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When Shadows Pass

by Sean English

Chapter 3

The Road's First Curve

Pulling his feet underneath him, Jason sat watching the two brothers go at each other in an intense fight. Although new to him, the game playing on the screen looked fun, was colorful and had an upbeat soundtrack - all the right ingredients for being noticeable. Jason had, however, thought at times it made him dizzy to watch the fast-moving images. In truth, it was not a huge surprise - Jason was not a video game junkie, unlike what appeared to engross most of his other American counterparts. In fact, in all the time he was growing up, the closest he and his dad had come to owning any type of game console, was the original Nintendo Super NES systems - along with a few cartridges, of course. He wasn't sure why they, or rather he, never got into the craze like most teenagers. Maybe it had to do with money not being in an abundant supply, or the fact that between him and his father they found other venues to occupy their time. Jason figured it probably had more to do with a lack of good old-fashioned interest. He had been content spending his days reading books and magazines, watching television, riding bikes, and - what had once been his biggest passion - building and painting models.

He wasn't the greatest at being an outdoors person, something that perhaps had always annoyed his father. In addition, he was not much of a sports fan, either. The closest was at least the fact he did enjoy swimming a lot - enough so that he participated in various swimming events at the local YMCA. In those years he volunteered to help at various times with their swim classes, especially for those his age and younger. It was the only "sport" he felt he had any confidence in. He didn't have any real inhibitions about being around people in the water, and that helped considerably in other ways. Moreover, the water was an escape into another world, a place where Jason could isolate his thoughts and feelings from everyone else and truly feel free and content. He wistfully smiled to himself as the memories returned, and he closed his eyes reliving various moments. Opening them, however, he saw an abrupt change to his reality once again. Sighing, he wondered if he would ever get to enjoy that privilege again in this strange, new land.

"AAhhhh!!! YYeeessssssssssssssss!" That exclamation from Elliot interrupted his thoughts, causing Jason to regain focus just in time to see the younger brother emerge victoriously over his older sibling. There was a great deal of enthusiasm as the youth jumped from the couch, punching his fist into the air. "Finally, I did it! I beat your sorry arse wickedly! Now you can quit embarrassing me in front of all your friends!" The latter was delivered within inches of his older brother's face, not menacingly, but with more exuberance than Jason had yet witnessed to date. As the youth danced in his victorious spotlight, Elliot left the space by his brother just as quickly and moved toward Jason, a hand extended high in the air. Amused, Jason met the boy with the customary high five before watching the youth collapse next to him.

Derek laughed before tossing the controller to the newcomer. "Here, you have a go at it, I'm done. Besides, I've got homework that needs doing." Getting up, he disappeared through the doorway to the back of the flat, leaving the two remaining youths alone. Both Natalie and Simon were out at the moment – exactly where, Jason was not sure, but he assumed they were out for the evening on their own.

Elliot sniffed, still grinning wildly. "He just didn't want to have to deal with being beaten again, I tell you!" Glancing at the newcomer, he explained. "I've been trying to beat him at this one for over six months, and every time we start hanging out with our mates he always brags about how he beats the snot out of me on it!"

"So now he can't anymore," Jason surmised, a look of amusement crossing him as the other boy nodded in reply.

"Damn right!" Elliot sniffed again and then looked around. "Be right back, I need to find a tissue." Like his brother, he too disappeared through the doorway, leaving Jason alone in the room and staring at the TV screen. Although differing scenes changed and offered an interesting insight (or was it a replay?) into the match just completed, he regarded it with indifference. Jason held the controller in his hands loosely, pondering if he should try playing or not.

So many things had happened in the three days Jason had been with this family now, both exciting and puzzling. While waiting for Elliot's return, the youth reflected on the events from the day before. They had left the flat and walked out into a stiff westerly wind. Walking to the entrance of the alley, they worked through a maze of people, moving between store fronts and shops that lined both sides of the street. The rain had stopped for the time being, but the dampness in the air made it feel cooler than it was. In the event of the moment, Jason wished he had thought to wear his jacket, but did his best instead to ignore the chill. Eventually the two came upon a small shop where, upon entry, Jason had been introduced into another world he had never seen the likes of. Role playing games existed in the States, but not to the extent that he saw here. Warhammer, as he discovered, was a fantasy game played across tabletops, using individuals assuming various roles, and the luck of the dice. Notable for its dark and gritty background, many of the creatures, races and characterizations that were built, reminded Jason of the Lord of the Rings series. Those similarities did not go unnoticed, as it had been a favorite of his since being initially introduced to him at an early age. Here, the forces of Chaos unceasingly attempted to tear the mortal world asunder, leaving tragedy in its wake. The game play, he learned, was enhanced by using unique sets and figures. The game itself was complicated, and although Jason did not dislike the concept, it was new and "alien" to him - in most regards.

What wasn't new, was the use of the various sets and miniatures. Each was crafted and assembled and painted, which particularly drew his attention because of his own interests in models. Each had strikingly similar qualities in the level of detail employed, but only used in different ways. While Elliot participated with a group of fellow players in one of the nearby arenas, Jason had noticed one such kit in an opened box, lying at the back of a shelf. Picking the pieces up one by one, he thought it looked similar to one of the buildings that had fallen apart. Finding no instructions, he slowly toyed with parts, turning them around in his hands and studying the complex sculpture. Once he evaluated and decided where and when the parts should be placed, he began to assemble them. Before he knew it, he had actually reassembled the structure, and saw that it favored an elaborate bridge of some sort. When he finished, he began looking around for the arena where it must have originated from. It was then another teen walked by and took notice, whistling in surprise.

"Hey, look guys, the Krel Bridge – someone worked it out!" The game play halted at that point, and several boys of varying ages surrounded both the youth and Jason. Admiring the handiwork, the other boy looked up at the newcomer. "Did you do this?"

Jason swallowed hard, suddenly fearful he may have done something he wasn't supposed to. "Um, yeah, sorry if, I mean..."

"No, no – this is excellent!" the young man exclaimed. "You see, we've had this for a long time I think, but there were no instructions or anything about how to put it together, and none of us could really work it out!" The youth extended his hand. "Ron Fulcrum," he introduced himself. "My Dad partners this place."

Jason sighed inwardly with relief, before returning the handshake. "Um, Jason – Jason Mathews."

"Ah, right, I remember, the Flavell border from the States, right?" He looked around and spotted Elliot nearby, then nodded. "El was filling us in the other night. Good to meet you though, welcome to England."

Jason studied the other youth and decided there was a distinct amount of sincerity in the boy. "Thanks, um, yeah, thanks," he stammered as the boy withdrew his hand and studied the model again.

"How did you do this? I mean, there must be what, forty to fifty pieces here, right?" He whistled without waiting for a reply. "I spent an entire afternoon after school once, but rather failed at the task I'm afraid. It is NOT an easy go, that's for sure." When Jason just silently shrugged, the boy let the others looking on observe the structure up close. "You do much of this back in the States?"

"Not like this stuff, no – but I have put a lot of models together."

"What kind?"

"I don't know, mostly warships, planes and cars, some army stuff too, like tanks and trucks."

Ron suddenly got a knowing look in his eye and grinned. "Ah, I see. We Brits do models here sometimes too, but you won't find it as big I think. Mostly we stick with the games and sets. Curious, though – how do you feel about painting? You know, are you any good at it?"

Again, Jason shrugged. "I don't know, I guess so. I mean, I don't know about little details and stuff, but I did used to paint most of my models."

Ron's face lit up. "That's excellent! Maybe we could get you try your hand at some of the things we do here in the shop! Most of the guys here don't like to paint, and the few of us who will don't particularly care for it. In fact, I know my father would really take to having someone help him out sometimes." He grinned widely, finally putting the assembly back on the corner. "Come on, we'll show you how the games work."

After that point, the morning had gotten a whole lot better for Jason. His first introduction to English teens turned out not to be so bad after all. Towards their gaming, he made an honest effort to understand what they were doing, working with both Elliot and Ron and others. As they attempted to explain the game in turns, however, he quickly became lost. In the end he had to laugh at how complex it all seemed. On their walk back home, his conversation with Elliot brought this out.

"Sorry Elliot, that was..." He paused before finally laughing. Failing to find the words he wanted, he just shook his head. "Well, it was weird, kind of cool, but still weird. It just seems, I don't know, like there is so much you have to get into and remember and everything."

