Echoes

By Stephen Littlewood All Rights Reserved ©

Romance

Blurb

Leo and his parents had been looking at places for Max to live, and had managed to find a small apartment, close enough to them for easy visits, but far enough away so that Leo and Max weren’t constantly together. Max’s mum had agreed to pay the deposit, and Max had managed to speak to the owner, who was aiming to sell, and he agreed to take payments over the course of a year. That made things easier for Max, especially considering one of his friends, Jasmine, had managed to line up a job for him in the shop where she worked. Things were definitely looking up for Max, and he had never felt so content with his life.

Chapter 1

It was Friday, the last day of school before graduation the next week. Oddly, Max was quite excited. He hadn’t really cared until he had made the deal. Rather than leaving and moving back home on his birthday, both he and Leo had decided he should graduate first. His mum had agreed wholeheartedly, but that was expected.

Leo and his parents had been looking at places for Max to live, and had managed to find a small apartment, close enough to them for easy visits, but far enough away so that Leo and Max weren’t constantly together. Max’s mum had agreed to pay the deposit, and Max had managed to speak to the owner, who was aiming to sell, and he agreed to take payments over the course of a year. That made things easier for Max, especially considering one of his friends, Jasmine, had managed to line up a job for him in the shop where she worked. Things were definitely looking up for Max, and he had never felt so content with his life.

The only downside was leaving his new friends behind. Most of which he would see at graduation and have to say goodbye to. Max had a feeling visits would become infrequent, and life would take over, but he hoped the opposite would happen. Unfortunately, that just made him feel deluded half the time.

Max decided that, for that weekend, they should have an excellent time, and so he arranged a camping trip for them all. They were to meet up after school on the Friday and drive, using the 4 cars they had at their disposal, to the site where they would be camping. It was lucky that Max had been bought a car the month before, for his birthday, but he still didn’t know how his mum could afford it.

As the final bell rang, and all the senior students cheered, Max smiled sadly to himself as he walked out of the doors. He was somehow happy, and sad, but he understood why, and so did all his friends.

He walked to the parking lot, and stopped by the four cars, all parked together. Jack was already there, as he didn’t go to school with them. He had only recently finished work, which the group had found out about a few months before, when they finally had the courage to ask. It turned out he worked in a restaurant, but he had a very erratic schedule. Quite often he didn’t have to work, but sometimes he could be called in with very little notice.

As Max and Jack began to converse, Ryan arrived, and tackled Jack into a hug. They hadn’t seen each other for a few days, as Jack had been working a lot, but he had took the weekend off to come with them, and his boss was pretty understanding.

Not much later, Ash and Cassy arrived, walking hand in hand, which was a common site by this point, as they approached they smiled at Max. “Well, time for our last hurrah.” Max said, a hint of sadness in his tone.

“What do you mean our last hurrah?” Cassy asked.

“I mean just that. I’m leaving, this is it.” Max explained.

“You’re an idiot, Max.” Ryan told him. “You don’t think we’d let you leave without visiting, do you?” He asked, chuckling.

“What do you think we are? We’re not just going to abandon you because you moved away!” Cassy said, sounding slightly offended.

“Haha, I guess you’re right. But sometimes life just gets in the way, and things don’t go as planned. I guess what I’m saying is, I’ll understand if you guys forget about me when I’m gone.” Max explained.

“You forget Max, at one point or another, you have helped all of us in some way. Whether it be inspiring advice, relationship counseling or giving us the kick we so desperately needed to get things done. We won’t forget about you.” Ash responded.

Max felt a lump in his throat after that, and Cassy noticed immediately, pulling him into a hug. “No time for tears. We need to get going. I don’t want to be driving in the dark, if possible.”

“Yeah. Yeah.” Max sniffed, walking to his car. “Everyone got the stuff they need?” He asked.

“Yep.” The other four replied in unison.

“Okay, let’s go!” Max said, punching the air, then realising how stupid he looked and putting his hand down, blushing slightly.

The group of 5 all got in the four cars. Ryan was in Jack’s car, as he didn’t have a car of his own.

