When Shadows Pass

Chapter 30 - When Shadows Pass (Part I)

By Sean E

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"You know, maybe Derek and I should stay here, in Portsmouth."

Natalie lay with her husband in the dark confines of their room, her head upon his shoulder and a hand softly rubbing across his chest. Weeks had passed since Simon's return, and both had been furiously working out the many details of the upcoming trip. Details from the travel arrangements to the airport, to finances, and to other tasks more situated to assuring their itineraries would be manageable. It was a constant force at the front of their minds, checking and rechecking everything. She could feel her husband's heartbeat beneath the tips of her fingers, sensitive as they were. The change in his breathing did not escape her, nor the gentle shaking of his head in reply as he sighed.

"No dear, let's not go there. We've discussed this before - I and Jason must go, and there is no way we can expect him to make this trip by himself. Not without some sort of support to come along."

"But, you'll be going dear, and you can still take Elliot with you," she argued, trying to reason with him yet again. In her heart, she knew it was futile, but the feelings never subsided.

"You know what I mean, though. To be gone that long, he needs someone with him he can talk to and do things with. I am probably alright to a certain extent, but come on - let's face it. It's best we just acknowledge, up front, that we're both in different leagues. I'm an old man, by their standards, right? He needs someone with him he trusts, if not to hang out with, then to provide support for him. And to choose between Elliot and Derrick, there is no choice really. But to make a trip like this, and NOT let Derek go, too? I'm sure Derek would understand, but I wouldn't want to deal with disappointing him like that, would you? Besides, he may not be as close to Jason as his younger brother is, but Derek has as much at stake as the rest of us do. And lately, he has really, well, really made an impression, trying to be a big brother for both Elliot and Jason. What more could we ever ask of him like that, hmm?" Simon then turned to gaze upon the woman he held. "You should have seen them, dear. The day Jason finally told me about all of this, both our sons, Derek included, were sitting next to Jason, as close and brotherly as you'd ever imagine. They were supporting him, providing everything he needed, with a lot of patience and love. It astounded me how much sincerity I saw exchanged between them, and it reminded me once again how close knit the family really is." He hesitated slightly as he nuzzled his chin to her cheek. "That's why I think you need to go, too, in all honesty. It's why all of us need to go. We're a family now, so if for nothing else, we should all be with him as he gets to sorting some of this mess out."

"But... you know what that's going to do to us, right? Financially, I mean," Natalie admitted, worriedly.

"Let me worry about that. Yes, I am going to have to get a loan, but we already knew that. Fortunately, the State of Tennessee will pick up my and Jason's expenses, for the most part anyway. That will help us out considerably. We'll pick up an extra room and let the boys stay there while you and I share a room. The rest of it, as you say, we'll wing as we go along." He grunted. "Besides, this family, even before Jason came on board, hasn't had a real vacation for a couple of years now. I think this would be a blessed break for all of us, to be together."

She turned and looked at him deeply. "Even so soon, though? After Christmas? I know, I know, we've paid that down somewhat, but still." She scrunched her nose. "I'm not ignorant, my fine husband. I know we don't hurt any, but we're practically living paycheck-to-paycheck now, as it is." She sighed. "Surely you don't think that's all we'll have to face, right? We'll have eats, transportation, and who knows what else..."

"I know, dear. That's why I said we'll have to get a loan." Simon sighed. "I was going to see about getting us a larger vehicle this spring, or at least a secondhand vehicle of some sort. I'm afraid that'll have to go on hold for a while now, though. Still, I'll worry about that later. This is important, this whole trip is important. All of us need to be with him. I feel rather strongly about that, you know?"

She shook her head. "I know, dear. I just thought we might could at least get Christmas paid off, before we started with another car, or more."

Simon nodded. "Trust me, Christmas didn't hurt us that bad, really. Me making that last trip on our dime, that probably hurt us more than anything else, for the present. That one may not be so bad, though. It's funny, I spoke with Danny King this morning, he's the director over us down at the office. He called me into his office, wanting to catch up, more or less. We got around to the family, and then Jason, and I explained everything that had been going on. We talked for a long while, believe it or not. The surprising thing is, when I explained to him that I needed to take some more time off for this trip, he was all supportive of it. Even suggested the company might reconsider the air fare I just doled out to go down to Tennessee for that last trip. Especially since I did make a site visit to the USA before all of it."

"Really? That WOULD help us out a bit," Natalie mused.

"He's a ruthless human being, and very shrewd when it comes to business. Still, I must give the old man credit though, especially where it is due. When it comes to personal business like this - he was committed to not just understanding it, but also interested in how it was all turning out. Before I walked out, he told me not to worry about things back here. He'd see to it I got the time off that we needed. Oh, and he made me promise to bring Jason into the office sometime, so he could meet him. That, my dear, is almost unheard of for the man."

"Really? That IS nice of him, then," Natalie observed with surprise. She sighed. "Okay, I give in then. I won't argue about it anymore. Is there anything else I need to do at our end here?"

Simon laughed. "No, there isn't a whole lot, dear. Although, we know we'll have a few limited days, it will still be a fun little trip. I might even get enough courage up to rent an auto while we're over there, and we can go about seeing some countryside, or the city. Nashville is supposed to be quite popular in terms of country music."

"I wonder..." She thought for a second. "Isn't that where the Grand Ole Opry is at? " She immediately chastised herself. "Don't worry, I'm sure that would probably be an expensive venue. Still, it would be nice to see the place, if nothing else."

Simon nodded. ""Yes, it's on the north side of the city, I think. I don't know, we'll just have to see what's going on there and how expensive it will be. We can use our credit card for some things, but I want us to try and be careful. At least, until we determine how our expenses will go." He smiled at her. "But I promise this, if it's something we can do, we'll do it."

Natalie nodded. "When will you get our tickets? Our flights, I mean?"

"Mr. Coomer is having an assistant set up everything, taking care of two sets of itineraries. I gave the lady our credit card number, and she is supposed to be taking care of everything as reasonably as she can. I suspect we'll get them this weekend, or early next week."

"I hope she doesn't take too long. We'll have to start packing this weekend, too, since it'll only be a few more days until the school holiday starts." Natalie sighed as she lay her head back into his shoulder. "You know, I'm actually kind of glad for Jason. Who knew he would ever get the chance to go back home like this, especially this soon?"

"Certainly not I," Simon replied, before he laughed. "I think he has accepted this as being 'home' for now, but I do know what you mean. Do you know what he said to me the other night? He said we could do whatever was needed, he'd do whatever anyone asked him to do, with no complaints or anything. But he asked if we could consider, possibly traveling down to where they used to live, if only for a short trip. When I asked him why, he kind of shuffled his feet about, but finally he said he would like to go back to where his parents were buried. He wanted to go back to the graveyard."

"Really?" Natalie looked up at her husband incredulously. "I.. He... Wow!"

"I know. And to beat all, he was all apologetic about it and everything. Forget the logistics, I mean, here is a 14-year-old boy, wanting to do something that most kids would avoid! I was surprised, really. He even went out of his way to make sure we only consider it if it was something that could be worked out easily." He grunted. "That boy, he's so giving at times, yet so afraid to ask for anything. Have you noticed that?"

"He is a very selfless individual, I'll grant you that," Natalie agreed. "And the way he helps around the place here, with laundry, dishes and cleaning? He even told me the other night he'd cook dinner for us this weekend." She shook her head. "It's unreal, really. Like you said, he never asks for anything as it is. Except for that modeling glue you told me about, I don't know if he's ever asked us for anything, has he? I think it's a part of what makes him so special."

"I agree. From what we now know, it's understandable. Since he was forced to leave home, he was never treated with any respect as an individual, so he never gained any for himself. Or if he had any initially, they were all washed away by those taking care of him," Simon mused.

Natalie scoffed. "That's a play on words. They sure took care of him, all right, or rather, the exact opposite, I think!"

"Yes, I know dear," Simon intoned. "If you think back, though, Jason has never had any desires or wants, really, because he probably felt they were just unfounded dreams. So, he dealt with the things handed to him at face value, just trying to survive, and then right there at the end..."

