The Storm That Turned the Tide


Chapter 14 – It’s All in the Game


Noah and Jesse both returned to school following the holiday break, along with the rest of their peers. They shared their customary fist-bump, then separated after exiting the bus and walking into the building. Once inside, however, each slowed considerably in surprise. The halls were abuzz, and an uncommon liveliness was in full swing for a Monday morning, recognized even doubly so after coming back from a long, relaxing break of the extended holiday weekend. Starting from the entrance and extending inward to the corridors and stairwells on all sides, bright decorations adorned the walls and classroom doors, most copying their school colors and logos. Various streamers, posters and other similar items were seen as well in abundance. In the background, above the excited chatter of the students moving through or gathered in groups with their friends, lively music played across the public address system, something that clearly stood out as being above the norm. Balloons were also in plentiful supply, found in the halls, the cafeteria and various offices and classrooms. Every so often students could hear where one had been popped, whether accidently or on purpose no one could tell, but it added to the party-like festiveness for the time being.

The buzzing atmosphere, it turned out, was focused on the school’s next basketball game, scheduled for the following night against their regional rivals, the Campbellsville Eagles. Few rivalries were truly as intense as local high school sports, especially when it came to the rural districts. This one, however, between the adjacent counties in the area was an exception. It had first started decades before, and progressed in its development over recent years. The competition between the two schools was a good, old-fashioned spirited event really, producing some of the highest-attended games of the season for both the football and basketball programs. Students, parents and the business communities embraced the events in both counties, with many storefronts and industries often promoting displays, lighted signs and other various decorations in support of their local teams. Coffee shops, break rooms, and other places where people came together would often find the topic of discussion on the game, which was the better team, and the strengths or weaknesses each had… at least in the public’s eye.

What made this particular day, and thus the early-week festivity so different, was that the basketball game between the two schools was normally played earlier in the year, if not the first game of the regular season. The tornado that had descended upon Cane Valley, however, had caused both schools to postpone the eventual annual meeting in deference to the circumstances. With schedules already tight, the only timetable that seemed to work for both districts was to arrange the match on the Tuesday following Thanksgiving, and thus it was set. It hampered many local businesses from offering their usual display of support because of the holiday rush, giving owners little time to rally as they usually did. Thus, a change of arrangements had been coordinated between the school and local businesses this year, and the result was the businesses themselves brought their support to the school directly. Students walking through the school doors on Monday morning were cheerfully greeted by lavish displays and decorations, all the while getting swept away in the accompanying enthusiasm.

What amused Jesse the most, as he made his way to homeroom, was when he watched the various teachers step out into the halls, wearing school-themed apparel, including many with face-paints that had been applied along with colorful hats. In most ways, they looked comical, swaying to such tunes as ‘We Will, We Will, Rock You!’ playing in the background. With funny dances, many laughed or grinned widely as the various classrooms began filling up. Students were in for another treat when they found all sorts of hard candies and lollipops scattered about, too, to fill their pockets with. Jesse smirked, but was duly impressed by the effort – especially by the teachers and staff. The teen had attended pep-rallies in the past at his other schools, but none of those compared even close to the way this one did.

Eventually, when most everyone had settled down, the teachers called roll to check attendance. Then within moments, the classroom speaker emitted its usual static, followed by the voice of Principal Green as he readied to make the morning announcements. On this morning, however, the man decided to have some of his own fun, by reading aloud the morning news in a sing-song voice, which most people found to be hilarious. It included the usual routine content, with only a slight reference to the upcoming game, and then an announcement of a planned upcoming assembly for the next afternoon, one referred to as the ‘War Rally‘ – instead of its usual pep-rally reference. He then concluded by wishing everyone a good day.

Throughout the morning, Jesse met his various teachers and others, sometimes laughing aloud at the costumes and antics they pulled within each class. As lunchtime arrived, the teen was readying to go through the line when he was surprised once again to find Noah had joined their lunch period. “Hey! What’s up?” Jesse called out, greeting the other teen as they bumped shoulders.

Noah grinned. “Not much. I think this is going to become more permanent now, though. Our teacher said something about the school needing balance out the two lunch crowds somewhat. Seems our original lunch period had about a 100 or so more peeps in it than yours does.”

“That is… that’s wickedly awesome!” Jesse grinned in reply, as they entered the serving line and quickly filled their trays with tacos and rice, followed by cookies for dessert. Once they paid for their selections, Jesse led his friend over to a table nearby where Addison and the usual gang were already gathered.

“Hey, Storm Pup! Where ya been? Get your ass in here!” one of the boys called, causing the others to laugh.

“Hey Duke! Uh, everybody – this is my friend, Noah Cook. Is it okay if he sits with us today?”

There was a general murmur of acceptance, so as the group scooted to make room, both boys settled in to join them. Noah ended up sitting next to Addison, who glanced at him as he settled in. “So, you’re showing up more and more, aren’t you? Are you in one of the new groups that got moved around?” she asked curiously before taking a bite of her own taco.

“It seems so. They’re trying us out temporarily at least for the next few weeks,” Noah replied.

One of the juniors across the table looked up and nodded. “Well, you’re welcome to join us if you like. We’re not a bunch of snobs like some groups are, although you won’t always find a lot of excitement with us. Still, we get to pick on the girls, and sometimes they rake us over the coals all the same.” After drawing a laugh from those around him, he sat back and studied both of the younger boys. “Uh, is it alright to ask if you guys know what became of turd-face? You know, the one who harped all over you? His name was Haskell, I think, wasn’t it?”

Jesse glanced at Noah quickly, but then shrugged. “Yeah, but honestly – we haven’t heard or seen anything since that day of the fight. I mean, since the assembly and all, everything’s been kind of quiet.”

“Of course, we know he upped and got away from those deputies that day,” Duke commented.

“Whoa… what?” Noah asked. Glancing at Jesse, he saw the news was just as much a surprise to him.

“Yeah,” another teen answered. “Not too sure of the details, but my old man said the day he was arrested and being taken in, the deputies stopped to get a drink, or go to the bathroom, or something. Pete wasn’t handcuffed or anything, see, and the two left him in the car while they went into this gas station or something. So, he got out some way and took off.”

“Holy crap!” Jesse exclaimed, before whistling. “No, I hadn’t heard that one at all!”

“I figure he’s disappeared, probably high-tailed it up-state, or maybe even into Indiana somewhere,” another boy remarked. “Dad works for the fire department, and according to him they had a big search out for him at one time, but as far as I know he hasn’t turned up anywhere yet.” He glanced across the room briefly. “You know, I’m surprised Green didn’t say anything about that at the assembly that day.”

“Maybe he didn’t know about it yet,” another boy chimed in. “It was only a couple of days later, and off the weekend at that.”

“You’re probably right. Well, I’m not losing any sleep over it,” Noah offered after a moment of silence, promptly setting off a few murmurs of agreement around the table.

Another boy in the group, however, looked up and became thoughtful. “I agree, I wouldn’t lose any sleep over it either, but… you two should probably watch your backs just in case, okay? I know personally that Pete was really riled up against the both of you, for whatever reason, and even more so since you showed him up that day in here. I, well, I can’t imagine him letting that go very easily.”

Addison glanced up and frowned. “Do you really think so?”

The other teen paused, setting his fork down and crossing his arms briefly before he spoke again. “I think it’s possible, yeah. I mean, I’m not saying anything outright, okay? I certainly don’t know Pete or his goon squad like some people do, but…” He shook his head. “I used to sit at their table sometimes, you know, before the big show-down, and well… I saw him get pretty ticked-off about some things. You saw him, didn’t you Noah? He had a one-track mind at times, and I mean he would get so focused on something, that anything else going on would just fly right by him. I admit, he seemed more talk than anything else, but with all that happened? I don’t know. I… I just don’t know.”

An eerie silence fell among the group before Duke sat up and pushed his tray back. “Josh is probably right. I remember him from a few years ago. He always was a hothead in junior high, getting into it with all the teachers and coaches, always making some kind of trouble. Seemed kind of bullish, in a way. I’ll tell you one thing, though,” the boy mused before leaning forward and gazing pointedly at both Jesse and Noah. “He’d better not try to do anything here at school. Whether you know it or not, a lot of what you preached that day to us all in here hit home. Most of us have your back, if not everyone. Especially those of us sitting at this table right now.” Several shouts of “Hear, Hear!” and other expressions of approval echoed softly through the group.

Jesse surprised, sat back and just looked from one to the other around the table. “I- I mean, I don’t know what to say.”

“Then don’t say anything, just nod your head and accept it,” Addison piped up. Again, another round of agreement rippled around the table. Jesse nodded as suggested, as did Noah, and then the subject was dropped.

Following lunch, both boys gathered up their belongings and started making their way toward their math class. Along the way, Noah finally made a comment regarding the news. “You know, they might think Pete was pretty bad, but I was kind of with him in his inner circle for more than a year, Jess. I admit, like Josh said, Pete was pretty forceful over certain things, but… I just don’t see him trying to do anything now. I mean, even he seemed to know when he hit his limits, and I can’t think of anything worse than being expelled or arrested that wouldn’t shock him, or put him in his place any harder. That’s the crux of it, you know? What happened was pretty hard to go up against.”

Jesse shrugged. “Maybe, but…”

“But what?”

Jesse stopped and turned to him just outside the entrance to the classroom. “I would have never thought anyone would go so low as to drag my brother into it either, just to get back at me. Or to get at you too, for that matter. That kind of steps outside normal thinking, doesn’t it?”

Noah paused, but then frowned. “Well, yeah, I guess that would be pretty out of character for anyone, yet alone him.”

“I think so, too,” Jesse agreed, before looking off down the hallway as more balloons were popped in the distance. “It’s like you said though, I ran him down pretty hard, too – and I don’t mean just hitting him below the belt.” He grimaced, and then added sheepishly, “Come on, there’s no use worrying about it now.” Both boys then entered the classroom, Noah trailing behind deep in thought.

 

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Once the school day had ended, both boys arrived home to find chores awaiting them, followed by the promise of leftovers from the day before. The Cooks walked over once again, visiting and assisting in consuming what was left of their holiday meal, bringing their various dishes along with them as well. Benji, with his usual exuberance, seemingly bounced from one wall to the next, full of an energy and spirit that stood out in stark contrast to the other two older boys, who spent their after-dinner time tackling homework. When it came time to leave, Noah sighed and began gathering his things together as his mother paused in the doorway.

