering himself up, but then decided he really didn't need to. That was the level of trust he had already bequeathed to Derek, long before now. He turned to Elliot and replied, "I thought it was really cool. And there's how many more of these to get through?"

"At least five," Derek answered.

Jason smiled. "I think it's going to be a sweet weekend!"

Derek looked up at the clock. "It's not that late. Do you guys want to go for the second one tonight?" A resounding chorus from the two younger teens made the decision unanimous. While Derek arranged for the next disc, Jason excused himself to get rid of some soda in the 'loo'. That expression still held a certain amount of crudeness in his eyes, but he had to admit nonetheless that it was growing on him. Both of the Flavell brothers snickered and exchanged grins as Jason rose to his knees, pulling his sweats back up into place, before rising and leaving the room.

Once he disappeared, Derek gave Elliot a knowing expression. The younger brother didn't hesitate to reach out and enveloping his older brother in a big hug. Derek turned to face him and returned the embrace. "I saw what you were doing," Derek whispered.

Elliot just shrugged. "Yeah, I know. It's why you left, isn't it?" When Derek nodded, Elliot grunted. "He wouldn't have cared, you know. You could have probably done it, too, if you wanted."

Derek smiled. "Maybe, but I'm leaving it to you two tonight. Honest Elliot, I'm just glad you have each other, that's all."

Elliot pulled back, searching Derek's expression. "I'm sorry, bro. It's just, he lets me do things and, well..."

"What are you sorry for? You love him for it, and you love the fact he trusts you. I get it, honest. It's not that different than it was with you and me, is it?" Derek asked.

"No, it isn't," Elliot replied. Looking up into Derek's eyes, he added, "It still is that way with you and me, right?"

"Oh, fuck yeah, little bro! Always," Derek replied as he plopped down onto the couch, dragging Elliot with him onto his lap. Just to capitalize on that fact, Derek quickly sneaked his own hand inside Elliot's briefs and found the nice-sized package awaiting inside. There he cupped and felt about gently, until a moment later they heard footsteps returning. Pulling out, he hugged Elliot tighter, which made the younger boy grunt. "Always was between us, and always will be," Derek breathed into his ear so that only he could hear. Elliot giggled.

When Jason came through the doorway, he found them waiting for him. He smiled as Derek waved him over to where they were, plopping down on Elliot's other side. This time, Derek spread his blanket over all three as they rearranged themselves to half-sit, half-stretch out together on the sofa. Though awkward at first, it wasn't long before all three were comfortably snuggled in together.

While the second movie played, little more occurred between them. Jason, lying upon Derek's hip, cuddled in comfortably, with his arm half draped around his older cousin. Elliot lay against him, in a similar fashion. They were all three content, and once again Jason became engrossed in the movie.

On Sunday afternoon, Natalie sat back in the recliner knitting a scarf. She heard her mobile buzz, and upon looking at the caller ID, she was surprised to find it was Simon. "Hello, dear!"

"Hallo sweetness, how are you on this fine day?" came Simon's cheery voice.

"Cold, I fear. It has turned quite chilly and windy again since you left. How is it over there?" Natalie asked as she settled back.

"Well, last night saw almost 7-inches of snow fall here, so it is quite white and sterile at the moment," Simon replied with humor. "How are things going there, hmm?"

"Oh, very well, I guess. The boys have been cooped up in the living room since Friday night, watching and re-watching all those Star Wars movies you collected. It seems, I daresay, our newest family member has never seen them before, for some odd reason."

"You don't say? How very strange that is, isn't it? Those movies are classics!" the eldest Flavell intoned.

"Yes, I know dear, and even though I'm a woman, I have to agree with you." Natalie laughed. "But it seems our Jason has a little catching up to do. At least on certain things in the wild." She paused. "How come you're ringing me here? Why didn't you use the house number, as usual?"

"Well, the international lines seemed to be busy. I've been trying for the last half-hour, but to no avail. I just decided to see if I could get you directly." Simon cleared his throat on the other end. "By chance, are the boys anywhere near you right now?"

"No, they bundled up and went out for some air. I think they're taking a walk up to the park. Why, is something wrong?"

"Oh, no!" Simon's replied quickly. "Mercy, no! I wanted to ask you a favor, though, and chat about it a bit between us first. You see, before I left, I asked Jason if he recalled the address where he and my brother lived. He gave it to me, but I'm wondering if I may have recorded it incorrectly. Could you ask him and text it to me again? Perhaps even tomorrow, while the boys are in school, reach out to Mrs. Filch and have her check his paperwork – in case he is missing anything."

Natalie furrowed her brow. "Well, okay. Not likely, I think, but I can do that."

"I'm honestly just looking for anything that might be used as a second reference," Simon reassured her. "To be honest dear, quoting that old Bill Murray movie, 'there is something strange in this neighborhood'. You see, I made a call on the Tennessee State Social Services board on Friday. I had to go through a boat load of people, and get several items made out properly and all. After that was resolved, however, I finally got someone to talk with me. It seems that they, the department, tried to find Jason in their system, but he wasn't registered in the computers."

"My- what? Not in their system?" Natalie replied, startled.

"Yes, that was my reaction, too. When that failed, they asked for some of his original information, such as his address. That didn't bring up anything, either. I think they started to get suspicious of me about that time, but I convinced them of my cause. At least, I think I did. They wanted an ID number, his social security number I believe, but I couldn't provide that one. We sort of drew a stalemate afterwards. I do have an appointment with an individual come Tuesday afternoon, however, and I'm hoping to go over the case in more detail."

"That – That does sound awfully strange, indeed!" Natalie exclaimed. "And... they had nothing on him?"

"Nothing at all, at least given the information I had. We had his full name, city and county of residence, age and so forth. The lady I was working with talked with me for a bit, and I explained how Jason came to be with us and all. She supposedly went through several layers of their computer systems, too. She also suggested that, since he came to us on international travel, we might get his passport and it would solve most of this mystery. She's right you know – Americans live and die within their social security system enough as it is. They use it to track people, and combined with their passports, it's hard not to keep some tabs on the coming and going of various people. I was going to ask if you could get that, too, and perhaps send me a photo of the main page and all."

Natalie nodded. "Of course, I can dear. And I'll ring Agnes in the morning first thing. If she has anything, I'll capture that and send it tomorrow."

"Ah, excellent! You know, I don't recall having received any paperwork, other than whatever forms I signed at the airport. Did you?"

Natalie looked thoughtful. "No, I didn't. I- I remember signing his school paperwork here, but… I guess I just assumed you did all of the other, more important items."

