The Storm That Turned the Tide

Chapter 22: Homeward Bound

By Sean English

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When darkness had fallen, swallowing up the vast space around the forest on their side of the lake and beyond, two men walked quietly through the stillness. They had fallen back earlier, leaving the scene and driving up the road a mile or so until reaching a roadside diner, where they stopped and procured two large cups of coffee. Sipping them silently, they casually made their way some distance back to the State park along the winding road, but not completely reaching the parking lot as they had earlier. Instead, the two deputies decided to park alongside the road, and then proceed to walk the rest of the distance toward the marina.

Topping a rise, they could see the dock ahead, along with the main boathouse and other smaller buildings outlined in the cold, winter moonlight. There were a few lights still on inside the main structure, but for the most part the boat yard remained eerily smothered in the darkness. As they approached, the men could hear some of the deck's pontoons splashing about in the water retained beneath them - a necessity really, as the Cumberland River still flowed quietly through the nearly empty valley. Come springtime, the gates of the dam downstream would be closed, and the river's water would then build up considerably and, once again, create the vast regional lake in its wake - just in time for summer boating and fishing.

Both men moved stealthily onto the walkway, the boardwalk leading them around the main building and beyond into the boatyard. As long as the two could help it, neither wanted to take any chance on giving away their presence. Both had turned the volume on their radios low before entering the harbor, and had made sure none of their equipment made any more sound than what was absolutely necessary. Although the vast lake-bottom beyond the piers may have been bare, remnants of the recent snow were still pocketed in places, helping to illuminate the surrounding area with the reflected moonlight. The remaining snow had melted, however, and its resulting runoff supplied fresh water to the river. That caused sounds to carry easier across the water near and far, thus the need for the two men to be extra cautious was clear.

They rounded the building without detecting anything out of the ordinary, before crouching low and moving further on down the dock. Most of the boats were on special, pontoon-like cradles that protected them from the constant freezing and thawing of the water. Each was still moored and accessible from the dock, but securely supported in a way that kept them from running against one another, or into the piers themselves. As the two men crept along, each took advantage of the smaller piers to branch along the sides, checking for any activity or other signs of life. Sadly however, they found none. At least, not until they neared the end of the row.

Phillip suddenly stopped, listening intently at one point while holding his hand out in an effort to still his partner. In the silence that followed, he almost dismissed it, thinking he had imagined things, until he heard something once again. This time, sounds of faint laughter could be heard by both coming from the end of the dock. With a motion to the other deputy, who quietly joined him by his side, he proceeded to move forward with considerably more caution. Rounding one of the berths, both stopped as the last boat along the pier came into view. It was a larger craft with an enclosed cabin that clearly descended below decks. At first, little seemed out of place until suddenly they detected people moving about inside, their shadows reflected upon the portholes closest to them. Phillip once again signaled his partner to wait, before he crouched low and approached the craft, peering inside one of the portholes.

After observing for a few seconds, he ducked down once again, but this time backed away until he could scan the after-deck of the craft. Finding no movement, however, the deputy then made his way back to his partner and, pointing silently back the length of the pier, he indicated they should slip away. Only when the two reached the main boathouse again and circled around it, did Phillip finally stop and take a deep breath.

"There's at least five, maybe six people in there, watching some kind of a wrestling match or something on TV. Two were stretched out on bunks, maybe asleep from what I could tell, but the rest were sitting around a folding table. It looked like they were playing cards or something," the deputy conveyed in hushed tones.

"Holy shit!" Josh muttered. "I'd say that's a bingo, then! How do you want to handle it?"

Phillip thought for a moment before responding. "We need to report in and get some additional help out here, I think. One thing though, is that I saw some radio equipment in there, too. That got me to thinking: it's possible they're scanning our frequencies and all, and that might be why we've not been able to sneak up on them before." The man glanced around. "I need to get above this lake-level terrain so my cell-phone can call out. Do you think you could stay here for a bit and keep an eye out, while I go get Jim?"

Josh nodded. "Of course, I can! Don't worry about it, just go on!"

"Okay, but... just watch - no heroics or anything! Oh, and just in case, make sure you don't use the radio for anything either, at least if you can help it. I'll be back as soon as I can get the word out, alright?" Phillip explained. When the other deputy acknowledged, Phillip then turned and started off at a brisk trot, making his way up the road and away from the docks.

~STTTT~

Jesse sat back, feeling rather exhausted for some reason. The ordeal of walking again had proven challenging to the teenager, and once Darius declared his first steps completed for the day, the teen found himself immensely grateful. Both Benji and Noah had been by his side constantly, helping him gather strength and keep his balance throughout the afternoon, but the results were not as solid as what he had hoped they would be. Darius continued to encourage him nonetheless, informing the teen that he had done quite well with all things considered. To Jesse's disappointment, however, it wasn't enough progress to be rid of the catheter quite yet, which was what he had really hoped for the most.

It had not been long afterwards before Jennifer appeared, bearing copious plates of food which she set down before all three boys. Jesse could have hugged and kissed the woman right then and there, as he observed his platter containing mac-n-cheese, smoked sausages and other vegetables accompanying the meal. "I called up here and spoke to one of your nurses," she confided, once they had all sat down. "She told me to just avoid bringing you anything that might be gaseous, and then otherwise you should be fine. I take it the turkey dinner was, uh, less than stellar?"

Jesse shrugged, but then made a face. "Oh, yeah... I don't think they know much about... turkey dinners around here. It wasn't... well, it didn't taste very good at all. I think it was kind of like, old leathery-type of stuff, really..."

Jennifer laughed, all the while watching the three boys dig in. As she looked around, she eventually broke the silence that had fallen between them. "So, how did the therapy-work go this afternoon? Allen said you were supposed to get up and walk around a bit, right?"

"So-so," Benji piped up. "He did okay. Except, like, when he wasn't falling down and everything." The quick, simple explanation caused Jesse to grimace, but both he and Noah ended up nodding in agreement.

"Yeah, it wasn't easy. I thought sitting up was kind of a chore this morning, but then walking... It didn't go all that great, either," Jesse replied with a sigh.

Jennifer held back a chuckle after seeing the change in his expression, and decided instead to just nod. "Well, you'll be doing it much better tomorrow, I'm sure. Just don't try to do too much, too fast. There is no hurry to push anything, alright? We all know it's going to take some time." She leaned forward and reached her hand out to cup his chin. "May I?" she said gently, which made Jesse stop and nod. She caressed his face gently, turning his head to observe the swelling more closely. For a moment, it felt like it was his mother sitting there, and if he had closed his eyes, he doubted he could have discerned the difference. He watched her and smiled however, as she eventually pulled back. "Believe it or not, most of the swelling seems to be gone now, with just some puffiness and bruising left behind. And your lip, it's healing nicely, too. Does it hurt you to touch it any?"

Jesse shook his head. "No ma'am. I mean, like you said, I can feel the puffiness and all, but for the most part it doesn't bother me any. I ache more in my side, hips and upper legs than anywhere else, I think. My stomach, too, or at least around my lower ribs."

Noah's mother gave the teen a kind smile. "Then I think you are doing just fine. All of this other stuff will work itself out in a few days, trust me. I mean, I'm not a nurse like your mother is, but I do believe she would tell you the same thing if she were here."

"Mom," Noah spoke up, setting his tray aside and interrupting the two. "Can I go get some sodas for us?"

"Oh, my stars!" Jennifer exclaimed, quickly picking up her purse. "I totally forgot to bring anything for you boys to drink, didn't I! I think it just totally escaped me! Here, I think this should be enough change, so go - get one for all of you," she instructed, handing over various coins and bills.

"Can I go with him?" Benji asked sweetly, then quickly hopped to his feet when both nodded in reply.

As soon as the two were gone, Jesse glanced up to the woman and studied her. "Ma'am? Since it's just us, I was wondering if, well, would you answer something for me? Please?"

"If I can, sure... what's on your mind?" Jennifer replied, returning to her position on the side of the bed.

"Well, the therapist, Darius, said something to me today, like he understood how I just barely pulled out of this. Is... is that true? I mean, he kind of made it sound like I was really, well..." Jesse asked, but didn't finish as his voice became more subdued.

Jennifer studied him momentarily before sighing. "To be honest, I don't think I should really tell you anything, Jesse. I mean, you should probably wait for your mother, or your-"

"Please, Jennifer... I really want to know, okay? Please?" Jesse begged, his eyes pleading with the woman.

Jennifer hesitated again, but this time only briefly before she sat on the stool and reached out to take hold of his hand, which she held warmly while she spoke. "Yes, Jesse, you were beaten pretty badly. It was more than just a fight with those boys though, you know that... right? But... was it all life-threatening or anything like that? I don't think so, not really, but I have to admit that there were some things which worried us those first hours you were in here. I mean, the doctors were concentrating on two things more than anything else, you see. One was the concussion you had, because we could all see how much your head and face was, well, injured. That concussion could have made things really dangerous for you, especially if it hung around for very long, or turned into a type of compression. Still though, the next day, you woke up like you did, and we all sighed with relief. Remember that? That's when all of us knew you were over the worst of it and everything. Understand?"

Jesse studied for a few seconds before nodding. "Yeah, I remember hearing, or rather, feeling Noah beside me, and... and feeling cold and all, so that kind of makes sense," he replied, before looking up into her eyes once again. "What was the second thing? You said the doctor was worried about two things, right?"

Jennifer actually blushed slightly. "Well, your, uh... testicles were, ah, supposedly pretty black and blue. I didn't see them, but the doctor described quite vividly the results from where you were beaten, uh, down there. For a while, there was a fear that you might, well... You might not be able to, shall we say, function with them down the road."

"You mean, they might be damaged? Like, not be able to make babies or something?" Jesse whispered. When he saw the woman blush again, he decidedly saved her from any further embarrassment. "It's okay, really. I understand about that stuff, for the most part anyway. But... well, Doc told me yesterday I didn't need to worry about any of that now. He said I'd still, uh, be just fine and all."

"You will be fine, honey. Physically, within a few weeks you'll be back to your normal self. I know you will, if you can take my word for it. It's - it's just a feeling I have inside, kind of like your mother does I think, and more. I mean, think about it honey - compared to where you were just a few days ago, look at how much progress you've made already." She then smiled at him as she sighed again. "So, does that answer what you want to know? Like I said, I won't lie to you - yes, some of us were concerned there for a while, but when your x-rays and the other tests began coming back either clear or indicating improvements, then we all breathed a huge sigh of relief." Jennifer reached out and cupped his chin gently. "I still don't think I should be telling you this, but ... I wouldn't hide it from Noah, if he were in your shoes and asking me the same thing, so... I won't hide it from you, either." She glanced quickly at the door before adding, "Just... thank you for waiting until Benji was out of the room first."