Max led the way, as he had made sure he knew exactly where the campsite was. They all knew the way there, roughly, but Max knew the exact directions, and if he had an issue, he had a GPS system to get him a little closer.

As he was driving, Max was thinking about that weekend, and what it would entail. He had a few things planned, but he wasn’t sure how much time everything would take, and some of it needed to be done in specific times, so he couldn’t really foresee what would happen. He did want to organise the best time they could have, but if it all the time was spoken for, it wouldn’t be as good as it could be.

Cassy was following Max closely with her car, trying to avoid the possibility of a stranger cutting between them and her getting lost, which would, in turn, get the rest of them lost, because they would be following her. Luckily, though, the roads were pretty quiet other than them, which was strange for a Friday afternoon.

Ash was following behind Cassy quite leisurely, he enjoyed driving rather a lot. He always felt relaxed while driving, which always confused Max, who was constantly vigilant as he was paranoid about other road users wanting to kill him. It may just be that he was paranoid, but he thought it kept him safe, and that was enough reason for him to maintain his constant fidgety checks.

Behind Ash, bringing up the rear, was the car carrying both Jack and Ryan. Jack was driving, quite content. He was happy to be in the same car as Ryan, especially considering their few days apart. He just wanted to spend some more time with him. They were chatting and having a bit of a laugh.

Between them all they were carrying plenty of things, 3 tents, 2 double sleeping bags and a single sleeping bag, stuff to set up a camp fire, plenty of supplies like food and things, a small camping stove and a gazebo-style marquee among other things.

After a few hours of driving, they arrived at the camp site, all quite sick of sitting and driving at that point. They got to work with the tents immediately, deciding to leave the marquee until the next day, as they didn’t particularly want to put it up that night. They managed to put up the three tents and then decided to call it a night, as they were all tired from the day of school, driving and then the closest any of them would get to building. They all disappeared into their tents and fell asleep quite quickly.

Max woke early the next morning. He rose about 5am, not being used to the light level or the harshness of the ground in the wilderness, or the closest he could get to it. He climbed out of his tent and stretched, only to see Ash emerging from the tent he and Cassy were sharing across the way.

“I’m guessing you couldn’t sleep either then?” Max asked, chuckling.

“Nah. I got a few hours, but this camping thing is kinda awkward for me. Cramped spaces, overheating then freezing, plus the floor is always terrible, no matter where you are. We should have brought air-beds.” Ash replied, shrugging. “It’s okay though. I can cope.”

Max smiled. “We didn’t really plan this all out perfectly, but we just have to put up with it for the weekend, then it’s all over.”

“Not if Cassy gets her way. She wants to make it a tradition, every year we all go camping together. Except in future years she wants you to bring Leo.” Ash said, sighing.

“I guess that’s not too bad. Plus next time we can be a bit more prepared. And it’s kind of a waste if we now have all this camping gear and we never use it again.” Max said, thinking it through as he spoke, realising that’s it’s not a bad idea.

“Yeah I guess you’re right.” Ash responded shrugging. “As long as we get some better sleeping arrangements in future, I’d be fine.”

“Anyway, while everyone’s still asleep, wanna be first to have breakfast?” Max suggested, chuckling. “We can set up the marquee quickly, and put the camping stove on. I brought some bacon and stuff.”

“You, my dear friend, are a legend. Let’s get sorted.” Ash said, smiling.

Within 20 minutes, the marquee was up and the camping stove was warming up, as Max put the first slice of bacon on the stove, another person stirred in one of the tents, and out came Jack, shirtless and barefoot, evidently not caring. Max mentally scolded himself for eyeing Jack up and down, and once that had happened he noticed what he, himself, was wearing. An old pair of sweatpants and a band tee. He added a couple more slices of bacon to the stove’s grill before looking at the group. Ash was wearing similar attire to Max; sweatpants and a t-shirt, his hair was dishevelled and his eyes were sparkling with the boyish excitement that came over most men confronted with bacon.

Jack sniffed and smiled. “Is this bacon for everybody, or were you guys gonna keep it to yourself?” Jack asked, chuckling.