Simon sighed. "I was afraid that might be the case. Although, I have to admit, I'm not too sure what we would get anyway, in the way of paperwork. I know that nothing ever arrived through the post." His tone changed then, taking on a lighter quality. "Oh well, we'll figure it all out, I'm sure. Nothing to be concerned about right now, it's all probably just a simple slip of the pen, or something mistyped."

Natalie, however, wasn't ready to let it go. "Do you think there could be problems, though? Please don't hold back from me. I know you and the boys shield me from things sometimes, but please, don't hold this one out. Do you?"

Simon paused. "I don't think anything is horribly wrong, no. That is the truth, I assure you. I admit, I do find it odd, if you know what I mean. Like always though, we should do our best to refrain from jumping to any conclusions. We simply need more information, and I'm sure once we all get on the same page, much of this will sort itself out." He softened his voice. "I'll see what I can find out, if anything, before coming home. Don't fret about any of it until then, okay? Oh! Speaking of which, I'm set to catch the overnight flight out on Wednesday night. So, I should be back sometime on Thursday." There was an announcement blaring in the background just then, and Simon had to wait for it to finish before continuing. "I'm sorry dear, it looks like I need to go again. I'll try to ring you again later tonight or tomorrow, okay?"

"Okay Simon, please be safe! I love you!"

"I love you, too. I will, dear. Don't you worry, everything will be fine, I promise. Cheers!"

Natalie terminated the call, but afterwards found herself in deep thought. All this time she had assumed Simon had taken care of all the logistics. Rather presumptuously, she realized that each had assumed more than they should, thinking that the other had taken on this role. Since Simon had purchased the airfare and corresponded more with the people involved, Natalie had thought nothing more of it – until now. Bringing some of the pieces together now, she found it extremely curious what they had overlooked, and what they were finding out.

Rising to her feet, Natalie sighed as she approached and climbed the stairs. Once she entered hers and Simon's bedroom, she removed the lock box from underneath their bed. Inside, she found Jason's passport, and after a cursory glance, she snapped the picture as requested. In fact, she snapped several pictures, to ensure she got clear images, before transferring the lot to her husband via a text message. A little while later, he acknowledged their receipt, with a kind thank you and a promise to chat again as soon as he could.

That evening, the boys were catching up on some last-minute homework, when Natalie appeared in their doorway. "Oh, my goodness! Don't you boys have it too cold in here?" she exclaimed.

"It's not cold Mum, just kind of cool, that's all," Elliot replied, watching her enter and set a tray of sandwiches down on the desk. Behind her, Derek popped his head through the doorway.

"Humph! Well, I'm not so sure about that, but okay," Natalie remarked, before folding her hands across her chest. "Listen boys, I had a call a bit ago with some news, and I think I should relay it to you. Do you remember that boy, Eric? What was it, Williams? Eric Williams?"

Elliot who had been reaching for the food, was startled. Halting his sandwich in mid-air, he looked up at his mother. "Yeah. Kind of, uh, hard to forget that creep," he replied.

Natalie moved over and sat down on the corner of the bed. "Yes, I know what you mean. Regardless though, he died a few days ago, early Thursday I think."

The news surprised all three of the teens. "What? Seriously?" Derek asked. "What happened, Mum?"

"Well, Mrs. Filch got word that he was found passed-out in his cell. They tried unsuccessfully to revive him, however, and then rushed him to a local infirmary. He was pronounced deceased on arrival." Natalie paused, then added, "The preliminaries point to a possible overdose of some kind."

Elliot dropped his sandwich back onto the platter. "Wow," he replied thoughtfully. "I mean, I didn't like him, obviously. But... I would never wish that on someone."

Natalie put her arm around his shoulders. "You didn't cause this, Elliot - none of us did. Obviously, the boy had problems long before he ever met you that morning. From what we all knew, he had a lot of anger issues that he never got any help for, and that just deepened his depression after the fact."

"Depression?" Jason asked quietly.

"Yes," Natalie nodded, turning toward him. "Mrs. Filch told me that, after he was processed, Eric seemed to go into a depression of sorts. He refused to talk to anyone, refused to eat very much, or do anything else. If reports are correct, he became despondent and very self-conscious." She paused before addressing her younger son again. "Elliot, the reason I'm bringing all this up, is to give you a heads-up. Tomorrow, when you get to school, you need to stop by the office for a few minutes."

Elliot raised an eyebrow in curiosity. "Uh, okay. What's up, though?"

"Well, it appears that this Eric left a letter of some kind, and he addressed it to you," Natalie explained. "To tell the truth, the police constable was unsure whether or not they should be the ones to open it first, but it was finally decided you should have that privilege."

"A letter? For me?" Elliot exclaimed in surprise. "But... why?"

"I don't know, son. I just think you'll just have to open it and see. He could have written it to anyone, for a variety of reasons. For some reason, however, he wrote it to you. Even Mrs. Filch and I talked about whether we should preview it, just in case." Seeing the look of confusion on Elliot face, Natalie explained. "Only because we're nervous it might be some sort of rant, or ill-conceived message he intended for you, that's all. Mrs. Filch and I both, however, felt you were old enough to handle most anything it could contain. I told her believed you would be alright with it." Natalie paused, waiting until she caught her son's gaze. "You must promise me something, however. If it does turn out to be some kind of malicious garbage, then just give it back and leave it at that. Okay? The boy is gone now, and there is nothing more he can do to harm anyone. Will you promise me that?"

Elliot slowly nodded. "Sure, Mum. I promise."

Natalie leaned back. "Personally, I doubt it will be anything bad, but just … you understand." She glanced at the other two boys in the room. "You two go with him in the morning, too." Both Derek and Jason readily agreed. Satisfied, Natalie quietly rose and exited the room, closing the door behind her.

"Wow," Elliot mused again.

Jason put away his notebooks and readied his backpack for school. "Yeah, I know." Derek plopped down on the bed next to his little brother. "There's no use worrying about it, though. Knowing Eric, he probably did just want to rave. You know, how the system is shitty and all that stuff. Hell, maybe he even wanted to thank you for making his life more miserable." He spoke of it lightly, with an amused tone, but he observed his brother closely.

"I don't think it would be that," Jason interrupted, surprising the two brothers as he finally retrieved his sandwich from the tray. "I mean, didn't your Mom say he was depressed and everything? After he was processed and all that?"