Jesse glanced toward the door as well. "I know. I don't want him to get scared, or get into things he wouldn't understand right now."

"Scared? Oh, honey, he's already plenty scared. He just doesn't want you to see or sense it in him right now," she whispered.

"Really? About... what?" he asked, turning back to her again with a frown.

"You, partially. He confided something in me earlier today, telling me he's afraid that people aren't telling him the whole story, for one thing. Somehow, he has it in his head that you're in worse shape than what we let on. Then, something else, I gathered he's also afraid those pigs may come back and go after him now, or Noah," Jennifer explained. "So, he's plenty scared, no matter what any of us try to do to calm him otherwise, you see? It's going to take him a bit to accept what has happened, I think."

"Wow..." Jesse whispered, staring off into space.

"Wow, indeed. BUT - mind you, there is nothing you need to do about it, alright? Seriously, you'll serve your little brother best, or help him the best by just concentrating on getting better. When you're young like your brother is, seeing something is what really connects the dots in his head more than anything else. When he sees that, it'll cause him then to believe it in his heart." Jennifer smiled again. "Of course, I figure you probably already know that, don't you?"

Jesse smiled. "Yeah, I think I do." He clasped her hand in his own then, squeezing it affectionately. "Thanks, Jennifer. I really mean that, from my heart even."

The woman leaned in and kissed the teen on his forehead. "Just remember what I told you. Don't get in a hurry: all of this is going to work out fine, we promise you," she whispered. Then hearing footsteps running down the hall and approaching, her demeanor totally changed. "Now, eat!" she commanded softly, standing just before Noah and Benji came through the open doorway, carrying cans of soda for them all.

Now, hours later, Jesse smiled as he heard the toilet flush followed by the bathroom door opening. Noah returned and sat back down on the chaise, curling up alongside his friend as he had done the night before. The elevation between his makeshift bed and Jesse's was significant, but it didn't stop the two from enjoying the other's company. "Still feeling tired?" he asked, although he already knew the answer. He could see the day's exertion in his friend's expression and consequent body language.

"Yeah," Jesse commented weakly, but then shook his head. "You know, I'd really like to get off my back, though. Do you think you could help me, like, roll over on my side so I can face you?"

"Well, sure... if that's what you want," Noah replied in surprise.

"Yeah, I do. I seriously don't understand how people can just constantly lie like this all the time," the teen offered, but then paused. "Well, I guess when you're sick, it probably doesn't matter so much, but still..."

"I get you, yeah," Noah offered as he rolled to stand up beside the bed.

"We just have to watch out for all these wires and everything, and of course that stupid pee tube..." Jesse said, clearly still annoyed at not having gotten rid of it yet.

They were in the process of getting the teen turned, when a sudden voice called out from the doorway. "Just what do you two think you're doing in here?" Jesse looked up at the elderly nurse with an innocent expression, which caused her to scoff before walking into the room.

"I'm sorry, ma'am. I just... I'm tired of being on my back so much anymore, you know? I just wanted, like, to roll on my side for a little while... is that okay?" he asked timidly.

The nurse glanced down at him and pursed her lips, all the while placing her hands on her hips. "Of course, it is! Why wouldn't it be?" She then clicked her tongue while she stepped in closer and had Noah reposition himself on the opposite side of the bed. "The only thing, though, is you really should be letting us help you do it!"

"Sorry, ma'am," Noah apologized, adding his own subdued voice to the conversation.

"Oh, it's no bother. To tell the truth, I'm actually surprised he hasn't wanted to do this already," she admitted with the hint of a smile. "Here honey, grab hold of my forearm and pull, and then let us do the moving to get your legs turned back, alright?" She glanced at Noah. "When he's up, take hold of his feet, and draw them in and back until he's lying on his side. Then we'll work some of these pillows in behind his back and rump in order to support him," she instructed. Both boys smiled at the reference, but remained quietly content as the three proceeded as instructed. Once done, Jesse lay as he had desired, feeling much better as the nurse propped various pillows in places of support. In the interim, the woman also paused at the foot of the bed and adjusted the controls somewhat, which resulted in lowering the bed's elevation another good six- to eight-inches. She only smiled at the other two, but both teens were obviously happy with the result.

When they were finished, she stood and observed the result satisfactorily. Stepping in close again, she noted the 'tube' before gently moving it out of the way. "I guess you know you can't lie directly on that hose, right? If you do, it'll back everything up eventually, and trust me - that is not something you want to experience. Just keep it pushed down and let it hang loose, all right?" Jesse nodded and then thanked her before she disappeared, once again leaving Noah to return to his previous place by Jesse's side.

"Wow, I thought for a second she was going to bite our heads off!" the teen whispered as he stretched out and pulled the blanket up around him.

Jesse giggled. "She's okay. She was in here the other night, humming to herself and everything," Jesse replied softly. "I actually think her bark is bigger than her bite. She's nice."

"Yeah, I guess. I'll take your word for it," Noah replied, drawing his knees up and adjusting to their new positioning together. "So, do you think maybe tomorrow you'll get it out? You know, that thing..." he asked, subtly pointing toward his friend's crotch.

"God, I hope so!" Jesse whispered. "I mean, it doesn't hurt or anything, but I know it's there all the same, and... well, I'm dreading them doing it, but I really want it out, you know?"

"Yeah, I understand. It's hard for me to imagine them sticking that in me, all the way through my, well, you know... my dick," Noah whispered, but then glanced down at the bag that the tube was draining into. "You've definitely peed more today." He looked up. "Sorry Jess... I can't, like, imagine what it's like. I'm honestly afraid to, I think."

Jesse shrugged before lying back against his pillows. "Before this afternoon, I was kind of just annoyed, but now that I saw how shaky I got and everything while trying to walk around, I don't know... Maybe having the stupid thing in me was for the better." Making a face, however, he added, "I'm like you though, I think. It's hard to imagine it... like... being put in, shoving it up inside my dick, and... and..."

"Yeah, I know," Noah asked, visibly shivering. "I hope that I never have to have that done," he whispered. "So, can I ask you something else? About, you know... all the other stuff down there?"

Jesse nodded. "You can ask me anything you want. You can even pull the padding back now if you want to, and see how it looks compared to the other day."

Noah considered the offer for a moment before propping up on an elbow. "Are you... Are you sure?"

Jesse rolled his eyes. "When have I ever been shy about you looking at my junk, Noah?" he hissed quietly, then grinned as he saw Noah blush. "Go on, don't be afraid."

Noah reached out and pushed the blanket back. Once clear, the teen was surprised to see that the padding's tape had come loose and was just sitting in place mostly. "When did this happen?" he asked.

"After Darius left. I, uh, umm... I had an itch see, and well... you know..." Jesse answered quietly.

Noah glanced at the door, which was already mostly closed, then turned back and peeled back the padded material. The brightness of the overhead light revealed his friend's penis in excruciating detail, along with the tube inserted and being held in place by more tape. He tried not to pay it or the housing around it so much attention, but the teen found his eyes glued there momentarily. He refrained from commenting any further on it, knowing it was rather pointless. Even though Jesse had told him he was unconscious when it was first put in, Noah was sure that if his friend had been awake it would have been at least painfully uncomfortable. Although Jesse was far from any state that sported a boner, the device did make it appear as if it was pulling and extending the penis out from the groin. If that was so, then Noah suddenly imagined that pulling it out would be...

The teen shivered again, before turning his eyes to look further down. Pulling the pad back further, he was surprised to notice that the swelling appeared somewhat smaller than what he had glimpsed of last. "Hey, your balls... I don't think they look as big now!" he whispered excitedly before glancing up. "I mean, they're still big and all, but..."

Jesse rose up shakily on his elbow so that he could peek at himself, before laying back satisfactorily. "Good! If you say so, then that's a relief!" he whispered before breathing deeply. Noah glanced back once again, but decided to return the padding back to its original position. As an afterthought, he worked with the tape and pressed the ends back down against Jesse's skin. Although the straps didn't attach themselves as firmly as before, they did succeed in holding the padding marginally in place.

"There," Noah whispered back, before grabbing the blanket and pulling it back into place. "Maybe they won't fuss at you now."

In a moment of clarity, Jesse suddenly grinned at him. "I don't care, really. It's my dick, not theirs. If it itches, I'm going to do what I have to do," he quipped, causing his friend to giggle. He then glanced around his room. "Honestly, I'll be glad to just get out of this place though. I mean, I don't know how many peeps have seen me, but I'm kind of getting tired of being the boy with basketball-sized nuts for them all to ogle over, you know? I want to go home, so bad..."

"I know you do," Noah whispered. "They didn't get that big, Jess... but, I guess it does feel weird, doesn't it?"

Jesse nodded. "Before all this happened Noah, only you and Benji have seen my you-know-what down there. I know, it's a hospital - I guess nurses and doctors see this kind of stuff every day. Still, though... I don't know, it just makes me feel weird, you know? Like I said, you two I don't care about, but..."

"Your brother told me you were really, uh, shy about it," Noah replied, keeping his voice low. "Don't worry, you're not alone. I am, too, so I don't blame you. Other than that girl I told you about, I don't think anyone has ever seen me inside my underwear since, I don't know, I was maybe five or six. I mean, Moms and Dads don't count, right?"

"Right, they don't count," Jesse agreed. "At least Moms don't. I'm sure Dad took care of me sometimes when I was little, but all I ever remember is Mom like, being the one giving me a bath and all. You?"

"The same," Noah answered. "Other than, well, I can remember taking a shower with my Dad a few times when I was little. It was, well, honestly? I remember it being kind of cool."

Jesse nodded. "Me too, now that you mention it. I didn't, like, notice anything really, though. I just... Like you, I think I just felt like it was kind of cool to be with him and all, I guess." He suddenly grunted. "I don't know, maybe... maybe I was surprised at how much hair he had, like Benji is with me. At least... you know."

"Yeah, I know. It's all cool, Jesse," Noah replied with a smile, but then giggled. "Listen to us... we're talking like, I don't know... goof-balls or something."