“You know, if you need to stay a bit longer…” Jennifer began, but her son shook his head.

“We were almost finished anyway,” Noah replied, before turning and offering both brothers a fist-bump, which pleased Benji to no end. “Tomorrow?” he asked Jesse.

“Absolutely! Hey, are you staying after to prep for the game?” Jesse asked, to which his friend nodded.

“That’s the plan. Mom said she would even bring us some supper if we wanted her to.”

Jennifer grunted. “Well, I said I would bring you two some sandwiches, I think. There’ll be plenty of concessions and junk food there, I’m sure, IF you’re still hungry afterwards.”

“Either way, it’ll be cool,” Jesse replied, grinning at her. Soon after, the family departed for their short trek back home. Benji walked up and leaned against his brother as they watched the retreating trio. The youngster was about to make a remark, but their mother decidedly jumped in.

“Time for you to hit the tub, young man,” she mused, running her fingers through his hair. She glanced at Jesse and nodded. “You probably should, too. You both look like you’ve been through a wringer or something today.”

“I know I have. These new hoodies are really kind of warm in the classroom,” Jesse agreed, before giving his brother a gentle nudge. “Go on Short-Stuff, you can go first.” As Benji took off, Jesse helped his mother make her way into the living room, since she was still nursing a tender ankle from the day before.

Sometime later, as Jesse finished his homework and began putting his books away, Benji strolled into the room with a towel draped around his waist. “It’s all yours, doofus,” he announced cheerfully. He did not escape, however, as Jesse reached out and pulled the boy into his lap before smothering him with a hug. “Hey! What’s that for? Umph!” the younger boy squeaked.

“For just you being you,” Jesse whispered, squeezing tighter. Benji relaxed for a moment, before turning and giving the older boy a grin.

“Are you sure it’s not you trying to catch me skinned again or something?” the young boy teased in a low voice, then laughed at the annoyed look he got in response.

Jesse grunted. “Nope, not this time. Besides, I can still…” He reached down and traced his fingers inside the towel from beneath, finding Benji’s bare butt and giving it a light tweak. “…pinch your butt almost anytime I want to, right?” He then raised the towel just enough to peek underneath. “And yep, you’re still 100% boy as far as I can tell!”

Benji laughed again as he squirmed, but then rolled around in his brother’s the lap until he could grasp the neck and pull himself closer. “You goof-ball! Love ya, bro!” he whispered. Jesse replied in kind, before finally letting go.

As Jesse entered the bathroom, he paused. The tub, though not large by any means, looked like it might be big enough for him to be able to lie back and get partially covered with water. Glancing about as he closed the door, he rummaged through the cabinet under the sink before finding a bottle of Benji’s bubble bath. In short order, the teen ran a steaming bath with suds, before stripping completely and stepping inside. As he closed his eyes, his feet and legs adjusted to the heightened temperature, he then slowly sat down using the back of the tub as a slide, sinking into the warmth as it enveloped him. As he reached near the bottom, the teen found he had overrun the water slightly, and thus had to halt his progress long enough to let the overflow drain the excess to a safer level. It wasn’t long, however, before he settled in and, with a little adjusting, the teen was soon sitting back and relaxing with the water and suds reaching as far up as his nipples.

Although he tried initially to relax in the warmth, his mind wandered back to the conversation during lunch that day. The teen had never concerned himself with retaliation of any type, especially since the day of the assembly where they learned Pete had been arrested. Yet, today he found out that Pete was, somehow, no longer in custody, and in Jesse’s mind, that changed the equation. He knew expulsion from school for the year was permanent – Pete could not re-apply and return until the current school year was over. Jesse turned to stare at the wall separating the bathroom from their bedroom, thinking about who was on the other side. It still made him feel uneasy, however, as he suddenly became somber. If what they said was true, then what had happened to Pete to begin with? Moreover, was there a need for either of them – or Noah for that matter – to be concerned about it now?

Jesse shook his head, trying to push the thought aside. They had heard nothing for weeks now, and Benji seemed to be happier than Jesse had seen him in a long while. That meant the other boys at school were truly laying off then, something in which Jesse found a certain level of comfort. At least, if Pete was out to seek any kind of revenge still, it wasn’t being directed in Benji anymore. Wouldn’t someone have seen or heard from Pete otherwise by now, anyway?

Maybe, but Jesse wasn’t so sure – especially if it meant the teen was in hiding. It left him with an unsettling feeling, but before long the teen eventually closed his eyes again and relished the comfort of the water around him. He had grown cold again that evening, for some reason – a state unusual for him as it had been occurring quite a bit lately, so the warmth was both welcome and inviting. Before long, the teenager had dozed off. The quiet room, with its single overhead fluorescent flickering from time to time, helped to set his mind at ease – at least for the moment.

Having the bath wasn’t a completely enjoyable experience, however, because while dozing, Jesse began having an odd dream. In his dream, he was still in the tub as before, but the suds had long disappeared, and the water had grown cold. He somehow noted it and sat up, just as the overhead light winked out, leaving the room in almost total darkness. Strange as it appeared, he thought little of it as he stood and climbed out, but as his body hit the air in the room, he began to shiver copiously. He saw his towel nearby, and grabbed it, wrapping it around his torso as he moved toward the door. Opening it, however, he was surprised to find the rest of the house also in a deep, dark state, which again seemed unusually strange because he knew that, although the hour was steadily progressing, it shouldn’t be that late yet. Out of curiosity, he turned up the hallway and approached his and Benji’s bedroom, but upon arrival he found the door to be locked. “Hey, short s-stuff! L-let me in!” he called out, knocking on the wooden door, but no sound or response came from inside. “That’s strange…” he mused to himself, as the circumstances continued to add up to the odd mystery surrounding him. That was when he saw a motion nearby in his peripheral vision, and turning, he suddenly gasped and stepped backward. Before him was a very familiar teen almost within arms’ length, lunging toward him. He instantly knew the boy, as Pete Haskell III poised with both arms raised, and one hand holding what looked to be a large kitchen knife. “You see? I told you,” the other teen sneered at him. “I’m not done with you by a long shot, you fucking fairy!”

Shocked into lifelessness, Jesse watched the hand descend toward him in a swift motion, until the knife was less than an inch from piercing his shoulder. The shock caused the teen to yell just then, rooted in the terror that reverberated throughout his body. Instead of the knife striking him, however, the scene changed and Jesse suddenly found himself gasping and crying out. He had already sprung forward into a sitting position once again, and within seconds he realized what had happened. His breathing ragged, he suddenly shivered violently as his heart continued to beat profoundly in his chest, as if ready at any second to escape and burst out into the open.

Jesse wasn’t the only one startled it seemed, as he heard Benji suddenly come running down the hall and stop at the bathroom door. Without any hesitation, he opened it partially and stuck his head inside. “Hey! What’s all the yelling about? Are you okay in here?” There was no teasing, no indifference heard, just a sincere concern, and it showed in the youngster’s face.

Jesse, however, could not answer immediately as he continued to get his bearings. It had been a dream, he now realized, but it had been so life-like and reflective of the horror it instilled, the teen continued to feel its lingering effects. Benji glanced behind him down the hall and saw that neither of their parents was responding, so he stepped inside and closed the door. Crossing the short space, he dropped to his knees and set his arms upon the side of the tub. Observing Jesse closely, he was about to say something when some of the water got plashed up against him. “Sheesh, Jess! This water is ice cold!” he hissed. “How long have you been in here?”

Jesse, finally beginning to feel some control return, nodded shakily. “O-obviously t-too long,” he replied. “Grab my t-towel over there, p-please?” the older boy asked, finally reaching forward and pulling the plug on the tub. As the water began to drain, more skin was exposed to the air of the room and in no time, the teen was shivering violently once again. Slowly he began to crawl his way up, swinging both legs out until he was sitting on the side of the tub.

Benji had done what he was asked, but not without frowning. “What happened?” he whispered, as he watched his brother quickly towel off. He thought of retrieving another towel, but Jesse quickly shook his head before the boy could move.

“It was n-nothing, Ben. J-Just a s-stupid dream. I fell asleep I guess, a-and…”

“It must have been a pretty bad one then, the way you yelled out,” Benji remarked quietly. When Jesse started to stand, the younger boy grabbed the towel and quickly finished the task for him, before grabbing Jesse by the hand. “Come on, Mom and Dad are gone to bed, I think. You need something warm to put on.”

Jesse nodded, letting his little brother lead him out into the hallway and back to their room, shivering every step of the way. Closing the door behind them, Benji then pushed Jesse down to sit on the bed. Quickly finding a sleeping shirt and underwear, he helped his brother get them pulled on before standing upright. “You want some sweats or something?” he whispered.

Although the older brother was still recovering from the empty hollowness he felt inside, he glanced up and smiled at Benji. “You want to k-know what I’d r-really like?” he whispered in return. When Benji nodded, Jesse pushed himself further back into the bed, inserting his legs under the covers before reaching out and taking his little brother by the hand with a gentle tug. Benji grinned, but stopped him long enough to go to the closet and withdraw an extra blanket, which he then spread over the bed. He then climbed in and pulled the covers up further, snuggling in close and letting Jesse wrap him up inside his arms. Then, after turning out the light, he joined him under the covers. He could feel the damp coldness of Jesse’s skin, but Benji didn’t care. He felt safe, and he knew it would not be long before his brother would begin feeling better. As each minute passed, he spooned and burrowed up against the bigger body, content as a calmness settled between them.

Jesse remained silent for some time before he finally stopped shivering and let his grasp loosen. That was when Benji rolled back and stared into the face that was now observing him so closely. They both smiled at each other, and eventually Jesse sighed before spooning his brother up close from behind again. After he whispered a very heartfelt thanks, the older teen began to back away. Benji, however, wouldn’t accept it, as pushed himself back inside quickly. “Don’t pull away,” he whispered.