“I brought enough for everyone for this morning.” Max responded. “Whether any is left for later today or tomorrow is a different matter. I have a feeling it will be used up immediately.” He added, shrugging.

“Fair enough. I might throw on a t-shirt. It’s colder than I expected it to be. You won’t believe how warm it is in that tent compared to out here.” Jack responded, heading back towards the tent.

“Okay. I’m pretty sure it’s Ryan. The guy is a radiator.” Max responded.

“How the hell do you know?” Jack asked, sounding jokingly annoyed.

“We have slept in the same room before. It’s called staying over each other’s houses.” Max replied, chuckling.

“That’d better be all it was.” Jack chuckled, heading back in the tent. He came out with a t-shirt and put it on, hiding his body from Max’s involuntary glances.

Max knew that he didn’t like Jack in any way other than as a friend, but he couldn’t help finding him slightly more attractive now that he knew what was under his shirt. He didn’t act any differently, he just felt like he had some more information on the relationship between Jack and Ryan now. He continued with the bacon, and noticed Ryan climb out of the tent he and Jack were in at roughly the same time that Cassy climbed out of hers and Ash’s tent. At that point he put some more bacon on the stove and sighed. He wouldn’t be eating for a bit longer, but it was fine. He sorted out Ash and Jack’s and asked which one, out of Ryan and Cassy wanted to eat first. Cassy explained that she would rather wait a little bit, as she didn’t like to eat as soon as she got up, so Max gave the food he had prepared for himself to Ryan. He kept an eye on the bacon on the stove, and after a few minutes of cooking he sorted it out for himself and Cassy, who now had no choice in the matter of eating.

They all ate in silence, too tired to attempt to think of conversation topics they could discuss, but once they had eaten, they perked up a little bit, and began chatting a little bit more. While they were talking, the sun rose a little more, warming the area up a little better than it had been that morning.

As they began chatting, the topic came up of what they were going to do that day. They discussed, at length, the different ideas they had, and how to split them up over the weekend. Of course, there were certain things that would be best done later, such as ghost stories around a camp fire and such, but they had to plan the days as well. They figured that they could go into the nearby town and do some window-shopping, have a look around a little. Max had a feeling they should probably grab some supplies as well, as they would be needing more food and things, so it was definitely worth a trip. They decided to go in 2 groups, as they didn’t want to leave all the camping gear alone, so Max went first, with Cassy and Jack, and Ryan and Ash would go when they got back.

Max decided to drive, Cassy sat in the front and Jack sat in the back, because he was too slow in deciding. Part of the reason Max had wanted to drive is simply because he had the novelty of a new car, and he wanted to do as much driving in it as he could. He drove them to the nearest town, which wasn’t too far away, and parked in a free space. As they wandered around the town, they noticed some interesting shops, things full of unique gift items, and so they went in a few and decided to get some souvenirs. Max made sure to get something for his mum, and something for Leo. Cassy wanted to buy the entire shop but limited herself to something for her parents and something for each of her friends, and Jack wasn’t as interested. He did end up buying something, but only because it caught his eye on the way out. At the same time, Max spotted a small figurine, it was made of metal and quite heavy, and depicted a dragon with an egg. He fell in love with it immediately and decided to buy it for himself.

After doing another 20 minutes of window shopping, they decided it would be best to get the supplies they needed and head back so that they could swap with Ryan and Ash, knowing how bored they would have gotten by that point.

When they got back, Ryan and Ash were talking, seemingly about the rest of the group. They were laughing and having a pretty decent time. When they noticed the car pull up they smiled and went to meet the other three.

Max, Jack and Cassy got out of the car, smiling at Ryan and Ash. “Your turn.” Max told them, gesturing to the car, and watching as Ash got in the drivers side and Ryan hopped in the passenger seat.

Max, Jack and Cassy decided to sit around what would be the camp-fire that evening, and talk. Max wasn’t entirely sure what to talk about. They ended up discussing what they had seen in the village and things, before moving on to Max’s eventual departure.

“Guys, we weren’t supposed to talk about this.” Max complained.