"Don't I know it!" Jesse shot back with a grin. It was then he gently grasped Noah's hand and pulled it closer. "I don't care, though. I trust you, remember?" Noah nodded, giving him a returning squeeze that reenforced that the feeling was mutual. Jesse closed his eyes briefly before continuing. "When I get over this crap, watch out bro. I owe you for so much now... I feel like I haven't even seen or felt you for months! And... well..."

"Yeah, it's been a little bit, I know," Noah mused, before moving his head closer. "I don't care, though. Our time is coming again, I know it. We just... I don't know, have to be patient. We have to get you better first, you know? And we have to find Pete and... and..."

"Kick his fucking ass, I know," Jesse whispered, opening his eyes again. Noah's eyebrows arched in surprise, but he agreed with the sentiment wholeheartedly.

"We have to find all of them, really. There are others who stripped and beat the shit out of you too, bro," Noah whispered. "I want to make them all pay for it." The last was emitted with a forceful hiss that betrayed the venomous anger he still felt, but had been trying to hide for the last few days.

Jesse was not surprised. "They will," he promised, before falling back against his pillows again. The exhaustion was returning at an ever-increasing rate now. "You want to try and watch some TV?"

"Sure," Noah nodded, but he could sense the change in Jesse's demeanor. He stretched and leaned in before giving his best friend another soft but gentle kiss, one which Jesse seemed to welcome as he sighed deeply. Pulling back, Noah noted the smile in found in his friend's eyes. "Get better, Jess. That's all you have to do right now, okay? Just get better... for me, for Benji and your parents, too. For all of us. I want you to come home," he whispered. He watched as a single tear escaped and rolled down Jesse's cheek, so he reached out and touched it with his finger. "No more crying, okay? I'm here, and I'm not going anywhere, I promise."

"I know you won't," Jesse replied, squeezing the hand he still held one last time. He then closed his eyes, and within minutes, Noah could hear a change in his best friend's breathing. Satisfied, he lay back and pulled the TV around to him, before turning it on and flipping through the various channels. Before long, he found a movie that looked interesting and so he settled in, pulling his blanket up around him. In no time, however, he too joined his friend in slumberland.

Sometime later the nurse returned and, upon entry, she observed them. Smiling, she turned the lights and the TV off, before quietly slipping away and pulling the door shut behind her.

~STTTT~

Having the use of radios forbidden to the team at the moment caused Sheriff Jim Hunt to sigh with frustration. If it were not for their ability to text with one another with their phones, coordinating the assembled task force might have proven fruitless. Roughly 15 people had answered his call, summoned after he had spoken with his deputy earlier that evening. It was a larger number than common, but widely understood in terms of urgency, given that there were various routes and means of access which needed to be covered in and around the marina. In addition to those within his own force, he had called and acquired reinforcements from both the local State Police post nearby, as well as from rangers at the State Parks division encampment. No one complained, as all knew that what was at stake left no room for error.

As the culmination of their effort began to descend along the access way toward the boat docks, the group moved quickly. At first, detecting a carelessness in their approach, Sheriff Hunt waved frantically to impress upon everyone to be more cautious. It worked, as the crowd became more subdued afterwards. In silence, they moved forward. Before long, the assembly of officers eventually made their way to the boat, which was still anchored and sitting majestically at its berth as before. Although it was approaching the midnight hour, officers could still see a combination of light and shadows bouncing around inside the cabin, obviously coming from the TV or the movement of individuals within. They stopped briefly, and assured themselves that no one was on the outside deck, or elsewhere as a lookout. That didn't surprise the Sheriff really, given how cold it felt outside at the moment.

The group then began the process of closing in and around the craft, different parties taking up positions to ward off any possible route of escape. Beyond the end of the pier, a subdued light could also be seen, beaconing to them from off the port side and indicating to the others they were in position, just in case any of the occupants decided to take a late-night swim. When all seemed to be in place, Sheriff Jim Hunt then made his move. With a deliberate motion, he brought a bullhorn up to his lips and spoke calmly, but with absolute authority. "This is the Adair County Sheriff's department, along with the Kentucky State Police, and the Cumberland Parks Ranger division. Those of you presently aboard the Sea Bass, need to come out on deck, moving slowly with your hands above your head. I repeat..." As he continued, several powerful searchlights were activated in various locations, focused and bathing the entire boat with a sheer brilliance. In addition, one of the deputies walked up and banged loudly against the side of the craft, assuring that anyone inside sleeping would most certainly be awakened. Jim Hunt repeated the announcement a third time for effect, before falling silent.

There was a sudden change in the boat as first various voices, and then sounds of bumping around could be heard from inside the cabin. Without waiting, however, the Sheriff gave a group of his deputies a prearranged signal, whereupon five hopped aboard the deck immediately. With guns drawn, the group quickly proceeded to the entrance of the cabin and pulled the door open before rushing inside. Two others followed the group onto the deck as backup while others moved in around the craft closer. Inside, they initial party found five individuals in varying stages of dress, halting their movements when they saw the guns and the men advance. Hearing a thud, one deputy quickly ran forward, shoving a rather large, burly man aside as he reached and bashed in the door to the lavatory. Inside, they found a sixth individual attempting to flush a white, brick-like package out with the plumbing, all the while holding two more in his hands. The deputy took the packages from the man's hands immediately, and then forced him to step back. By that time one of the other deputies approached the doorway and pulled the man back into the cramped cabin.

In the chaos that followed, each of the six men was then marched outside onto the boat's deck, where other members of the joint force gathered, some with handguns drawn, while others stood with handcuffs ready, which they quickly applied. When things had quietened somewhat, the men were then offloaded onto the dock and marched, single file until they were on the main pier. Once there, they were stopped and placed to stand in a single line, before Sheriff Hunt moved forward to inspect their prize. While the prisoners were read their Miranda rights, he studied the group carefully. Not recognizing the first two, he walked along silently, but as he reached the third man, his eyebrows shot up. "So, Mr. Bush, if I recall correctly. How lovely to bump into you again tonight," he snarled, but when the man stood practically emotionless, the Sheriff moved on to the next. He had never met the fourth man, but there was no mistaking the striking resemblance between him and John Bush. "Oh, ho! What have we here? Could you be the elusive brother we have heard so much about?" The man, however, remained eerily silent, prompting Hunt to simply shrug his shoulders before moving on again.

Clucking his tongue, the lawman progressed on to the fifth man in the lineup, but found he had to rear back in order to take the rather large individual in. With bulging biceps and a protruding chest, he easily stood six-feet six-inches tall, if not more. As they observed each other, a scowl met the Sheriff, much to the man's amusement. "My, you're a big fellow, aren't you?" he chuckled, before moving on to the last man in the roster. Once again, the individual was unfamiliar to the man, which caused the Sheriff to frown deeply before turning away. "Okay fellas, let's take them in and lock them up. Chauncy, setup a shift-change watch on this boat until morning, and get the forensics crew out here to start tearing her apart. I want everything, and I mean EVERYTHING, photographed, noted and logged, before being taken into the station. After you're done, turn the boat over to the Parks division and let them impound the craft. That way they can rip her apart even further for their own investigation."

Various men began moving about rapidly, following their leader's order to the letter. Phil Turner walked over and stood beside his boss in the interim. "Not a bad catch, but..."

"I know," the Sheriff nodded. "But... we still didn't find the one I was really expecting to see out here."

"We'll find him, sir," the deputy replied quietly. "He can't hide forever."

"I hope so, son, but to be honest, I don't think I'm going to rest very well until we do. Pete Haskell has got some explaining to do... and some things to answer for."

~STTTT~

"Ahh... ahhh... oh, ssshhhiiitttt!"

Sunday morning found Jesse holding onto the side-rails of his bed with a fierce grip, his legs spread wide but jerking in unison to the spasms raking his groin. Darius grunted and worked patiently, as he was withdrawing the catheter and pulling it clear from the end of Jesse's manhood using as much care as possible. "Try to relax, Jesse, this will be over in just a few seconds," he reassured the teenager. He had performed this task on occasion, and knew the result was different for varying people. Knowing that younger people were somewhat more sensitive to the procedure, he drew upon all of his knowledge and expertise into making the episode move along quickly. When the tube finally cleared, he grabbed the boy's elongated but flaccid member and massaged it briefly along its length. There was no sexual overtone or fondling in his move, and Jesse, although surprised, didn't take it in that manner. The burning, stinging sensations he felt internally gradually subsided, and as the teen started to relax more, Darius slowed his motions in turn, before eventually withdrawing altogether.

Darius looked up and smiled as he stopped and then pulled the sheet and blanket back over. "Not sure if that counts as 'pulling one off', but it's the only one like that you'll get from me, I assure you," he quipped as he covered the teen's groin again. Jesse was confused at first, uncertain to what the man was referring to, but as he thought about it, he slowly began to blush deeply. Darius saw his young charge's sudden change in demeanor, which caused him to chuckle before giving the boy a supportive pat upon his knee. Picking up the tube and device then, he placed the used catheter and tube into a bag before sealing it. "There, it's all over with now."

"Th-thanks, I think..." Jesse offered, though in a low, strained voice.

Darius simply nodded. "You'd be surprised. For some people, catheters don't bother them hardly at all, but others, especially younger people like you, find it's more annoying and invasive than anything they've ever done in their whole life. That is, unless you include the infamous enemas. You know what that is, right?" When Jesse nodded, the older man grunted. "I try to avoid those if I can, because they are one smelly son-of-a-... Ah - let's not go there! Regardless, I did my best with this, though," he stated simply, peeling his gloves away. "I just hope you're okay with it all now."

"You did fine, Darius," Jesse offered quietly. "I mean it, really. I'm just glad to be rid of it. Honest, thanks."

"Thank you too, young sir!" the man returned, and then continued. "So, try and listen to me for a moment, okay? Make sure someone follows along when you go to the bathroom, and is standing by just in case. Also, make sure you sit down while utilizing the facilities, too, at least for the first couple of days. In other words, no standing up to pee, alright? Another thing, if you should notice a little blood the first few times, don't worry about it, because for some people it's perfectly normal." The man paused to regard the teenager carefully. "Mind you what I've said, okay? Seriously, just... don't try doing any of this on your own, at least until you're free of that light-headedness you've been having."

"I promise, I won't. I'll make sure Benji or Noah is be with me," Jesse replied kindly, his voice returning to normal. "Thanks, Darius, I ... uh, really appreciate it."