"Yeah, she did," Derek replied, then thought about it. "I see what you mean. You're thinking maybe it's a farewell note or something, right?" Seeing Jason nod, Derek considered it further before placing his hand upon Elliot's shoulder. "Seriously, I think I agree with Jason's reasoning much better. Don't sweat it till morning comes, though. We'll see what it's all about then. Okay?"

Elliot nodded. Derek grabbed a soda and then left the room, leaving the two alone.

Jason studied his cousin while he finished his sandwich. When he noticed Elliot hardly touching his, he broke the silence. "Hey, fess up. You okay?"

Elliot seemingly came out of a trance and glanced about. Sheepishly, he grinned and grasped a drink for himself. "Nothing, Jase, I'm okay. I just kind of got lost wondering about it, that's all." He took a drink, then sighed. "Like Derek said, we'll find out in the morning, I guess."

"Yeah, you will, and I'll be right there with you. Besides, I need to thank Mrs. Filch for fixing my schedule to match yours, too," Jason observed.

As the three teens entered the headmistress' office Monday morning, they found Mrs. Filch already expecting them. In addition, an elderly, but smartly dressed man was in the room with her. He stood up at her beckoning, and she introduced him. "Good morning, boys. This here is Mr. Snarks, he's from the Youth Custody Office over in Brookland." Ushering them into her office, she closed the door before sitting down pleasantly behind her desk. Although it was somewhat crowded, each found a seat by means of either the chairs provided, or by using a bench that stretched along the back wall. Both Derek and Jason claimed it directly, stepping back out of the way.

"Okay, let's get down to it, shall we?" The headmistress opened the meeting pleasantly. "Elliot, Mr. Snarks has brought me this letter in question, which I am going to hand to you. I'm sure your mother explained its origin sufficiently, correct?" She watched Elliot nod before picking up the envelope. She did not, however, hand it over right away. "I take it, you are okay with these other boys attending here with you?" she asked smiling.

"Um, yes ma'am. They're my brothers," he said sheepishly, which the lady fondly acknowledged.

"Then, let me be frank. As you can see, this envelope contains a page, possibly two, of something that appears to be a letter. The department did slit one corner of it, to make sure it didn't contain anything untoward, like a powder or drugs. You understand, something of the sort you wouldn't want to find - which it didn't. Other than that, no one has tried to read its contents in any way. So, you understand what I'm saying, right? When I hand this to you, you can be assured no one has invaded its contents beyond that point. It is yours, in its entirety."

"Yes, ma'am, I understand," Elliot replied, nodding his head.

Mr. Snarks spoke up. "I say, dear chap, if once you read the contents, if this is something upsetting in any form, I would ask you to just hand it back to me."

Elliot glanced at the man. "How... how was Eric, sir? Were you around him any? Did you get to see him?"

"As it happened, Eric was in my block assignment, yes," Mr. Snarks admitted quietly. "I am the one who actually found him. Prior to then, he kept mostly to himself, never giving anyone any trouble that I heard of. Not exactly a model detainee, but he was far from the usual lads that come through there. I know, however, that is a stark contrast from his prior history and disposition. For us though, he was very 'tamed'."

Elliot nodded. "I'm sorry then, sir. Thank you for bringing this down to me, though."

"Well, let's see what you have then, shall we?" the man replied, smiling warmly.

The headmistress handed the envelope to Elliot, which he then turned over in his hand. Written in plain, simple letters across the front, he read it aloud. "To the Boy I Beat Up, Please." Glancing back at Derek and Jason, he then proceeded to open the envelope, and from within he pulled two, folded pages that were hand written. The penmanship was decent for a teen their age, and Elliot had no trouble deciphering its words. While the others watched him with a mixture of curiosity and suspense, Elliot carefully started reading in silence. Somewhere in the hallways, the muffled sound of the school bell began ringing, signaling the start of classes for the day. Otherwise, the room remained eerily noiseless, with the only sound coming from Elliot as he shuffled and proceeded to the second page of the letter. Shortly thereafter, he finished reading and sat back. His eyes were moist, but in the interim he smiled at the group. Without waiting for an invitation, Elliot handed the letter, in its entirety, to Mrs. Filch.

"I don't have to read this, you know," the headmistress said kindly. "No one has to, for that matter. This was meant for you."

Elliot nodded. "I know that ma'am. It's okay, though. I know you guys are, like, concerned and everything. Read it, you'll see what I mean. Go ahead," he encouraged.

The headmistress gathered herself and, pushing her glasses up on her nose, she started with the first page. After scanning it briefly, she began to read it aloud for all to hear.

"To the Boy I Beat Up, I want to say I am sorry. I have never apologized to anyone that I can remember ever meaning it but to you I want you to know it was not your fault what happened that morning, and what I am about to do is not your fault either. I have not had that bad of a life, people have tried to help me that cared but I turned them away for reasons I will never understand. But for you to have a brother and care for him as much as you do I want to tell you that is cool and I was the one who-" The headmistress hesitated, then continued. "Err, messed up, and I am sorry for what I put you through."

She sat back and showed the bottom of the second page to their visitor. "It's signed Eric Williams." She looked at Elliot and saw him smiling. She also saw, without question, how the teen had been moved by the letter's contents. "That is... was very nice for him to do." She looked up at the other two teens still sitting on the bench. "I think this is the one thing we can say, with some pride, don't you? Maybe someone had some influence, somewhere along the way, that caused Mr. Williams to begin having a change of heart."

There was silence for a moment, until Derek stood and walked up beside his brother. Addressing their visitor, he asked, "Sir? Do they know yet how he died?"

Mr. Snarks nodded. "It appeared to be an overdose, on some variation of methamphetamine. How he acquired it, however, is still uncertain. We're still investigating that one, I'm afraid." The man hesitated, before solemnly continuing. "I believe we can now assume he must have known what he was doing. The part there, where I believe it read 'and what I am about to do is not your fault either'. That suggests he was in control of what was about to happen." Sighing deeply, he cleared his throat and stood up. "Young man, would it be acceptable to you if I make a copy of these pages? They may shed some light for others who are investigating these matters."

Elliot nodded, and watched as the man left the room quietly, the pages of the letter in his hand. Standing up, Elliot discovered Jason had already slid up silently on his other side. "Thank you Mrs. Filch, thank you for arranging this," Elliot said.

The headmistress stood as well. "I am happy it came out as peacefully as it did," she remarked. She was about to turn away when Jason stopped her.

"Can I also say thank you, while we're here ma'am? For getting my classes and Elliot's together again, for this term?"