Jesse held on for a time before he replied. “I don’t mean to be stand-offish or anything little bro, I just…”

Benji grunted. “You’re afraid. You’re afraid because you know I feel your willy down there between my butt, and you’re afraid you’ll poke me or something, is that it?” He rolled back enough to see Jesse’s face. “You’re not a fairy, Jess. You never have been, at least not to me.”

Jesse smiled and relaxed, though exhausted. “So, I guess that means you finally figured it out, didn’t you?”

Benji shrugged. “I know it has something to do with being gay, that’s all. Probably butt sex or something, right?” He sighed. “I’m not dumb about that stuff, Jess. I- I just don’t understand it sometimes, that’s all. But… you and me, we’ve never been gay with each other, have we?”

Jesse nuzzled into the younger boy’s neck before replying. “No, we haven’t. We… we do things sometimes that might come close, but… it’s like I’ve always said, little bro. I trust you, and I trust you with my life. I’d never, ever hurt you, not on purpose anyway.”

“I know, and you know I trust you too, right? So there, I wouldn’t care if we were naked right now, it still wouldn’t bother me to push back against you.” Benji smiled at him, but then frowned. “What happened, bro? In there in the tub, what kind of nightmare got you so… I don’t know, so worked up?”

Jesse sighed. “It was just that, Ben, a nightmare. Kind of like we see on TV sometimes, but just stupid stuff, really.” He tried to play it off nonchalantly. “If I hadn’t fallen asleep, it would never have happened, and I wouldn’t have been freezing and all.”

“You were shivering really bad, yeah,” Benji whispered. He stared for a moment before speaking again. “Jess? Do you promise me you’re okay? Pinkie-dare?”

It was then Jesse couldn’t resist. Wrapping both his arms and legs around the boy, he brought them together so completely even Benji loved the cuddle inside. “How about a snuggle-dare?” He sighed. “Good Lord, Ben, you have no clue how okay I am right now, especially since you’re here. No fucking clue at all,” he whispered, which made Benji giggle.

Within minutes, both fell asleep.

 

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There was little difference between Tuesday and the day before, when it came to the heightened ladder of anticipation the school was climbing. Many of Jesse and Noah’s classmates were all decked out in school sweatshirts, t-shirts or other color-coordinated clothing matching the school theme. In addition, several girls had face-painted emblems now that matched their teachers, once again lifting their school spirit and team and showing support for the upcoming game that evening. As the two boys separated, they found even more balloons along with additional streamers hanging than before. The music was louder, the chatter in the halls was elevated, and the excitement crackled like electricity through the halls.

At lunch, even the cafeteria personnel got involved in the festivities, preparing special cupcakes which they handed out free-of-charge to all the students, each with coordinating school colors of course, but decorated with mini-basketballs on top. The meals of pizza that day even broke from the normal square-cut slices, to instead being round and holding mini-banners across the dough with “Go team!” inscribed on them. Jesse had truly seen nothing like it ever before. Their classes thus far that day were only half-filled with anything educational, as most of the teachers engaged in idle chat about the oncoming game. Following lunch, both boys attended math, but Mr. Garland decidedly turned the period into a class game of participation. Breaking them into multiple teams, various questions were posed for points, which were added and displayed in basketball fashion. By the end of the period, none of the four teams had won, as the teacher made special strides to make sure the scores came up even.

Following math, the entire school was brought together for yet another assembly, only this time it was in honor and anticipation of the big, upcoming event. Having attended pep rallies before, Jesse was still impressed at the all-out effort that went into this one. The school band was off in their own section, playing lively tunes while the varsity cheerleaders were dancing about on the floor, turning flips and doing other gymnastic-styled patterns with skirts that easily bounced and revealed what could have been nothing but closely cropped underwear underneath. Most of the boys were ogling and whistling at them, as the lack of leggings often gave the onlookers everything that their imagination needed to enjoy the sex appeal the girls flaunted, and flaunt it they most certainly did.

On the way through the doors, students found boxes of kazoos, whistles, lollipops, and other hard candies waiting for them. Some ignored the treats, but others grabbed as much as they could, by the handful. Once again, banners and posters could be seen everywhere, although Jesse suspected many had been brought down for the rally from the halls and other areas in the school. The festive atmosphere of music and cheers continued for some time, until everyone had eventually seemed to find seats. Then the teachers surprised their wards by putting on a simple, but effective skit regarding the history of the rivalry, and who they (ahem!) thought should have the upper hand in the game that night. Afterwards the cheerleaders went through their routines again, but this time in a much more coordinated way, and then to everyone’s laughter and enjoyment, clowns dressed in bright, rich colors appeared for a half-hour of crazy and silly antics. Finally, the team itself was brought forward, all of whom received a standing ovation with much foot stomping and applause as Coach Stevens introduced each one individually. Not only did he introduce them, he added tidbits that highlighted their best skills – although sometimes in humorous ways.

The time flew by quickly, and when the rally had finally come to an end, most of the students began making their way out to the buses. Jesse and Noah, however, along with a few choice volunteers, were directed instead toward the center of the floor where Principal Green had suddenly taken charge. Over the next two hours or more, everyone pitched in, from the volunteers to the teachers and staff themselves, transforming the gymnasium back into a state of normalcy so that it would be ready for the big game. Some of the posters were left up in strategic places, along with one huge banner, but otherwise the gym was cleaned and cleared, making it ready to accommodate what was expected to be a capacity crowd.

As Jesse and Noah took a break, they suddenly heard a voice call to them from the main entrance of the gym. Glancing in that direction, they both saw Jennifer standing there, having what appeared to be a pleasant conversation with Mr. Green. As the boys approached, the man smiled at them both before taking his leave, moving off to address some other detail that needed handling. Jennifer handed over a small tote bag as she looked about the extensive area. “I’m impressed! Harland said it looked like a total war zone in here only a couple of hours ago!”

Noah grinned widely. “It was! You should have seen it, really; it was absolute pandemonium in here!”

Jennifer laughed. “I’ll bet it was. Listen, there’s already people beginning to arrive, so if you two want to eat, now is your best bet. Your father and I will be here in a little while, though we may be a few minutes late. Your parents and brother are supposed to come out with us too, Jesse.”

“What?! Mom is going to come? That’s… that’s awesome!” Jesse exclaimed. “I was hoping she could get out.”

“As I understood it, her ankle is still bothering her somewhat, but she finally let the doctor tape it up this morning. Not without a little grumbling though,” Jennifer added in amusement. “Anyway, she said this afternoon she’d try to hobble in here if we could find a place for her to sit and she could prop her foot out,” Jennifer explained, nodding in agreement. “I figure James and Allen can sit on the bleachers in front of us somewhere and then we can make that happen.” The woman looked at her watch suddenly and then jumped. “Uh oh, I better be off, or I’m going to end up being later than I already am! Game starts in, what, 90-minutes or so, right?”

“Yes ma’am,” Jesse replied, then thanked her for the food. As she walked away, he and Noah headed off to a nearby corner of the gymnasium, and found some seats out of the way of the others. “Wow! Roast beef!” he exclaimed as he pulled two thick sandwiches from the bag.

Noah glanced at him. “You like roast beef, don’t you?”

Jesse bumped shoulders with him purposefully. “Are you kidding? It’s my fav, I think!”

“I think everything is your fav, doofus!” Noah laughed, unwrapping the shrink-wrap from around his food.

“Not true,” Jesse replied smartly with a grin. “I don’t like liver cheese loaf, or horseradish! And chick peas are something I can definitely do without!”

“Ewww, yuck! I’m in agreement there. You can add mustard to the list, too,” Noah replied. Glancing into the bag, he spotted bags of chips and two ice cold cans of soda. Pulling them out, the two boys then sat back and relaxed for a few minutes while they ate. Neither had really been that hungry, but they knew by the time the game was over that evening, they would be late making it home. “Do you think it will always be like this? On game night?” Noah asked casually at one point.

“What, staying after school late and doing all the cleanup?” When Jesse saw his friend nod, he then shook his head. “I doubt it, really. The only thing happening that’s so different and big this time like this, is the pep rally and all. That’s why we’re having to get the gym ready so quick like this see, for the game. Most of the time, all we have to do is sweep the floors, and then just make sure all the basketballs have the right amount of air in them. Then when the referees get here, they check them too. At least, they’re supposed to.”

“So, we won’t have to stay late and all after school and stuff?” Noah asked, a certain lilt becoming more prominent in his voice.

“Nope. Except… ah, homecoming week, I forgot about that. It will be another big event thingy, something like this – but not quite as messy. It’s the last home-game the team will play, and the seniors get to have this, like, dedication ceremony and everything,” Jesse answered. “Most of the presentations and stuff are done up on the stage, see, but we’ll be asked to help prep and get things ready and all. Then, after the game, either that night or early the next morning, we have to help disassemble everything and take it all down. It’s not really that bad, though.”

“Oh, okay. That sounds fine, then.” Noah sighed deeply. “I’m not really worried about it, it’s just… this would be quite a bit to have to go through if we had to do it for every game, you know?”

Jesse laughed. “Yeah, no kidding. My first time doing it last year, I kind of thought that way too, but then I sort of learned differently – at least behind the scenes.” They finished their food and stood, gathering their wrappers and trash, just as a few early arrivals began coming through the main entrance.

After depositing their waste in the trash can, Noah spoke up. “So, what do we do now that we’re finished and all?”

Jesse shrugged. “I have no idea, really. I never got to do this before, remember?” He furrowed his brow, but then his face suddenly lit up. “Actually, I do know! I almost forgot, one of the guys gave me a message from the coach this afternoon. We’re supposed to go down to the locker room where the team is at. When we get done, I mean.”

“Really? Cool!” Noah mused, as the two began making their way across the floor toward the home team locker room. Along the way, they saw the visiting team were just beginning to arrive and make their way through inside. Principal Green was leading them along, merrily chatting with the visiting coaches and staff as they made their way to the visitor locker room.

It was the first time Jesse had seen the opposing team, and from the distance, they looked to be a size bigger than he expected. He nodded in their direction, speaking quietly to Noah. “You see that one guy? What is he, six-four or something? He’s like a skyscraper!”

Noah glanced but then slowed down as he spied the boy. “Holy crap, you’re right!” Nothing more was exchanged then as the two rounded the corner and arrived at the designated door. Uncertain whether they should knock or just walk in, both boys were spared the decision as an older, definitely senior boy suddenly arrived behind them.