"I know," Natalie interrupted him, shivering. "At the end, those bastards tried to take everything that was good and pure about him, and strip it all away."

Simon agreed. "Look at how he is, though. I used to think Elliot had one of the biggest hearts on his sleeve of any teenager I've ever known, but Jason has to be right up there with him. It's uncommon, I know. Both of our own boys have always been patient and kind, and willing to share their feelings with one another. I mean, think about that for a second. Neither Derek nor Elliot have ever asked for anything much either, unless it was something they felt like they really needed. We've never had to deal with the things a lot of parents do, such as high-cost Nike's and Reeboks, or fancy Apple mobiles and such. Our boys have thankfully never cared for those things that much, it seems. I am, as a parent, forever grateful for it, too. It helps keep our family grounded, and functioning together as well as it does."

"No, dear. You keep our family grounded, all three of us before, and now all four of us. I don't think you give yourself enough credit, sometimes. The impact you've had on Jason, telling him we were going to adopt him? I cried that night, listening to you and watching him. I never heard you speak so simply from the heart, but with such a feeling and understanding, too. And Jason? He absorbed every word of it, and you can tell that ever since he took it to heart, too. Remember?" When her husband squeezed her in his arms, she lay her head back down and grunted. "As to both our own boys, they know we have limited means, I think, and they respect it. They respect you," she added, smiling and hugging Simon ever so warmly in return.

"I know. They make me proud. I sometimes wish I could do more for them than what I do, but-" Simon mused.

"We've always had everything we've needed," Natalie interrupted. "And even then, some to boot, dear. Please don't sell yourself short. You've been a fine father, and you'll continue being one until the day we all have to leave this Earth."

Simon sighed as he returned her embrace. "And you, my dear, have been an excellent mother, too."

- + - + - + - + -

Elliot was putting the finishing touches on an old, wall-mounted shelf kit he had just assembled. It was given to the boys by their Aunt Ella, intended for use with the model ship when it was completed. It was a broad-board shelf, one providing ample surface for the construction as they needed. With little debate between them, the boys chose to locate it over their desk, and once the shelf was in place, they set about positioning the now-finished model onto it. Jason made a few last-minute adjustments, mostly to the power supply and its transformer, and then backed away.

Elliot tested the shelf one last time, finding it secured tightly to the wall. Satisfied, Jason carefully centered the transformer behind it as inconspicuously as possible. Once finished, they activated the lights and stepped back again. The ship lit up brilliantly, making them both look at it with awe, before grinning and giving each other a high-five.

Elliot quickly plunged the room into darkness by killing the overhead light. In a sea of almost total blackness, the model sat quietly in beautiful splendor. Inside the many cabin windows, and onto the ship's deck, lights from the LEDs shone with a majestic brilliance that left both boys spellbound for several minutes. It was Elliot who finally broke the silence. "You know something, Jase? Thanks, bro," he whispered.

"For what?" Jason asked, also quietly admiring their finished results.

"For letting me help you do this," Elliot replied. "For teaching me how you think about these things, and how you go about figuring them out. For letting me see something so ... cool. I mean, look at it! It's incredible!"

Jason smiled. "Yeah, I think it is, too. But I didn't do all of this on my own - you did your part, too."

Elliot blushed, but let it go. "Ron's Dad really thought so, too. Remember? He was, like, unable to even say anything for a minute."

Jason nodded. "If this wasn't a Christmas gift to me, I'd consider letting him and Ron have it to put in their shop. If they wanted it, I mean."

Elliot wrinkled his nose. "Huh? Don't you like it?"

"Sure, I do! It was a lot of fun, especially getting to do it with you!" Jason exclaimed.

"Then why would you want to get rid of it?" Elliot asked.

"I don't!" Jason thought for a second, then relented in understanding. "You're right, I wasn't thinking it through very well, sorry. I wouldn't give it to them, but what I would do is give it to you or your parents." He sighed. "I'm sorry Elliot, don't take that the wrong way, please? I appreciate it, really, I do! It was an awesome gift, to me. I just think some of you guys would probably admire it more than I would, that's all."

Elliot studied briefly before he nodded, somewhat mollified. "No worries, mate. I guess I understand what you're saying, but ... just remember. This is you. This is really, all of it, a part of you. I may have helped, but you were the one teaching me and everything along the way. And the painting? Don't let me even get started on that one! Who would have thought of using toothpicks to paint some of those details, especially in places like where you did! Or, who would have thought to combine colors to make new shades and everything like that?" Elliot reached out and put his hand on his cousin's shoulder. "It's awesome, truly awesome, Jase!"

Jason turned to Elliot with a look of gratitude. "Thanks. It's kind of nice to know I'm not a total waste of space, and useless with some things." He had to duck the pillow that Elliot grabbed and threw at him. "I'm kidding! I'm kidding!" he cried out, but not before Elliot jumped him and started tickling him furiously.

They made quite a stir in their upstairs room, enough so that Derek eventually appeared in the doorway. "What are you two runts onto about now?" he grinned, arms crossed as he leaned against the door frame to watch them.

"This prude is putting himself down again," Elliot quipped good-naturedly.

"Am not! I was...ki-kidding!!" Jason squeaked out, trying to protect his sides as Elliot began to dig into his armpits and ribs.

"Oh, is that so?" Derek inquired, before he joined in. The threesome began an all-out war, both Flavell brothers attacking Jason simultaneously. Their cousin did his best to ward off the various fingers that poked, groped and grasped him all over, but he failed in most regards. He was outmatched and he knew it, with not only his equal in place, but the bigger, more experienced brother teamed up against him. It didn't get too serious, however, until Derek suddenly grinned with a look of telltale amusement. Giving Elliot a knowing glance first, the older teen rose and closed the door, then returned and started stripping Jason. A whole new wave of activity ensued as Elliot renewed his attempts to keep Jason in a weakened, but hilarious state.

For his own part, Jason had started grabbing and protecting what parts of his clothing remained. However, it was all for naught as he succumbed to being overwhelmed by the two brothers. Between both Derek and Elliot, Jason was stripped naked in short order, and then held down by both boys as he laughed uncontrollably.

"

Say uncle!" Elliot finally gasped, out of breath as he struggled to keep Jason's hands and arms secured.

Jason only shook his head. "Never!"

Derek swung around so he could whisper into the American's ear. "Say uncle, or I'm going to make you come down and take a shower with me, right now!"

Jason first stared and then laughed at him. "You wouldn't dare! Your Dad is here!"

"You think? Watch me! You'll have to wash my willy and arse and everything! And give me a hand job to boot!"

Jason laughed again, but then reiterated as he started to struggle again. "Never!"

Another round of tickling began, but Jason knew he was already spent. After another minute or so, he finally gasped. "Okay, okay you g-guys! Un-Uncle! Uncle!"

Elliot finally eased and sat back, grinning widely at his cousin. He maneuvered himself to pin the youth's arms under his own legs before taking a moment to catch his own breath. Derek was already lying across Jason's legs, doing the same thing as he secured them tightly. Although they had stopped tickling, neither brother moved to let Jason go. While he watched them catching their breath, Jason relaxed. Although he was on complete display to them both, he didn't care.

"Gonna put yourself down like that again?" Elliot asked eventually, still recovering from the exertion.

Jason looked up at him. "I said I was sorry!" he grinned.

"Yeah, but... you didn't really mean it. Right?" Elliot asked.

Jason scoffed. "Probably not." He wrinkled his nose at Derek. "What got into you? You just wanted to see my dick again or something?"

Derek laughed. "Can't help it if your deformity is so interesting, you know."

"My what? I'm not deformed! You guys are the ones carrying your breakfast around everywhere you go!" Jason retorted, but then blushed at the obvious implication. Both brothers giggled at him.

"Well, you're the one sporting the American hot dog, too, so..." Derek quipped.

Elliot freed one of his hands and reached out, grasping Jason's limp member and holding it gently. He looked at Derek. "Yeah, I have to agree with him, it's not deformed. It's just... bald."

That brought a fresh snicker from all three, more profoundly, before a silence fell upon them. Jason began to relax while he watched them, amused but pleased at the attention they were giving him. Even Derek was acting more boldly than usual. Following Elliot's example, he reached out and cupped Jason's scrotum underneath in his palm. In a way, this was a first. They had all been through various forms of horseplay before, both naked and not, many times - but this was the first time the brothers were really working together, stripping Jason and teasing him.