“We can’t just ignore it though. It’s playing on everyone’s minds.” Cassy told him. “We need to make sure that you’re going to be okay, and make sure you know that we’ll miss you.” She said, smiling.

“She’s right, Max. We need to talk about this, clear the tension.” Jack agreed.

“Fine.” Max conceded.

“So, who are you going back to? Obviously we know about Leo, but you must have other friends back there.” Cassy asked.

“Yeah, there’s Jade and Jasmine, the twins. We always spent more time with Jasmine. Jade kinda hovered quite a lot, though. Then there’s James, who wasn’t really around much, he went to a different school. We were good friends, and then he moved, so it was kinda awkward.” Max explained.

“Anyone else?” Jack asked, curious now as to what Max’s life was like before he moved.

“Well, there would be Alex, but I don’t know where he is now…” Max said, his smile dropped and sadness seemed to envelop his eyes.

“Who’s Alex?” Cassy asked, gently.

“My step-brother.” Max said, shrugging. “Or at least, he was… I don’t wanna talk about it.”

“Okay, fair enough. Time for a subject change.” Jack said, attempting to lighten the mood. “So what are the plans for this evening?” He asked

“Well, we’re gonna be doing smores on the camp-fire, that’s pretty obvious.” Max said, chuckling. “As for what we do, we can do ghost-stories, jokes, karaoke.” He suggested, shrugging a little.

“I don’t think karaoke is a good idea.” Jack told him. “I’m not entirely sure any of us can sing.”

“That’s what makes it fun.” Cassy said, smiling brightly.

“You really wanna hear everyone in the group singing badly? Ruining songs that you may well love?” Jack asked.

“If you’re not up for it, we could do something else. I just figured it might be a fun idea.” Cassy said, shrugging.

“I think we’ll stick to laughter and fear, so ghost stories or jokes.” Max said, ending the discussion.

“I think jokes would be better, assuming we all want to sleep. Ghost stories if we’re planning on staying awake all night.” Jack suggested.

“Agreed.” Cassy nodded. “So what are we doing? All nighter, or sleeping soundly?” She asked.

“Up to you guys. We’ll have a vote when Ryan and Ash get back. I’m sure they’ll have something to say about it.” He said, chuckling.

“Speaking of them getting back. Did either of you guys get the stuff out of the car?” Cassy asked.

“I got the stuff I bought. I kept the bag near me.” Max responded. “Jack?”

“Don’t worry. I got the rest of it. It was all on the back seat anyway.” Jack said, holding up a couple of bags.

“Good.” Cassy said, smiling. “Now can I have my stuff please? I need to put some stuff away, otherwise I’ll forget it.” She added.

“Sure, here you go.” Jack said, passing her one of the bags.

“Thank you.” Cassy said, taking the bag and heading into her tent. Max shrugged. “I guess I should do the same.” He said, taking the bag with the souvenirs and the figurine into his tent, to put them in his case.

When they came back out, Ash and Ryan were just coming back. They sat down with the others, Ryan next to Jack, an Ash next to Cassy.

“Well, I don’t feel like a fifth wheel at all.” Max said, chuckling a little. “Anyway, time for the vote.”

“What vote?” Ryan asked.

“We’re voting on what to do tonight.” Jack answered. “Either jokes, or ghost stories.”

“Yeah. The idea is that we can either do ghost stories, and do an all-nighter, or we can do jokes and then go to sleep.”

“I vote jokes.” Ryan said. “Remember, you guys all have to drive back tomorrow.”

“Good point. I vote jokes too.” Cassy agreed.

“I’ll be fine. I vote ghost stories.” Ash said, grinning wickedly.

“We can always nap in the morning. I vote ghost stories too.” Jack added.

“Looks like you’re the deciding vote.” Ryan said, smiling at Max.

“Why me?” Max asked, chuckling.

“Because this is your weekend.” Cassy responded. “So you get the deciding vote on what we do.”

“I guess that makes sense.” He said, sighing. “Fine. I vote jokes and chatting.” He said, simply.