There was a kindness in her eyes as she surveyed them. "You are very welcome, Jason. I am also pleased it worked out as well as it did." She reached for a pad on her desk and quickly scribbled two notes, one for Derek and one for both Elliot and Jason. "When you're ready for class, just hand these to your teachers." Just then, Mr. Snarks returned and handed the original sheets back to Elliot. He then said his goodbyes, but not before informing Elliot someone would be in touch with them soon. As he left, that caused Elliot to raise an eyebrow and turn back to the headmistress.

"Mrs. Filch? What did he mean by that? That someone would be in touch soon?" he asked.

The elderly lady stepped around the corner of her desk and paused in front them. "He means, Elliot, that the Department of Education will soon be reaching out to you, to discuss a settlement in this matter. You see, it could be argued that we, even I myself, did not properly exercise our duty of care towards you that morning. You were put in a dangerous situation that, although no one had any real control over, was more dangerous than a simple school fight. Because of that, other parties are involved with this now, not just the school system, but also the social services division. So, you might say, we as a team failed to protect you - pure and simple as that. It has already been ruled we were at fault on those grounds." She smiled at him. "I haven't been privy to their discussions as of late, but if I'm correct, I believe they intended to offer you and your family some amount of compensation for the troubles and ills it brought to you."

Elliot's eyes first widened, then furrowed together. "What? I mean, okay, but..." He gaped at her. "You didn't fail us, ma'am. It wasn't your fault what happened, or anyone else's here, for that matter!"

Mrs. Filch laughed lightly. "Well, thank you for that. But, it really doesn't work out to be that simple in some cases, such as this one. You see, we are still liable for certain parts in this episode. Eric was a particularly troubled youth, and he had been in the system lacking discipline for a number of years. Maybe the responsibility didn't fall as much on the school, but combined with his handlers and other overseers, we all had a hand in not providing the help he needed. It cost everyone dearly. That morning, Elliot, he invaded your personal space, and we know that outcome, don't we?" She shook her head at the youth as he continued to look on in astonishment. "Look, it isn't going to be some large amount of compensation. That's because there are limits imposed on these things. But if I'm correct, it will be something worthwhile. I would recommend you discuss it with your parents, when it comes down the line. If it is acceptable to all of you, then just take it. Start with it, or add it to a rainy-day bank, or a university fund if you like. You do deserve it, you know."

Derek and Jason stood by silently, watching Elliot's reaction. When it came, the youth simply gave the elderly lady a warm embrace. "Thank you, ma'am," he whispered before letting her go.

When the three boys exited into the hallway, all three diverted into a nearby bathroom so they could talk. They found it to be empty, which afforded them the perfect place to converse quietly. Derek clamped a hand on his brother's shoulder. "Wow! Can you imagine that?" he said softly. Elliot was still in shock, both from the contents of the letter, and the unexpected news.

"I- I don't know what to say, or even think," Elliot finally mused as Jason stood beside him.

"You gonna be okay?"

"Oh yeah, I will, promise. I ... I just, wow," he repeated.

Derek glanced at his watch. "We've missed about 25 minutes so far, so meh. Not really enough time to go on into study period or the library. Bummers." He cleared his throat. "Well, you two go on when you're ready. I'm going to step outside and text Mum first about the letter. You know, so she won't have to wait all day to hear about it from us."

The other two nodded, fully understanding what that implied.

At lunch, all four boys gathered together as usual at one of the lunchroom tables. "Hey, what's up guys? How come you were late to class this morning?" Ron asked, Scott right behind him nodding profusely.

Jason and Elliot looked at each other before taking turns, bringing the guys up to date about the letter. Ron was surprised, not having fully understood the event's details when it first happened. So, as it came out, Elliot, Jason and Scott all three quickly filled in the gaps. The news of the letter, however, caused quite a stir from Scott.

"Are you shitting me? Really? He did THAT?" the wheel-chaired teen exclaimed.

"Yeah. It was like, awesome! At least, well..." Elliot hesitated, and the play of emotions across his face divulged the uncertainty he felt.

"You mean, getting a letter was cool, you just wish it hadn't been for those reasons," Ron offered quietly. Elliot smiled at him gratefully.

"Yeah. I mean, he killed himself. How fucked up is that, right? Nobody should get that depressed, you know?" Elliot voiced quietly.

"But-" Jason interrupted. "Eric evidently was sorry, too. You know, remorseful and all. He thought enough of you to write that letter first, at least. He wanted you to know that none of it was your fault." Ron quickly agreed, and Scott also seemed to accept that analogy.

Jason noted that Elliot said nothing about the other news that followed, so he refrained from bringing it up. Elliot and Derek both had respected his own privacy so many times before, so he wanted to return that courtesy. After a few other remarks and musing, however, Jason changed the subject. He could not help but notice when Elliot smiled, looking grateful for the change in direction.

That afternoon, their gym class was comprised of simple calisthenics for the group. It was nothing any of them had much heart to get into, however. Even their coach had excused them to use the period freely, provided they just didn't sit around doing nothing. The weather outside had improved again, but the grounds were still both soggy and muddy from the weekend's abnormal weather.

"Did you guys see any snow this weekend?" Ron asked, sitting down on the gym floor at one point with his legs stretched out, taking a break.

"Nope, nada, none," Elliot replied.

"We didn't either, which was a bummer. I was really hoping it would come. Pop says there is another system moving through tomorrow night that could bring some in, though." Ron wrinkled his nose as he looked up at the clock on the far wall. "Wonder if coach would just let us call it a day now so we could head out? There's only, like, another 10 minutes to go."

Elliot shook his head as he turned and sat down across from Ron. "Don't count on it. They are kind of strict about the time stuff here, even if it is just the last period of the day." Jason moved up and joined them just then, just as all three saw their coach glance their way. However, after checking the clock the man just nodded and left them alone.

"You guys showering again today?" Ron asked nonchalantly.

"I don't think so," Elliot replied. "Not really any reason too, is there?"

Ron nodded. "Yeah, I agree. Was just wondering." He looked about. "Besides, I think we all got an eye full Friday, didn't we?" He was grinning as he took in Jason, who blushed a deep red again. Elliot giggled, but Ron rolled his eyes. "You're not still going on about that, are you?"

Jason shrugged. "I guess not, just..." When he didn't finish, Ron lowered his voice between the three.

"You know, there's another way to look at all of it. I mean, if guys didn't want to be checked out, they wouldn't necessarily jump in the shower, right? Think about it, once they put themselves out there, they know others are going to see them. You know, check them out and everything. So, why be embarrassed about it? You get to check them out, too, if you want to."