“Hey, how’s it going guys! You must be Jesse and Noah, right?” When they nodded, the teen raised a fist in the air which they met. “I’m Tim, Tim Rigdon.”

Jesse grinned. “Hey Tim, nice to meet you. We saw you at the pep rally earlier, I think.” Noah returned the greeting as well before the senior opened the door and waved them through.

“Yep, all of us were there except Brady. He’s out with the flu, I heard.” He sized the two up quickly before lowering his voice. “Just so you know, most of the time you can walk on in if the door isn’t locked. If it is, just knock and someone will let you in,” the teen explained, before reaching down and turning the doorknob. As they entered, the door shut automatically behind them and the senior headed toward one of the sets of lockers nearby. The room already had a number of people inside, including Terry and Travis from their gym class. The two younger teens approached, greeting the two with a grin.

“I didn’t know you two were on the team until the pep rally today!” Noah exclaimed in a hushed voice, causing both of the other boys to grin at each other.

“Well, we’re on, but mostly just on reserves,” Travis acknowledged.

“We play some in the games, you know, but mostly just to rest the starters and give them short breaks. We’re not, like, elevated high enough to be in the starting line-up yet,” Terry added as he began dropping his jeans to the floor.

Jesse nodded, then looked around as others were in various states of dress. “Is it, like, okay if we hang out here then? I’ve… we’ve never been back here before, not like this.”

“Sure,” Travis remarked, waving at the bench in front of them. “Coach usually gives us time to get dressed out and all, then comes in and gives us the game plan for the night.”

“No adults are allowed in the room while we skin,” Terry whispered, filling in the obvious questioning look Noah gave him.

“Um, maybe we shouldn’t have come in so soon then,” Jesse muttered, but Terry grunted at him.

“Why?” he asked, before sitting and sliding up closer to the two. “Look, it’s no different than gym class, so its fine. None of us are going to mind you being in here.”

“Hear, hear!” Another voice sounded behind them.

Jesse turned and smiled widely as he recognized Simon Petticoat standing there. “You? You’re on the team too? That’s awesome! I didn’t see you earlier!”

“Yeah, I had a dentist appointment this afternoon, so I missed the rally,” the tall teen replied, grinning at him. “As for being here on the team, yep! It’s my last year, too!” he announced, before setting a gym bag down on the bench. He then nodded at Noah. “Hey there, Cook, right? I’ve seen you a time or two, I think.”

Noah met the offered fist bump while nodding. “Yeah. Thanks for the hoodie, by the way! It’s awesome!”

Simon shrugged. “You’re welcome. So, what’s this I heard as I walked up here?”

Terry lowered his voice. “These two were wondering if maybe they should have waited a bit before coming in.”

Simon shook his head and then shrugged. “No need to. It’s no different than being in gym class. Nobody is going to flash you or anything,” he added grinning.

Travis laughed. “At least, before the game. Afterwards, don’t be so sure!”

“Huh?” Noah asked, although blushing.

“He means some of the guys shower after the game, that’s all,” Simon explained quietly. He glanced at the two before sitting down. “Come here, both of you,” he said quietly, causing both Jesse and Noah to step closer. “Listen up, there’s a first time for everything, I know, and this seems to be yours. Just so you know, Coach had a chat with us last week before the holiday break. He’s really felt bad about how you were treated, Jesse – not just you, but everybody who’s been in your shoes in the past. He knows he can’t do anything about them, but what he can do is try to do what’s right from here on out. You’re both part of the team now, really, if you want to be – and all of us, from the short guy in the corner over there, to the seniors, know it. It was that thing you did in the cafeteria that sunk home, you see?”

Terry, listening in, also stepped a little closer to the group, although this time wearing nothing but a pair of boxers and white socks. “He’s right, so trust us – listen to him. Being a part of the team doesn’t have to mean being a player on it. You have your job to do, just like we have our job to do. But at the end of the day, we’re all mates, understand? We look out for each other.” He stopped and subtly waved around the room. “It’s not just Coach’s fault either. Some of the guys, they realize that they were a part of that failure, too, whether here now or in the past, see?”

“And we, or rather all of us, don’t want you to feel left out anymore. So, hang loose, alright? Like Terry says, everything will be fine,” Simon whispered. “Oh, and by the way, have some fun, too. Tonight, it’s going to be a loud, lively one for sure!”

When it appeared that the teen had finished, Jesse offered his own fist bump once again. For some reason, there was a look of relief on his features that had not been there before, and Noah made a note to ask him about it later. “You’re the best, man. Thanks!” Jesse offered quietly, causing the older boy to grin as he started to kick off his shoes.

Some twenty-minutes passed before it appeared most of the team were now in their uniforms. There was a small knock that came from the door, before it opened to allow a young boy to poke his head inside. “You guys ready?” he asked in a small, but clear voice. One of the players nearby looked about, making one last check, before giving the kid a thumbs up. “Dad will be here in about three or four minutes then,” the boy announced before backing out and closing the door.

Noah leaned in close to Jesse. “That’s Coach Steven’s youngest son, Richie. He’s in seventh grade this year, I think.”

Overhearing, Travis nodded from nearby. “Yeah, he kind of acts as a scout, making sure everything is all clear.”

Noah was surprised. “Is it really that strict?” he asked curiously.

Terry shrugged. “I don’t know. I mean, the school board has made some tough rules the last few years for coaches, in the wake of all the perving and peeping-toms being discovered out there. That, and a lot of adults are becoming more afraid of being accused of doing the wrong thing these days, and I guess that goes for the coaches, too.”

Jesse frowned. “But, it’s not really fair, is it? I mean… he’s a coach and all. He’s not going to like, molest anyone is he? Especially with so many of us guys around, right?”

“We know that,” Travis replied. “It’s the rest of the world that doesn’t understand it though, I think. I mean, think about it, there’s too much liability and everything the school board has to worry about taking chances and all, so they set up these crazy rules.” He glanced at Jesse. “It’s kind of like what you told everyone that day. There’s a line where something becomes perverted, and when it doesn’t. Most of us know and understand that, but the rest of the world is too busy covering their asses to realize it.” The teen scoffed. “You’re right, though. It seems like the line shouldn’t at least have to be drawn so rigid. None of us would go into the showers if he were in here, I mean, but heck, he puts his pants on just like the rest of us.”

Before the discussion proceeded any further, a loud knock came from the door before it opened. Both the coach and his son entered, along with one of the assistant coaches trailing behind. “Hey, how are you doing, boys?” he offered immediately, both loud and cheerful as the team started forming themselves into a semi-circle around the center of the room. “Ready for the big match-up?”

A general murmur ripped through the group, and as Jesse scanned the team, he saw an abundant amount of energy fired up between them. Several were hopping on the heels of their feet and bouncing about, the anticipation of the match continuing to build into a pre-game climax. The coach glanced about, and then seeing Jesse and Noah standing nearby, he waved them closer. “Boys, meet our new members, effective as of this week. If you haven’t met them yet, this is Jesse McAllister and Noah Cook. Boys, meet the team!” A general chorus of greets went up, with several of the closer players offering fist bumps to the two.

Once the group settled, Coach Stevens addressed the team with a more serious tone. “Alright, you know what you’re up against. Campbellsville has four seniors this year, count them, although I just found out one of them will not be playing tonight due to an ankle injury. That still leaves the three, and two juniors to join them who are not at all shabby with handling the ball. With the five of them together, your work will be cut out for you, that’s for sure. To top it all off, that one forward of theirs, Keetz I think is his name, seems to have put on another couple of inches since last year. He’s tall, boys, and it will be hard enough for us to work a game plan around him. That’s why I want you, Simon, to try your luck on defense tonight. I know, you’re more used to playing guard, but if we’re to have any chance at containing him, we may need to mix up our game plan. Feel up to it?”

Simon nodded. “I’ll give it my best, Coach!”

Stevens smiled. “That’s all I ask. It’s all I ask of anyone here, really. Don’t get discouraged – yes, they have a little more of an experienced team, but hell, boys – we’re also pretty good under the rim, too! Dougherty, I want to start you off with trying some corner shots. If that works out, we’ll hold you for them as much as we can. Terry, Travis, Jameson… you can expect to play some tonight, too. Starters are going to be hitting it hard, and we’re going to have to rotate them in and out if they’re going to go for broke the entire game. Understand?”

The three addressed raised shouts of acknowledgement, before Stevens lowered his voice. “Look, we don’t need to go over plays tonight. That’s what you’ve been practicing for the last two weeks, yet alone the whole season. All I’m asking is that you concentrate, but have fun at the same time. You have to have some fun, okay? If you don’t, then the whole game is for nothing, and we might as well hand in the towel. Be careful, watch your fouls, too. I believe in you though, and I believe in this team, and that means every, single one of you! So, come on in here.” All the boys moved forward, some kneeling in the floor, others sitting on the benches and chairs surrounding them. “Gary?”

The assistant coach stepped forward and, as the everyone bowed their heads, offered a short invocation for the safety and well-being of everyone playing, including both teams, as they come together that night. He did not make an overly religious prayer out of it, nor impose any one belief that superseded another. It was a simple prayer, and done in a generalized way for everyone involved. That was another first for Jesse to experience, but he couldn’t have agreed more with the way it was done than if some priest had been amongst them. At the end, a rousing “Amen!” erupted from the group, before all stood to their feet. “Let me make sure the floor is cleared for us to go out, then let’s get going and run some drills,” Coach Stevens announced as he and his son left the room. A minute later, Richie Stevens poked his head inside again. “All clear, Indians! Let’s go!”

As the team left the locker room and moved out to the main floor, both Jesse and Noah could not help but pause just outside the door in amazement. In the short time since they had entered the room an hour before, the gymnasium had transformed from being almost empty, to one now holding a huge mass of people, with more still pouring in through the entrance. In one section sat the school band, already playing in concert with lively tunes that were occasionally highlighted by the cheerleaders below them, jumping and performing their various gymnastic feats both individually and as a group. Off to the side, huge areas had been opened up and concessions were in full swing, with people lining up for soft drinks, popcorn and pretzels. That scene caused Jesse to grunt, as he knew what he and Noah would be doing later, if not tomorrow morning. Although most people were respectful of their trash in the games, it didn’t preclude the usual spills and loose wrappings and cups that ended up all over the place.