It was also a first for Derek to take a more openly concentrated interest in him. For some reason, it caused Jason to feel good inside. "You guys... thanks."

Derek tore his eyes away from Jason's groin and raised an eyebrow. "What for?" He scoffed, then sat up, dragging the youth's legs up with him and pushing them back. He had both knees pushed up to Jason's chest, and then had his legs spread wide. Jason laughed at how Derek was giving himself and his brother a rather comical, but completely unobstructed view of his butt.

Derek again lifted Jason's scrotum and peered underneath. When he looked up, he grinned. "Believe me, your sorry arse is no different than ours is."

"Hey now!" Elliot hissed, before following and poking his own head around to see. "Uh, yep, gotta agree with that one." Raising himself up, he grinned at Jason. "You're a one hundred percent, all American boy, I think."

"Thanks a lot!" Jason said sarcastically before breaking into hysterical giggles again.

Elliot finally let go of Jason's arms and crawled beside his best friend. With Derek watching curiously, Elliot kissed Jason just then, ever so softly, before pulling back to stare into those blue eyes they seemed to share. "Don't do it again, Jase. You get after me for putting myself down, so sheesh, don't do it to yourself either. You're ours, and you're mine. Derek and I both love you, and you know it. You're not wasted space."

Derek also crawled up and stretched out on Jason's other side. "So that's what all this was about!" He grinned. "Listen to him, he's telling you the truth." He glanced down at Jason, now lying between them. "Sorry, uh, maybe we shouldn't have skinned you, but... seemed like a good idea at the time," Derek jested.

Jason snuggled between them. "I don't care. You know that by now. I mean, Elliot sees me naked plenty, but you... I still don't care. It's like you keep telling me. You guys trust me, and I trust you."

Derek nodded, then leaned in and hugged Jason warmly. "I know you do, and thanks." He propped his head up on his elbow. "If you'll let me, I'd like to tell you something. Kind of mushy in a way, but, well... not too bad."

Jason laughed. "Okay, I guess."

"Well, you know, you're not the same Jason that came to us so many months ago, in the beginning. You're a different person now," Derek mulled, quietly. "I just, I hope you know that, by now."

"You think so? How?" Jason asked.

"Well, yeah. I see someone a lot more comfortable, and a lot surer of himself now. You're stronger, more willing to stand up for yourself. I don't mean physically, but like mentally and everything. And if anything, you're someone not afraid to be with us and our craziness." Derek had meant the last part as a note of amusement, but when he saw the questioning look begin to form, so he shook his head and continued quickly.

"Look Jason, me and Elliot, we're not really normal. Surely you know that by now. Some things we do are normal and cool, I guess - or at least geeky. But there's a lot of stuff we don't do, too. Things that aren't normal in the eyes of other people our age. Like, we don't get into skateboards, we don't go crazy over punk rock or Rap, or the stupid Gen-X stuff. I mean, we're sure as hell not druggies, smokers, or drinkers, we don't hang out at parties, or try to screw half the girls in school. We don't even care that much about girls in general, or even cars. At least, not a lot right now anyway. Hell, I can't go out with any of my mates anywhere, without them ending up talking about feeling up so and so, snogging or kissing tits and everything. And yeah, a lot of them do screw around, I think - or at least get onto the buffet line. I mean, physically - a lot."

Elliot grunted. "Yeah, we get the idea."

Jason was unsure. "Get onto the buffet... line?"

Derek grinned. "Sorry, another weird term for you, I guess. Actually, I think that one comes from America, but I'm not sure. Uh, the buffet, it means where guys suck tits and eat the girl out, you know, down there." He saw Jason blush deep, and it caused him to laugh. "It's okay though, don't sweat it."

Elliot smirked. "We've, uh, kind of been hearing about this some already."

"Really? From who?" Derek asked, looking up.

"Ron," Elliot replied. "Seems he caught his sister and her boyfriend, uh... yeah..."

Derek scoffed, shaking his head. "Well, don't knock guys too hard," Derek continued, thoughtfully. "They're mostly just shooting shit, and most of us know it. Although, some... yeah, well, that's another story for another time."

"Derek? Do your friends, your mates, do they ever talk about guys and stuff?" Jason asked.

Derek shook his head. "Not really. Well, maybe sometimes, but ... it's nothing like the stuff the three of us talk about with each other. When we were younger, yeah, there was some stuff my mates and I would get into." He paused and looked far away for the moment. "You have to understand, as you get older, there's just this line kind of, that people don't cross. Kind of like I warned you about that night we talked, remember? Most guys are okay with curiosity and all, just so long as you don't cross a certain line with them. The interesting thing is, though, every guy has his line in a different place, and sometimes you have to kind of figure it out. That line isn't the same for all of them." He grinned. "Like I said, a couple of years ago, like where you two are right now, the lines really didn't exist so much. We did some crazy shit, you know? But now, some guys are still cool with it, and some are not, that's all."

Jason thought about the red-haired teen he and Elliot encountered. "Yeah, like Sean was, that day."

"Exactly, but I think I told you why I think that is. He has a younger brother and all, maybe he's kind of getting the same stuff from him that I get from you guys."

Jason smirked, but then smiled in understanding. "Sorry, Big D. I didn't mean to nag you about it."

"You didn't, squeaker. Trust me," Derek replied with a returning smile. "But see, Jase, that's where me and Elliot are different. We're brothers, see, and we get into a lot of things too, most of which aren't really that bad. There are some things we get into that are geeky and all. And then there's THIS stuff. I mean, look at us now, perving on you."

"Yeah, but it's always just fun stuff, I know," Jason interjected softly.

Derek nodded. "Of course, it's just fun. But consider what it means, okay? Think about if you were in America, today. Haven't you told us before, guys over there would never do anything like this?" He smiled before he blushed. "Ok, leave the gay people out of it, sorry. I guess they wouldn't have second thoughts or anything about it, so okay. Seriously, though, I'm just talking normal guys and stuff. Would they do this? Would they do what Elliot and I just did to you? Right now? Would they lie next to you, hold your family jewels or play with your willy while we talked? Or even just let you be here naked like this, without being squirmy and everything?"

Jason understood perfectly. "No, they wouldn't. I get it, I really do."

Derek smiled. "That's what I'm trying to tell you. El and I got this trust thing going in the beginning, between us. Seriously, we were thinking and believing this way a long time before you ever got here. In one way, it's taboo - you know, forbidden. Yet, when we do these little things, it does something to you on the inside, in a good way. Like, when you lay naked with someone, guy or girl - it doesn't matter. You're letting them see you, right? And I mean, REALLY see you. All the parts of you that are private, or secret, are on display without any hesitation or anything. They're the parts of you that you're exposing, parts that you're willing to share, and letting it say something to the other somebody with you. Think about it - would you go down the street and strip for just anyone to gawk at you?" Hearing the giggle, he smiled. "See? You only let certain people inside of your wall, your space, and it means something when someone feels that with you. For guys like me, Elliot - even you, I wager - it's more than just what we see with our eyes. When you do this stuff with us, and do it so freely and innocently, it makes us feel really good inside. We see it, and we feel it - with our hearts."

Jason shook his head. "I'm not that innocent, Derek. Even Ron tried to convince me something about being so innocent, but ... I'm not. I have dreams, feelings, fantasies... a lot of things that aren't so innocent."

Derek stopped him. "But, you are. That's what makes me and Elliot love you even more. We know there are these things we tell you about, and try to teach you, because we've been around it for a long time. I guess it's just more second nature to us. But when we watch you, we know you're seeing things for the first time. Your eyes, your whole expression have this look of awe to it, and we're cool with it. We love it because it makes us feel like we're not just humoring you or something. We know you care, we know you're finding things out, like our dicks... excuse me, our 'sausages', to be fascinating. Not because we're that strange or anything, but because you truly do find it interesting sometimes, even in a non-sexual way." Derek leaned in closer. "Here's something else, too: I just saw Elliot kiss you, on the lips. I can only imagine what that must feel like, honest. But I see you two have this freedom, where you don't hold back from one another, and you know what? It makes me feel really happy on the inside. I never got that close with Elliot, see. Not that I wouldn't have, if he wanted it, but the fact is we didn't. I'm just glad he has that freedom with you, honest."