"That's exactly what I've been telling him," Elliot interjected.

Jason glanced at one and then the other. "Yeah, I know. I understand what you guys are saying, honest. I- I'm just still..."

"What? Embarrassed because I caught you?" Ron smiled, then shook his head. "Don't be. Besides, just because you didn't catch me checking you out, doesn't mean I didn't do the same, right?"

Jason looked at the boy with surprise. "Well, you did say like, you know..."

Ron grinned. "Yeah, but did you know how MUCH I checked you out?" he whispered. "Or Elliot, too?" That remark surprised Elliot.

"Really? I didn't think ANYONE cared about checking ME out!" Elliot whispered in surprise. Jason cuffed him on the arm just then.

Ron only grinned as he propped back onto the palms of his hands. "Think again, Flavell." he mused. "Honest guys, it's cool, okay?"

"Well, I know it's cool," Elliot admitted. "But Jase, he still has to be convinced, I think..."

"Shut up", Jason intoned to the boy with a goofy grin. "I told you, I'm not a prude." All three laughed.

"I don't think anyone thinks you would be," Ron commented. He lowered his voice even more. "Want me to prove it? Let me ask you guys something, okay? Mind you, it's sort of personal but, I think we like each other enough to not worry too much about that now, right?" Both Jason and Elliot nodded and waited. Their friend looked about before leaning closer to them. "Did you guys, like, do any fapping? You know, spooging? Later that night? Or over the weekend?"

Both teens giggled as they observed their friend with awe. Glancing at each other, both sheepishly nodded. Ron broke into a sly grin. "And let me guess, the showers probably played a part in it, right?" When he saw the two hesitate, he knew he had his answer. "It's cool guys, it's just us. You can trust me, honest."

Jason nodded. "You already know we trust you." He then looked over at Elliot, who finally nodded.

"Yeah, we did," Elliot admitted. "We talked about it all night that night after we went to bed. About the other guys, and about you, too."

Ron smirked then. "Really? Well, I did too - all weekend long. Show me a prude who will admit that, right?" He glanced knowingly between them as comprehension crossed their faces. "Point made." It was then he sat up and surprised them yet again. "I'll admit something else, too, but just to you two: When I did it, I was thinking mostly about you guys." He blushed a deep red just then, but he didn't hold back. Nor did he seem to have any shame in admitting to it. "See? You guys know I trust you now, especially if I'm going to admit THAT to you! Right?"

Jason was in awe as he listened. Scooting over, he sat a little closer as he stared at Ron in fascination. "How do you do it? How do you just, like, be so open with us? With me?"

Ron said nothing at first, watching Jason up close. He eventually shrugged. "I don't know. I'm just being honest, that's all. Plus, I know you're feeling a little weird about it and all, and I don't want you to. Elliot seems cool with it, right?" He saw Elliot nod, so Ron added, "I know, he's British and is already used to most of this stuff, so I guess he gets a pass. But you, I just want you to be cool with it. I don't want you being afraid of me, if that makes any sense."

Jason admired him. "It does. I'm not… I'm not afraid of you. Not now, anyway."

Ron smiled. "I've already told you before, I like you both. You're my mates, right?" Ron paused to scratch his nose. "To tell you the truth, I'm kind of glad I can hang out with you guys. No one else in this school even cares I exist, but you two do. Well, you three, if we include Scott. And anyway, as far as trust - it goes both ways. You've always trusted me, I think, so I'm just giving you my trust back. That's what mates do, right? I mean, I'm not trying to freak you out or anything. If I am, just say so - I'll back off, I promise." He smiled at them however, relaxing. "But the bottom line, maybe? I'm just me, that's all. I- I can kind of tell about people sometimes. What you two show me, in lots of ways, says it's okay." Ron nodded at Elliot. "He's always been a good friend to me, even though I treated him like piss sometimes around the other guys."

"You've never treated me bad, Ron!" Elliot protested.

Ron, however, shook his head. "I have before, yeah. At least sometimes, anyway. I was a jerk hanging out with Roden and Terry so much last year, back after you first started coming to the games and the shop and all. And in the end, they ended up being the biggest fucking piss-ant pricks of all."

Jason hesitated, not having heard their friend resort to swearing like this, not in a normal sense anyway. "Whoa!" he breathed, then saw Ron smile grimly. "For once, you're wrong though, Ron. You show us lots of things, too. And… you're more up front with me than I would ever expect." He smiled at their friend. "I'm glad you hang out with us, too."

Ron grinned, then offered the teen his fist, which Jason gladly bumped. Afterwards, a thought occurred, and Jason spoke again. "Um, can I ask you about something else? Did your friends, those two you mentioned, did they have something to do with, you know, you transferring here? To our school?"

Ron looked up in surprise. "I thought you guys already knew! No?" He looked up at the clock. "It's kind of a long story, and I can't really tell you all of it now. Tell you what, though. I'm out tomorrow for a checkup downtown, but maybe Wednesday we can catch up some. If not, I'll tell you guys all about it Friday night. You know, when you come over to the party. Deal?"

Jason grinned. "Deal, but only if you want to. I wasn't trying to be nosy. Especially if it's, like, private and all."

Ron studied the American briefly, then grinned, shaking his head. "Nah, it's okay. It's not private for you two, anyway." He slowly got to his feet, then offered a hand to them both, which they readily appreciated. Just then, the shrill sound of the coach's whistle went off, followed by a shout going out for everyone to get changed and be dismissed.

That evening, all three teenagers brought Natalie up to speed with the details of that morning, showing her the letter. They each sat around a table, hosting bowls of hot soup and grilled cheese sandwiches - another favorite Jason had brought into their household. It was a combination they all welcomed - especially this time of year. The discussion was lively for a bit, each adding their own perspective to the meaning behind the 'settlement', as it was now being called.

However, Natalie eventually shook her head. "Mrs. Filch is right, there are limits to what the schools can do in these matters. Unless, of course, you take them to court," she mused.

"Is that done much over here?" Jason asked.

"Not really. We have laws in the UK that protect our schools, and the overall system from the general public. It's done that way so little things, such as misdemeanors and so forth, are managed privately – mostly within the schools themselves. It helps to keep parents, or even just the general populace, from taking advantage of the schools in the wrong way. I daresay, it also gives the schools more latitude to manage their unruly students if they become too rowdy, or misbehave."

"Oh," was Jason's reply, thinking.