“Wow!” Noah muttered under his breath, leaning in close to his friend, before Jesse broke into a grin and began following behind the rest of the team. He had never attended a basketball game before, although he had watched plenty of them on television that gave him an idea of the scope. The college arenas were much larger than their rural gymnasium, but that did not take away from the fact it was still crammed full, with people from both counties dressed in their school colors and supporting the teams whole-heartedly.

During warm-ups, Coach Stevens had both Jesse and Noah stand beneath the basketball goal as the team went through their routine. On occasion, one of the balls might miss its intended target and go astray, and when that happened Noah and Jesse were there to catch them. It helped maintain an easy rhythm for the rest of the team, allowing them to continue their runs and shots from the various locations on their half of the court. At one point, Jesse glanced at the other end of the court and found the Campbellsville Eagles doing the same thing. The atmosphere, the team interaction and more served to stoke up not only Jesse and Noah, but everybody else as well. Many of their shots landed through the hoops and inside, and if it were a prelude of what was to come, Campbellsville might find their hands full. Just as he turned back, he suddenly heard his name being called from one of the seating areas behind the team bench, and looking up, he saw Benji waving at him frantically. Around the young boy sat both of their parents, and when he pointed them out to Noah, the teen broke into a wide grin and waved back.

Eventually the tip-off hour arrived, and the heightened tension in the gym escalated with frenzied anticipation. Both teams had each member introduced in the starting lineups, causing a round of thunderous applause to come from their respective sides. Then before the game began, Principal Green stepped in and made a few announcements, welcoming the visitors and asking that everyone please use common sense, remembering that both teams needed the support of everyone in the building in order to play their best game. He reminded them that despite the fact that one team would emerge victorious, everyone could at least feel they had done their best, and the crowd agreed. Afterwards, the floor cleared and each team consisting of their five starting players finally walked onto the court, along with the two officials overseeing the match. From center court, two team members stood ready to jump for the ball, while their teammates readied themselves strategically around them. The ball was tossed up, each boy made a leap into the air, and the game was finally underway!

The roar of the crowd was almost deafening. Although the Eagles came down with the possession from the jump, they turned the ball over within the first ten seconds, having a pass intercepted by the Indians’ Tim Rigdon. For the first minute of play, both teams made various shots and passes that were missed on both sides, causing Coach Stevens to call out onto the floor. “Easy guys, settle down. Don’t get in such a big rush!” It turned out to be good advice for both teams, as each side started pacing their play more steadily. Campbellsville made the first score of the game, but Adair County matched them only seconds later. Although it became obvious from the start that the visiting team did indeed have more mature and seasoned players, Adair County wasn’t to be discounted. The home team made up for their play by playing smart and using speed in end-to-end court marksmanship. Simon, for his part, found he could keep up with Keetz through most of the first half, taking breaks only when his opponent went to the bench. That match-up, as it turned out, prevailed in keeping the Eagles’ star player from running amok.

When half-time approached, however, there was an event on the floor that brought an outcry of sorrow from the crowd. One of the Eagles had lost his balance moving backwards near mid-court, running into Simon as he had jumped to block Keetz on a pass. Down the teen went in a hard fall, hitting the floor with a resounding smack that reverberated throughout the gym. In the interim, the teen had tried to catch himself with his extended foot, but the angle twisted that foot sideways as he fell. Both Coach Stevens and his assistant rushed out onto the floor just as the officials blew their whistles, thus effectively stopping play. Simon’s face was one of pain and anguish as he rolled over, but he did not cry out, choosing instead to grab his knee and thus hold his foot aloft. When the coaches arrived, the teen was trying to sit up on his own, but he ultimately failed due to being so far off-balanced. The coaches tended to the ankle for a moment while the crowd fell strangely silent, but eventually the teen was lifted to his feet with the help of his teammates. That was when a collective sigh of relief went up all the way around the gym. With arms outstretched on either side, Simon tenderly began making his way toward the bench. The crowd erupted in cheers then, not because of the injury itself, but instead with support of the effort for the teen, thankful that the injury had been nothing more serious.

When Simon arrived at the bench, the assistant coach was about to steer him on towards the locker room, but the teen wouldn’t hear of it. “Can’t I stay out here coach, at least until half-time?” The two coaches glanced at each other, and then Jesse immediately jumped up and offered the teen his seat near the end, which had a little more space where the one could sit back, than the other places along the row. Coach Stevens smiled and nodded, before turning to one of the other boys and instructing him to finish out the half in Simon’s place.

With just under two-minutes remaining in the first half, there was then a sudden shift in momentum. Although the Indians were allowed to follow-up the foul with two shots from the free-throw line, both were missed. Then from that moment onward, the tide seemed to turn. The Eagles’ Keetz stepped up his play and suddenly gained six-points before the buzzer. Prior to the foul, the visitors had only been up by four points. Now, heading into the half-time intermission, the Indians suddenly saw themselves trailing the game by ten-points.

In the locker room, both Noah and Jesse had escorted and helped Simon join the rest of the team, sitting in one of the few high-backed chairs in the room. The assistant removed the teens shoe and sock, then sighed deeply. The ankle had begun swelling, although not horribly. “You, uh, Cook, right? Head out to the concession stand and find one of the teachers there. Tell them we need a bag of ice in here for an ankle, pronto.”

“Yes, sir!” Noah replied, then darted away.

“It really doesn’t look that bad, Simon. If we get some ice on it now and keep the swelling from getting any bigger, you’ll probably be limping for a day or two, maybe even walking by the end of the week,” Coach Stevens announced, stepping in to make his own minute inspection. He looked up at the teen, he smiled. “I wouldn’t plan on playing any games for a few weeks though, not if we want to keep it protected.”

“Aw, man!” Simon muttered, clearly frustrated, before sighing deeply himself. “Well, at least I was keeping up with Keetz, wasn’t I coach?”

“Keeping up with him? Why, you were shutting him down! I couldn’t have asked for a better performance!” Coach Stevens then straightened up and looked around at the rest of the team. He saw anxious looking faces, but also exhausted ones. “Hey, all of you, sit and take a breather! You’ve earned it!”

“What are we gonna do now though, coach?” one of the more junior players asked as he dropped to the floor and stretched out, propped back against one of the benches.

“What are we going to do? I’ll tell you…” The man paused, then smiled widely. “Our best. Anything short of that, and you’ll go home regretting this night for the rest of your life. Play your best, however, and no matter win or lose, we’ve met the challenge, pure and simple.” He turned to Rigdon. “I was thinking while walking in here, do you think you can step up to Keetz?”

Tim grunted. “You bet I will!” His enthusiastic response seemed to rouse his teammates. Once they had settled, the coach knelt in the middle and began to go to work, pointing out to individuals where they were being beaten and what they were excelling at. He gave his insights on the other team, including weaknesses he thought he was observing, along with certain patterns that were emerging. When he finished, he cocked his head to one side and gave a loud whistle before speaking again.

“Listen to me: you boys are doing fine, so don’t forget that. I won’t lie to you, it’s going to be tough, and I know it. Just don’t go out there expecting the unexpected to suddenly turn around, alright? We’ll have to fight hard, mind you, for those ten points we’re down, all the while trying to make it through another 20-minutes of play to get to the final buzzer. I promise you though, you’re not the only ones worn out already. The Eagles are getting worn down, too, so we can use that hopefully. Just play fair, play smart, and keep it from getting out of control. Be respectful, because I have to tell you, they’re sure being respectful to you.”

“No kidding. Did you see how they all rallied around Simon when he went down? Not just our guys, but theirs, too!” Terry voiced aloud, causing several others to murmur in agreement.

“Nobody likes seeing anyone hurt, especially in a game like this,” the assistant coach piped up. “We can compete and play hard, but when we’re done, we all put our pants on just like everyone else. Although, I admit, some of us wear different sizes…” That brought a round of laughter, including from Jesse, who had already heard that expression used once that day. There was a pause, and then all hands suddenly reached into the middle space and everyone bumped fists. As they turned and began to walk out, most also crossed over and bumped fists with Simon, who by then was resting his ankle comfortably in a wrapped bag filled with ice. As Coach Stevens began to walk by, the teen looked up.

“Say, Coach, if I get changed, can I still come out and sit with you guys? I’d like to see the rest of the game at least, please? Jesse here can help me, if he’s willing.”

Coach Stevens nodded. “Sure, you’ve earned that. We’ll make a place for you, just make sure you bring that ice pack along.” With that, the rest of the crowd dispersed. Noah hesitated, causing his best friend to wave him on out.

“Go on, no reason for us both to miss out. I’ll be out in a few minutes,” Jesse stated. The teen nodded before leaving the two alone. “So, what do you need me to do?” Jesse asked the older boy.

“Just get my jeans out of my locker over there, number 39,” Simon instructed. “Grab my shirt while you’re at it, too,” he added, already leaning forward and removing the tank-top uniform he was wearing. As Jesse returned, he held out the garments, which Simon took and placed beside him. “Okay, I guess here comes the tricky part: I need to, like, lift my butt up here, but when I do so you’re going to have to pull my shorts down before I can sit again. Make sense? I can’t really do them both at the same time, see…” Seeing the expression of surprise that met him, Simon chuckled. “Just… like you told us all once before, pretend that I’m an older brother or something, and I won’t give a crap. I promise, okay?”

Jesse blushed. “I’ve only got a younger brother, though,” he quipped, stepping closer. “I’ve never had an older brother.”

“I know, but meh, you do now – at least for the next few minutes anyway. It’s cool man, honest, as long as it won’t weird you out or anything,” Simon encouraged.

Jesse shook his head. “I won’t be weirded out, I promise.”