The man sat back and chuckled. "I know, you were dreading it, but really... other than that one little spot, it wasn't too horrible, right?" He saw Jesse smile weakly, so he stood up and made to leave. "If you haven't left before I make my rounds tomorrow, I'll check in on you first thing. Otherwise, let me be the one to thank you, for a change. You were, in all accounts, a model patient for me, and I am quite proud of you. You're already on the road to a full recovery, too, so just don't try to rush anything too quickly. Your muscles, bones and other areas of the flesh are still healing, alright? Things are not going to happen overnight, but they WILL happen with a little time, and before you know it, all will be right again. Okay?"

"Yes, sir... I promise," Jesse replied, shaking his hand.

After the therapist left, Jesse once again lay back against his pillows to rest for a bit. There was still an achy sensation in his groin, but he had to admit the soreness left behind was rapidly receding. He cringed just then, recalling how long the plastic tube had appeared to be, causing himself to wonder how the heck he'd been able to have so much of it inserted for so long. Shivering, however, he pushed the thought aside. It was over with now, and he was beginning to feel less violated now. That, to him, was a good thing.

Noah had, once again, already left for the morning with his father, but had promised to return later in the day. The doctor had also visited him afterwards, and promised that if everything continued to look successful by mid-day, he would release the teen and let him go home, as long as he would mind what his mother tells him. That news had thrilled the teenager to no end, and it showed, causing the doctor to sit back amused. "Normally, I wouldn't, but knowing your mother as well as I do, I'm sure she will keep an eye on you." The man then pulled the stool up to the bedside and took a seat, before lecturing the teen on what he should and should not attempt to do over the next few days. Jesse had few questions, but for those he did, the man patiently explained his reasoning, especially with regard to how long it would take before the various ailments would heal. Lastly, the two turned their attention to Jesse's testicles. For the first time, the man asked his patient if it would be okay for him to examine them, which surprised Jesse considerably. Without hesitation, however, the teen nodded and the doctor wasted no time in not only pulling the padding back between Jesse's legs, but removing it altogether. With a gloved hand, he gently lifted and examined the scrotum with minute detail, before lowering them back.

"You know, initially the swelling looked a lot worse than the actual damage that was inflicted on you, young man," the Doctor explained. "I have no doubt you'll be able to return to a normal, fully productive sex life though. There is a discoloration in the skin tissue, but I can already tell that is returning to a more normal hue, so all is good. I also noted you didn't cringe as much when I lifted them in the palm of my hand. Is the soreness getting better?"

Jesse nodded. "A little. I mean, it was, um... uncomfortable, I guess, but not painful. Not like it was the other day."

The doctor smiled at him. "All the better, then. But if you'll let me, I would like to impose upon you to be somewhat cautious about something over the next week or two." When he saw the look of curiosity rise in the teen's face, the man lowered his voice and explained. "I'd appreciate if you could exercise some restraint in any, ah, certain activities that I know boys can get caught up in. Like I said, at least for a couple of weeks. You understand what I'm referring to, right?"

Jesse blushed, but he acknowledged the point. "You mean, like... masturbation?" he whispered, to which the man nodded.

"Mind you, I don't know if that is something you indulge in or not, but yes, that's what I'm referring to. That, or anything else that might cause you to build up and ejaculate, more or less. It is not that it would be horribly adverse, but here's the thing: internally, your testicles are still swollen considerably, and compared to the other parts of your body that will heal gradually, their healing will move along more slowly. The longer you can wait before they get, shall we say 'exercised', it will be better, giving them time to mostly heal on their own. One of the medications I'm going to prescribe for you is a very light testosterone supplement, and it will help move things along considerably, believe me," the man continued, before pausing to observe his charge closely. "Now, I know, young men get erections pretty easily, but don't worry about those if you get them. In other words, they won't hurt you. Just try to refrain, say for at least a week or more, before you do anything, ah, excessive. Urinating is also fine, as the urine comes from your bladder and other processes of the excretory system your body has. Does any of this make sense?"

"I think so, Doc. I mean, I promise it won't be a problem, but..." He glanced up into the pair of deep brown eyes that observed him. "How will I know? I mean, you know...?"

"You'll know, trust me. Any number of things can happen, but you'll know," the man responded with an understanding expression.

Jesse nodded, although not totally satisfied. Instead, he broached another side of the topic. "Um, can I ask one more thing? Like, is this something that can stay between us, or..."

The man suddenly laughed heartily. "I have not spoken of this with your parents, nor do I intend to - meaning that I think, yes, we can keep it between ourselves. You do know though, your mother is a nurse - and she deals with these things on occasion, I'm sure. It's really nothing to be embarrassed about."

"I know Doc, it's just... Medical stuff is one thing, but... you know... what you're talking about isn't so much medical, it's more... and..." Jesse started, but did not finish, causing the man to look down at his patient with a genuine sense of compassion.

"You don't have to explain it son, I totally get it. It's been a few years since I was your age, but I still understand what it's like to be growing up through the teenage years. I promise, though - unless it is something that becomes medically necessary, this will stay between us. Just, take your time is all - everything will be alright, you'll see. I'd like to see you again in, say, two weeks or so, perhaps after the Christmas weekend. Sooner though, if any complications arise. And, you should make an appointment to get your teeth checked out by your dentist, too. I didn't detect any problems with them or your jaw-line, but then again, I'm really not a dental professional. Seriously, you took some hits squarely in your jaw and lower mouth, so it wouldn't hurt to have them checked out, just to be on the safe side."

"Okay sir, I understand," Jesse replied, but then pointed at the stitches below his lip. "What about... Can I ask when these get to come out?"

"That's another thing, I guess. Your mother will monitor them, and when the skin seems to be what we like to call 'knitted' effectively enough, she'll remove them for you. You'll have a bit of a scar there for a few months most likely, but it, too, will be mostly gone by Spring, I think. I'd really advise that you don't try to take them out on your own though, okay? She'll know when and how to pull them, and I trust her judgement." He paused, waiting, but when Jesse seemed to have nothing else, he inquired one final time. "Anything else?"

Jesse recalled telling the man no and shaking his hand, before the doctor patted his shoulder, rose and then left the room. Since then, all the teen could think about was the prospect of getting to go home again, and the anticipation elevated his spirits immensely. He had called home afterwards and spoken with his father, who sounded just as enthusiastic as Jesse had hoped he would. At least by being home, the teen thought, it would put them all under one roof again, and they would no longer have to be separated as a family. Why that was such a growing concern to him, he did not know, but nevertheless it was there. After they exchanged a few more words, his father informed him that Jennifer was bringing him some lunch again, and that he would probably follow soon after. When they hung up, Jesse could not help but smile as he looked around the room once again. It wasn't a bad room insofar as hospitals go, really, but it wasn't really his room. Just like this place wasn't really his home, and although the people here were nice enough, they were not his family. Benji, his parents - they were his family now. Even the Cooks, including Noah's parents. He just felt better about getting out now, than having to stay any longer than necessary.

Surprisingly, sometime after that, Jesse slipped into a brief nap, and did not awaken again until he detected someone moving about the room. When he opened his eyes, he was surprised to find Noah standing next to his bed, along with his mother. "Hey," he greeted them groggily, but then rubbed his eyes and gradually sat up again. Noah silently responded by offering a fist bump, but as the cobwebs dissipated, Jesse frowned. "I thought you were going home to get some sleep?" he asked, meeting the fist in mid-air and bumping it lightly.

"Yeah, well, that was the idea, but I really couldn't sleep much," Noah explained. "When I heard Mom was bringing you some more food, I decided to get up and come back with her. Besides, I slept in here okay last night, remember? I don't think I really needed that much of a nap anyway."

Jennifer grunted as she slid the tray over and deposited a bag of food on top, along with some drinks. "I didn't forget them this time," she noted, pointing at the bottled sodas. "And Noah thought you might like to have something besides home-cooked food for a change."

Jesse opened the sack to find an assortment of cheeseburgers and tater tots inside, which caused him to sigh in relief. Smiling widely, he looked up and grasped the woman before she could walk away, pulling her in and giving her a fierce embrace, followed by a kiss on the cheek. "That's for this, but also for everything else this week," he whispered into her ear. Jennifer blushed, but returned his embrace just as warmly. He held her for a brief period, not letting go because he wanted her to know his sincerity.

When they finally parted, he saw that Noah had already removed everything from the bag and set it up for them both to share. As the teenagers began digging in, Jennifer excused herself to go and talk with the nurses. Once she was gone, Noah broke the silence. "So, anything new?"

Jesse, however, could see a trace of amusement in his friend's expression. "You know, don't you? Doc said I could go home this afternoon."

Noah laughed. "About time! I wondered if YOU were going to tell me, though!"

Jesse grinned. "Sorry, I think the food and then giving your Mom that hug side-tracked me for a minute."

"You're forgiven then, THIS time!" Noah responded. "So, how long before you get paroled?"

"I think they said it would be around 3:00 or so, give or take a little," Jesse replied. He took another bite of his burger and then closed his eyes, savoring the sandwich as he had not done in a long time. "So, are you going to help me get around some? I was warned to not try and do anything alone for a few more days, especially when it came to bathroom stuff. Benji will help some, but... uh... you know what I mean, right?"

Noah scoffed. "What do you think?" He then laughed. "Of course, I'm going to be around, goof-ball! You're not going to get rid of me that easily, unless your parents kick me out!"

"They won't, I promise. If they say anything, I'll threaten to disown them or something," Jesse teased.

Noah scoffed. "You wouldn't do that, and you know it!"

"Yeah, I guess not," Jesse conceded, though not without a mischievous expression. "Um, do you think I can ask one favor of you though?"

"Sure, what's that?" his friend inquired.

"Well, I want to be the one who sleeps with Benji tonight. I owe him, especially after keeping you away from him for the last couple of nights," Jesse replied softly.

Noah thought the request was kind of funny, but nodded in acknowledgement all the same. "Not a problem. If your parents let me though, can I still spend the night with you? I mean, maybe I can sleep in his bed, or we can fix me a place in the floor or something."

"It'll be a school night, but yeah, sure - if your Mom and Dad let you, that is," Jesse replied, looking relived. "I, uh... well, thanks, bro. I mean it."

"You don't need to thank me, Jess, I understand. I- I almost went home last night, just so I could try and keep him company and all, but... The way you were looking and feeling yesterday, I kind of felt like you needed me here, too," Noah mused before sighing. "Besides, you're not the only one who feels like they owe him, Jesse. I do, too. I didn't mean to abandon him like I did, especially after promising to help watch after him and all, you know?"