Elliot laughed with him. "It's involved, and there's a lot of stuff you have to learn, I know. Once you get into it though, it's a lot easier than it looks. You made a hit with the guys though, putting that bridge together."

As they rounded a corner onto the street leading to their flat, Jason shrugged. A light rain was returning, but neither hurried along. Scrunching his nose, he tried to ignore the dampness in the air. "I'll be honest, it WAS pretty cool."

"Well, hell yeah!" the boy exclaimed, although in a subdued voice. Jason inwardly smiled as he noted how the teenager always did that when he was swearing. Elliot glanced quickly about to make sure no one had heard other than the two of them, then laughed as he noticed the other boys' reaction. "What, you guys in the States don't swear?"

"Sure, we do!" Jason retorted and then laughed. "Just, umm, some more than others I guess."

Elliot nodded. "It's the same here; most of the parents here just don't like it – especially Mum. I would watch yourself around her, if you know what I mean!" Pausing, he glanced at the other boy as they walked along. "So, what was it like, you know, where you lived in the States?"

Jason looked up at the surrounding area. "Um, big – at least bigger than this. More open I guess, kind of like your Dad described."

Elliot nodded. "Yeah, I've been to some places where its' not so cramped."

"I- I didn't mean like, your place, you know-"

Elliot laughed. "Yeah you did, but it's okay, I know you meant more than just home - the flat, the streets here, the cars, everything. It's not like this everywhere, you know. Portsmouth is an old, old English seaport, and there are lots of things here unchanged just because that's the way everything was originally built. I mean, a hundred years ago there were no cars and stuff, so streets like this were probably plenty wide enough for horses and carts and everything." He paused. "Dad loves it here, and Mum even admits she likes being able to get around to places close by without having to hop in the auto and drive about. I think that's why we stay here, you know, don't move out elsewhere."

Jason thought about that for a moment, and then nodded. "Makes good sense to me."

"As for the flat, meh, it's the only home I've ever had, and it's bigger than some of these others in here." He pointed to the left as they passed another entrance. "Kristen and her Mum live there, and they only have about half the space we do." He rolled his eyes. "Watch out for her, she's got water on the brain I think! I mean, she's alright sometimes, but she talks like an Italian, you know? She honestly can't shut up! And it's hard to understand her when she gets on a roll, she talks faster than a cheetah runs, I think. Plus, she's a little pushy with having her way."

Jason giggled. "Okay, I'll try and remember that."

The relationship he had been building with Elliot, and his family, continued to grow. That evening they did go shopping as a family, which ended up being an adventure. Simons' compact could seat the four of them well, but once Jason was added, the backseat became a crowded free-for-all. ASDA, as Jason discovered, was the British version of Wal-Mart back in the States. Jason noted with amusement the crowds were no different, the place being packed solid for a Saturday afternoon with shoppers from everywhere. The goods were basically the same, although named differently than those he was used to, such as potato crisps instead of chips. Another thing he noted with indifference was that, as they traveled the aisles, almost a whole third or more of the store seemed devoted to the sale of alcohol. He asked Simon about it, who turned and upon seeing the keen note of interest, nodded and laughed.

"Yes, I'm afraid we Brits do have a fairly elevated sense of drinking here. You see, there are some national chains of course, but a lot of beers come from local pubs and breweries throughout the UK."

Jason scrunched his nose. "Oh," he replied, clearly unsure what to think of that, making the older man laugh. Again, as they continued, they entered the clothing section, where Natalie took over and began picking out some basic items for the youth.

That evening, the five of them entered the lobby of a high-rise building and entered the 'lift' – the UK version of what Americans called an 'elevator' – to the 4th floor. ("Why do you call it an elevator?" asked Elliot. "Lifts go both ways, but elevators, well, don't they just elevate things upward?" They all had a good laugh at that one as the boy shook his head in confusion). The meal was different than in most American restaurants Jason had been to, but not all that odd. Following both Derek's and Elliot's suggestion, he soon discovered a new love for the term 'fish and chips' - previously known to him as simply fish and fries. He was also amazed at how fresh everything tasted and – different.

"Um, has this stuff got beer in the batter or something?"

Natalie wrinkled her nose. "No, I don't think so, but lots of places here use vinegar and salt solutions in their batter. Why, do you like it?"

"Like it? I love it!" he replied enthusiastically. "It's different, but it's great, too!"

The night before had been no different than his first night. In fact, once they returned home Elliot had went straight to bed, stating he was overly stuffed and needed to lay down. Natalie had grinned and winked, telling Jason that happened a lot when they returned from eating out, as Elliot tended to over indulge. Jason remembered looking at the youth and then returning to stare at her incredulously.

"Over eat? No way – he's already thin as a pretzel!" That made Simon laugh as he entered from the door behind them. When Jason bid the adults goodnight and went up to the bedroom. He found Elliot had already stripped off and fallen onto the bed. His eyes were shut and obviously heading into a deep slumber – IF he wasn't already there. Giggling to himself, Jason made ready for bed and climbed over the top of the youth, pulling the sheet up over them both. It had been a very full day, and as he had the night before, Jason found himself feeling more comfortable settling in with the family.

That morning, Jason had awakened with a start. Opening his eyes, he saw his new friend sitting with his legs crossed under him on the bed, scrutinizing the American. As he began to focus, he noticed the corners of Elliot's lips were curled upward in a smile. "What?" Jason asked sleepily as he yawned and stretched. When the other boy simply shook his head, his curiosity was aroused. After a moment he got his bearings as he stretched out from under the covers, but noticed the other boy's disposition had not changed. "Okay, what are you grinning at? What, did I do something?"

Elliot grinned, but remained silent. Eventually he began darting his eyes and before long Jason realized and followed the gaze. Staring at himself, he was confused at first, until finally it dawned on him. Quickly he brought his knees up beneath him and rolled over sideways, making Elliot finally laugh out loud. Clearly embarrassed, Jason only lay there at first, burying his head in his pillow. Eventually however, he started peering up at the other boy.

Elliot leaned in to whisper into the youth's ear. "Hey mate, you're not the first in the world to wake up with a hard-on you know! Besides, it is kind of nice to know you yanks are as human as we are over here!"

Jason tried to toss a pillow at his friend, but failed miserably. Elliot decided to stand then and offer the boy a hand up. "Come on, Mum and Dad are still asleep, you can get down to the bathroom and do what you have to do, before they get up."

Jason stared at the youth for a moment, half smiling but sincerely affected by the openness in the exchange between them. He couldn't help but glance down at the cotton briefs of his friend and notice that he, too, was slightly stiffened as well. Although embarrassing as it seemed, Jason realized he did have a very full bladder that was begging him for relief. He gave a subdued sigh and slowly climbed from under the covers. Elliot grinned at him as he emerged, but out of respect didn't make a big deal out of it between them. When the younger of the two brothers opened the bedroom door and started out, Jason hesitated. In this room, he was comfortable enough being around Elliot in his underwear. Outside this room, however, he wasn't sure if his modesty was open enough to walk through the rest of the flat that way.

Elliot, noticing his new friend hadn't followed, reappeared at the doorway. "Come on," he whispered. "We'll be back before they get up, I promise!"

Slowly, Jason took a step forward, still unsure of himself. As he reached the door, his hesitation gave Elliot cause to look annoyed. "Come on," the boy whispered again, except this time he took hold of Jason's hand. "Don't be a prude, no one is going to see you unless it's me or Derek, I promise."

Although he felt sheepish, Jason let the other boy gently pull him from the room and up the hallway. Once the reached the stairs, they descended and quietly moved to the back of the flat. Elliot didn't hesitate upon their arrival, pulling Jason with him inside the bathroom before shutting the door.

Without a second thought, the British teen let go of the hand he held and walked over to the toilet. Raising both the lid and the front of his shirt, he began to relive himself. Although Elliot's back was to the American, Jason was surprised by his overall actions. Hearing him urinate as it hit the bowl did not help his own situation, but he was clearly too embarrassed to just walk over and join the other boy. As Elliot finished, Jason quickly averted his eyes to try and find something else to stare at as the boy turned around.