Derek paused as he pulled back and propped his head again on his elbow. "You two share a lot, together. I mean, I look at you now and I see you and everything, and you're letting me inside. You're letting me and Elliot see a part of your soul, even. Tell me you could do that, with us, when you first came here. Even after everything that happened to you, with those perving arseholes, tell me you didn't learn to trust us as deep as you did. Especially if we hadn't been this open with you, letting you see us on the inside, too?"

"See Jase?" Elliot spoke up. "I think this is what I couldn't explain it to you that night, when you finally talked to me. You remember, right? I tried, but it was hard to get you to understand why it was so ... important. You know, so special to me when you trusted me. I wanted you to see me, and to feel what I was feeling for you, too. I admit it, I was maybe a little horny and curious and everything, but I really wasn't trying to get you into a shower just so we could, you know, get skinned and check each other out and everything. I was trying to get you to join me, so you could see how much I was falling in love with you - like a brother, in a good way. I may only be 14, but I could feel things inside you, and I knew, see? I knew you were hurting, and I wanted to help. I was just trying to get you to see how much I trusted you. And you know what? That night, you finally did. You finally saw it, inside of me." He was smiling as he draped an arm over his cousin. Derek mimicked him from the other side. "You're right, we do see each other naked a lot, but it's always natural stuff. You know, changing clothes, taking a shower, all that stuff. But when you do this, or you let us do it on purpose? It's different. You know what's going on, and then you don't really care. Like right now. Does that make sense? Do you see why I get so much out of it, sometimes? Or, like, when Derek is waiting for us in his room, naked and everything. When he doesn't care about it, doesn't care if we see him and everything, it's just... it's something deeper, you know? It's because we're brothers, and we're not afraid of each other. Even if I wanted to go jerk him off, he wouldn't care. Well, most of the time, anyway. That's why we love each other, we watch out for each other. It's why we're so close." He paused. "And it's why we both love being so close to you, too. You're our brother, too."

"He's right. We see you for who and what you are, Jason, just like you see us sometimes," Derek picked up the thread. "That's why we make such a big thing out of this trust deal. I know Elliot does. I know he wants to do whatever it will take to help you feel better about yourself, or about us and our family."

"You guys already know how I feel about you," Jason whispered, his voice thick with emotion.

"Yeah, we do. But Jase? I think this is the closest we have ever come to explaining it," Elliot replied. He wiped at his own eyes.

"It's a big part as to why we can even have this conversation," Derek added. "We see you for what you are, just as much as you see us for what we are. And right now, all nakedness and kidding aside..." Derek paused and put his hand upon the teens chest, over his heart. "I think me and Elliot see a really different mate here, different to the the one who showed up at our door last year. That's what I was talking about, Jason. I see someone and look at how he was then, and how he is now. Elliot isn't the only one who holds you close to his heart, you know. I've grown to love you for your honesty, and your innocence, and your willingness to just... I mean, you give everything of yourself, without expecting anything back from us. It's not easy for people to do that, you know? Do you know how rare that is, in any friendship?"

Happy tears escaped down his cheeks as Jason listened, but he made no attempt to hide them. He had felt long before, that there was no shame in sharing his feelings with these two. When the two brothers fell silent, Jason did finally react. He reached out and gently captured Derek's hand and held it in place close to his heart. With his other hand, he grasped Elliot's and held it just as warmly.

"I don't know what to say, honest. Just thanks. You guys are everything to me, too. You're right, those bastards who messed with me, screwed with more than just my ass. They screwed my head up, my feelings for everything, and ... and just, they screwed me and they screwed with me. They didn't care; they just saw me as a piece of meat to be used, I guess. They didn't care," he repeated quietly. He saw Elliot wince, but he let out a long, deep breath. "Don't worry Elliot, I'm not hung up on that so much anymore. I know better now, and it's like your Dad told me once. I have to live with it, but if I let it scare me the rest of my life, I'll lose something. You've told me that, Derek has told me that - Ron even told me, told us, that those... those pervs, whatever they physically did to me really only got what was on the outside, but not what was on the inside." He glanced at Elliot. "No one can ever touch that, except what I let them touch. That's what you have a part of Elliot, and I'm glad. And you, too, Derek. You have a part of me, too." He quickly wiped his eyes again, before returning to grasping their hands, holding them in place. "I don't want to lose you guys. I think I'm over that fear now, honest, but... every once in a while, I still get afraid of screwing up. Screwing us up."

Elliot smiled. "You won't screw us up Jase, I promise."

Jason turned to Derek. "I'm not ashamed or afraid of you guys, you know that."

"I'm glad, personally. Now Elliot doesn't have to hang around me all the time," Derek teased. He said it with a smile, glancing at his little brother, who only rolled his eyes in return. "You know, Jase, those guys - that was then. They're gone now. You're right about having to let them go, or they'll have this unseen power over you forever. You'll always know it was there, that they were there at one time, and that they tried to take something from you. But it sounds like Ron was right, too. They may have tried, but they couldn't take away what sits inside your heart. In the end, look at what you got back. As much as I hate to say it, I think if all that stuff hadn't happened, then you would have never made it into our lives, right here, right now."

Jason smiled as Elliot squeezed his hand. "Ron said something almost like that to us, too."

"Well, it's true. Sounds like he's a smart mate to have around. And cute, too. And uh... yeah." Derek blushed, making Elliot laugh.

"You're not getting a crush on him, are you?" Elliot asked.

"Nah, he's all yours," Derek quipped. "I just think, well, yeah, he's kind of cute."

Another silence fell between them briefly, before Derek cleared his throat. "So, yeah, that was probably a lot more than you bargained for, but that's, um, just something I feel. I wanted you to know it, because if you are selling yourself short, like Elliot said, then you'll not just have him to contend with. I'll kick your American ass - and yeah, I didn't say arse! I'll kick your ass into the next continent!"

Jason sat up and pulled Derek into the warmest embrace he had ever given him. "Thanks, Big D. You know I still love ya, right?" he whispered.

"I love you, too," Derek softly reply.

They held each other for a moment before Jason pulled back, then shyly asked, "Umm... do you think I could have my underwear back now? Please?"

"What's wrong?" Elliot spoke up suddenly, grinning. "Already? I was kind of enjoying the view, you know?"

Jason laughed. "Sorry, but I don't think you're going to get a boner out of me right now ... either of you. Besides, you get to 'view' me lots of times as it is, don't you?" He giggled, then a sheepish expression returned. "See, I kind of need to, uh, go see the judge." He looked at Derek. "I might need a few minutes."

Derek laughed. "Ugh, sounds like my shower time just got delayed!" He stared at Jason as Elliot retrieved the briefs from the floor. "I was serious, you know. Mum's not home, and Dad would never even know it, I think. He's in the front room, asleep on the couch. I could pull you both into the shower with me, if you wanted. Besides, I think I owe you something special anyway, right?"

Jason shook his head, as Elliot was pulling his underwear back up in place for him. "You don't owe me anything, Derek. Just... thanks."

"You're welcome," came the soft reply. Jason then rose and found some sweats and donned them before quietly leaving the room.

Derek stared at his brother. "Look, uh, I know you two are kind of a thing with each other. But uh, sometime, if you will, you need to let me pay him back. After what I did for you that night, and then neglecting him? I always feel like I let him down, you know?"

Elliot smiled. "You can do it bro, anytime you want to. I promise, it'll be okay with me."

Derek scooted over and gave his little brother a big hug. "Don't know what I would do without you, runt." When he let go, he looked toward the door. "You know what? I don't care ... he never stinks the loo up, anyway. I think I'll go on in." He glanced at Elliot. "You want to come? You can, you know."

Elliot hesitated. "You're sure Dad's asleep?" he asked quietly, and when Derek nodded, he grinned. "You bet! Let's go!" he whispered. He rose and crossed to their drawers, quickly extracting two pairs of freshly cleaned briefs for him and Jason, then followed his brother out of the door.