"I know. It's kind of just the way it all worked out though, so I'm not worried. We'll both make it up to him, I promise," Jesse replied. He sighed deeply. "I'm just so glad that this part of everything is going to be over."

Noah nodded and then the two fell silent, until the teen finally looked up to see his friend deep in thought. "So, I take it they, you know, took that thing out of you this morning, didn't they?" When Jesse nodded, he added, "I'm almost afraid to ask, but... how was it? Bad?"

"It was no picnic," Jesse admitted, just as quietly. "It was, I don't know... it did hurt a little, but he had it out of me in like, 15- to 20-seconds or so, I think."

"He?" Noah asked.

Jesse grunted. "I was actually given a choice, really, between either one of the nurses, or letting Darius do it. I don't know, I guess I kind of just felt more comfortable with him doing it."

"I don't blame you," Noah agreed, but then made a face. "I know, it's kind of weird, but... yeah, if I had to do it, I think I would rather have a guy like him rather than a girl." His expression changed however as he acquired a mischievous look. "Especially if I couldn't have you do it, that is," he whispered, which made his best friend grin.

Jesse took another bite of his burger before he spoke again, changing the subject. "I'm surprised Benji didn't come with you guys."

"He went over to stay with that friend of his last night," Noah informed him. "Mom told me that he kind of made another fuss yesterday, especially after he heard I was going to stay with you again. When they got home though, your Dad asked him if he would like to go and spend the night at Petey's instead. I'm not sure, but I think Petey's Mom must have called and invited him, or something. Anyway, supposedly that made him feel better. He's planning to come home this evening, though. He didn't want to miss you in case you got out of prison today."

That thought made Jesse smile again. The two fell silent once again, this time until they finished their lunch. Jennifer returned a short while later, carrying a couple of neatly-trimmed boxes. "What are those that for?" Noah asked his mother, as she set them down upon the tray.

"Well, since Jesse is going home in a little while, I thought maybe you and I could collect all these cards and everything, then maybe get most of these balloons out to the car, too," she replied, before turning to Jesse. "I do assume you want to take all of this stuff home with you, right?"

"Oh, definitely!" Jesse replied, and started to push his blanket back. Jennifer, however, shook her head and wagged a finger in his direction.

"Oh, no you don't, young man!" she declared. "You don't need to be up and about doing any of this! Noah and I will take care of it, you just sit there and... well, supervise or something!"

Sheepishly, Jesse laid back on his pillow. "Yeah, rrriiiiggghhhttt..." he drawled, which in turn caused Noah to snicker. Jennifer only gave him a brief look and grinned, but otherwise remained silent. Over the next half-hour, she and her son gathered the various items, grouping and placing as much as she could into the boxes at hand, leaving only a few of the balloons and stuffed animals out. Noah, in the interim, made two trips outside, one dragging the balloons with him, and the other to carry the boxes out. One balloon was left behind at Jesse's request, however, which caused his best friend to raise an eyebrow, but neither he nor his mother objected.

Before long, one of the nurses appeared to take Jesse's vitals again, and upon finishing, he called out to her. "Ma'am? Are there any, like, kids here today that you know of?"

The woman paused, clearly giving the inquiry some thought. "Well, there's a young girl down the hallway, yes. Why do you ask?"

"She's the one that got the flu or something, right? One of the nurses was talking about her the other night, I think..." Jesse replied.

The woman smiled and stepped closer to the bed. "Probably. She's had a rough way to go, but she's on the mend this morning. Why are you asking?"

Jesse then turned and grabbed the remaining balloon, before handing it over to her. "Would you take this down and give it to her, then? I had plenty sent to me, you see, and... well, I was just thinking... you know..."

The nurse graciously accepted the gift. "I most certainly will, and I'll tell her you personally had it delivered to her! Thank you!"

Jesse blushed, but then shook his head. "Just tell her it came from a secret admirer, okay? It might make her feel a little better, anyway." The woman grinned, but agreed to do so before quietly exiting the room. Jennifer and Noah both gazed at him with a mixture of understanding and surprise. "What? Oh... I just thought, I don't know... I heard she didn't really have anyone but her mother, so... I imagined she probably gets lonesome sometimes, that's all."

"I think that was a very sweet and noble thing to do," Jennifer offered, while Noah offered and accepted a fist bump with his friend. Nothing more on the matter was said.

It was not long before the two o'clock hour approached, when his father and Allen walked through the door. They greeted everyone happily, before approaching Jesse's bedside where James set a grocery sack on the table. Jesse opened it and peered inside, finding a new set of gym sweats along with an undershirt, then topped with both socks and shoes. Glancing up curiously, he saw his father tilt his head to one side. "What, you want to go home naked?" he mused, which caused Noah to burst out laughing.

Jesse stuck his tongue out at his friend, but otherwise ignored him. "Um, no... preferably not!" Jesse shot back eventually, chiding himself for missing the obvious. As he pulled the clothes out, he also noted the pair of tennis shoes in the bottom of the sack appeared to be brand new.

"We'll have to try those out," James explained, leaning in closer. "To tell the truth, I wasn't really sure what size to get you, so Allen and I made an educated guess. If they don't fit, we can always take them back and get them exchanged in the next day or two," James explained.

Jesse checked the inner tagging, but then shook his head. "No, these are just right, Dad. I can wear them fine, I think. Thanks!"

"Well, you really should thank Allen, kiddo. He's the one who thought of them," James admitted sheepishly. "I left the house with only the basic clothes for you there."

The other man shrugged. "I knew you had lost your other pair after, well... you know..."

"The 'event'," Noah supplied.

Allen grunted. "Is that what we're calling it now? It's actually not a bad label, I think. Kind of better than some other alternatives, at least. Anyway, as I understood it, you lost most everything you had on you that night."

"Yeah, kind of," Jesse replied quietly. "Some of the guys at school, I think the team actually, sent me a new hoodie to replace the one that got ripped up, though."

"I figured you might like to wear it," James interceded in the brief silence that followed. "That is, if you haven't already packed it away."

"We didn't," Jennifer announced, producing the garment and placing it on the table next to the other clothes. "I had a feeling he might want it left out."

No sooner than she had finished her remark, the nurse returned and entered the room. "Well, the family collective has begun," she announced with a hint of dry humor. "I take it somebody must be anxious to be going home?"

Jesse smiled sheepishly. "Um, yeah, as soon as you'll let me," he replied as she approached the side of his bed.

"Well, then let me take these stats one last time, and then you can get ready to head out while your father signs some paperwork for us downstairs," she told him. Over the next few minutes, she collected the information she needed and asked a series of questions, presumably to make sure Jesse knew what was expected of him once he was released. She refrained from the more sensitive subjects, confiding to him near the end that she knew the doctor had already discussed a few things with him. That pleased Jesse to no end, giving him a feeling of relief when the woman had finished. When she finally declared she was done, however, she stood tall and placed her hands on her hips. "I'm sorry, you know. I realized only a little bit ago that you probably didn't get to have any of the prettier girls up here waiting on you, did you?" she observed before chuckling. "Just us older women over the past few days, I think."

"Really?" Jesse smirked. "Nah, not older, just more experienced. Maybe even wiser, you know?" The teen was, indeed, feeling his faculties gradually return as his anticipation grew. The others in the room laughed politely, but then the woman turned to him one last time and held up her palm for a high five, which she received before turning to James.

"I think you and Makalah must have raised that boy right!" she announced, beaming before turning back to the teen. "You can get ready now, but don't disappear completely before I get back. I think we might find a special treat to give you before you leave us for good!" Then with a wink, she turned and motioned for James to follow her. Looking back over her shoulder, she called out, "Wear loose clothing only though, you hear? We'll be back in a few minutes." With that, the teen watched her and his father disappear out into the hallway.

Jesse sat up then, swinging his legs slowly over the side of the bed. Noah was beside him in an instant, readying to assist in anyway his friend might need him to, but it was his mother who then spoke up. "Listen, Allen and I will go out to the waiting room, Jesse. That way you can get changed in here. Noah will stay and help you in case you need anything, alright?"

"Okay, ma'am," Jesse replied, watching after them until they were both gone.

Seeing the door shut behind them, Noah rolled his eyes. "Oh course, I'm going to stay with you! Good grief!" he whispered, but then giggled.

Jesse laughed as well. "I think she knew it. She was just teasing," he offered, throwing the blanket back. "I just hope you don't get tired being my, uh, assistant, that's all." Without getting up, he slowly and awkwardly wiggled forward, before eventually removing the hospital gown he was wearing and tossing it aside. Noah, standing in front of the teen, was caught by surprise at seeing his friend's naked body again, but this time with all the bruises more readily visible. Jesse noted the mixed expression of both seriousness and surprise. "What's the matter with you? You've seen me naked plenty of times before... right?"

Noah blushed, but then nodded. "I know I have, but... wow," he whispered back. Glancing up and down more than once, he finally explained. "Jess, have you, uh, even seen yourself since the attack?"

"I thought we were calling it the 'event'," Jesse shot back, but smiling nonetheless. As Noah's serious expression did not fade, however, he glanced down at himself in the shadows before shrugging. "No, I guess not. Not really, anyway. Why?"

Noah hastily glanced over his shoulder toward the door before turning back again. "Come on, stand up," he commanded. Jesse's curiosity was piqued, so he obeyed, but not without leaning on his best friend for balance. Noah, slipping an arm around the waist to support him, then guided him across the short distance to the bathroom door. Upon arrival, he opened it and only paused to flip on the light switch inside. Pulling Jesse behind him, they then entered and closed the door, revealing a full-length mirror hanging on the back. It was then Noah instructed Jesse to turn around, and as the teen did as he was instructed, he suddenly stilled himself. Bathed in the full light of the room just then, Jesse stared at the reflection, stunned as if in disbelief.

"Oh... sshhhiiittt..." Jesse breathed quietly. There was nothing hidden from view this time, no shadows to diminish the impact, every part of himself exposed all at once. No blanket or bandages stood in the way of what lay beneath. Instead, his entire body was like a black and blue road map, bathed with bruises in varying stages of healing. Even veins could be seen popping out vividly in places, along with a fair amount of substantial swelling. Though healing and gradually receding, they were still puffed out and clearly visible. Jesse likened the image to one of a battle field, covered with the ravages of a war where each area struggled for dominance or attention. It was a stark contrast from what would be considered normal, and for the first time Jesse began to understand why everyone was being so careful around him.