"Your turn," was all Elliot said, before walking to the sink and turning on the water. A new wave of anxiety accosted the American for some reason, but he stepped up to the bowl and hesitated. He could see, from the corner of his eye, that Elliot was watching him through the reflection of the mirror. When the realization struck, however, Elliot rolled his eyes with a look of annoyance. "Good grief!" he muttered under his breath, before starting toward the door. "Don't take too long, I won't wait forever!" he hissed, before opening and exiting through the door, closing it quietly behind him.

Jason once again felt mixed emotions surge at that moment, mostly of guilt and confusion. It took him a minute to be able to finally let go, but once the stream released, a wave of relief swept over him. The relief was, however, short lived. He felt that, somehow, he had let his new friend down in some way. When he finished, he quickly washed his hands and emerged to find Elliot waiting for him near the hallway entrance. Together they silently returned to their room and plopped down on the bed. Elliot scooted over next to the window with his pillow so he could observe the outside world, while Jason just crossed his legs and sat Indian style near the headboard. He held his head low, once again unsure of what had just transpired, or why. Elliot noticed this, and then peered at the youth in puzzlement. "What's up? What's wrong?"

Jason slowly raised his eyes to meet his cousin, and then was surprised he found confusion there. Inadvertently, it added to his own. "I dunno, I just... I mean, sorry, while ago, I just..."

Elliot grinned and again rolled his eyes. "Froze up? Hey, no sweat, it happens." He said it so carefree that Jason was taken aback.

"I don't get it, I'm mean... You called me a prude and – heck, what does that even mean anyway?"

Elliot laughed softly at first, then laughed harder and eventually had to bury his face in his pillow to keep the noise subdued. When he finally pulled free, he looked at the American. "You're serious, aren't you?" Seeing Jason's hurt expression, he quickly changed his tone to one of understanding. "Hey, I meant it while ago, no sweat – that means no problem," he told the youth as he moved over to sit beside him.

Jason momentarily mimicked the other's rolling of his eyes. "Uh, I kind of figured that one!" He giggled, and was pleased to see Elliot's grin return. He softened his voice. "Well, you going to tell me or not?"

Elliot thought for a second. "Uh, mostly if you're a prude, it means you're shy around people, you know, about sex and stuff. It means you're all proper and mostly look down on anything that deals with nakedness. Doesn't matter if its girls or guys, either. It also means you don't put out any, like – a lot of the guys will call a girl a prude sometimes if she just wears long skirts and sweaters or long blouses – you know, stuff that covers her up. And if they go on dates or stuff, and the girl doesn't let them get a feel of her, or near her and everything. That's being prudish. It's not just girls, though. Some guys, they uh, go out of their way to hide anything about themselves, too, you know..." He silently pointed to his groin area to mark his point.

Jason studied that a moment. "You mean, like girls' boobs and everything?" When Elliot nodded, Jason scrunched his nose. "So, you called me a prude because - "

Elliot sat still. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have said it, honest."

Jason shook his head. "No, I mean, tell me, why...?"

Elliot shrugged. "I guess 'cause you couldn't wiz with me in there. Like I said, you froze up. It seemed like you were afraid of me seeing your willy or something, I don't know. Or maybe it's like uh - you were just really nervous me being in the bathroom with you."

Jason thought about it for a moment before he finally nodded, casting his eyes down. "Yeah, I admit it, I was nervous... but... you're right though, I did freeze up. I don't think so much because we were in there together, just, I've never had anyone around me and stuff, you know? I'm never been used to anything like that, not where I come from anyway." He blushed as glanced up to meet Elliot's eyes directly. "I'm sorry Elliot, I just - I guess I just need time to get used to you, used to all of this, you know?"

Elliot smiled. "Like I said, no sweat. Besides, that's what I kind of figured. I have to tell you though, seriously, you might want to prepare yourself some." Seeing the other youth's curious expression, he continued. "At most schools, stadiums, even the public toilets - at least for boys - they're are open stalls, no walls or anything around the urinals. Most loos have walls, but don't be surprised there are some that don't."

Hearing that, Jason cringed. "Are y-you serious? So, everything is sort of open, and people can see you and stuff?"

Elliot nodded as he leaned back against the wall. "I mean, it's not really that bad. I guess you guys must have had some privacy in the States. At least, I hear that sometimes when people we know go over there. Dad has told us that, too, from when he has gone on some of his trips. I guess there's a lot of modesty and everything around Americans. Seriously, there is so much sometimes, I think you guys are afraid of your shadows! Trust me, though, over here people are modest too – but not like that. We don't put so much value on being seen or free with one another like Americans do. Both guys and girls, too. We have people who will go out into their back yards and sunbathe sometimes, and yeah, they could be right in full view of their neighbors and everything."

He sniffed before he continued. "Like, the school we go to here – where you'll probably go, too – it's an old school, and in the gym area we have open showers and urinals. Guys just, you know, go in and do their business and then leave – unless you want to try and sneak a cigarette or something. Some of them do, more times than they should, I think." He observed Jason thoughtfully. "Does it really sound that scary to you?" he asked, his voice soft with sincerity.

Jason lowered his gaze to his feet and could not look up for a moment. He couldn't help but ask himself that same question, as it was something he never had contemplated he would have to face. Was it going to be that scary for him? Eventually he shook his head no and shrugged. "I g-guess not."

Elliot sat there for a minute before asking, "Can I ask you something, then? What are you, like, afraid of?" Jason peered up at him with an annoyed expression, causing Elliot to hastily continue. "No, seriously, I'm just trying to understand, that's all. I'm not trying to perv on you or anything, honest. Just... Are you afraid of something specific, or...?" When Jason continued to stare at him, he sighed and then tried a different track. "Okay, okay... so, is it like your afraid someone is going to see your willy or something?"

That got a reaction. Jason acquired a faraway look in his eyes, unsure what to reply. He eventually refocused again on the British youth and wondered how this conversation even came about so suddenly. Seeing the sincerity, however, made him realize that Elliot was truly trying to help him figure this thing out about himself. With a deep sigh, he once again dropped his gaze to his feet.

Elliot took that as an affirmative. "Will it hurt your feelings if I giggle at that?"

That made Jason suddenly snort, and eventually both boys were giggling together quietly. When he calmed down, Jason finally spoke. "How do you do it? How do you just be so open about everything and not care? Most guys I know of, unless they're gay or something, or you know, jocks – would never do anything like your describing. And... and... they don't talk about these types of things, you know?"

"What? You really believe that?" When Jason nodded his head, Elliot just smiled. "Um, I think you got a lot to learn about some stuff." Not wanting to hurt the other boy's feelings he continued. "Guys talk about sex and things among themselves just as much as girls do, which is all the time - for some of us, anyway. As to how do we do it? Um, I dunno – I just never think about it or anything." He thought for a moment before continuing. "If you're nervous about someone seeing your willy and stuff, then sorry Jason. I mean, yeah, it's going to happen - but you know something else? You're going to see theirs, too, whether you want to or not. That is kind of what makes the difference, too, I think. It's not like they'll have a hard-on or boner or anything – well, sometimes they do, when they're in the showers, but that's different. You understand? I mean, does that make sense? Guys over here, they don't care really, it's just natural for us, we were raised this way and everything. It doesn't make you gay or anything to be curious. It just happens, people check each other out, sometimes subtle, sometimes outright - but it happens."

Jason peered deeply into Elliot's eyes and found a surprising inner strength within those simple words. He smiled. "I'm guessing that's why you called me a prude."

Elliot grinned. "If you're like most Americans I hear about, then - Yep!" He reached out and put his hand on the American's shoulder. "It doesn't mean anyone's going to rape you or anything. You're going to see peeps and peeps are going to see you." Then he added as a whisper. "You're probably even going to see me, and I'm probably going to see you, too. Especially since we share this room, together." He watched closely, wanting to see a reaction, but Jason's face became an unreadable mask.

Another moment passed between them, before the American relented to the fact he would have to change that aspect of his life. "I guess that means I better find a way to get used to it then." Again, Elliot nodded before Jason added, "Well, yeah, I guess we will, we're, uh..."

Elliot smiled. "Family."

It was a simple statement, and Jason was startled. He looked once again into the youth's eyes and found something there he wasn't used to finding in anyone. He smiled back. "Yeah, I guess we are, but Elliot, I-" He couldn't finish the thought, so Elliot stepped in.