Natalie noticed, then smiled at him. "I know, from what I've been told, they do it differently in the States. It isn't really that bad over here, I think. For the most part, students are respectful of authority. They know they can get into some deep shit if they're not careful."

That brought an outcry of astonishment from both Elliot and Derek, the latter whose spoon fell halfway between the teenager's bowl and his mouth. As it clattered back into the bowl, they all laughed as soup splattered about. "Mum!" Derek exclaimed with a hiccup, at which they all laughed while Natalie turned a bright red.

"Okay, okay you two. I didn't realize it until it was too late. I guess accidents happen once in a while, let's just not make it a habit around here, hmm?" Natalie mused. Elliot grinned wildly, but then the conversation turned elsewhere.

Later that evening, Jason and Elliot were in their room getting ready to turn in for the night. Jason had already stripped down and donned his usual t-shirt. As he climbed on top of the bed and moved over next to the window, he sat with his back to the headboard. He was deep in thought when Elliot joined him a few minutes later. "What's up?" his cousin asked eventually.

Jason continued staring into open space for the moment. "Nothing much, just been thinking about Ron and something he said to us today." He finally shook his head. "I still can't get over how open he is and everything. I don't think I've ever met anyone like him. Excluding you, I mean."

Elliot smiled. "Of course. I'm open with you because I love you," he replied. "I'm kind of like you, though. Ron even surprised me a lot today, too. More than once."

"You don't think... well, you don't think he's setting us up for something, do you?" Jason asked tentatively.

"Like what?" Elliot asked.

"I don't know," Jason responded. "It's just, I feel like we're putting a lot of trust in him, and … I'd hate to see it, like, backfire or anything."

Elliot thought about it. "No, I don't think so. Some guys can do that kind of stuff, but not him. Don't forget, I've known him a lot longer than you, from getting into Warhammer and stuff. Although he says differently, honest, he never treated me any different to anyone else."

"I'm glad then," Jason replied, relaxing. "I don't know, he's just – he's seems good, deep down, you know? Even with me being so nervous and everything."

Elliot observed Jason for a long time before responding. "I think he told us the truth, Jase. As far as the showers, and stripping and everything - he's used to it, and he knows I'm used to it. I think he really meant it when he said he just didn't want you to worry about it, especially with him. You know, not be afraid of him." He scooted closer to his cousin. "Ron likes us, just like he said. And he knows that means something to us, just like we seem to mean something to him. I wouldn't worry about him setting us up for anything. Now, he did kind of hang out with Roden - a lot, and Terry, too. That was back before you got here. They were both guys that came to the game shop for a while, but then they stopped. Come to think of it, I remember Ron being pretty happy about it, too." Elliot grunted. "You know, I didn't think of it like you did, putting it together so quick and everything, but yeah. Those two may have had something to do with why he switched schools and all. Terry, I think was okay, though he was older - more like Derek's age. Roden though..." He left the sentence unfinished.

"Yeah? Who is Roden?" Jason asked.

"I don't know his last name, but he and his older brother, they were people you had to be really careful with." Seeing the inquisitive look that met him, Elliot explained. "His brother was big into drugs. Selling, dealing, using - you name it. Rumor was, at one time, Roden was getting into the gang with him."

"You knew this Roden, then?" Jason asked.

"Not really, just from the gaming sessions and stuff," Elliot answered. "Still, when you listen and everything to others talking, you pick up on a lot of stuff, you know?"

Jason whistled. "Okay, that makes a little sense then." He looked deep into Elliot's eyes. "That makes me think about something else. You know what else I'm thankful for, right now? I'm thankful you don't do drugs, or drink, or any of that shit. I mean, I know you probably could, but I don't think I would like you very much if you did. Sorry, I'm just being honest, that's all."

Elliot smiled. "I have never gotten mixed up with that crap Jase, and I never will. Derek, too. It's a pact we have together, one we've traded blood over, too."

"Traded blood...?"

"Um, let me think... your American Indians did it, didn't they? Blood bonds or something? Or maybe it was blood brothers? You know, you swear on each other's' life a big promise, then you seal it by making a small cut in your arms, and then put them together. The blood kind of mixes between you, and it's becomes a pact, I think. It's like a serious promise to each other."

"That..." Jason hesitated. "That sounds like something dangerous. I mean, I don't think I've ever heard of it, but..."

Elliot nodded. "The idea is to only get enough blood so that you each share something with the other. And yeah, with some people, especially with diseases and stuff, it can be dangerous." He wrinkled his nose. "But the thing is, we're brothers. I knew I could do it with him, and he knew he could do it with me, and so we made that promise to one another."

"Don't get me wrong, it sounds... awesome, really," Jason finally replied a moment later. "But… didn't Derek say he drank some on New Year's Eve though, right?"

Elliot shrugged. "So? I mean, that's his business, if he wants to. I won't judge him for it. Yeah, we made a pact to each other, but I think our pact, as far as drinking goes, was to just never get drunk or anything around each other. Drugs, though – that's real shit. None, nada, zip – we don't do them. We both know what that can cost someone, even if you just get started. And neither of us have ever had any interest, then or now."

Jason smiled. "Wow, that sounds really cool." He thought for a moment, gazing off into space again.

"It is," Elliot whispered. "Hey, you're okay, right?"

Jason turned to him. "I'm better than okay. I've got you here with me, right now." He reached and pulled Elliot over into his lap and hugged him, holding him gently. Jason rested his chin into the crook of Elliot's neck, nuzzling it softly. "And guess what? I can feel you, too. Right here, beside me. It makes everything seem tons better, you know?"

"I know. It does with me, too," Elliot whispered.

Jason leaned in and kissed his cousin very softly. "Ready to turn in?" he whispered.

"Do I get to hold you tonight?" Elliot whispered in response, to which Jason nodded before he nuzzled their noses together. It made his cousin giggle. "I like it when you do that with me. You know, I don't think I ever would have thought about doing that with anyone else."

Jason grunted. "You didn't think you'd ever kiss another boy, either. Did you? Not like we do, anyway."

"No, but I'm glad we do it." Elliot sighed deeply. "I mean it Jase, I love you. Don't forget it."

"And I love you too, so don't you forget it either." He held the youth for a bit, rubbing his free hand up and down Elliot's side and leg. Elliot loved it and curled himself tighter as they snuggled. Eventually, however, they worked their way into the bed and under the covers. After they turned the lamp off, Elliot spooned up behind Jason tightly once again. It was only moments later before he heard Jason giggle.

"Hey, what now?" Elliot asked amusedly.