The teen leaned closer into the mirror, studying not only the stitches that trailed from his lower lip to the left side of his face, but also the sunken recession around his left eye. Reaching up, he touched it gently but left it alone afterwards. Dropping his gaze to his chest and ribcage didn't improve his opinion of himself, either. While his ribs had been aching and giving him so much duress while breathing, he now saw why, given how they were shadowed in various outlines of blues, blacks and reds. At least here the imperfections were not as distinct like in other places, but they still plainly depicted how rough it had been initially. Lower, below his belt line, was much of the same story. His penis seemed stretched somewhat, probably because of the device that had personally invaded it, removed only hours before. To Jesse, it appeared almost unnatural as it hung and floated atop his two, overly dark and swollen testicles. He gulped at the sight of them in their entirety then, moving his hand once again to lightly graze each one. Although the touch left him with a weird sensation, at least they did not seem to hurt, or be as discomforting in the way they had the day before. Rounding out the scene, his gaze fell to both of his legs. Some of the more severe abuse was plainly evident in the upper portion of his thighs, especially toward the inside, but he sighed in relief when he realized the rest of his limbs seemed to be minimally affected.

Jesse observed himself for a moment longer before standing up straight once again. When he spoke, there was an unmistakable hesitancy that betrayed the emotions surging within him. "Kind of ugly, isn't it?"

Noah frowned, staring at the teen's face. "Ugly? No, Jess... it's..."

Jesse ignored the attempt to lessen the impact of his statement. "I... I really... I guess I never realized, that's all." The words were simple, but the emotions were far from it, as he glanced at Noah in the mirror. "I really want to just go home now, bro. Please? Please, just ... help me? Take me h-home?" He pleaded quietly, almost on the verge of tears. Noah understood perfectly, however, although he chided himself for having brought it all up in the first place. It would not be long though, before Jesse would shrug his shoulders, and tell his friend he would have found out sooner or later anyway.

Noah quietly guided his friend back into the main room and over to the side of the bed, before gently persuading Jesse to have a seat again. Grabbing a pair of boxer shorts that had accompanied the other clothes, he hesitated only slightly as he realized this was going to be another first for either of them. Insofar as general knowledge went, it wasn't anything out of the norm, considering that a lot of boys wore boxers, being the garment of choice by many of their peers. It was something that changing in the locker rooms, during Phys Ed classes, had educated them - along with noting that most of the players on the basketball team preferred them over briefs. As far as Noah knew, however, neither he nor Jesse had ever worn any, and he compared the moment as to embarking into new territory. Perhaps James and Makalah had procured them for a reason though, given Jesse's new condition. The garment would definitely provide extra 'freedom', for lack of a better word, in the teen's crotch.

Noah turned and knelt down, before threading the garment onto both of Jesse's feet and pulling them part of the way up. Before continuing, however, he also reached out and pulled the sweats from the stack. Repeating the procedure, he then arranged both garments before having Jesse stand again. With little difficulty, he finished the job, making sure he took extra precautions to keep the crotch as loose and maneuverable as possible. He heard Jesse gasp at one point, but otherwise his friend simply smiled and nodded. "It's okay, honest. I'm okay..." he whispered.

"I hope so. I mean, I don't want to, you know..." Noah replied equally quiet. Moments later, Jesse sat quietly on the side of the bed again, this time with both his t-shirt and hoodie in place, while Noah sat on the floor and proceeded to push his friend's feet into socks, followed by the new shoes. Finishing, the teen leaned back and propped himself on his hands as he glanced up. He saw Jesse staring off into space, obviously unfocussed but preoccupied. "Hey Jess, you okay?" Noah asked quietly, but his friend did not respond right away. After a moment, Noah climbed to his feet and then took a seat beside the teen. "Jess?"

Jesse finally stirred from his reverie and smiled at him. "I am now, thanks to you," he whispered smiling. "You know, I... I was just thinking is all. I knew, from what your Mom told me, and from some of the things that Darius talked about and all... that it must have been worse than anyone was letting on. I mean, I don't know, it... it must have been bad, right? B-but Noah, I d-didn't know... I... I never realized..." He sighed deeply. "I'm sorry. That probably sounds stupid, like, I should have known anyway - it's my body, right? But..." The teen sighed and shook his head. "I'll be okay, though. I mean, I would have found out eventually, anyway. I was just kind of a shock is all." He suddenly grimaced. "I'm surprised anyone could even stand to look at me though, you know? Even you..."

"Hey, none of that crap, alright?" Noah whispered, sliding closer and slipping a hand around his waist to hug Jesse closer. "It's not ugly or anything, Jess. Why would you think that? You look fine - trust me! I mean, you can't expect it all to go away overnight anyway, and it's all super... uh, superficial, I think my Mom called it. See? The real, loveable you, is still intact there, inside!" When there was no response, the teen studied his friend closer. "You know, we keep telling you, Jess - Mom, Dad, your parents, the doctor, the nurses... everybody, right? You're getting better every day, period. All you have to focus on right now, all you need to worry about, is to just keep doing that. I'm telling you, bro: I want my best friend back. No, I need my best friend back, Jess. Just like Benji needs his brother back, too. When you talked about wanting to sleep with the little runt tonight, it took me a few seconds, but then I figured it out - I know what you meant, see? It's a part of something that will make things feel normal for you again, for both of you. But to do that - we need you all the way, Jess. Not half-way back - we need ALL of you, buddy. We need... I mean, to hell with everything else, alright? Pete, or whoever the other creeps were, just screw it and tell them to go fuck themselves! They'll get what's coming to them before we're done. You know that, right? But... before we can take care of that, we need you. I need you, okay? Does any of that make sense?"

Jesse turned and glanced out the window momentarily before he nodded. "More than you know. I just... I just d-didn't know, though, or I didn't realize..." He turned back to his friend and sighed again, before wiping at his eyes and then sitting up a little taller. With a steadier tone, he nodded. "I'll be okay, I promise. Just... don't leave me, okay? Please? I need you, too."

"I won't, I promise. You're stuck with me," Noah whispered back, before reaching in and locking fingers with Jesse's hand.

"Good, because you're stuck with me, too," Jesse whispered, still smiling.

"It's all going to turn out okay, Jesse. I know we all keep saying that, but... you'll see," Noah said encouragingly, squeezing the hand he held. Jesse nodded, and then sat back and relaxed as Noah rose to go tell his parents all was done and ready.

~STTTT~

As the group left the hospital, the Cooks went on their way to wherever their destination lay. James, however, took a detour to drive by their old neighborhood. Jesse had not returned there in some time, so he found it interesting to look out the windows at familiar territory as the scenery rolled by. Although most of the snow had melted by then, there were still clumps of the white masses, although somewhat dirtied, that clung alongside the road in several places. It left one the impression that the snow had no intention of disappearing until absolutely necessary, which Jesse soon discovered might not occur in the immediate future. According to weather reports, the forecasters were anticipating current conditions to remain moderately above freezing at least through the next day, but another front was expected to work its way through late Monday night and into the early hours of the following morning. Unlike earlier that week, however, this storm front was expected to introduce freezing rain and sleet, before bringing them another significant amount of snow on the back side of the system. That combination could, in a nutshell, leave the area in a capricious mess yet again.

Soon the truck rounded another familiar bend, and Jesse saw their old homestead on the horizon. Its wreckage still stood as a chaotic reminder of the damage sustained only a few short months before, compared to the cleanliness of the other tracts of land around it. In two places, construction had already begun for new housing, and others were sure to follow in the coming months. From the distance, seeing it all caused Jesse to reflect momentarily on just how much his family's lives had changed since then. He could remember the storm's fast approach, how they had all rushed to the basement and huddled in a corner while deafening noise and chaos ensued above them. They had survived though, and moreover the teen once again reflected on the fact that not only had their lives changed, but that of the Cooks' had as well. Before, he had just been a lone teen, with just his little brother to comfort him. Little did he know though, that only a short distance stood between him and finding the best friend, outside of his family, that he would ever have. It had changed his life forever, knowing he wasn't so unique after all - that others were out there in the world, too.

"Dad, do you ever think about how much everything has changed since the tornado happened? I mean, where would we be if it wasn't for Allen, and Jennifer and Noah? I know what happened to us and all, but I can't... I can't help but think about them and all this stuff sometimes, you know? I just... I don't know..."

James slowed the truck as they neared their old driveway. "Don't worry, I understand what you're saying," he replied softly, his voice carrying over the space between them. "It's funny in a way. I mean, your mother and I, we have always tried to help people, in any way we can when life throws them these curves in the road, so to speak. But now that we've had a massive chuck-hole thrown in our own highway, it feels so strange and all to have the tables turned. Yet, who should it turn out to be but Allen and his family, that helped us pull everything back together, you know? I lie awake some nights, because to me its mind-boggling. You know how I am - I try to be as independent as I can, not having to rely on anyone and all. But yet - they're still there, at every turn, and we've needed them." He turned and smiled at his son before speeding up and moving on. "That's the way we're supposed to live our lives though, son. You know, help our fellow man and all, and be humbled enough to accept their help in return."

Jesse nodded. "Yeah, I think I've come to understand that a lot more lately."

James said nothing more, but he did observe with a sense of pride, how the teen had become more conscious of things in recent months. The man knew it was just another stage of life, a part of growing up. Nonetheless, along with that feeling of pride was also one of sadness. His sons were both growing up, it seemed, way too fast. Gone was the youthful exuberance, to be replaced by something more reflective. Regardless, even with the events of the last week set aside, the road before them seemed to be much brighter overall, and for that the man was thankful.

A short time later the truck pulled into the driveway leading up to the farmhouse where Petey lived, and Jesse suddenly realized why they had diverted themselves before going home. After parking, before his father could even make it out of the truck, he saw his little brother come running out the back door and making a beeline toward them. "Dad! Jesse!" he heard the younger McAllister exclaim, which caused him to grin. Running to the passenger side, the youth pulled open the cab door and jumped up immediately, grasping his brother in a big hug and not letting go. Jesse laughed at the welcoming reunion as he grasped hold in return. He ignored the aches as his body protested, accepting instead the embrace and exuberance gifted to him, as if he hadn't seen his brother in ages. In the distance, he saw Mrs. King saunter out the door, followed by Petey himself, both were smiling brightly.

"He sure does love his brother, doesn't he?" Mrs. King commented, after James got after Benji and warned him to take it easy. Watching the reunion, she placed her own arm around her son's shoulders.

"He does," James finally acknowledged, leaning back against the truck. "I have two boys who are very devoted to each other, I know. Not sure what I ever did to deserve that, but..."