"Hey, honest, no sweat man, okay? We'll figure it out, trust me. You'll get used to it, or-" Elliot giggled, "Or you'll find a way to hold your pee all day while you're in school – which isn't going to happen, trust me!" They both laughed as Elliot withdrew his hand and continued. "Seriously, man – don't sweat it. I bet the sooner you learn to relax, the sooner it'll be, like, second nature to you and everything. Besides, you got me here, and Derek, and we'll help you."

"Help me? How?" Jason asked curiously, seriously wondering what the other youth was trying to tell him.

"Oh, I dunno – just go to the bathroom with me sometimes when Mum or Dad aren't around, stuff like that. I trust you, you can see my willy all you want even. I mean, I don't care being around you, and maybe if you just get used to being around me and stuff, well, at least some of the time, then it'll help, you know? And I bet Derek would be the same way."

Jason thought that was a little strange, but since it made sense in most ways, he nodded. "Um, so like, your school... the guys take showers and stuff then? Like, after gym and everything?"

Elliot scrunched his nose before pulling a pillow up into his lap. "Some of the guys do, not everyone though. Me and Derek usually don't, because gym is the last period of the day for us - but that doesn't mean we haven't done it a few times, either. I think when Mum takes you in tomorrow she's going to see if they can't set you up with the same classes as I have, at least for starters. Who knows, maybe you'll end up staying in a bunch of my classes, which would be really great as far as I'm concerned. Then if you do have gym at the end of the day, you can like, skip the showers and stuff and come home with me."

"That would be cool, I mean, getting in your classes and everything. The gym class, too." He sighed. "Can I tell you something?" When Elliot nodded, Jason hesitated and took a deep breath. "The shower stuff doesn't bother me that bad. I mean, I've never done it, never been naked around anyone - not in school anyway. But... right now, I just, I really don't want it to happen, you know? It's not being around other guys and stuff that bothers me the most, but ... i need some time, I've-" He stopped, that far away looking creeping in again.

"Well, okay, but... what is it then?" Elliot asked softly.

Jason sat silent for a long time before answering. "I just... I just don't think I can deal with it right now, that's all." He looked up and saw his friend's confusion. "There's a lot of stuff going on in my head right now, and this is all still so new to me and everything. I mean, you and your brother have been great, and don't think I don't like, really appreciate it and everything. It's ... just a lot to take in and everything, and... and..."

"And what?" Elliot whispered.

Jason looked back down to his feet before answering. "I don't know, I'm just still afraid I guess, afraid this is all going to end and... and... everything."

Elliot sat hugging his pillow for a moment. What he could do to make his new friend feel any better, he didn't know. In the three days since his arrival, he already knew the kid had some issues – even without the forewarning Simon had given them. Elliot always thought American teens were a shifty, hyper group of kids that snubbed and looked down on the rest of the world. Certainly, the few he had talked to before had seemed that way to him. But this one didn't even come close, and it both delighted and confused Elliot.

Elliot also had his own feelings to contend with, though. As he looked at Jason, he saw the uneasiness the other boy was obviously experiencing just then. Slowly he reached out and placed his hand on the teen's shoulder for a second time. "Jason, look – do you trust me? Will you trust me?"

It was an odd question for Jason to consider, as he returned the gaze, searching for something. "Yeah, I guess so." He smiled, trying to be sincere, but he could tell that Elliot was hesitating. "I mean, do I really have a choice?"

Elliot stared before responding. "Yeah, you do, you always have a choice. I'm not asking you, though, if you like me or ... or want to be my brother or something. I think you do like me, 'cause I know I like you – a lot. But this is different: I'm asking you if you'll trust me – at least for a little while, like the next few weeks, or month, or whatever. Will you?"

Jason thought it over before he remembered how, on their first night together, in this very bed, Elliot had made him feel so much better about being there. He figured there was something about this kid then, something cool, that made him feel safe. Because of that, Jason knew deep down they really had developed a certain level of trust already – something he had not extended to anyone for a long, long time. "The other night, when I first got here, I was scared like crap, and I was worried and nervous – everything you had already guessed at and more. Although you guys were great to me, I felt like – like crying sometimes, because it was just, ummm, overwhelming I guess. Maybe I should have, I don't know - crying isn't normal for me, but lately things have been ... like I said, I'm dealing with it."

Taking a deep breath, he went on. "Out of all of it though, do you know what made me feel better?" When Elliot didn't answer, he continued. "You did. I don't want to seem like, like I'm some kind of nut case or anything right now, but – I feel my nerves are all bunched up inside me, and stretching every which way they can. But when I was close to you, when I am close to you, well... it just melts, you know? All the knots and my worries and frustrations and everything, just kind of melt away. If not all the way, at least a lot does - and I think it's because of you. So yeah Elliot, I do – I trust you more than you think I do, honest."

Elliot smiled back, and was so moved he couldn't answer for a moment. When he did however, he felt that connection that was growing between them tighten even more. "You're not a nut case, and I don't care if you cry. If it's what it takes to help you feel better, then go for it - and I'll be right here if you need me. I cry sometimes, too, for a lot of reasons, so no big deal - not in our house, anyway. Just remember something though: I'm gonna help you, I promise. Just hold on to that – you know, trust me for a little while. There is a lot of cool stuff here to do, and we're going to have fun being together. And guess what? I'm going to stick with you through all of it, for as long as you need me anyway."

"What if that's a really long time?" Jason asked in a whisper.

Elliot shrugged. "Like I said Jase, I like you already, because I think we're a lot alike. So ... honest? I don't care. I'll be here as long as you need me to be here." Staring into the youth's eyes, he lowered his voice to a whisper as well. "If you won't freak out on me, I'll tell you something." Jason was surprised, but slowly nodded for the other boy to continue. "I've got a good feeling about you, honest – and that is the kind of stuff I don't really tell anyone, except maybe Derek sometimes." It was everything Elliot could do to not reach out and embrace the other boy, as much as he suddenly wanted to. "Just stick with me for a while and trust me. Like Mum said, everything will be fine. Nobody here is going to hurt you or anything."

Jason could feel his heartstrings tugging, and he felt like something more was being unsaid. Nonetheless, he understood. As much as it overpowered him, he also started to feel uncomfortable. He felt weak and defenseless, which for a guy, was generally considered a sin in most cases. His eyes were already watery, and he suddenly felt ashamed that Elliot had to see them. As he bowed his head, however, the other boy reached out and lifted his chin.

Elliot held him there, and for some reason Jason felt like his whole soul was being exposed. All in this moment touched him, in a way he had not really expected, and certainly not this soon. He simply smiled and silently moved his lips. No sound escaped, but Jason felt the sincerity in that simple, unspoken word. "Okay?"

Reaching up, he wiped his eyes and then nodded, smiling back. There was nothing more he could say or express. He wanted to just put it all behind him and take a deep breath and let it go. He tried his best at doing just that, and although he released it haltingly, Elliot understood. His friend raised his right hand and made a fist in the air between them, which Jason met and gently knocked knuckles. "No sweat then! Come on, time to see what you know about 'Call of Duty'."

"Call of ... what?" Jason asked perplexed as the other teen dragged him from the bed and, finding new pairs of sweats purchased the evening before, tossed one to his new friend.

Elliot rolled his eyes. "MMaaannnn, I think I've got my work cut out for me."

The thoughts of that conversation still played in Jason's head, as Elliot reentered the room. Fast-forwarding to the present with a start, he looked at the clock and realized the younger brother must have been gone quite some time. It was now late in the afternoon, both having spent most of the day in front of the TV with various games in hand.

"Sorry about that man, I had to stink the place up a bit."

"Huh?" Jason responded, thoroughly confused. Elliot laughed and just shook his head, and as Jason retraced his thoughts, he suddenly remembered that Elliot had left the room to get a tissue for his nose or something. Although very abstractly, he suddenly got a sense of what the other boy was referring to. "You mean, you had to see the judge, right?"

Elliot laughed. "You've been talking to Mum I see! Yep – I did, guilty as charged I guess!"

Jason rolled his eyes and muttered under his breath, "T-M-I". This time it was Elliot's turn to pause.

"What's that mean?"

"Too – Much – Information!" They both cracked up before Elliot plopped down on the couch.

"So, what do you want to do now? I take it not play the game," he remarked, nodding toward the TV. "It's still replaying my grand victory lap." Jason noted the implication, then handed back the controller, clearly embarrassed.

"Um, I don't know. Do you guys ever play cards or anything?"