"Your thing is poking me hard, down you know where," was the whispered reply.

Elliot leaned up into Jason's ear. "Sorry. You want me to roll over?"

Jason immediately reached and grasped Elliot by the arm. Pulling his cousin closer, Jason held him firmly. "Fuck no! Don't you dare. Besides..." he hesitated, then added, "... it sort of feels, um, kind of nice."

That made Elliot giggle as he lay back and nuzzled his friend on the back of his neck. As with many nights before, in minutes they both fell peacefully asleep.

The rest of the week progressed slowly. With the first week of the term already out of the way, students found their instruction switched to a higher gear, and thus their work became more difficult. When the four teens gathered, as usual, in first period and during lunch, their interactions were shorter. Throughout the school, there was a change in the air. Increased homework loads, combined with getting assignments of numerous projects, kept the entire student body preoccupied. The message was clear: now that the holiday break was over, it was time to get back to work.

Tuesday evening's gaming session was cut short by an unexpected power outage. The various teens had been at it for almost an hour when it occurred, and after waiting 15 minutes to no avail, they decided to call it a night and go home. Since the shop was closing early, Ron and his father offered to drop Elliot and Jason at their flat. With Simon still away, it was an offer they gladly accepted.

While waiting for the shopkeeper to make his rounds, Ron grasped both of his friends up close with him as they stood in the entry. He explained that his father would be setting the alarm, and by standing immediately in the entrance the system could be "tested" before going into its delay mode. As the emergency lights went off, Mr. Fulcrum appeared with a flashlight, making his way quickly down one of the aisles. Approaching them, he motioned to the trio to move on. Ron, grasping their elbows, guided Elliot and Jason through the doorway and out onto the cold sidewalk. Once outside, he quietly sneaked his arms around each of them, and gave a gentle squeeze of reassurance, before they progressed toward the Fulcrum's vehicle. Jason noted, again, how their friend continued to display a closeness with them both, in the subtlest of ways.

On Thursday afternoon, their regular coach was absent in gym, and a substitute was assigned to watch over the group. After everyone was changed and ready, he called roll and then addressed the class. "So, how about you do something a little different today. Are you boys familiar with the game of volleyball?" Everyone turned their attention at that point, and several shouts of approval went up all around.

Elliot leaned into Jason, and whispered, "You, uh, do know what that is… right? Volleyball?"

Jason rolled his eyes. "Of course, I do!"

Ron, hearing the exchange, smirked. "Yeah, but you can also 'play' it… right?"

Jason knew he was being teased, so without looking, he purposefully bumped his shoulder against their friend, causing Ron to giggle.

The group divided into two teams, with Jason and Ron on one side while Elliot joined the other group. For the next half-hour or so, Jason discovered that his peers here were quite good at keeping the ball alive. It also turned out that he wasn't too bad a player himself, having made a few saves in places where others might have let it sail untouched. The other teens cheered him on then, and before long he started feeling more comfortable with the group overall. Elliot noticed it too, and thought it was a huge plus for Jason being in the mainstream. He was happy to see it happening.

With 15 minutes still to spare, however, Ron suddenly leaped for the ball, but misjudged his closeness to the net. Twisting to avoid entanglement, he came down hard, twisting his ankle badly as he crashed to the floor. Their substitute coach saw the fall, and quickly made his way over. Gingerly examining the teen, he removed the shoe and sock from the injured foot. Gently prodding and feeling around the area, he sighed with relief.

"Alright, nothing seems broken. I think it's just a bad sprain. Normally, I'd send you up to the school nurse, but she's out this week." He studied briefly. "Tell you what, I think we better get some ice down on that properly. If we can head off any swelling, you'll be good as new in a couple e of days." Looking up, he saw Jason standing closest. "Here, why don't you give him a hand back into the lockers and get changed. Meanwhile, I'll run up to the cafeteria and see if I can get into the icebox."

Jason nodded. With help, Ron got to his feet and placed an arm around Jason's shoulders. With the teen leaning heavily, Jason guided them both back to their locker-room as the game resumed. Once inside, Jason sat Ron down in front of their lockers. "What's your combination?" he asked, but the Ron shook his head.

"It's not locked. I didn't have much with me today, so I just left it undone." Jason then tried the latch and opened it, before reaching in and pulling out Ron's street clothes. Turning around, he saw the youth had already removed his shirt and was in the process of shedding his other shoe. Jason handed over the shirt, and then bent down to assist. Once the shoe was off, Ron started to try and stand up, indicating that Jason should stand beside him. With the added support, the teen was able to rise and stand on his good foot, while resting back against the lockers. He attempted to push his shorts down, but had difficulty keeping his balance. Thus, while steadying himself with one hand, the other could not work the shorts off without dragging his boxers with them. Ron laughed as he watched Jason observing him with a smirk. "Here, how about you quit gawking at me and give me a hand!"

Jason grinned and did as he was asked, stepping closer and grasping the hem of both elastic bands. Tugging on them, he thought he was teasing his friend by threatening to pull both down right then and there. Ron, however, just ignored the implication and grunted. Jason leaned in. "You'd probably let me, for all I know, wouldn't you?" Seeing the grin that met him, Jason shook his head, and instead played nice, working the outer garment down over Ron's hips until it dropped freely to the floor. Clearing one foot was easy enough, but studying how to go about the getting it off the injured one was different. Ron decided to sit down again, before convincing Jason to help him get it off. While sitting, Jason also threaded each foot into Ron's pair of jeans, before working them up over his knees. Once done, Ron stood again with Jason's help. Again, with only one hand available, he gave Jason a smirking look, which made the American laugh. Without a word, Jason helped his friend pull everything up and into place. Stepping back, Jason was about to turn away when Ron suddenly stopped him. "Um, not so fast, mate. I can't really button these with one hand you know, so... uh, help me out? Please?"

Glancing, Jason grinned. "Seriously?" When Ron blushed but nodded, Jason moved in close again. First making sure the teen's boxers were tucked in appropriately, he tried to do as requested, but met some resistance from the awkward angle he stood. Understanding, Ron stood straight and guided Jason to stand behind him. Wrapping his arms around the teen's waist, the American then effectively grasped both flaps in a more natural position. Ron sucked in his gut, making the effort more doable, and Jason quickly completed the job. Moving around front again, Jason even buckled Ron's belt before he grabbed and moved the zipper up. "So, was all that okay?" he asked quietly.