“Good, then here I go,” Simon announced, before placing both hands on the armrests of the chair and lifting himself off the seat, but keeping his one foot and ankle stilled on the cushioned ice. Although initially he felt awkward, Jesse eventually reached around and grasped the waistband of the shorts and pulled them out, one hand circling Simon’s waist to loosen it as the other hand began to tugged it down. Unfortunately, the uniform was extremely snug around the waistband, and as he pulled, both it and the underlying briefs starting sliding off. Simon laughed, as he suddenly thrust his hips up further. He said nothing though, as Jesse reached out to catch the garments before the older teen’s crotch was completely exposed. The teenager had to work diligently then, to try and separate the two garments, but it was met only with minimal success.

Simon’s strength in his arms, on the other hand, was beginning to give out. “Oh, fuck it! Just get them off of me, I don’t care if I do get skinned, okay? My arms are close to giving out…” Jesse was surprised, but he quickly understood the urgency of the moment and so he complied. Grabbing the bottom of the uniform, he then pulled the trunks down quickly. The effort in turn pulled the teenager’s underwear as well, until the uniform was finally settled midway onto the teen’s thighs. Once there, Simon promptly dropped back into the chair heavily. “Sheesh!” he exclaimed, before adding, “And above all, this flipping chair feels COLD!”

Jesse made it a point to try and avoid looking at the teen’s crotch, but even in the aftermath, his peripheral vision still took in what he considered was an interesting sight. The softened, circumcised member he viewed certainly seemed larger than Jesse would have imagined, but at the same time he also noted that the player had very little in the way of pubic hair, which he found curiously interesting. Rather than give it any further attention though, Jesse instead pulled the garments down further until they were less constricted just above the knees. That allowed him to finally separate the briefs inside. Working quickly, he tried to pull the boy’s underwear back up, stretching it even so as to cover the player’s exposed privates. In the process, however, he could not help but take in the view entirely.

When the briefs reached the seat of the chair, Jesse found he couldn’t pull them any further, at least not without having Simon raise himself up again. It was then the younger teen looked up to see Simon giving him a curious smile. “What?” he asked softly, but then the older teen just shook his head and pushed himself up and off the seat again, giving Jesse the necessary space underneath needed to finish the job properly.

Once the underwear was back in place, Jesse stood up and sighed in relief. “Whew! Not the, uh, easiest, was it?” he remarked, not necessarily expecting a reply.

Simon observed the younger boy amusedly, noticing the blush that surfaced. “See? Nothing to it, really. You just had to pretend I was one of the family, right?”

Jesse, embarrassed, stepped around to the senior’s side and sat down on a bench. “Yeah, I guess so. I mean, I know, it’s just…”

“Just what?” When the silence that followed threatened to continue, Simon softened his voice in a way to sound more encouraging. “Come on, don’t be afraid to say it, you can tell me. Don’t forget, I’ve got two younger brothers who are always pestering me about stuff, so I doubt there is anything you can say that will even come close to fazing me.”

Jesse studied the older teen for a few seconds before he sighed. “It’s not that bad, Simon, it’s just… It’s just, there was a time everyone was calling me gay, or queer and everything, remember? And… it just seems weird that now, after all of that, you… let me, I mean, asked me, or whatever… to do that for you, you know?”

Simon laughed, but then shrugged. “Well, now that you’ve seen me, at least you realize you’re not in Kansas anymore, right? Or rather, Adair County, I think…” He shook his head. “Of course, I let you do it, why wouldn’t I? Besides, I’ve got news for you, Jesse: no, not everyone thought or even thinks you’re gay, or some weirdo or anything, I promise. Seriously, I know it. As for this, now, you’re right here, and well, it’s just you and me – without anyone else around. You’re a guy, too – or else, you’re wearing one hell of a disguise if you’re a girl!” He laughed again, but then his voice softened. “Really man, it’s cool. It’s kind of like we told you before the game, you need to loosen up a little. I know, that whole business probably shook you up a little – it had to, right? Nobody in here thinks or is afraid of you being gay, though. In fact, I doubt that any of these guys ever thought you were gay before that day in the cafeteria, to be honest. Sure, peeps can tease or joke around about it some, but… believe it? Not really, because it’s not the same. I don’t know about the rest of the school, but in here we’re, uh, more mature about it, I think. Well, most of us,” he added, a wide grin suddenly surfaced before he shook his head again.

Jesse was surprised at that statement. “You think? I mean, I hope no one thinks that about me, but sometimes…” He hesitated, before looking off at some far-off point. “From what I’ve seen, being around you guys and stuff, you’re… all of you, you’re great! I mean, you guys are nothing like what I thought I might find. And then now, it’s like you said… you’re in here with me, and… and, you just trusted me to do… that, and…” He had nodded toward Simons midriff as he fell silent, and the older teen understood.

“Meh, I wouldn’t let just anyone strip me down or touch my junk, you know,” Simon answered, his voice still soft. “The way I see it though, I figure you’ve got nothing to hide, and neither do I,” the teen explained, before becoming thoughtful. “There is one thing you said right, though, and that’s about it all being based on trust. That’s what I tell my brothers sometimes, when they want to ask me questions or, uh, other things.”

“That’s what I always tell Benji, too,” Jesse replied.

“It’s a good thing, I think. Listen though, Jesse, we – all of us, I think – trust you, and your friend, too. Dennis actually knew Noah from middle school even, I think, around his first year. He told us Noah was always cool around them back then, so it’s not like you’re strangers or any of that stuff to us.”

Jesse frowned. “Dennis? Do you mean, uh, the red-haired guy?” When Simon nodded, a look of recognition crossed Jesse’s face. “I knew I recognized him from somewhere! He used to wear his hair long and shaggy, didn’t he?”

Simon nodded. “Yep, up until last year, then he went with a shorter cut because it was always giving him problems in playing his game.” He paused before grunting. “So, anyway, like I told you, it’s just us guys, so no sweat. And as for this, it’s just you and me… but, you could do me a favor though, okay? Don’t go telling everyone how long of a pickle I’ve got.”

Jesse snorted, laughing hard before he caught himself. Simon grinned nonetheless, the joke serving its purpose and easing the moment between them. “I didn’t, like, really… I mean, up close anyway,” Jesse remarked, blushing.

“Like hell you didn’t!” Simon hissed at him, before laughing again and scooting forward again. When he saw the expression Jesse gave him, he relented. “Hey, you want to know a secret? If we had been reversed, I sure as hell would have looked all I could! Crap, anyone in here would have looked I think, given a chance like that!”

Jesse fell quiet again as he got up and carefully pulled the uniform clear of the swollen ankle. That statement seemed confusing, and as he reached out for the older teen’s jeans, it showed. “Seriously? Just… like that?”

Simon grinned at him. “Of course, seriously! Jesse, being curious doesn’t make anyone gay, okay? I’ll guarantee you something else, too: every guy in this school, at some point in their life, is always curious about how they stack up against others around them. You know, if their dick or balls are as normal as anyone else that’s their age. I mean, some are more, uh, bashful about it, but hell – most are okay with it, no matter how young or old they might be. Think about it, even in the showers, guys goof around sometimes and check each other out, but it’s not like they’re walking up and grabbing ass, or trying to bend someone over and hump them. Understand?”

Jesse thought about that for a moment. “Yeah, but, well… what about, well, when anyone gets boners, or anything like that? Does that happen”

Simon nodded. “All the time, really. It still doesn’t mean they’re gay, though. There are some who even get boners in everyday gym class, did you know that? In the lockers, or even out on the floor. They might be thinking about a hot date, or getting some action, or… who knows, right? Sometimes it just happens out of the clear blue, I think. I remember walking into the showers once, um, a couple of years ago I guess, and there was this kid like in 8th or 9th grade beating away back in the corner. When someone came across him and started watching, he just grinned and ignored them mostly, until they came up closer. Then he told them to fuck off, as he wasn’t giving a free show for them. Something about it all was over a doozie of a time with his girlfriend.” Simon shrugged but then acquired a knowing look. “See? That was a little extreme, but heck, there’s lot of reasons someone might get a hard-on, you know? Some guys just get horny to be horny, and it doesn’t have anything to do with being gay. I mean, some guys maybe do because they know other guys are looking at them and all, and so what? Seriously, there is nothing, NOTHING wrong with being curious and looking, I promise you. Especially if you happen to be in the right place at the right time.”

Jesse grinned with relief. “Kind of like now?” He nodded toward Simon’s crotch. “You’ve uh, got one of your balls hanging out the gap there.”

That time Simon sputtered. “Oh, my gawd!” He shook his head while giggling, but made no attempt to fix himself. “Jesse… Just pull my jeans on, you pervert!” He was teasing as he said it though, and Jesse knew it. As the two worked the swollen ankle through the legging, he commented. “Yeah, kind of like now. I mean, the locker rooms, showers, changing rooms at the pool, whatever. Guys will check each other out, and girls do the exact same thing, too. The only difference is though, girls don’t care being naked, showing off their breasts or between their legs with each other and all. They practically do it all the time, anyway, just to, like, compare and get all giggly. Unlike a lot of guys though, who can’t even stand being in the same room with…” The teen paused and grinned. “Like you said about Coach Stevens that day – he is a huge, huge prude. He can’t even say words like dick, penis, cunt, pussy, or maybe even ass for all I know… all of that stuff, without turning red in the face! You were right, too – to say that even being a Coach and all, he can’t do that? It’s fucking hilarious!”

Jesse blushed again. “I know, right?” he whispered.

Simon regarded him closely once again, all the while shifting to bring his other foot forward. “You know, I’m kind of surprised you’re that squeamish though. I mean, doesn’t your brother bombard you with all kinds of questions yet? I know mine do, constantly!”

Jesse nodded. “Yeah, he’s asked about some stuff already. Honestly though? He doesn’t see this stuff the way you or I do, which is cool as far as I’m concerned. Like you kind of said before, it’s the trust thing we have with each other, so I kind of just let him go at his own pace.”

Simon nodded. “Smart plan! It’s the same here with me, really. That’s what I do with both of my own brothers all the time. Especially when they skin around me, or catch me skinned around them. They gawk at me somewhat, but I leave it up to them if they want to ask anything.”

Jesse nodded. “I’ve, like, never really skinned with anyone else though, or been around anyone skinned in my whole life before. It’s always just been me and my brother,” he admitted. It was the truth, at least up until the last six weeks or so before, but he didn’t want to out himself or Noah in any way if he could keep from it.