Elliot's face lit up. "Yeah! Like Rook, Rummy, and we got some new ones not too long ago, called Uno I think! You like playing cards? Seriously?" When Jason nodded, he broke into a grin. "That's great! I can't get anyone around here to play much!" With that he jumped from the couch and rushed over to the cabinets, then returned with a new box. "Ever played this one?"

Jason grinned.

"You two sure talked a long time this morning," Derek told his brother later.

Elliot looked up from the table, a look of suspicion crossing his face. "What do you mean? How the heck would you know?"

"Whoa little brother, ease off! I didn't eavesdrop or anything. I got up to take a pee though, and saw your door part of the way open. When I looked through the crack it looked like you two were having some deep stuff, so I left you alone. It was a while before you got up and went downstairs, that's all."

Elliot thought about that a second, then nodded, returning to his homework. "Well, yeah, you were right." He scrunched his nose before he pushed back the book and stretched. Derek sat down next to his little brother as he let out a deep sigh. Saying nothing, Elliot collected his thoughts. "Don't say anything to Mum or Dad, okay? I think he'll be okay, but..."

"But you're worried, right?" When Elliot nodded, Derek took a long draw on his glass. When Elliot peered over the rim and saw the grape juice, he looked at his brother who grimaced and offered him the glass. "Don't drink it all, okay?" Elliot was careful and only sipped about half of the contents before returning it to him. Derek didn't say anything more at first, but was curious. "Was it bad stuff?"

Elliot shook his head. "Nah, just nerves mostly. But it's hard to get him to relax with me, you know? It's like, he's afraid I'm going to bite his head off or something." He paused. "He did kind of talk about some odd stuff. Like, the other night, he said he almost felt like crying, because how all of us were so nice to him and everything. You know, overwhelmed and stuff, then he was embarrassed about it."

Derek shrugged. "Nothing wrong with that."

"That's what I said, but I think he's afraid of us, still."

His older brother nodded. "Remember what Dad told us? He said that no one knows a lot about what happened to him after his Dad died. He also said that he's refused to open up and talk about it. That man and woman caring for him disappeared, and no one knows how long he was on the streets altogether." He looked down at his little brother and leaned in. "I'm not supposed to tell you this, but Dad told me later when they found him, he was almost dead." Seeing his little brother's eyes bug out in horror, he nodded to reassure him it was true. "So, no one knows, alright? And right now, he may be hanging onto us with a thread. It might be because he's afraid, or because he's not – I don't know. It's weird to figure guys like that out sometimes, when they clam up and keep everything bottled up inside. I do know this - he's not going to trust any of us overnight El, so don't get too down about it, okay? Who knows, it might be weeks or even months before he really settles in."

"Yeah, I know." He thought about this new piece and then sighed. "I like him, you know? Even with all his insecurities and, and... I just do. He has this thing about him, like, innocent and all... but it's like, also serious, you know, for real..." Elliot's voice trailed off, afraid he may have said too much.

Derek only nodded in return. "I like him, too. He really does seem like a decent sort." He eyed his brother closely though. "Again, just don't expect too much all at once. Remember what Mum warned us about – he's not going to just open up and be one of us. There's too much difference in all of us and him. We have to make sure he gets to keep that side of him to himself, you know, not change him, let him be himself."

Elliot nodded. "Yeah, I know. It's hard though, especially when I sense something not right. I think he's really hurting inside – no bro, I KNOW he's hurting inside." He sighed. "I just hate seeing anyone have to live that way."

"Who wouldn't?" Derek scoffed. "Look El, just ... give him a chance, that's all. We'll have to watch him real close this week at school."

Rolling his eyes, Elliot started to retort, but then suddenly agreed. "You'll help me – right?"

"Of course, but he'll have mostly your classes. I can only help maybe before and after school, maybe during lunch."

"That's all I need, I think."

"Good. Now – where is the little pipsqueak?"

"He went out for a walk – said he just wanted to look around some." Elliot laughed. "I was going to go with him, but he asked if he could just go alone for once, and see how much trouble it would be to find his way back." Glancing up at his brother, he saw the look of concern. "Don't worry, I gave him my mobile, so he has a way to call if he gets lost."

"And the number?"

"I programmed it in. He'll be okay for a while, I think anyway."

"Good," Derek replied with a smile. He leaned in and in a soft voice asked, "Want to tell me anything more about this morning?"

Elliot hesitated. "Well, somehow we got into a row about urinals and guys and being naked." He smirked when he saw his brother's astonishment. "Still want to know more?"

Derek laughed, shaking his head. "You're not trying to hoodwink him, are you? Or corrupt him?"

"Nah, just trying to feel him out some. You know, think ahead to what he might have to face. Remember that air force kid, what was his name, Gunder or something?"

Derek nodded. "Oh yeah, I remember, he really got it laid on thick, didn't he? Parents didn't want him to go to the base school."

"Yeah, he was... surprised at the stuff we did over here. I just thought Jason should be, you know, kind of warned."

Derek smiled, but said nothing more. He knew his brother better than the other thought. Leaning in, he whispered something in Elliot's ear which made the other giggle, then got up and left the room. Elliot stared at his open textbook and then sighed before pulling it back and finishing the assignment.

Moments later the front door opened and Jason strolled through with a wide smile. "Hi," he said cheerily.

"Hey. Have a good walk?"

"Not bad, I went down to the other end of the street. Sheesh, it goes a long way, doesn't it?"

"Yep, I think about 2 miles, maybe more. You went all that way? I mean - all the way to the end?" Elliot saw the affirmative nod and then whistled before laughing. "Sheesh, you got more guts than me then."

"Huh? How come?" Jason asked as he hung his jacket on the coat rack.

"I dunno, just a long way out on your own I guess. I don't like going places where there aren't a lot of people. I mean, the street is pretty decent up on this end, I just don't know a lot about people down on that end I guess."

Jason studied for a moment, and then looked as if someone had let the air out of his tires. "I guess I never thought about it that way."

Elliot grinned. "It's cool though, means you are more fearless. Besides, it's not dark outside yet, though it will be pretty soon. Just walking and stuff is generally okay. No one bothers you much."

Jason inwardly sighed with relief, and walked over to the table. "Good, you had me worried for a sec." Glancing at the textbook, he wrinkled his nose. "Ugh, Algebra – and to think I thought I could escape that stuff from home!"

Elliot laughed. "It's not so bad, but it IS boring." He closed the book. "Bah, I'm done anyway. Listen: are you hungry yet?" When the other boy nodded Elliot rose to his feet. "I think we're supposed to order some pizza, but Derek and I thought you might like to go up and visit the pub on the corner. They make great calzones there."

Jason's eyes went wide. "You mean, like go inside and eat?" When Elliot nodded it was Jason's turn to whistle. "Man, they let you do that here? I mean, teens can go in a bar on their own and everything?"

Derek suddenly appeared in the doorway, and interrupted before his brother could reply. "It's not a bar see, not like in the States – it's a pub." He paused, trying to find the words to explain. "See, over here there aren't a lot of real, ummm, what you call restaurants – but there are a lot of pubs, because they're owned and run by local people and they sort of combine everything together. They have bars and places for people to drink, but a lot of them have good food too, and yeah - generally anyone can come in most of the time. These people down on the corner know us decent, too – we've been in there with Dad a few times, so that helps. We don't go by ourselves very often, but we have a couple of times and it was alright."

"You just don't ask for any of the potent stuff to drink – because everyone will laugh at you for even trying," Elliot added, grinning widely. He nodded to Derek, who immediately picked up the pillow from the end of the couch and threw it at his brother.

Jason grinned as he reached to put his jacket back on. "Have you guys, like uh... tried to get beer and stuff?"

Elliot shook his head. "I haven't, and I really don't care if I never try it. Most of it smells too nasty to me anyway. I won't say anything about HIM though," he added playfully, indicating his brother who walked up and grabbed for his jacket as well.

"And right you shouldn't. The less you know the less Mum and Dad can drag out of you when you least expect it." All three laughed as they left, with Derek turning out the lights and locking the door behind them.

Later that evening, both Simon and Natalie returned to find the boys playing a board game. Not unusual was the fact that Elliot was triumphantly celebrating as he raked in his winnings. Amused, Natalie walked over to stand beside them and run her hand through her youngest son's hair. "Are you taking unfair advantage AGAIN?" She laughed at the look of indignation that met her, and then headed off before she could further damage his ego. "Watch him Jason," she called back over her shoulder. "Elliot has an uncanny knack for winning at most of the board games in this house. Personally, I don't see how he does it, but he somehow gets the luck in his court. Boys, don't stay up too late, you all three have school tomorrow."