- + - + - + - + -

Three days before the family was set to leave, Jason suddenly developed another bout with the common cold. With watery eyes and a runny nose, the teenager started to feel light-headed from being up and about. Natalie kept him home from school, choosing instead to send him to bed for some much-needed rest, hoping the ailment would work out of his system. However, as time progressed, the unfriendly ailment clung tightly to the American teen, and proved itself to be uncharacteristically difficult to shed.

For those last few nights, Simon had suggested Derek trade rooms with the teenager, with the hope of trying to prevent Jason's illness spread into the rest of the family. Although the upcoming trip was creating a high level of anticipation and excitement for all, those nights were the hardest on Jason. Being alone for the second time since his arrival, he felt an uneasiness returning to him. He chastised himself, knowing full well things had changed so much for the better, yet the old feelings and dreams threatened to haunt him still. Instead of getting the rest he desperately needed, his thoughts ran rampant on what was to come, keeping him awake for hours. That aggravated his breathing and coughing, and the fatigue began to wear him down.

The night before they were to depart, it was Elliot who came to the bedroom door in the late hours of the evening. The others had already gone to bed by that time, given the early hour each knew would be coming. However, Elliot had found sleep difficult, and after visiting the loo, he stopped on his return trip to listen. He heard the uneven wheezing and troubled breathing that came from inside in the darkness, and it saddened him. Disregarding his parents' wishes, he quietly slipped through the doorway and crossed to where he knew the bed waited. Climbing in, he found Jason facing away from him, so he curled up and snuggled against his cousin, holding him gently as he cuddled in.

At first, Jason didn't stir, but Elliot gradually noticed a change. Jason shivered at one point but then pushed back hard into the new-found warmth behind him. Whether he ever awakened, Elliot did not know, but for the next several minutes he felt Jason relax and fall into a much deeper slumber. It was when the breathing becoming steadier, and the rigid tenseness left, Elliot knew he had accomplished what he set out to do. Keeping Jason in his embrace, Elliot also drifted off into a light slumber, waking only at times when his cousin shifted or stretched.

Sometime later, Elliot was awakened quietly by a firm shake to his shoulder. Opening his eyes, he saw Derek towering above him, a light from the hallway illuminating the shadows in the room. In silence, Derek beckoned his little brother out into the hallway, and guided him back to the other bedroom. Closing the door, Derek turned and spoke quietly. "Our alarm just went off, so when I didn't find you, I kind of guessed where you were." He smiled at his younger brother, before going on. "You awake, now? We need to get dressed. Mum and Dad are going to be up any minute, if not already, and we have to help get squeaker ready. Okay?"

Elliot nodded and quickly pulled on the set of clothes Derek handed to him. Both had already picked out the night before and readied what the three boys would wear. Derek also dressed in the silence, and when both were finished, Elliot gathered the remaining ensemble and followed his brother out the door, making their way back to where Jason still slept, albeit peacefully. "Pity to have to wake him," Derek observed. "I think that's the first time I've seen him really rest, without coughing his head off all night. Isn't it?"

"Yeah, but he'll kill us if we don't, you know?" Derek nodded in agreement, and reluctantly both boys roused Jason. The teen sat up, groggily at first but then seemed changed. As he let both brother guide him in getting dressed, the teen seemed more alert than compared to the past few days. He spoke little, other than offering simple thanks to the brothers, before they tugged him from the bed and Derek led him from the room. Down the stairs all three went, and into the kitchen and finally the bathroom. Both he and Elliot led Jason inside, but were pleased as they watched their cousin step over to the toilet all on his own, and then managed himself from there. It gave the brothers the impression he was more focused, and with the upcoming travel only hours away now, they felt he needed just that.

Little was said during the ride to the airport. The entire family, though excited in every sense, found it difficult to adjust to the early morning hour. Even Simon's sister, Ella, yawned often as she had accompanied them, driving a borrowed van that allowed all of them, and their luggage, to be delivered to the airport safely. Once they arrived, however, the bustling activity of other travelers arriving, along with the colder morning air, woke them rapidly. Each member of the family sprung to life, giving their driver warm hugs and hearty thanks, before grabbing their gear and disappearing into the bustling airport crowd.

It was the first time that Elliot had ever boarded a plane, let alone be flying to the United States. Derek had flown to France before, each time to visit with his natural mother. The experience was not as new to him, but he still felt a thrilling anticipation build, given where they were going, and the length of the upcoming flight. He did remark, however, upon seeing the size of their plane, that his earlier trips had been on smaller aircraft. The one they were boarding now was much larger and roomier in comparison.

All three teenagers shared a row of seats on one side in the main cabin, with their parents were located several rows forward. The two brothers constantly chatted about the airport, the grounds and even the flight itself, from their take-off up through their cruising altitude. They talked about the change in air pressure, the stewardesses, the snacks and drinks, as well as the view outside their window, which showed them floating above the clouds. Each was soaking up the experience like a sponges, much as Jason had on his first flight over. The American, however, mostly just smiled and made small remarks from time to time, not really getting into the experience as deeply. He was still recovering from his ordeal, and the effect the flight was having upon his sinuses, wasn't creating the best experience for him this time around. Though somewhat on the mend, the teen had begun to feel more sluggish again, and ended up dozing for a good portion of the flight. Both Derek and Elliot watched him at times and understood, leaving him alone to rest.

Roughly 7 hours after leaving London, they finally arrived in Atlanta, Georgia. All, except for Simon, found the experience of going through customs interesting, as compared to what they encountered in the UK. Simon explained to them beforehand that, because of the terrorist threats and issues the US had been dealing with since the World Trade Center incidents, that Americans were much more alert regarding visitors. The Flavells had no problems as a group, making their way past the TSA security officer without trouble, but when the man looked up Jason's passport, it was a different story. He smiled at the group and asked them to wait for a moment while he disappeared, taking Jason's passport with him. After the man had been absent for several minutes, Simon began to get concerned. He quietly moved himself to stand behind the teenager, placing a gentle hand of support and comfort upon his shoulder.

The TSA agent did finally return, however, and as he returned to his seat, he again smiled before returning Jason's passport to him. "Was everything in order?" Simon asked.

"Oh, it's fine. Sorry it took so long, folks. The initial run didn't register him as being from the UK. That would explain why, I assume, he held a U.S. passport. I needed to be sure, and to get clearance from my supervisor, how to handle it correctly, that's all. Everything is in order, however. You shouldn't have any difficulties during your stay. You're moving on to Nashville, I think? There is still ample time to make that flight without any problems. I believe everything going north here is running on about an hour delay."

"Oh! Well, thank you kindly, sir. Have a good day!" the eldest Flavell responded, obviously relieved.

"You and your family enjoy your stay in the States, as well," the man replied.

The group proceeded to catch their connecting flight to Nashville without further incident, and soon the family was airborne again. This time, however, the aircraft was much smaller, more aligned to what Derek had flown with before. Given a strong front that was obviously moving through the area, the craft was more prone to the adverse weather. The plane encountered various pockets of wind gusts, causing it to adjust often to keep its course. Nevertheless, none of the family were as overtly thrilled when they landed, as were the other passengers. Their flight from England had been a pleasant, smooth experience compared to this one, which was anything but.

Once they arrived into the terminal, Natalie, Derek and Elliot were surprised they didn't have to go through customs again. Simon smiled and explained that they were no longer coming from foreign soil, having already passed through the Atlanta hub. As they reacquired their luggage, they followed after Simon, heading into the general transportation area of the airport. Looking about, Derek spoke up. "So, what happens now, Dad?"

Just as Simon was about to reply, he suddenly noticed something, or someone, in the crowd ahead of them. Moving closer, the family saw several individuals waving or holding placards with various names on them. One, in particular, held a card bearing their own family names, "Flavell & Mathews", in plain, bold block letters. With the others following in curiosity, Simon approached the man. The middle-aged gentleman observed them, and then smiled before extending his hand. "Flavell? From Portsmouth?"

"Yes sir. And who...?"