Ron grinned at him. "Yeah, you did perfect," he acknowledged. Reaching out, the teen stopped Jason before he could turn away. "Thanks, man. Honest, I mean it." Something in his friend's expression made Jason smile back at him, before he then proceeded to shed his own gym clothes quickly. He noticed Ron watching him closely, but just as before, he didn't care. Any other time, it might have left him feeling funny inside, but he was getting used to this new friend of theirs by now. Once changed, he started to guide the injured boy out of the door, just as their other classmates were beginning to stream in. Elliot passed by momentarily, and upon seeing them called out. "I'll be out in a few!"

As they reached the gym floor, their coach suddenly appeared holding an ice pack. "Sorry boys, they had the doors locked up. It took me a minute to get in. Here, sit him down on the bench and wrap this pack around his ankle. I'll be right back."

Jason did as he was instructed, kneeling in front of Ron and fitting the cold pack in place. Once done, he swung himself up to sit beside the teen while they waited for Elliot to come out. "You know," Ron broke the silence between them. "Aside from myself, I think you're the only one who has come that close to touching my junk since I was a baby."

Jason cracked up, snorting with a hard laugh, causing Ron to grin widely. "Shit!" Jason hissed, "You're impossible, sometimes!" He suddenly leaned in and bumped his shoulder into the other youth, who in turn bumped him right back. "You know, I still can't get over how you're... like, so open and everything with me and Elliot," Jason commented.

"Sorry, I'll try and be more, uh, predictable then," Ron retorted before he laughed. "Meh, it's cool though. I honestly kind of like catching you off guard, though."

Jason mellowed a bit. "Maybe... Still, thanks. For everything."

"What for? I didn't do anything. You did all the work."

"You do a lot of things I think, Ron. I mean, you care, and ... well, you help me not feel like such a wuss," Jason explained.

"A what?" Ron asked, frowning. "A wuss? Is that an American term or something? Like a puss, or...?"

Jason started to crack up again, until he saw the serious expression that met his own. "No, no... a wuss. It's like someone who is helpless, like a pushover. Someone that people take advantage of and everything, because they're gullible. It's also like, someone who fears taking chances, or doing things, too."

"Hmm, never heard that one, but I get the idea." Ron grinned again. "See? We can learn stuff from each other." He paused, and then spoke quietly. "Jason, you're right about one thing: I do care. I'm not some hard-arsed bastard, or someone with a stick up my butt. And by now, you know I'm not a jock, either. There is nothing special about me at all, you see? I'm just me, nobody else. Take me or leave me, I don't have anything to hide from you. So, come on. Please? Let it go, okay? We trust each other, right?" He nodded his head, indicating the locker room doorway. "Besides, do you think I would let just anyone do what we did in there? Or at least, let just anyone get that close with me inside my pants?" Ron smiled at Jason. "To me, trusting you guys is all that really matters. That's why I don't care what you see, or touch, any of that stuff. Even if it's my willy." His voice turned to a whisper. "Yeah, you heard me right. Even down there, it's all cool, I swear."

Jason looked at him in awe, then blushed. "Yeah, I trust you. You're so wrong, though. You are special. You're special to me." He sighed deeply before raising his fist to the air. "Thanks again, for everything," he repeated.

"You're welcome," was the whispered reply, as Ron raised his own fist to meet Jason's. When they touched, however, Ron held it decidedly longer than most, in an attempt to send a message to his friend. Jason nodded in understanding.

Just then Elliot suddenly appeared in the doorway and, upon spotting them nearby, hurried over. Carrying both his backpack and shoes, he sat down and started to unlace them. "So, did they call your Dad or someone, or what?" he asked Ron.

"Um, good question. I don't really know." Ron grunted. "I know I can't walk all the way home, or even to the game shop. Not like this, anyway."

"Do you have a cell phone?" Jason asked, but their friend shook his head.

"Normally I do, but my mobile fell and broke right after Christmas. We haven't replaced it yet."

Jason glanced at Elliot before pulling his own from his backpack. "You can use mine if you want, maybe call your Dad or someone."

Ron beamed. "Hey, that would be awesome!" He retrieved the phone and within seconds, was dialing a number. Jason turned to Elliot. "How did the game end?"

"We beat you guys 17 to 15," Elliot announced proudly. "When you two left, the other guys didn't stand much of a chance. We caught up and passed you at the end," he added smugly.

"Yeah, yeah, okay..." Jason responded good-naturedly.

Ron terminated the call just then. "Someone called Pops already. He's on his way to pick me up, and is about 5 minutes out or so," he announced, handing the phone back to Jason. "Thanks again. You blokes think you could help me get outside?"

"Sure, give me just a few more seconds," Elliot replied, tying his shoes hurriedly before standing up. Between Jason and himself, Ron got to his feet with ease, and all three made their way through to the far exit.

Just as they reached the doors, their coach appeared again. "Hmm, not too bad, I think. Just keep the ice on it for the evening, and I'll bet you'll be fit in no time. Be careful though, boys. Be sure to get home safely. Okay?"

Each acknowledged him before moving through the doors into the parking lot. They had just made it to the pull-in lane, when a familiar small van entered and pulled up to them. Jason opened the passenger door and greeted Mr. Fulcrum. He and Elliot then helped Ron get inside and seated, saving Mr. Fulcrum the trouble of having to get out. Before closing the door, Ron turned to them. "By the way, if you can, plan on staying after a bit tomorrow night. We'll hang out and chill for a while."

"We will if we can, don't worry," Elliot replied as they backed away. Mr. Fulcrum added his farewells, and the van moved along. Starting their walk towards home, the teen commented. "Bummer about the ankle, but maybe it'll be okay by tomorrow."

"Yeah," Jason replied, but was unusually preoccupied.

"What's up?" Elliot asked, noticing his cousin's silence.

"Nothing really, just thinking about... stuff. Again," Jason replied with a smile. "Ron said something to me a bit ago, when he was thanking me for helping him. We talked a bit, and well, at one point he said something like he was nobody special. You know, like there's nothing special about him. You know what I mean. And I was just thinking how wrong that was."

Elliot nodded. "Yeah, he's special to us, that's for sure."

Jason nodded. "You're not kidding. It's like every day something happens, and he gets, I don't know, closer." He stopped and looked up before returning his focus to Elliot. "I know he said no presents, but do you think maybe we could at least, I don't know, do something for him tomorrow night?"

Elliot looked thoughtful, but then shrugged. "Sure, but I don't know what it would be. You have any ideas?"

"Maybe... let me think about it a few minutes..." Jason replied before they set off again.

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