Simon sat forward, readying himself to lift up in the seat again. “So? That doesn’t mean anything either, other than I guess you’ve maybe been kind of, I don’t know, sheltered or something. Me, I’ve been stripped around my cousins, my brothers, in the gym showers, gone skinny dipping – lots of places, really.”

“Seriously?” Jesse asked in surprise again, all the while pulling the garment up skillfully this time as the older teen raised up. In no time it was in place, all the while without overly disturbing the ankle beneath. “Wow,” he whispered as Simon pulled his shirt on.

“Meh, it’s nothing. Don’t get the wrong idea. Not everyone is as carefree about it as I am, and I don’t do it to show off or anything like that. I mean, what I’ve got is just me, right? Among guys, we all have pretty much the same stuff down there. Just some are cut, uncut, have bigger or smaller balls, more or less hair – that sort of thing.”

Jesse stared at him a second, and then nodded. “Yeah, I kind of found part of that out.”

Simon suddenly stopped and grinned. “See? I knew you looked!” When Jesse began blushing, the older teen chuckled. “Man, you really… you’re hard to get through to, you know?” His expression changed. “How do you mean?”

“Huh?” Jesse asked, surprised by the question.

“About me? What do I have that you made such a notice of?” Simon asked quietly.

Jesse blushed again, but this time faced the inquiry head on. “Um, uh… I just noticed you don’t have a lot of, um… pubic hairs,” he whispered.

Simon snorted, but then nodded. “You’d think, since I’m a senior, I ought to have more, right?” He shook his head. “You’re not the first to make that observation, Jesse, and I’m sure you won’t be the last.”

“But… is that normal?” the younger teen continued to whisper. “I mean, do you, like…”

Simon shook his head. “No, I don’t trim them or anything, and as far as being normal, I have no idea. I think…” The boy hesitated for a second, thinking hard. “I honestly don’t think I’ve ever come across anyone like me that way. I mean, most of these guys are, uh, super bushy. Don’t tell anyone I told you that, though.”

Jesse giggled, and then nodded. “I won’t, I promise. I just…”

“Just what?”

Jesse shrugged. “I can’t believe I’m having this conversation. I mean…”

Simon then laughed again. “I guess I’m just more used to it than other guys are, because of being around my brothers and all, and being on the team here and stuff. Seriously, I don’t care so much about it, and no – I won’t go telling anyone we’ve talked about this, for the same reason I didn’t mind you earlier, either,” he added, an emphasis behind the words reaching inside and connecting with Jesse’s chest, as it began to fill with a bright cheerfulness. Before Jesse could respond, however, Simon pulled the younger teen around to stand in front of him. “Come on, give me both your hands and hold on tight, and when I tell you to, pull and don’t stop until I’m standing up. I’m going to lift up on just the one leg, so if I overdo it, make sure you catch me, okay? I promise, I don’t have any cooties!”

Jesse snorted again, but then nodded and did as he was requested. In the next instant, Simon was sailing toward him. The older teenager did over compensate the effort, and Jesse did catch him before helping to find his balance. In the exchange, though, Jesse felt as if the teen were giving him a brief hug though, and as he completed standing on his own foot, there was a brief exchange between them that surprised Jesse. He didn’t mind it though, as he lightly returned the gesture, and Simon, grinning, finally let go. When the teen tenderly tried to put his injured foot down, however, he immediately lifted it back up. “Okay, that won’t work too well, at least not for right now.” With one hand holding himself steady against Jesse’s shoulder, he hopped and backed up against the end of the locker, before trying to latch his jeans together. Jesse grinned at him, however.

“Uh, that’s one thing I’m not bashful about, Simon, if you want some help. Here, kind of turn around so I can get behind you,” Jesse announced, then as he maneuvered into place, he placed both arms around the teen and proceeded to not only fasten the garment, but zip the jeans up as well. Simon was successful then in buckling his belt, before turning to face Jesse again. The younger teen saw both a look of surprise and amusement meeting him. “What? I mean, I’ve had to do that for Benji quite a few times already, see. We sort of both found it to be easiest if we do it that way, that’s all.”

“I can understand that.” Simon then stood up a little straighter and placed an arm around the younger teen’s shoulders. “Listen to me, I going to tell you something, alright?” he spoke softly, pulling Jesse in a little closer. “Thanks, for everything. You’ve been super about all of this, and I really appreciate it. Believe it or not, despite what I said, most guys wouldn’t go through what you just did for me now, at least not without getting all squeamish and giving me a bunch of shit and everything. You didn’t, though; you just did what I needed you to do, and trust me, I’m glad it was you who was in here to do it.” He then gestured around the room. “Sometimes, some of these guys, they take a lot of things for granted a little too easily, you know? That day in the cafeteria though, you reminded them what happens when people assume things for all the wrong reasons. I trust you, Jesse – it’s as simple as that, and I know a lot of these other guys do, too. So, if you have any problems, out of anyone in school, and need someone to help back you up – just find me, okay? We’ve got your back, I promise.”

Jesse couldn’t help it just then as his eyes started becoming watery. Why he was feeling so emotional at times, he wasn’t sure, but one thing was certain: there was more to Simon than he had ever given the teen credit for. Hearing what he heard now gave him a substantial lift in his spirits. Maybe the world wasn’t so crazy and Pete-like after all, he thought. He finally nodded, unable to voice anything for fear it would break. Simon grinned and slipped his arm from the shoulder down to Jesse’s midriff, where this time there was nothing subtle about it: he gave Jesse a one-armed hug, holding on for a few seconds before letting go. Jesse looked up in surprised yet again, but before he could react, Simon jerked his head toward the makeshift ice pouch. “Grab that for me and then let’s get going, okay? It sounds like the second half is getting started!”

“You got it!” Jess announced excitedly, suddenly getting control of his voice and emotions back.

 

«««««««««« _ »»»»»»»»»»

 

Both teams lined up at the end of the final buzzer, moving through the after-game line and shaking hands, bumping fists or exchanging high-fives with one another. Although one team had definitely a more upbeat mood about them than their counterparts, most dragged themselves wearily along with exhaustion. The second half of the game had been played with even more intensity than the first, with both coaches making substitutions to counter the other team all throughout the game. In the end, however, the Indians had no one who could match the speed and height of Keetz, who had effectively overwhelmed all who had gone up against him. The Indians did not lose, however, for lack of trying. About midway through the half the team came together to close within four points of the lead, but alas the Eagles took a timeout and regrouped, before rebounding and pulling the score ahead once again. The final score was 56 to 47, but most everyone agreed the game was a lot closer than the score depicted.

As the team began heading back into the locker room, Simon’s parents and family suddenly appeared. They chatted with both the coach and Jesse briefly, thanking the younger teenager for staying with their son. Both of Simon’s brothers were there, and Jesse sized them up against their older brother. There was a definite resemblance between them, and were it not for size alone, one might have had difficulty telling them apart otherwise. Eventually, between the brothers and Simon’s father directly, they took over Jesse’s role and began making their way out of the gym. Before parting ways, however, Simon reached out and gave Jesse one final fist-bump, but not without holding it in place just a little longer. “It’s all good, trust me,” the teen stated simply, and Jesse understood both the connection and the intent. It was all that needed to be said as Jesse smiled in return.

As the group walked away, Jesse turned to find Noah standing next to him. “Dad said they were going to go ahead and take your Mom home, but that he’d be right back to pick us up in a few minutes.”

Jesse nodded. “That’s cool. I feel like I’ve been hit by a train, though. Are you as tired as I feel?”

Noah nodded. “Probably more, I think. The adrenaline is beginning to wear off. So, do you think we should get started on this stuff?”

Jesse glanced about, but then shook his head. “Not yet. Let’s go see what the Coach says. He might just let us go on home and come back to take care of it in the morning.”

With that, both boys followed the team back into the locker room, entering just as the Coach was giving the boys an after-game pep-talk. Although they had lost, it wasn’t going to be a loss that anyone should be ashamed of. “They were just the better team overall tonight, boys, that’s all. Besides, who knows? If we hadn’t lost Simon, it might have turned out differently altogether, but it also might not have… right? The point is, none of that matters now. We still did our best, didn’t we?” The round of cheers that went up were only half-heartedly, but it was at least enough to satisfy the man. “Now, get dressed, and everyone go home and get a good night’s sleep. We’ll probably call off practice for tomorrow, but be all the more ready on Thursday, okay?” A general murmur of agreement sounded, then the Coach turned toward the door. Passing Jesse and Noah, he paused to look down. “You two head on home, too. We’ll take care of the gym in the morning.”

Jesse nodded. “Thanks coach, and thanks for letting us in tonight, too!” Noah seconded the motion, which the man responded with his own tired smile before disappearing. Knowing they would have a few minutes, Jesse turned and motioned for his friend to follow him, before heading back to where Terry and Travis were sitting on the bench, each pulling their uniform shirts free. “You guys really played hard out there tonight,” Jesse remarked, taking a seat on the end while Noah leaned up against the lockers. “Just wanted to say it was a good game.”

Travis grunted. “We didn’t do bad, I think. It would have been better with a win, but meh…”

“I agree. I hope Simon is okay, though,” Terry added.

“He wasn’t doing too bad when we got back to the floor. When his brother and Dad took over a few minutes ago, he could actually put a little weight on his foot, too,” Jesse offered. “I don’t know if that’s a positive thing or not, but…”

“It’s very positive,” Tim Rigdon suddenly announced, although behind and several feet away. “If he was doing that, then it’s more likely just a pure sprain and not anything worse, like a torn or stretched ligament.”

“Yeah, he’ll be alright in a couple of weeks,” Terry added as he stripped the lower half of his uniform away. Just like Simon, Jesse could not help but glance in amusement at how the trunks practically pulled the boy’s boxers down with them. In fact, Jesse observed a set of richly dark pubes that appeared, along with just a peek at the base of his manhood before the boxers stopped falling any lower. Terry simply grunted and pulled his underwear back up into place, without any thought to the audience he had. Jesse glanced at Noah and observed an amused look that met him, and he knew his best friend had gotten a peek as well. They were definitely going to have to talk about it later, he knew.