"Don't complain," Mrs. King scoffed. "It's not often you'll find two brothers who get along that well, I assure you," she remarked before glancing down. Her son had a smile on his face, fully understanding the gist of the conversation between the adults, but silently awaiting something. She finally nodded at him, as if giving him permission, before Petey hurried around to the passenger side and joined the others. He could be heard telling Jesse he was glad he got out of the 'prison', which had made the teen laugh a second time. Listening to the exchange caused Mrs. King to sigh. "Now, if only Petey and his brother could get along half that well..." she started, but then laughed heartily. "Actually, I guess I should be careful. All things considering, they don't do that bad, really. Justin has become more accommodating in putting up with his brother the last couple of years or so, but... I don't mind admitting, there's times it's still touch-and-go."

James nodded. "Jesse and Benji have their moments, too. For the most part though, neither Makalah nor I have to worry about them."

The woman nodded before turning to the man, handing over Benji's backpack. "Well, we enjoyed having him over here. I know you and Makalah have had a bit of a rough week, but I hope everything calms down for all of you. Listen though, any time you two need someone to watch over him, please - just pick up the phone. Seeing those two playing together, it's like one of the highlights of my day. Benji is a sweet kid."

James smiled. "Thank you. I have to be brave and confess up front, when you called us yesterday - it was like a prayer answered, really. It was a huge help for us last night, making it a lot easier for me catch up on a couple of things and see to Makalah properly for a change. Not to mention, I think it's the first night of real sleep I've gotten all week long."

"I can understand that. Is Makalah still doing better?" Mrs. King asked.

"So far, I've done everything short of strap her into the recliner, but the good news is, this time she's staying there and following the doctor's orders - so yes, she is doing what everyone has instructed her to do. With luck, she'll be up and walking by the middle of the coming week," James responded. The two continued to chat for another few minutes, but eventually bade each other farewell, the man thanking her one last time.

As James returned to the driver's side of the truck, he heard Petey calling out, "Come back soon Benji, or maybe I can come over there before too long, okay?"

"Sure thing! See you later, alligator!" Benji called back, as James opened the door and climbed in. Once inside, he found his younger son had somehow already climbed over his brother and was sitting in the middle, buckled up and ready to go.

On the ride home, the man listened to both boys, Benji ceaselessly chatting about either his overnight adventures, or plaguing Jesse with questions regarding the last couple of days. There was a youthful excitement in the exchange, something unmatched by most people getting on in years. More than once, James found himself laughing, finding it a refreshing change. "Benji, sheesh! Slow down, alright? Give Jesse a chance to at least catch his breath!" he exclaimed at one point, trying to pull in the younger son's virtual reins, yet continuing to chuckle all the same.

Jesse, however, shook his head. "It's alright, Dad. Honest, it's pretty nice to hear something normal again for a change."

At first, James thought his son's reply was somewhat odd. The more he thought about it though, he accepted the fact that what the teen implied, had to be because of the isolation he had endured the last several days. Benji, on the other hand, did settle down gradually, and by the time they entered the driveway of their new home, he was holding his brother's hand and locking their fingers together. Another one of those signs, James noted at one point, of their enduring friendship with one another.

James parked the truck and then quickly climbed out. Rounding the front, he reached the passenger door just as Jesse was getting it opened. While in the process of swinging his legs out and readying to step down, his father muttered, "Easy there, soldier." In short order, the man assisted the teenager with the drop to the ground, steadying the boy as he initially swayed but gradually found solid footing where he could stand again.

Regaining his balance, Jesse looked about him. One could see both the awe and gratitude on the teenager's face as he realized they were actually home. "Finally!" he muttered, before glancing up at his father, "You have no idea, Dad. I... I just..."

"Oh, don't be too surprised, especially if I hear what I think I do," James replied kindly before offering the boy his arm, which Jesse grasped hold of. Both began walking toward the back door of the house, but James held his son close, enjoying their moment together, and fully understanding his reaction. Benji had already scooted out of the truck and hurried around them both, making a beeline for and holding the door open for them. As they stepped through and into the mud-room, Jesse stopped suddenly when he saw something hanging from the ceiling. Above the entry into the kitchen was a hand-made banner, comprised of several sheets of colored paper, stretching across the room. On the papers were various pieces of artwork, along with bright, bold letters that simply spelled 'Welcome Home!'. When Jesse turned his gaze downward, he saw the biggest smile on his brother's face. Letting go of his father's arm, the teen leaned over and gave Benji the biggest of hugs he could muster. "Thanks, little bro! I love it!" he whispered into his ear.

Benji returned the embrace and then stepped aside, before Jesse placed a hand upon the youth's shoulder. "Lead the way, Short-Stuff!" their father commanded from behind them. Entering the kitchen, Jesse was surprised again when he saw several covered containers of food sitting around the countertops and upon the table. "Wh-What's all this?" he asked, perplexed.

"That, young man..." came a voice from beyond toward the living room entrance, where both Jennifer and Noah suddenly stepped into view. "...is what has been showing up over the last few hours. It seems the church and some of our friends at the hospital, along with the people where your father works, have been bringing all kinds of food in here, from all over the place!" She laughed as both Jesse's and Benji's jaws dropped. "It's just food, though. I think it's just a lot of people helping out your parents, at least until your Mom can get back on her feet. Seems they heard you were getting to come home today, so..." Her voice trailed off before she then glanced up at James. "There's even a ham that Mr. Stout's wife brought by. She just left no more than five minutes before you pulled in. I just got it in the oven to warm it up!"

"Oh, boy!" Benji exclaimed excitedly. "So, when do we eat?"

"Nobody is eating anything, at least not until my two sons get their sorry little butts in here and give their mother a hug!" The voice was unmistakable, coming from the direction of the living room. Jesse glance at his father and grinned, and then with Benji guiding him on his way slowly, both made their way into the other room. Noah followed close behind, just in case, but Jesse made the short trek with little trouble. Once there, they found Makalah sitting up in the recliner, her legs extended and propped up on the footrest with a pillow, and with a wide smile waiting for them. Benji rushed forward with his usual exuberance and gave his mother a quick embrace. He was followed soon after by his older brother, although much more cautiously. His mother understood, however, and gratefully stretched upward to meet him from beneath, catching and steadying her son as well when he began to sway. Mother and son held each other long and hard before letting go, all the while his father brought in a chair from the kitchen and sat it down beside the recliner. Jesse then pivoted around with his father's help, and lowered himself down easily, before he and his mother then had a nice chat with each other, the teen bringing his mother up to date regarding the past few days. The others in the room quietly left them behind, James reaching out and pulling Benji along with him back into the kitchen, thus giving the mother and son a rare moment of time to themselves, which both were appreciative of.

In the meantime, Jennifer, James and Noah began making themselves busy by setting out the various containers of food, arranging like items together and preparing to set up a buffet-like line for everyone. They were soon joined by Allen, who brought with him another pair of surprise guests. Addison had stopped by, bringing with her a casserole, and was accompanied by Linda, who was carrying various drinks for the families. Both girls greeted everyone momentarily, but upon James' invitation, the girls entered the living room. After the initial surprise, both girls immediately gave Jesse a careful hug, welcoming him home and leaving the teen with moistened eyes and a look of utter happiness. Then, taking seats on the couch, the four chatted and laughed until James finally appeared once again in the doorway. "It's all set up now. Why don't you girls stay? There is way more than enough food in here to feed an army, and I'm sure the boys would enjoy having some company for a while." Benji appeared next to his father, looking on in silence.

Addison smiled and, after exchanging a brief glance with her companion, nodded. "We'd love to, Mr. McAllister, thank you!"

"Then come on in and fix yourselves a plate. Benji, you can fix one for yourself, too. As for you two, though," the man paused, observing Jesse and his mother. "You're not going anywhere. I'll fix one for you both and bring it in here, unless you feel like coming to go around the table, Jesse, and maybe point out what you'd like."

"Can I?" the teen asked sheepishly. It wasn't so much the excitement of the smorgasbord that awaited them, as it was just having a chance to continue feeling something normal again. "I know, but... can I?" he repeated sincerely. With a nod from his father, Noah quickly approached his best friend's side and offered an arm. James smiled and then disappeared, guiding Benji in front of him as the teens then stood to follow. With Noah's help, Jesse made his way to the table once again, but this time his eyes grew bigger than before. An entire assortment of dishes greeted them, including the aforementioned ham, but also chicken strips, dumplings, salads and more. There had to be at least 20 bowls of side dishes and casseroles alone, along with fresh baked breads and desserts, which were lined up on the kitchen counter. "Wow!" he muttered under his breath, but it still brought smiles from those closest to him. Nobody moved, however, until Jesse finally glanced around.

"Go ahead, honey," Jennifer encouraged, taking a large paper platter and stepping to his side. Although she would not permit him to fill it himself, she did follow as the teen pointed out what he'd like to try, and the woman patiently built the platter as he requested. She chose to make small portions, as the teen began and continued pointing various items, and was afraid he may run out of room eventually. He glanced at the plate at one point however, and then smiled.

"Wow, that much? I don't know if I can eat all of that," he mused softly, which garnered a giggle from the woman.

"Just do your best, nobody is going hold it against you if you don't," she whispered in his ear.

Meanwhile, James also stepped up and began assembling another platter with food for Makalah, but patiently giving his son first priority. Once Jesse had made his way around the table, the others then began forming a line and following in his footsteps. Noah then helped his friend return to the living room and sit down near the end of the couch, before returning for his own chance to go through the line. A moment later, Addison appeared with drinks in hand, which she set next to the teen on the end table, before sitting down next to him. "Is it okay if I sit here?" she asked him quietly.

"Oh yeah, definitely!" the teenager whispered back.

It was nearly two hours before the girls finally bade their best wishes to the family and departed, but not before lending a hand to help cover and store the leftovers away. Addison even slipped in and gave Jesse another embrace, followed by a kiss to his cheek, and a whispered message in his ear which made him smile in return. After they left, the teen then climbed slowly to his feet once again, this time giving his mother another kiss, before slowly making his way toward the bedroom, with his best friend again close to his side.

Once inside the bedroom door, Jesse suddenly stopped when he observed a pair of familiar bean bags on the floor. Before he could say anything, however, Noah stepped up and spoke. "I brought them over, so you'd have something to prop up against for a few days. If you want to, I mean."

"But... what about you?" Jesse asked, frowning.