The brothers groaned good-naturedly, but afterwards all three teenagers wished the adults good night. They played for another 30 minutes or so, until Derek finally threw his hands up. "Okay, you got me, I'm bankrupt." He stood up and stretched before putting his pieces away. "I've never liked Monopoly that great anyhow. Besides, I got to hit the shower." He strode from the room leaving the two younger boys staring at each other.

Jason sighed, relenting. "Okay, you got me, too: you win." He laughed as Elliot pumped his fist in the air and made his personal victory dance a comical event. Afterwards however, they both collected and returned all the game pieces, putting them back into place. Stowing it away under the sofa, Elliot stood up and began standing on first one leg and then the other as he collected glasses and began wiping the table off.

"You okay, there?" Jason asked, amused at the now different dance altogether.

Elliot laughed. "Nope, gotta pee!"

Jason giggled as he got to his feet. "Oh - I should've guessed. You should have gone before your brother got the bathroom, though. I think I should have too," he added as he suddenly felt a growing need to answer mother nature's call.

Elliot gave his friend a look. "What are you talking about? Come on!" he exclaimed. Before Jason could object, Elliot grabbed him by the hand and dragged him into the hallway. As they approached the back room, they heard the water running from the other side of the wall. Jason stopped, hesitating while looking at Elliot. Rolling his eyes, Elliot turned back and leaned in close to whisper in his ear. "You said you trust me, right? Remember?" When Jason nodded, he felt Elliot's tug on his arm. "Then come on, he won't mind us, I promise."

Hesitantly, he let himself be guided into the bathroom where, sure enough Derek was in the middle of a hot and rather steamy shower. Jason noted the glass walls encasing the youth were pretty fogged over already. All that could be seen of the older brother was just the outline of his lithe form moving about inside. Once inside, Elliot suddenly let go of his hand and walked over to the toilet, where he proceeded to unzip and relieve himself. Jason still hesitated, standing behind the boy quietly until Elliot looked over his shoulder. Reaching back, the youth grabbed hold of Jason, this time by the shirt, and slowly pulled the youth up beside him just as he finished.

Although uncertain why, Jason felt guilty as he stood there trying to be as inconspicuous as possible. The only thing that ran through his head was that he felt like he was invading Elliot's privacy. Although things were certainly different, he was being led into something he shouldn't - if nothing else - have a right to do. He heard Elliot giggle, causing him to turn in time to see the boy roll his eyes yet again. Elliot had already zipped himself up by then, so there was no modesty to be reserved in his terms. Before walking to the sink, however, he cupped both hands around Jason's ear. Speaking in a hushed voice, yet still loud enough to be heard over the nearby rushing water, he hissed. "Man, just do it! Pee!" With that, he left Jason standing alone and headed for the sink.

Jason slowly unzipped and, with shaky hands, freed himself. He found it incredibly hard to relax, however, just standing there with all the other activity going on in the room. With one brother behind him, and the other showering less than 6 feet away, his concentration was shaky at best. As he stood there he couldn't help it, and his anxiety gradually grew worse. There was no denying it: he was bathroom shy, and try as he might, he could not let go of the much-needed relief. He closed his eyes and tried to breathe deeply, willing himself to let it happen. With no success, he began counting to himself, backwards slowly from 20. Again, he failed.

At least, he felt he had failed until he Elliot was suddenly standing beside him. Before Jason could open his eyes, he felt Elliot cup his ear again. "Hey, you got nothing we don't have, so relax. Hell, Derek's even having a wank in there, see?" He was giggling, and for once Jason let his guard down enough to glance sideways. Again, he could see nothing but the fogged form of the other boy behind the glass. There had, however, been a change of sorts; Derek was definitely facing the wall this time and... Well, the motions did resemble that of someone having some fun!

The sight was almost comical, and at that moment it made Jason giggle for some reason. Maybe it was just the change of the tension, or because he heard Elliot giggling, too. Either way, it became infectious in its own way, and that change surprisingly did it. Jason felt himself suddenly let go, and surprisingly, he began to urinate. He was stunned, yet relieved at the same time. So much so, in fact, he glanced quickly at the other youth still standing by his side and grinned sheepishly.

"Way to go, mate!" Elliot hissed before he turned away and backed off. Jason finished shortly thereafter, and after zipping up, made his way to the sink. Once he rinsed his hands, both boys made their way out of the room. Neither of them spoke again until they made their way upstairs and into their room. As Elliot closed the door and locked it, he hissed. "Shit! He really was doing it, you know? Damned - and right in front of us, too!" He grinned wildly as he sprawled on top of the bed, looking up at the ceiling.

Jason grinned as he plopped down beside the boy. "You think he knew we were there?"

"Think? Oh yeah – it's probably what was making him get off if you ask me," was the unexpected reply. Jason was shocked.

"Then, y-you really think he knew we were in there?"

Elliot nodded, a matter-of-fact expression crossing his face. "He knew, yeah. I've caught him plenty of times."

Jason stretched out on the bed beside him. "You're serious." Elliot nodded, and that left Jason feeling confused again. Elliot let him stew on that for a moment before reaching out and tossing a pillow at his friend.

"Lighten up, will you? It's no big deal."

Jason laughed, surprising the British youth. "Easy for you to say, I just – in front of us and, and..."

Elliot rolled onto his side. "Yeah? What? Are you gonna say you don't ever wank any, or...?"

Jason rolled his eyes. "You mean jerk off? Of course, I do! At least, I used to. Sheesh, I'm not a – what was that word you used again? A prude?"

Elliot giggled. "I'm glad." Seeing the look of curiosity, he explained. "I mean, I'm glad you're at least as normal as every other guy I know."

Jason used the pillow to pop him on the head before stretching out and rolling beside him. "I promise, I'm 100% all-natural boy," he replied, grinning.

"Um, I kind of figured that one out," Elliot replied laughing. "So, tell me, did it help any?"

At first, Jason was unsure, but it quickly dawned on him what his friend was referring to. Sheepishly, he nodded. "It was crazy, but yeah, for some weird reason I think it sort of did." He shook his head.

"What?" Elliot asked, but when his friend did not answer, he let it go. "I told you – just trust me, it'll all work out."

Jason closed his eyes for a moment. "Tell me something though - just HOW do you know? I mean, how do you really know it'll all work out Elliot? What is it you see in me? You don't really know me, you really don't know anything about me. Not that much, anyway. Don't you guys think I'm a wimp, or a screw-up or something? How can you be so sure about someone you've known now for only two or three days?"

Elliot just relaxed and smiled at him. "Because I just know. I told you, I have a good feeling about you."

Jason rolled onto his back and stared at the ceiling. "I wish I did." Before he could react, Elliot had turned loose and pinned the youth to the bed. What followed was an intense tickling session where Jason ended up being pinned under the youth. Having his ribs and underarms attacked to the full hilt, he cried out loudly while laughing, often losing his breath. They wrestled for a bit until, totally helpless, Elliot finally backed away grinning at him.

"You should have a good feeling about yourself, you know – because if you don't, I'm going to tackle your sorry arse and make you laugh till you cry every time I hear that kind of stuff!" A serious expression then crossed his face as he drew close again, until their noses were only inches apart. "I'm serious Jase - don't talk like that. I'll talk anything you want, do anything you want, answer anything you want. I'll help you, hold you, kick your arse, laugh with you, even cry with you. I'll hold my breath till I'm blue in the face, fart – all of it. Just don't put yourself down, okay? You're cool, you just need to kind of get your act back together, that's all. And you will, I promise."

Jason looked deep into the eyes meeting his own, and sighed with relief. He really was warming up to this guy again. "You're the best, you know that?" he whispered. When Elliot smiled, Jason hesitated before asking. "Um, you think it would be alright, like, maybe – just once...?"

It was Elliot's turn to be confused - that is until the American that lay beneath him slowly reached up. Threading his arms around the kid, Jason pulled Elliot up close. Elliot closed his eyes as he was enveloped in one of the warmest embraces he had ever felt. It started out feeling a little awkward at first, but Elliot rolled onto his side and pulled his cousin with him. Once done, they embraced each other, laying for several minutes in that quiet, intimate moment. The feelings and the warmth seemed to flow from both. It was surprisingly personal to Jason, especially when the other youth gave him back as much as he accepted in the embrace.