"My name is Burris, sir. I was dispatched here by Mr. Coomer, whom I believe you've met. I have instructions to take you and your family to your hotel this evening, if that is alright. Is everyone here? Five of you, I think?" Seeing them all nod, he beamed. "Well, I may not be the first to greet you in America, but let me at least welcome you to the city of Nashville, Tennessee! Capital of the state, and the home base of American country music!"

Simon shook the hand more firmly, and then introduced the rest of his family. Once done, Mr. Burris instructed them to follow him outside to the curbside, walking slowly and making sure the group stayed together. As they exited the building, he guided them into a general loading area, where he asked they remain until he brought the van around. After disappearing for only a short while, moments later he returned and drove up to the curbside by them in a white, comfortably sized passenger van. It was a large vehicle, sizable enough to hold the five and their accompanying luggage with ease. Alighting, Mr. Burris worked, with the boys' assistance, in getting everything quickly stashed away. Once the group was settled inside, Simon finally inquired. "I say, where are we going to be staying, if I may ask?"

Mr. Burris reacted with surprise. "They haven't told you yet?"

"I'm afraid not, no. The lady I spoke with only said everything was being finalized for us, and then would be arranged by the time we arrived."

Mr. Burris grinned widely. When he spoke, an air of mystery encompassed his tone. "Well then, perhaps I should just let you see the place first, without spoiling the surprise and adventure."

Simon and Natalie were both puzzled by the remark, as were the boys. All remained silent, however, as the man threaded the vehicle into the lane of traffic, and promptly exited the airport onto the main highway. During the drive, Mr. Burris chatted amicably with them, telling them about various history and stories regarding the areas they were passing through. It wasn't until they made a turn, roughly 20 minutes later, that the boys started to stare out the windows, open mouthed. "Mum! Dad! Look!" Elliot exclaimed.

Mr. Burris had steered them into a large hotel complex that obviously spanned several acres. Seeing their surprise, he grinned. "Yes, these are your accommodations for the next few days, I believe. Welcome to the Gaylord Opryland Hotel!"

Simon was stunned. "My stars, are you certain? This is... remarkable!"

Their driver laughed. "It is a sight to see, I agree. It is amongst the largest hotels in the country, I believe, and has a little under 3000 guest rooms and suites. I also believe, though please don't quote me, that it has something like 18 different full-sized restaurants inside as well. It also has several other amenities that are unique to the residence, too. For example, it sits next door to the famous Grand Ole Opry, and is near the Opry Mills shopping plaza. The hotel also has a large number of shows and festivities it sponsors onsite."

Natalie spoke up. "We've heard about the Opry, yes. But... isn't this, expensive?" She exchanged a worried look with her husband, but before they could continue, Mr. Burris laughed again.

"You folks do not need to worry with that. It's my understanding you are here as guests, with your host being the State of Tennessee. I believe your rooms and accommodations are being taken care of by them."

"Well, at least partially," Simon admitted, but was uncertain as he tried to process it all. No one spoke more on the subject again, as Mr. Burris navigated in a lane that led toward the hotel entrance.

Jason had listened to the exchange, and for the first time since the trip had been announced, he paused. He had not worried as much before, about the expenses, not in this way. Hearing Natalie voice her concern triggered within him an uneasiness. He worried suddenly about what it might do to the family, to make this trip with him and Simon, and for the first time he began to have doubts whether he could have made things easier on them. As Jason glanced at the others, he saw both Derek and Elliot were too excited at the moment to care. Natalie's face seemed to light up, however, as she observed the huge complex and its inviting lobby at the entrance. Although he felt weary and uncomfortable, he did his best not to let it worry him as they drove up to stop, and then began exiting the vehicle. In fact, he had other worries to face at the present, that were far more graver, but he maintained his silence.

As the group alighted, immediately they were approached by two bellboys. "Good afternoon! Welcome to the Opryland Hotel! Can we get your luggage for you?" With a signal from their driver, the two bellboys immediately moved to the rear of the van, where they quickly transferred everything onto a cart. Simon stopped their driver and thanked him, pulling out his wallet in an obvious attempt to show his appreciation. Mr. Burris, however, stopped him.

"Excuse me, Mr. Flavell. I do appreciate the gesture, sincerely, but I think you need to understand something here. I have been contracted to get you about this week, all at the expense of our glorious State of Tennessee - and that includes all taxes and gratuity. My instructions are explicit: get you folks here safely and checked in. Although it is a Friday afternoon, you are instructed, by my superiors, to enjoy your weekend here and about in our fair city. Should you decide you want to explore, there are a large number of complimentary shuttles the hotel provides to various stops around the community. But should there be somewhere you would desire to go, one that they cannot arrange for you, all you have to do is call this number," Mr. Burris explained, handing Simon a business card. "Either I, or another one of our staff, will be here within a half hour or so, and we will be more than happy to get you to your desired destination."

"But, but-" Simon tried to reply, obviously bewildered. Mr. Burris, however, smiled and pulled him off to the side.

"No sir, you need not worry with it. I imagine, you are probably used to giving gratuity and all that. Most people are, so it is not an adverse custom. It is not to be employed in this case, however. It isn't often we get to bring in and treat special guests like this, so I implore you to take advantage of it. Like I said earlier, there are something like 17 or 18 restaurants within this complex, serving cuisine from around the world. Plus, if you prefer, there is a reasonable room-catering service, too, and the menu is several pages in length! There are also pools, spas, theaters, shows and shopping all over the place - so enjoy it. If I'm not mistaken, there is even a decent line-up playing tomorrow evening at the Opry, should you wish to avail yourselves. Some of the more seasoned stars are set to appear, I believe."

Simon was astonished, and it showed. After searching their guide's expression earnestly, he finally relented and returned his wallet to its pocket. "Well, uh, wh-when do you get back to us, then?"

"If we do not meet again before, then on Monday morning around 8:30 or so, I will pick all of you up. We'll meet here in the lobby, and then take you downtown to the Davidson County Courthouse Annex, where Mr. Coomer and some other officials will take over. Afterwards, everything else will be determined from that point forward." By then, the rest of the family had stepped closer, and as he looked around, he detected the uneasiness. "Come on, I can leave the van here for a few minutes, long enough to see you inside. Let's walk in and go to the registration desk." With the bellboys quietly following behind, they entered the main lobby, a grandiose room by design, and crossed a huge foyer to the registration desk. There Mr. Burris spoke briefly with the attendant, who turned and pleasantly smiled at the group.

"Ah, Mr. and Mrs. Flavell," the young lady proclaimed. "My name is Denise. I can help you get settled in here for your stay. I happen to have your details right here, down for two rooms, checking in today and leaving on Thursday next. Is this correct?"

"I ... suppose so," Simon answered. "You have us for the entire week?"

"Yes sir, and..." she hesitated as she observed the details on her computer screen. "Oh! I see, very good! It appears the State of Tennessee is picking up your tab. Marvelous!" Her eyebrows furrowed for a brief instant. "And that would be all expenses, it looks like, yes." She returned her gaze to them with a wider smile. "I hope each of you finds your stay here enjoyable!"

As she began processing the paperwork, Mr. Burris took his leave. "Remember, if you need transportation outside, and the hotel doesn't have a shuttle to get you about where you want to go, just give us a call on that number." Shaking Simon's hand, he added, "I'll see all of you, bright and early, on Monday morning, if not before."

As he walked away, Simon stared at him briefly before returning his attention to the lady behind the counter. "I'm sorry, miss, but could I ... might I confirm what I think you just said? The State is going to be paying for both rooms, through next week?"

The lady smiled, then rechecked her screen. "Yes sir, that is correct. You should not have to pay for anything unless it is in entertainment. In fact, I see something else here..." If it was at all possible, Simon and the family imagined the young lady grinned wider still. Without further preamble, she quickly opened a drawer and activated a series of four cards through a reader on her desk. "These four passes should get you through most any meal in the complex without any charge, as well as other activities within the hotel area. Understand, there is a limit of $75 per day, for each person, so anything above that I'm afraid you will be responsible for. However, I think you'll find that to be sufficient."

"Di- did you say $75?" Natalie asked, incredulously.