"What about me? Don't worry, I'm still good," came the ready reply, before Noah stepped in and helped his friend kneel down and carefully situate himself onto one of them. Jesse sighed, a contented feeling crossing him as he looked around his room, happy to finally be home. Noah pulled the other bean bag up close and joined him, stretching his legs out across the floor and kicking his shoes off.

Before long, Benji entered the room and saw the bean bags too, for the first time. "Whoa, awesome! But... aren't those yours?" he asked their guest.

"Yeah, but they're on loan for a couple of days," Noah replied.

"Double awesome, then!" the pre-teen replied, before rushing forward and practically jumping into Noah's lap. His timing and positioning, however, causing the teen to tense up considerably and draw his knees together.

"Careful Short-Stuff, that's my family jewels you landed on!" Noah hissed, causing Benji to suddenly still himself.

"You mean your balls?" he whispered. Seeing the confirmation, he stilled himself quietly. "Sorry, bro. Are you okay?"

"I'll be fine, yeah," Noah responded, before grabbing the youth and pulling him down with him. Benji laughed as the older teen tickled him, and squirmed until Noah stopped. Eventually the younger boy turned and observed the teen closely. "So, are you staying tonight?"

When Noah did not answer right away, Jesse spoke up. "Maybe, but we don't know yet. Don't worry though, because tonight - you're all mine." Benji's bright eyes and unassuming smile lit up, but nothing more was said about it for the time being. Instead, the trio turned on the TV and began watching the tail-end of a football game that had gone into overtime. Benji, however, eventually got bored, having never really acquired any interest in the televised sport. Before long, he moved out of Noah's lap and disappeared back into other parts of the house.

"So," Noah remarked after a brief interlude. "What was that with you and Addison? And no, before you say it, I'm not jealous of all those kisses she gives you. At least, not yet!"

Jesse giggled, before shrugging. "She just told me she was glad to see I was doing better, and to not let Pete or his goons get me down."

"I'll agree to that!" Noah replied, moving his foot over close to Jesse's. Both played for the moment with the most simplistic of feeling, but the action conveyed far more than its physical presence. Eventually, however, a tapping came from the partially opened door. Allen peeked first and then stepped inside the room, before squatting and sitting down on the floor next to his son. They talked football for a moment, but then the man cleared his throat. "So, I'm guessing you know that tomorrow is a school day, right?"

Immediately Noah's shoulders slumped. "Yeah, Dad, I know."

"Well, your mother and I were thinking," Allen continued, causing both boys to suddenly turn their attention to him. "This may be Jesse's first night home, but he may still need a little help here and there, keeping steady for the next day or two. At least a little more than what Benji might be able to assist with. So, we talked it over with James and Makalah, and we've all decided that if you want to, maybe you could continue hanging out here for a couple or more nights. Your Mom could leave her cell phone with you, if you like, and call you when you need to get up and come home, in order to get ready for school."

"That's okay, but... I can set our clock, Mr. Cook," Jesse spoke up quietly. "Seriously, it'll get him up in time, and even if it wakes me up, I won't care. I'll be okay."

Allen considered the offer and then nodded before turning back to his son. "Well, that should be alright, I think. So, do you want to continue getting on-the-job experience at being an orderly?" he asked, teasing. He already knew the answer, as was made evident in his son's eyes before the boy even replied.

"Does a zebra have stripes?" Noah whispered back.

"Well, not always, you know. There are some that are born without..." Allen began with a matter-of-fact tone before he was interrupted.

"Dad!" Noah exclaimed. "Why do you always have to be like a walking encyclopedia all the time? Sheesh!"

Allen laughed before grabbing Noah around the neck and pulling him in for a hug. "Because that's what fathers do, sometimes," he retorted. "It helps us seem like we're all-wise and all-knowing, I guess."

"I already know you're all-wise... All-knowing though... Ow!" Noah exclaimed, laughing as Allen playfully smacked his son on the back of the head.

The man eventually let his son sit back up, before he pointed a thumb to the door. "Go give your mother a big hug, you overgrown slug! We're about to head home."

Noah nodded and rose to obey, before leaving the room quietly. Once he was gone, Allen turned to Jesse. "Listen, I don't know what you need or don't need in the way of help, if anything. You may be able to do everything just fine, but... don't be afraid. That's what he's staying with you for - to help take care of both you and your little brother. I would imagine Benji gets a little feisty sometimes, and that might not be the best thing for you to deal with now. At least, not right off the bat."

Jesse scoffed. "True on all accounts." He wrinkled his nose, however, before continuing. "I'll be alright though, I think. I just, like, I'm not sure how I'm going to do in the shower or anything, but... I'll figure it out. I just want to go to bed tonight, and be glad I'm finally home. You know?"

Allen nodded. "I understand the feeling, and I'm sure Noah can help figure the other stuff out with you." He gave the teenager an all-knowing look before lowering his voice. "I know you two aren't that modest around each other, Jesse, but I want to tell you that it's okay, really. Me and my brother, we had a few years growing up like that in this old house, especially when we used to live upstairs. I'm kind of glad you two like and trust each other enough about it, really. Just, the key thing for you, is to stay safe and keep getting better. Everything will work itself out, you'll see."

"Allen," Jesse started, but hesitated before lowering his own voice. "Have you, like, seen... me?"

"No, other than what we saw of you in bed at the hospital," Allen stated, venturing to guess what the teen was referring to. "I know you were pretty worked over and all, though. We all talked to the doctor, and of course the nurses. I'm sure it's not very pretty, but remember something, okay? Every day that goes by, things will get a little better, and then before you know it, a lot of 'little-betters' will start adding up to bigger steps. Then as you get closer to the end of your recovery, you'll find that most things are healing up even quicker than before. Believe me, I know that from personal experience."

"Yeah, I heard," Jesse replied. "I- I just, when people say stuff like that, I just... well..." The teen then sighed and gave the man a smile. "Thanks, though. For everything, sir."

Allen grinned as he began climbing to his feet. Instead of standing however, the man approached the teen on his knees before leaning in close. "So, maybe for once, is it alright if I do something that I don't think I've ever done with you before?" When Jesse smiled, he had a notion of what was coming, so he nodded as the man encircled the teen in his arms, embracing him close. "We're all proud of you, kiddo," Allen whispered, and Jesse could feel the sincerity in it. He returned the hug warmly, feeling something that could have been strange in one sense, but instead was very reassuring.

It was Allen, however, who seemed to derive something equally as satisfying, and when he pulled back and climbed to his feet, he looked down upon the teen. "Thank you, Jesse," he said, smiling.

"Nope, you deserved it - and a whole lot more, I think," Jesse responded simply, before offering and receiving a fist bump between them. No, that hug hadn't been strange at all, he was certain. He liked the man, and the feeling was mutual.

"Don't forget to set your clock for Noah," Allen called as he started for the door. He exited just as his son was returning, who then resumed his previous position after bidding his father goodnight.

"So, do you feel like you want to do anything?" Noah asked after a few minutes had gone by.

"There is only one thing I feel like I have to do tonight, and it won't be easy," Jesse stated. Looking at the floor, he explained. "I want a shower, a real shower. None of this sponge-crap stuff with washcloths and all that, like they gave me in the hospital. One of those old women tried to go down into my, well, you know... but I wouldn't let her." Glancing up, he sighed. "So, do you think you can handle that, with me?"

"Sure," Noah replied, but then hesitated. "Um, how do we do it? How do you WANT to do it?"

Jesse smiled. "Noah, for once I think the 'how' isn't going to matter so much - at least, as long as you don't weird out on me. Which I doubt you would, since you didn't earlier today."

Before he could explain any further, however, James suddenly appeared in the doorway. "Doing alright, kiddo?" he asked.

Jesse nodded. "I'm fine, Dad. I was just telling Noah about how I'd really like to take a shower tonight, if I can manage it, I mean."

"I understand the sentiment," the man replied, before glancing down the hallway. "I don't see why not. Normally, I'd say get your brother to help you, but..."

"I'll do it, sir. I don't mind," Noah offered quietly, which caused the man to regard him kindly, considering.

"Really, Dad, it's okay. I don't want Benji to see any more of this crap than he has too, at least not until some of it clears up or gets better," Jesse added quietly, holding his father's eyes and trying to convey what he was feeling at the moment.

Surprisingly, James smiled at them both. "If you don't care, then sure, I understand. Besides, I think Noah would be the better choice anyway, especially helping you get in and out of that tub in there," James replied. "Listen though, don't stay up too late, son. Both Noah and your brother have school tomorrow, alright?"

"I understand, Dad. Are you going to work in the morning?" Jesse asked.

"For a little while yes, but not until Jennifer comes over to watch after you and your mother. I'll be back around mid-afternoon, though." James straightened up and made to leave. "Love you son, be good, and be careful too, alright? Remember, Santa Claus is watching you!"

Jesse grinned and then retorted, his voice mocking a high-pitched falsetto. "'He's everywhere, he's everywhere!'" They both laughed, but it left Noah feeling confused, and it showed until James finally explained.

"It's a Ray Stevens song, probably before your time," the elder man remarked.

"Wait, Ray Stevens? Didn't he do something called 'Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer'?" Noah asked.

"Um, I don't know, he may have performed it, but I think that one was originally recorded by someone else," James replied. "He did do several others though, such as 'The Streak', and 'The Shriner's Convention'."

Noah snapped his fingers. "Yeah, I remember 'The Streak' ... Dad and I used to laugh our asses off at that one!" He then blushed. "Oops! Sorry, sir..."

While they laughed, Jesse spoke up. "Dad happens to like Ray Stevens a lot," he explained. "He's got some funny ones, I guess. Anyway, sure Dad, I'll be good, I promise."

After the man walked away, Noah turned to his host with both eyebrows raised, impressed but simultaneously relieved. "Did I just hear what I thought I heard?"

Jesse blushed. "Noah... Our parents know, don't you think? Maybe not everything, but... like your Dad said, he knows we're not afraid of each other."

"Really? He said that?" the teen asked in genuine surprise.

"Yeah," Jesse nodded. "While you were gone to give your mother a hug, he said something about him and his brother used to be the same way. While they were growing up in this house, I mean. I think, well, like I said, he knows."

"I guess, yeah," the teen acknowledged. "It just... sounds funny is all. I don't think I would have ever expected it, you know?"

Smiling, Jesse lay back. "What are you talking about? Parents are weird and funny sometimes, but... yeah, I know what you're saying. I think there are a lot of things I never expected either, but... I'm still learning, all the same."




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