"See Jason?" The whispered voice was in his ear, soft and full of feeling from the teen in his arms. "I'm no different than you are. I'm not some weirdo, or alien, or a creep or anything; I'm just another kid who happens to live in a different country, that's all. We're still the same, you and me, and you know something else? I'm really glad you're here." He felt Jason suddenly hold him tighter, so for a moment longer he returned it. When they did finally pull apart, he could see a set of red eyes looking back at him. There was something more though, in that moment. Elliot observed the relief and the smile that met him. Somehow, it made Elliot feel good inside. He thought about how that moment had started, then remembered Jason's question. "You can hug me all you want, any time you want, I promise. So long as I can hug you, too."

"It- it's okay?" It was such a soft whisper Elliot almost didn't hear it. In answer however, he pulled the boy in close again and held him tightly.

"Yeah Jase, it's more than okay, I like hugs too." Elliot closed his eyes. How long had passed, neither really knew, but eventually there was a sudden, soft knocking at the door. Pulling apart, Elliot rose from the bed altogether and crossed the short space. Opening, he found his brother on the other side. By that time, Jason had pulled himself together and was sitting up when Derek poked his head inside.

"Um, message from Mum: We're all to go to school with her in the morning. She plans to get you," he indicated Jason, "enrolled with El, so we'll have to get up a little earlier, umm, half an hour or so." Glancing between the two, he raised an eyebrow. "Everything okay in here?"

Elliot, unable to resist, needled his brother. "As much or better as you were nickering." Seeing Derek's confusion, Elliot leaned in closer to his brother and whispered, but still loud enough Jason could hear, "Have a good wank downstairs?"

Derek's eyes went wide before he shook his head laughing. In fact, he was still laughing when he left the room without another word. Grinning, Elliot closed and locked the door again. He gave the American that knowing look again. "See? I told ya - he knew."

Jason just laughed and shook his head.

The next morning, a loud knock at the door jarred both boys from their sleep. It took a few seconds but Elliot finally called out, "Alright, we're up!" Reaching over, he turned on the lamp beside the bed before letting out a loud groan. As his eyes adjusted to the change, he stretched out his arm and poked Jason in the side. "You're alive, right?"

"Barely," was the reply. Jason rolled over, and then did it again until he literally rolled himself on top of his British cousin. Although Elliot grunted underneath him, he continued until he reached the edge and then the floor. Afterwards Elliot grunted again before sitting up. "Today's the big day then for you. I hope Mum gets you set up in most of my classes." He yawned and then stretched as Jason walked over to the closet. Pulling out a set of new jeans and a red polo shirt, he lay them on the desk. Elliot decidedly sat there and watched, as the other boy quickly stripped and donned his clothes for the day. He was silently please to see Jason made no move to avoid his gaze during the whole event.

Jason knew he was being observed, and was amused. "Like what you see or something?" he teased.

Elliot grinned, then shrugged. "What if I do?" he asked, shocking the other youth so much he froze for a second, and then laughed it off. Shaking his head, he continued while Elliot finally alighted from the bed and followed suit. When they were ready to leave, Elliot turned to his friend. "Remember what I told you, I'm going to stay with you as tight as I can, but I can't be everywhere all the time. You'll do great, though. I know it."

"T'is okay, I understand," Jason replied as they both stooped to pick up their shoes. Leaving the room, they passed Derek's room but noted no light or activity inside. Descending the stairs, Jason was surprised to find everyone else already seated around the table. Natalie had just finished pouring several glasses of juice as they entered.

"Be right there, Mum," Elliot stated as they both set their shoes down and disappeared to the bathroom. Although still groggy, Jason had the sense to know this was not a time to double up, especially as they had before. While taking turns waiting, Natalie reappeared to retrieve a plate of toast left behind. She smiled at the boy and cautioned him to be sure they didn't take too long, as their food would get cold.

Considering the morning's activities, everything went surprisingly smooth for the group. Simon had left for work with a friend, leaving the family car for the rest of the them to use. When they arrived at school, Derek headed in one direction while the two remaining youths followed Natalie elsewhere. Inside the main hallway, both boys punched knuckles in mid-air.

"See ya later. If we don't meet up before, look for me during lunch, it's a 35-minute period with two overlaps, so I know we'll at least find each other then."

Jason smiled nervously before replying, "You got it!"

After separating, he and Natalie headed for the far corner of the area, to a door labeled 'The Office'. A host of students were both entering and leaving, causing them to halt and thread their way into the stream. Once they arrived inside, they stepped up to the counter and waited patiently. After what had to have been nearly five minutes, an older woman finally approached. Jason judged her to be in her 60's at least, with short, white hair. She lifted her chin from a stack of papers she was sorting and announced gravely, "Can I help you?" Jason thought the voice was about as cold as one could get, lacking in any sincerity or warmth.

Natalie, however, was not fazed by it. "Yes, I am here to get this young man enrolled into the school."

The woman behind the desk stopped what she was doing, and shrewdly observed them both. "This school session is already 7 weeks into the term," she stated morosely. If her attitude was meant to intimidate, Jason thought she was making excellent progress in that area. He noticed that Natalie cocked her head to one side, however, and decidedly stood a little straighter. When she spoke, her voice was even, but the inflection she used delivered a clear message otherwise.

"I think you'll find that seven days, seven weeks or seven months matters little at the moment. You have a new student who needs to enroll, and I-" Natalie paused and emphasized the latter to the lady, "-am here to make sure it gets done. Properly."

The older woman suddenly dropped her files on the desk with a loud, audible "pop". Resounding throughout the office, above the noise of other activities within, the elderly lady climbed to her feet. Coming to the counter using measured steps, Jason noted both women eyed each other directly, breaking no contact between them. However, when the woman arrived and stood directly across from them, Natalie placed a sweet smile upon her features. Jason was certain, however, it was a gesture to placate the woman. "Can you tell me now dear, what the proper procedures are to go about this task we have at hand?" Natalie asked.

'Whoa!' Jason thought as he backed away, but Natalie immediately reached an arm around his shoulders and brought him back beside her. Both women continued to stare at each other for a full minute, before the older woman finally snorted and reached for a clipboard hanging nearby. Placing it on the counter, she spoke in a barely cordially tone. "The young man will need his medical records, current identification, proof of immunization and a medical examination result placed on file. We will also need his contact information, and his prior school records as proof of authorization." The woman glanced up and with an equally wide, faked smile, she added, her voice as sardonic and dripping with sarcasm as she could inflict. "Did you get all that, dearie?"

Undaunted, Natalie responded, "You made it SO clear, sweetie! Why, thank you so much!" She picked up the clip board and looked at the first page. "Um, one more thing, do you think you could point us to the headmistress's office, where I could meet with Mrs. Filch?"

The woman behind the counter frowned. "Do you have an appointment with her?"

Natalie smiled in return. "Indeed, we do." They once again stared at one another before the older lady sighed and motioned, pointing across the hall. "Fourth door on the right, down that corridor."

"Why, thank you ssoooo much!" Natalie guided him through the crowd of teenagers standing there in silence. Once out of the office, they walked down the hallway as indicated. Instead of entering the fourth door right away, however, Natalie suddenly pulled the boy to the side and started laughing hysterically. Jason was bewildered as he watched the woman, unsure of what had just transpired. After a moment, Natalie suddenly put her hand to her mouth and steadily quieted down.

"Are- are you all right, Mrs. Flavell?" he asked, half amused but still totally confused.

The young woman nodded vigorously. "That old hag! She was just as hateful and full of herself as the day I left school here! Only difference now though is I am much older and wiser – and fully in tune with her sensibilities. Or lack thereof!"

Jason's eyes grew wide. "You mean, you went to school here and she was..."

Natalie nodded, trying to keep from launching into another round of mirth. "She was, and be careful – I'm not THAT old!" Seeing his expression, she burst out laughing yet again. "It was only maybe 16 or 17 years ago I think, she was here, doing the same job as ever. She was always spiteful, always looking down at everyone. I remember when we brought Derek up here to enroll, both Simon and I had a round with her then!" She shook her head. "Some things never change," she concluded, then once again she guided the youth until they entered the designated office. Inside they were met by a pleasant middle-aged lady.