"Yes ma'am. If you're careful, that should get you most any meals and snacks you could want. And a full hot breakfast is automatically included with the rooms for each of you, without use of the cards." She looked up just as Jason reeled back into the brothers. Assuming, as apparently did the others, that it was from surprise, she turned her attention back to the adults. "I take it, you were not expecting this, then?" she inquired.

As Simon stood apparently frozen, still in obvious shock. It was Derek who answered the young lady in a quiet tone. "That's an understatement, I think."

Denise laughed. "I will freely admit, we do not get many of these types of passes. In your case, however, it appears someone is seeing that you're taken well care of during your stay. And really, I wouldn't worry too much about it. I believe you will all be pleasantly surprised, once you relax and take in the venue here. There are a rather large number of programs running this weekend, too, so enjoy them."

Simon smiled finally as he regained his composure. "I'm sorry, if we seem overly cost conscious. We were just, err, trying to be careful, that's all. This trip was a special delegation of sorts, and we had no idea we were going to be put up here, of all places."

"There is nothing to be sorry about sir, and I fully understand where you are coming from. The factor here, I think, is your host being the State of Tennessee. They have somewhat special privileges they exercise for guests, once in a great while, so it is not going to be that big of a surprise to them in the slightest. Just remember that, anything above the $75 daily limit for each person, you'll have to settle when you check out. Otherwise, please, enjoy yourself as our guests. If there is anything I or a member of our staff can assist you with, don't hesitate to reach out. Okay?"

Simon nodded. "That will not be a problem. Again, thank you kindly."

Denise handed everyone their cards, and had Simon sign some sort of paperwork. Once completed, she instructed the two busboys to assist and deliver everyone to their rooms.

- + - + - + - + -

Two rooms had been reserved for the family side-by-side, located on the top floor in one of the southern wings of the hotel. Upon entering, they marveled at the tastefulness of the classic furnishings with which each was outfitted. For Simon and Natalie, their own room opened into a foyer, followed by a spacious area containing a single, king-sized bed. The boy's room was similarly laid out, except it contained two twin queen-sized beds. Each sleeping area included a large LCD screen TV located directly opposite the beds, and were already on, currently displaying welcoming messages for them, personalized with their names. Upon closer inspection, they found entertainment centers underneath, already containing a variety of consoles, including a Blu-ray player and gaming system. Complete with controls, various placards instructed guests how to access complimentary in-house games at their leisure, as well as how to either rent or check out other media sponsored by the hotel.

A lavishly tiled bathroom also was found along the room's side, complete with both a garden tub and large, walk-in shower. Opposite the entryway, Derek and Elliot immediately opened and moved through a set of double-French doors. Outside, they found their own private terrace, opening over a vast, enclosed courtyard below. The entire area was blanketed beneath a glass roof, which let volumes of the outside daylight sift through. The effect created a definite air of openness in the layout, and for the English family, it was an exciting change from what they were used to. Simon and Natalie, standing on their own terrace next to the boys, were beside themselves in both wonder and surprise.

During all this time, however, Jason had followed the brothers out onto the terrace, but only smiled weakly before turning and re-entering the inner sanctum of their room. Something about his absence and continued silence before, however, finally triggered Elliot's attention. When he entered the room again, one look at his cousin closely, immediately told him something was very wrong.

"Hey, you okay?" Elliot asked softly. Derek following his brother inside, also observed their cousin as he stopped to pay attention. Jason's complexion was not as full of color as they were used to seeing, and his breathing had returned to a raspy state as before.

"Just c-cold," Jason finally whispered. Derek immediately reached out and felt their cousin's forehead, before quickly walking back out onto the balcony. Finding their parents still there, he called out to them. "Mum, Dad? You better come. It's Jason, he seriously does not look good at all," Derek called out. After one look from Natalie to her husband, she immediately disappeared into their room with Simon close behind.

By the time they arrived from next door, the brothers had guided Jason over onto the nearest bed and sitting down. Elliot plopped down beside his cousin, extending an arm around his waist to help steady him. Natalie observed this as she crossed the floor and, upon seeing Jason's face, grew concerned. Instantly kneeling in front of them both, she spoke softly. "What is it, dear? What's wrong?"

"He feels hot, Mum," Elliot offered, standing next to them. Natalie immediately put the palm of her hand to his forehead. She the glanced up at Simon. "He's burning up! Would you see if the hotel has a nurse or someone who could come check his vitals?"

Simon immediately crossed and picked up the receiver from a nearby phone. He dialed the hotel operator and stood impatiently waiting for someone to answer. In the meantime, Jason visibly slumped even more, leaning against Elliot involuntarily. "I'm s-sorry guys, I-I don't mean to be t-trouble and everything," he stuttered. As he shivered, Natalie looked about and saw a blanket spread across the back of a nearby chair. Indicating it to Derek, the teen rose and retrieved it. Both quickly arranged it around Jason's shoulders.

"How... How long have you been feeling this way, Jason?" Natalie asked softly.

Jason shrugged. "I- I don't know, honest. I guess... I guess it started when w-we got to the airport in A-Atlanta."

Simon returned to stand next to his wife. "They have someone better than a nurse, dear. There's a doctor on duty, and he's already in our wing. He should be stopping by in a few minutes."

Natalie blinked. "A doctor? A hotel physician?" She shook her head. "Are you kidding? Whoever heard of such a thing! Where are we? In Disneyland?"

Simon smiled at her grimly. "No dear, but I wouldn't worry about that right now." They all hung about for a bit, offering what support they could. Elliot had already sat down beside his cousin, giving him a body to lean against. When Natalie noticed this, she suggested he lie down on the bed, which he gratefully complied.

About 10 minutes had passed, when there came a knock on their room door. Simon answered it immediately, and found a young man standing outside, dressed casually but carrying a black satchel case. "Good afternoon, are you Mr. Flavell?" Upon confirmation, he continued. "I'm Dr. Keith Johnson. They told me you have a young man here not feeling too well. Is that correct?"

Simon beckoned the man to enter, who immediately, upon seeing Jason, approached and pulled a chair up to his side. "Well now, my customary 'How-do-you-do?' probably wouldn't get much of a positive response here now, would it?" Dr. Johnson said pleasantly, addressing Jason. "What's your name, son?"

"J-Jason."

"Well, hello Jason, I'm Dr. Johnson. Is it okay if I check you over a little bit?" When Jason nodded, the man felt Jason's forehead, and then procured an electronic thermometer from his bag. "Hmm, you do definitely have a temperature," the man mused, before asking the youth to open wide and checking his throat with a lighted instrument. "I think you've had some respiratory issues for at least a few days now, haven't you? Your throat is definitely raw, meaning I see a redness there that is garnered from some sort of irritation."

Natalie spoke up. "He has had a terrible cold for the last 3 to 4 days. He was doing much better yesterday and this morning, so we thought we could go ahead and make our trip into here."

Dr. Johnson smiled. "I take it you're from overseas?" Simon then interjected and gave the doctor a brief recap of their journey from England. "Ah, I think I understand better now." Turning his attention back to the teen, he continued. "Listen, Jason, would it be alright if I listened to your chest? I would prefer to see how you're breathing now, since you have a little rasp and all. It'll help me listen for congestion. Is that all right?"

Jason nodded again, and then sat up with help. With Elliot's help, Jason pulled his shirt free from his jeans, lifting it enough so the doctor could get his stethoscope underneath. Within a moment, the man confirmed what he wanted to know.

"First, there is no real cause for concern," Dr. Johnson stated as he addressed them. "I do suspect he was, perhaps, getting better as you say. But sometimes the trips like you just arrived on, they play tricks on a body unprepared for them. The change of atmospheric pressures, for instance, or the climate swings - those and other changes are fairly well-known aggravators of conditions such as this. All of that, when thrust at once on someone who is still fighting an illness as such, can set off a relapse of sorts." He looked at Jason. "What you need is something to fight that infection that's trying to build itself back up. That, and a good night of rest will do you wonders, I suspect. I can prescribe for you," he paused and turned his attention to the Simon and Natalie. "I can prescribe an antibiotic, and it will work, although it may take a few days. Or, if you're willing, I could give him an injection, which I think will work much faster and more effectively. The injection is still an antibiotic, but it's designed to work its way directly through the bloodstream. Does he have any allergies I should be aware of?"