Glancing around the rest of the room, both boys saw that most everyone else was in a transitional state of donning their street clothes, although some in a seemingly slower motion. In the background, the boys could also hear one or more of the showers being turned on, and a quick glance in their direction confirmed that the shower room was getting steamier.

Both Noah and Jesse knew, however, they had no business of stepping in that direction. Simon’s words came back to Jesse, too, about how the time must be in the right circumstances. This wasn’t one of them, so as they sat and stood quietly, Terry and Travis finished changing just as silently before standing and offering both boys a fist bump. “Are you two good?” Travis asked.

“Yeah, my Dad is picking us up in a few minutes,” Noah answered. “We didn’t know where to, uh, you know, hang out really.”

“In here is fine,” Terry offered, before saying goodnight.

Minutes later, Noah sighed as he and Jesse were making their way toward the entrance. “Crap, did you see his bush? It was… shit, he had a LOT of hair, like, down there!” he whispered. Jesse grinned and nodded, but waited until they were outside before he responded. Looking around and not finding any of their familiar vehicles yet, he walked to the corner of the steps, purposefully away from the path of other people still slowly exiting the building.

“Did you notice, they were as black as yours are?” Jesse muttered, making Noah snicker.

“We’re both that way, or haven’t you noticed?” Noah stated.

Jesse nodded. “Kind of, but I thought mine were more brown than black.”

“Now that I think about it, I think yours are brown… but a kind of dark brown.”

Jesse nodded, then looked out over the parking lot. “Honestly, now that I think about it really, I don’t think I’ve gotten to, like, examine you up close any at all. Not like I really want to do sometime. I just remember yours being this really dark, silky stuff.”

“I know,” Noah agreed, understanding. “We’ve both been kind of, I don’t know, engaged in other things.” He sighed, draping both arms over the railing there. “That was so awesome, though. This whole night was awesome! Thanks, Jesse, for thinking of me getting into this with you. It’s been a blast, really!”

Jesse turned to stare into the eyes that met his own. “What are brothers for?” he whispered. As Noah smiled, he went on. “I knew I didn’t want to try this again unless I could have you with me, though. Nobody else, just you.”

Noah nodded. If he could have hugged his friend, he would have done so in a heartbeat, but instead he just stretched. “Man, I’m bushed! Imagine what all those guys on the team must be feeling like though, you know?”

“Yeah, but they’re conditioned for it. You know, they train and practice for long stints like this, so it doesn’t affect them as much as it would you or me,” Jesse answered. Just then, Allen drove up right in front of the steps. Quietly, both boys then got in and fastened their seat belts.

“So, how did it go? You like the game?” Allen asked both boys as they pulled out of the parking lot.

“The game was super, although it would have been better if we’d won,” Jesse replied.

“I agree,” Noah added. “And being the team helpers and everything was pretty cool, too!” Both boys took turns then, talking about what their tasks had been that day, and how they got to sit with the team and everything.

Allen nodded here and there, before finally commenting, “Well, it sounds like you really enjoyed it then. When is the next game?”

“Thursday night,” Jesse announced, before noticing his friend’s look of surprise. “But, it’s an away game in Edmonton, I think. I looked up the schedule earlier today,” he explained.

“Sounds good. That’s not that far away, though – about as far as it is, say, from here to Campbellsville,” Allen offered thoughtfully.

“I doubt we’ll be needed, though,” Jesse spoke up. “Usually, people like us don’t really go out on the away games, unless it’s, like, a championship or playoff or something. Just the players and cheerleaders go.”

At first Noah seemed disappointed, but then he sat back and nodded. “Well, good! After tonight, I might need some extra rest anyway!”

 

«««««««««« _ »»»»»»»»»»

 

“About time you got home, you doofus!”

Jesse had no sooner than set foot in the back door when he was tackled by his little brother, hugging him tightly around his waist. “Hey… umph!” the older brother grunted, then reached down and picked his little brother up around the waist, but pivoting him until he was upside down. Benji started laughing then, while his older brother hoisted him further up off the floor until he was practically hanging over his shoulder. In the interim, however, Jesse ended up breathless at the amount of effort it cost him.

“Whoa, whoa… not that way… Short-Stuff! You’re getting… too big for me to do this!” he puffed.

“Benji, get down,” a voice announced as they made their way into the kitchen. “What have your Mom and I been telling you about jumping on your brother like that!” James berated him.

Benji turned to look at his Dad. “But… Jesse is the one who flipped me over!”

James rolled his eyes as the older brother turned again and set Benji back down on his feet. Crossing over, James grinned and ruffled his hand through the boy’s hair before looking up, and observing his other son’s look of exhaustion. “You look like you’ve been run over by a herd of cattle!”

Jesse smiled weakly. “Yeah, kind of.”

“The only thing I want to know is, did you have fun? Was everything okay tonight?” his father asked, though in a lower tone.

“Everything was awesome tonight, Dad, honest!” Jesse replied. “I’m glad you guys could come see it, too. Sorry about not spending any time with you, though.”

“Oh, that’s okay. We knew it was a first night for you and Noah, anyway. Besides, little squirt here kept us entertained… and busy!” Looking down, he suddenly saw Benji hide his face behind his brother, making him chuckle. “Go see your mother for a minute, then high tail it on to the shower before bed. It’s still a school day tomorrow, you know. That little runt was supposed to already be in bed by now, but…”

Jesse nodded. “I will.” As Benji pulled back, both boys made their way to their parents’ bedroom, where Makalah was sitting up in bed, the TV on in the background with the volume muted. “Hey Mom, feeling any better?”

“Oh, much, thank you,” the sweet woman replied. “Don’t worry about poor old Mom, I’ll be up and about by the weekend, I think.”

“If you’re ready, that is,” James’ voice announced from behind them as he followed the boys inside.

“Yes, if I’m ready,” Makalah amended. She then motioned for Jesse to sit down beside her. “So, how was it tonight? Did you like the game? How about everything else?”

“It was fine, really, and the game was great. Might have been better if we could have won, but…” Jesse admitted, to which James scoffed.

“You guys would have given them a whole neck and shoulder for their money if you hadn’t lost your guard on the tall kid. How did he fare anyway?” James asked.

“He’s okay. He was able to put some weight on his foot by the end of the game, a little at least,” Jesse offered, making his mother nod.

“Most likely he’ll end up with just a sprain, about like what I’ve got here. It might take him a few days, but he’ll get all the particulars ironed out eventually, and then be playing again before you know it,” Makalah offered. She reached up and run her fingers through Jesse’s hair. “You’ve been sweating, and…” She suddenly giggled. “Okay, no more questions there. You need a shower young man, and from the looks of it, you need to head straight to bed afterwards. No video games tonight, okay?”

“Aw, Mom…” Benji complained, before circling around Jesse’s side. “Can I at least play until he gets out of the shower?”

“You should already be in bed, mister, but…” Makalah then relented, realizing her younger son was still hyped with plenty of adrenaline that needed time to settle down. “I guess that wouldn’t hurt though, but to bed afterwards, both of you, okay?”

Both boys agreed and, after giving their mother a kiss goodnight, they left the room to cross to the other side of the house and into their own room. Once there, Jesse dropped his school bag and started for the door. “Be back in a minute, Short-Stuff.” Whether he heard his brother or not, Benji had made a dive for the bed and one of the game controllers, immersing himself into a game he had already loaded and been playing.

Once stripped, Jesse stepped into the hot water and closed his eyes, soaking up the heat as it stimulated his skin. He rotated not once, but twice, letting it warm him up, albeit temporarily. He only now realized that since leaving the gym, and gradually calming down, how cold it was once again. Suddenly he opened his eyes and grabbed the shower gel, and quickly went about his task. He felt if he didn’t do it quickly, he would lose all of what energy was left, and that was not a good thing for the moment. Stepping out, he quickly dried his hair and wrapped the towel around him, before shutting off the light and returning to their room.

Once inside, however, he was surprised to find the room in darkness. Neither their regular lamp nor the TV were on, but as his eyes adjusted, he suddenly made out his little brother in the bottom bunk, staring out the window. When he moved closer and climbed onto the bed, Benji scooted to one side so Jesse could slide up next to him. “What’s up?” he whispered.

Benji then put his lips to his brother’s ear. “Noah is over there, prancing around naked. See? Watch…”

Sure enough, Noah was moving about his bedroom, towel in hand and drying his hair as he stood in view of the window. He had nothing else on, and the light from the bedside lamp illuminated most every feature, regardless of the distance or the condensation that was clinging to the window pane. Jesse sat back on his feet amusedly and observed his little brother. “So, does that mean you’re going to grow up being a peeping-tom?” he whispered.

“What’s that?” Benji asked, turning to look at him curiously.

“It’s somebody who watches other people through their windows, sometimes hoping they’ll strip naked,” Jesse offered by way of explanation, although quietly. “A lot of guys like to watch for girls and all.”

Benji scoffed. “No, I doubt it. But…” The younger boy suddenly looked sheepish as his shoulders slumped. “I’m sorry, I just…”

Jesse closed in and wrapped his arms around his brother as they both continued to stare at the house. They watched in silence as Noah suddenly pulled on a t-shirt followed by a pair of briefs, before climbing into bed and turning out the light. “It’s okay, little bro. I know, I’m nothing special to look at after a while anyway.”

Benji squirmed around in Jesse’s grasp until he faced his brother. “You are to me. I- I just, I don’t know how to explain it.”

Jesse smiled, thinking about his conversation with Simon earlier that evening, and how it so perfectly fitted the moment here and now. “You’re curious, bro, and there is nothing wrong with that, I promise. I’m gonna love you no matter what, you know that.”

“Jesse… thanks,” Benji whispered, before reaching around and hugging his brother tightly. Eventually both toppled over and moved under the covers, Jesse losing his towel. Feeling the nakedness there, Benji got up from the bed and walked over to the dresser, extracting underclothes for his brother. As he watched the teen don them, Benji whispered, “Can I stay with you tonight?” Jesse nodded as he pulled the covers back enough for his brother to climb in. Nothing more was said, as they cuddled into each other. Jesse was surprised when, at one point, Benji reached up and kissed him on the cheek – a rare gesture to say the least, regardless of how they already felt about one another.

They lay next to each other then, breathing the closeness in, before slowly drifting off to sleep.

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