"Can I help you?"

"How do you do! We're here to see Mrs. Filch, is she available?"

The lady smiled in return. "Why yes, if you don't mind waiting a few moments, I believe she just finished the morning announcements. Can I give her your name?"

"Yes, I'm Natalie Flavell and this is our new student, Mr. Jason Mathews." Unlike the previous encounter, Jason noted these two women seemed to get along just fine. The other lady looked down and smiled, welcoming Jason warmly. They chatted for a moment and then were ushered into an empty office.

Once settled in chairs, they did not have to wait long before another lady entered the room. "Why hello Natalie! It's been a while, how are you?" Both women greeted each other, and Natalie introduced Jason.

Mrs. Filch sat down and then smiled at the teen. "Well, I must say, I've heard a lot about you Mr. Mathews! How do you do?"

Nervously, Jason spoke up. "I-I'm fine, thank you." He glanced at Natalie, then asked cautiously. "Um, you've heard about me? How, if I may ask?"

Mrs. Filch sat back and smiled. "Well, Natalie approached me last week to let me know about your pending arrival, and then some lady in the States sent most of your records over electronically."

"Was it all in order?" Natalie asked. The elderly lady nodded.

"I believe we can make do with it. I would suggest you get a couple of items taken care of, but don't be in any fuss over them. We can give you some time if you like."

"Of course," Natalie replied. "What kind of things do we need?"

"Mostly, I think it would be wise to get the health department to check his immunization records and get any updates as needed. He also needs a basic medical exam at some point, just so his vitals get on record, that sort of thing. I noted he had one earlier in the summer, but American physicians don't quite use the same set of standards as we do here. So though repetitious, it would still be a precaution well to your advantage, I believe. As to the rest, I'm pleased to say he'll meet fairly evenly with our standards, even though he is a foreign transfer case."

She sat back. "That is surprising, I must say. We've had other students come through here, especially from military transfers and more, with much less to work with. It usually takes some time to get everything in order with them, but I believe you'll be in tip-top shape much sooner." The lady smiled and leaned forward again. "I also received your request regarding his school timetable. I happen to agree, in this case. It would be wise, at least from now until the first of next Term, if we could keep him with familiar faces. It will help with the overall adjustment to our curriculum. Your youngest son," she paused, searching for some paperwork on the desk and finding, after a moment, what she sought. "Elliot, I believe, he has an agreeable timetable to meet most of the minimal requirements. Better yet, it looks as if they are the same age, so that should work out splendidly. There is only one item, and although it is a strict requirement we have to work with in most cases, I believe we could make an exception. It deals with his last period, at least for now, being physical gym. I would suggest perhaps we forgo that, and instead substitute an English history course. Beginning next term, we'll look to put him back into the regular regime, and if it can be done, I'll see to it the two boys are merged into the identical classes."

Looking at Jason, the woman spoke kindly to explain. "First, my apologies. I do not mean to ignore that you are standing here, and just realizing that has made me rather foolish. Nonetheless, please understand, I do not wish to even remotely enroll you into English doctrine per se. At least not right now. You have a heritage that we have no wish to impose over in the slightest. There are some things I think, however – if you're going to be with us for a while – that would just help you in the long run. One of those is English history, or rather European history."

The elderly lady removed her glasses, before shifting to address him more directly. "I am somewhat familiar with history courses in the States, and I know they generally stress little emphasis on subjects outside their borders. This is not a fault, mind you, just a simple fact I believe we could all agree on. I was thinking though, that I could put you in with an 8th level introductory course, something to sort of get your feet wet. Perhaps later, should you take an interest, we could find another course of similar standing. That level is a little below your school age, but we wouldn't leave you there permanently. It's only for a little while. What do you think of that? Want to learn a little English history?"

Jason thought about it, and then smiled sheepishly. "I'd like that I think, but – to be honest – I wasn't very good at history back home."

Mrs. Filch laughed. "I could see that from your records. Not to worry though, you will find that this particular course does not evaluate students just by exams. I think it is judged more by participation and projects than anything else. Personally, I think you would enjoy it, but if there are any problems, all you have to is come talk to me about it. As to your other courses, other than a dip in your grades toward the end, I daresay it appears you were a fine student in the States. Many of your teachers made very positive reflections in their notes. I believe you will be fine here with us," Mrs. Filch concluded. Jason had to admit to himself: the woman seemed very sincere, unlike many of the stoic personalities he had experienced before. He decided he liked her.

She turned back to Natalie. "Otherwise, I am agreeable to let him run, how you say, side-by-side with Elliot at least through the end of the term."

Natalie smiled in return. "That would be excellent, Mrs. Filch! I don't know how to thank you," she replied, extending her hand across the desk.

"Oh, think nothing of it, I know we have a rather unique case here, and personally I think he would have ended up in the same courses all along. Just matching them up with your son seems the most logical thing to do." Mrs. Filch addressed Jason once more. "Um, young sir, would you mind waiting for us in the outer office for a moment, I would like to discuss something else with Mrs. Flavell here, if I may."

Jason nodded, and then left the office, leaving the two women alone. For a moment, the elderly lady formed a steeple with her fingertips as she regarded Natalie thoughtfully. "I wanted to just say, I think it is excellent what you and your husband are doing, taking the child in. How has he been since his arrival, if I may ask?"

"It's just been a few days, but so far he has been great. I won't lie to you though, it's also been very plain to Simon and myself that he's been hurt, deeply. He's always apologetic, and he's nervous about almost everything. Still, he gets along with the boys just fine, and he is opening up more, becoming more – ah, friendly, more relaxed," she responded. Mrs. Filch nodded.

"In just a few days? That's remarkable," the elderly woman observed.

Natalie nodded. "I credit Elliot the most - they seem to have really hit it off."

Mrs. Filch reflected on that before nodding. "I saw the case history. It suggested he would be a very modest and quiet individual, with both his teachers and peers. I wanted you to know something else, however, just in case you were not aware of it." At that, she pulled a sheet from the folder on her desk and handed it across, which Natalie took and read quietly.

When Natalie looked up, she was alarmed. "How...? I mean, as far as I know, nothing of this has been shown to me or my husband! Are you sure?"

The elderly woman shook her head. "I can only go by what was sent over. Personally, I don't think you'll have any problems. Be that as it may, however, it is my belief parents have the right to know these things." She pointed to the paper. "Mind you, that only suggests that some observations were made, not that they all hold any merit."

"Conversely, they may all hold merit as well," Natalie observed.

"Nonetheless, it's because of those remarks, however, I made the decision exchange his gym class for history. Our culture does manage things of that nature a bit differently than they do in the west. I was concerned that, this soon out of the lions den, he may not be physically or mentally ready to deal with that change yet."

Natalie nodded approvingly. "You're as wise as you ever were, Mrs. Filch." Looking up, she smiled. "And thank you for letting me see this. We'll definitely keep an eye on him just in case."

The headmistress nodded kindly. "It may be nothing to worry with, but I must tell you – I've seen many children from all walks of life. Sometimes they surprise us, and other times, well – we just have to exercise faith in the system." She stood. "I'll see to young Jason from here personally, and I'll get him oriented in his first class. I'm sure your son can then help him get through the rest of the day."

"Thank you ssooo much. I can't tell you how much I appreciate this," Natalie replied as she stood, handing back the paper. Her eyes were moist as she considered the implications. She was surprised, however, when the elderly lady shook her head instead.

"No, you can keep that dearie. Don't worry Natalie, and you're welcome. He will be fine – I will see to it everything works out on this end." The two shook hands and then parted.

Natalie left the office and smiled at Jason on her way out. "I guess we'll see you tonight then, right?"

Jason nervously smiled, and then nodded without saying a word. Noting this, Natalie walked over to him and leaned over to whisper. "Don't worry, I will try not to embarrass you here with one of those motherly shows of affection. BUT – I do want to hear all about it tonight, okay? This lady is kind Jason, she'll take care of you. She said she will get you into your routine, so give her a chance." When she saw his response was warmer, she felt the self-assuredness had returned to the boy. She briefly placed an affectionate hand upon his shoulder, smile and nodded to him, before quietly turning and exiting the room. Once she was out of the school, her pace slowed as she became thoughtful while approaching their car. Upon reaching it, she turned and stared as if she could see through the walls, through the barriers that separated them.

And for the longest time, her face held a new look of worry.

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