"None that we know of," Natalie replied.

"Then, I leave the decision to you," he addressed Jason. The youth raised his head and was about to answer when he suddenly sneezed. "Bless you!" the doctor chuckled, handing him a tissue.

"I-I'll take the s-shot, if it... if it's okay," Jason finally replied.

"That's good to hear, I think. I do have to give it to you in your hip though, just so you know. The arm would not really be an effective place to get this kind of medication dispersed throughout your system. Is that okay?" Again, Jason nodded, and Natalie and Simon both turned and moved away toward the foyer to wait.

"Good choice then," the man replied, then reached into his bag and extracted a wallet of vials, along with a syringe. While he was preparing the dose, Jason unsnapped his belt and jeans with shaky hands, before rolling over and placing his backside toward the doctor. The man very gently worked to get to the area he needed, and then administered the injection. Once done, Jason rolled back, and the blanket was replaced over him.

The doctor began packing up, as Natalie and Simon returned to stand nearby. "Although it is still a somewhat early hour, I would suggest getting him into bed. If he's chilled, perhaps a nice warm bath should come first. It does wonders when you're trying to apply heat all over, and as the body temperature rises, he will be remarkably more comfortable. Once that happens, give him a couple of these," he stated, while handing Natalie a packet of medication. "They're just a mild sedative, really, but they should help him rest over the next several hours. If he doesn't seem to be better by later this evening, then call the front desk again. Otherwise, I am on duty again starting early tomorrow, so if it's alright, I'll check in with you sometime around mid-morning."

"Thank you, doctor," Simon expressed gratefully, as he walked the man towards the entrance. The doctor did stop and turn back, addressing Jason. "Get some rest, son. I think you'll feel a whole lot better afterwards. Take care, all of you!" The man shook hands with Simon once again, and then left.

Elliot stood up. "So, a bath. And then bed?"

Natalie studied them for a few seconds. "That's what the doctor said."

"Then, I volunteer Mum. I'll get him in and out of the tub. Derek will help me, too."

Simon walked up and nodded as he put an arm around Natalie's shoulders. "I kind of guessed you two would do that." He smiled. "Okay, son, you and your brother win this round. Ring us when you get him out and into bed, will you? We'll leave him with you two until then." Natalie nodded, and the two made their way out - but not before she left instructions, warning them not to turn the water on too hot.

Once their parents had departed, Derek entered the bathroom and started preparing the tub. In the meantime, Elliot slowly started to undress Jason, which was not an easy task given his current state. Their cousin had become weakened by then, hardly feeling well enough to sit up, yet alone stand. His dead weight impacted Elliot's efforts considerably, until Derek's return. The task then became easier as both boys worked to get Jason stripped completely. "S-sheesh, y-you guys... it... it's s-so c-cold," the American whispered, complaining.

Elliot sidled up to him. "I know, Jase. Just stay with us a minute more, okay? All of that is about to change, I promise." Both boys moved him quickly into the bathroom. Once in the tub, they heard him sigh deeply, and the inherent shivering seemed to subside instantly. Elliot then immediately began to peel his clothes off, causing Derek to raise an eyebrow.

"I'm going to get in there and hold him. Just... maybe it will help, you know?" Elliot explained.

Derek nodded in approval. Holding out his hands, the older teen took Elliot's clothes as he unfastened them and removed everything. Within minutes, he had worked his way into the tub behind Jason, lowering himself slowly while straddling his legs around his cousin. Noting the ample roominess, he pulled Jason back onto his chest and held him warmly. "Hey, Derek? Add a little more water, will you?"

Within minutes, Jason began to respond. "This feels g-good," he whispered.

After a bit, Derek rose and left the room, only to return holding the medication left behind by Dr. Johnson. "Dad said to go ahead and have him take these, then for us to get him into bed after a bit."

Elliot nodded. "It's really nice in here, you know?" He rubbed his hands gently across Jason's chest, while Derek prepared a cup of water. When the older brother knelt beside the tub, he pulled the tablets free of their wrapper and knelt beside the tub.

"Jason?" Derek announced softly. "Take these for us, okay? Please?"

Jason opened his eyes and, seeing the pills, nodded. Derek held them to his cousin's lips, and Jason took them in. As Derek held the water, he swallowed and let his head fall back against Elliot. Looking up gratefully, he whispered, "Thanks, bro... both of you."

Elliot smiled behind him. "What are friends for?"

They both watched as Jason slowly shook his head. "No," he announced, his voice suddenly beginning to sound stronger. "Not friends. Brothers."

"You bet," Derek replied.

They waited about 10 minutes longer, before slowly pulling the youth from the tub and drying him off. Jason, barely able to sit upright, grunted. "You guys just can't keep from getting me skinned, can you?" His first attempt at humor was well received.

"How do you know Derek isn't pining for your arse?" Elliot whispered back, then playfully hugged his cousin while Derek dried his legs. "Besides, what are you talking about? I thought you was trying to get ME naked! Sheesh, what some people will do to get another look at my 'sausage', including getting sick on a trip like this!" Jason smiled weakly, but grateful. Derek only shook his head, voting not to intercede. Afterwards, they were able to get both briefs and a long-sleeve t-shirt on him. Whispering, Derek finally added, "Come on, let's get you into bed."

Jason nodded gratefully, and slowly made his way with their help. Once he was in and under the covers, Derek lay down beside him while Elliot went about getting re-dressed. Moments later there was a soft knock at their door, and Elliot answered, letting Natalie into the room. She sat down on the side of the bed and felt Jason's forehead again. "Not as bad as it was. You boys did good." She looked up and addressed both of her sons. "I'm proud of you. Both of you."

"He'll be okay, Mum. He's not going to let this kick him out of being back in the States again, even for just a visit."

"Damned straight," they heard a soft voice mutter from under the covers. Natalie smiled and let the light choice of wording pass. She looked up at her sons and smiled at them.

"Listen, why don't you two go out with your Father for the afternoon. You haven't really had any Dad time for a long while, I think. It would do him, and you both, some good for a change." Natalie looked down at the still form, and briefly observed the steady breathing that now came uninhibited. "It's still a few hours before dinner time anyway. I'll stay here and keep watch for a while."

"Uh, I can stay Mum. I don't mind, really!" Elliot objected.

"I can, too," Derek added.

Natalie smiled. "I know you both can and will, and you could and would. It's okay though, boys. Go - have an all-guys afternoon out. I think your father feels a little guilty he didn't see this coming, and I must confess, I'm not much better for the wear of it, either."

"But, you didn't know, Mum. Neither did we," Derek objected.

Elliot agreed. "Jase didn't let us know either, Mum. Nobody could have known."

Natalie smiled, but before she could reply, Jason opened his eyes and looked at her. "I-It's not y-your fault Aunt N-Natalie. It's mine. I should have s-said something s-sooner."

Natalie put a comforting arm over Jason's side. "Shhh, no one is at fault boys, especially you Jason. You were just trying to get home, and we all know and understand what this trip means to you." She sat back and smiled at her two other sons.

"Look, I understand - it won't be quite the same, me being with Jason here. Really though, all he's going to do is just sleep. I'll stick around in case he needs anything, maybe check out some American television or something. Seriously - he'll be fine, so go. Your father could use the opportunity to get out and stretch his legs, too."

Both brothers looked at each other, but then reluctantly agreed. As they made to stand, Natalie put a hand out onto Elliot's arm. "Thank you, too. I know what you did, and I think that was special, in more ways than one. Just know I'm grateful of what both of you do for him, and for each other, too. No mother could be prouder of her sons. I know each of you love and look out for one another."

Elliot beamed with pride before bending down and hugging her. "We're proud of you, too, Mum." He straightened up. "We'll be back later, then."

After the brothers left the room to find their father, Natalie rose and pulled the chair over closer to her new charge. Sitting, she made herself comfortable and then observed the gentle slumber that Jason had succumbed to. She listened and could already tell the sounds rasping within his chest were abating. Before long, the stress of the last couple of hours, along with the long flight, took over and began to sink in. She, too, felt her eyelids betray her as they grew heavy. Her last thoughts were of Jason and his days ahead, before she dozed off peacefully.

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