“Good choice.” Ryan commended, before sticking his tongue out at Jack. “Ha!”

“Careful, you know, I can drive home and leave you behind.” Jack said, grinning, showing that it was a completely false threat.

“Oh boo-hoo.” Ryan said, before falling to the floor and fighting Jack off as he began a tickle fight.

Max sighed, and then didn’t really know what to do. He was beginning to feel slightly uncomfortable. He forgot that on this trip he’d be the only one without a partner. He didn’t think of that in the planning phase, and really should have.

“If you guys don’t mind. I’m gonna call Leo.” Max said, and after Cassy and Ash nodded, he headed into his tent to grab his phone, which he had charged using his car charger, and then went on a little walk.

“Max?” Came the voice on the other end of the phone.

“Hi, Leo.” Max said, a smile spreading across his face.

“What’s wrong?” Leo asked, nervous.

“Nothing’s wrong. I just thought I’d call you, see how you were doing.”

“Max. I know something’s up. You were meant to be spending the weekend camping, no technology, just you and the gang.” Leo said.

“Okay, okay. I didn’t realise I was going to be a fifth wheel. Happy now?” Max asked.

“Not really. Because I know you’re not.” Leo said, sighing. “So you called me to what? Talk to about it? Be the 6th wheel? Or to be all couply with you over the phone to make you feel better?” Leo asked, chuckling.

“I don’t know. I just guess I was feeling pretty lonely and I wanted to talk to you.”

“Understandable.” Leo said, smiling despite himself.

“So what have you been up to?” Max asked.

“Not much really. I spent a couple of hours with Jasmine earlier. I actually need to speak to her againin a little bit. We’re meeting at the mall for a chat.”

“Oh. What about?” Max was suddenly intrigued.

“Oh, nothing too important. Just about graduation and what we’re doing afterwards and things. Boring stuff like that.” Leo lied.

“Leo, you know how I know when you’re lying to me?” Max asked.

“Fine. That’s not true. But it’s about you, so you can’t ask too many questions.” Leo admitted.

“Oh see now I’m curious.” Max complained.

“Well deal with it. I have stuff to do. I’ll talk to you later, if you’re not too busy fifth-wheeling.” Leo said, laughing a little.

“Okay. Talk soon. Love you.” Max said.

“Love you, too. Now go back to your friends, remember, last chance to see them and all that.”

“You’re right. Bye.” Max said, and they both hung up the phone.

With the concept of the last chance to see his friends back in his mind, Max walked back to the camp-site, determined to make this weekend great. Whether he was fifth-wheeling or not, he needed this.

“So, what did loverboy say?” Ash asked, winking at Max.

“Not much. He reminded me that I should be spending time with you guys, considering it’s our last weekend before I leave. And he mentioned that he’s planning something with Jasmine, but I’ve no idea what and it’s going to drive me insane.” Max explained.

“Well, you need to distract yourself.” Cassy pointed out. “So, with that being said, let’s play truth or dare!” She suggested, rather excitedly.

“You’ve been planning this haven’t you?” Ash asked her.

“For days!” Cassy said, smiling happily. “Come on guys. Circle time.” She commanded, grinning to herself. “Let’s start with Max. Truth or dare?” She asked.

“Truth.” Max said, almost immediately.

“Okay… How’s things with Leo?” She asked, wiggling her eyebrows.

“Perfect. We haven’t seen each other in 6 months, but we’ve talked every day, it’s been like a movie relationship, falling asleep on the phone to each other and everything.” He said, smiling.

“Okay, fair enough, your turn.”

“Okay… Ryan.” He said, pointing to the most innocent of the group.

“Ummm… Truth?” Ryan said, nervously.

“Okay… Ummm… How about… Is Jack a good kisser?” Max asked, smirking.

“Yeah…” Ryan mumbled, blushing and hiding his face.

“Your turn, Ryan. Who’re you gonna pick?” Cassy asked.

“Ash.” Ryan said, still embarrassed from the last question.

“Dare.” Ash said, confidently.

“I dare you to kiss Max.” Ryan said, grinning evilly.

“What? Wait? No. That’s not- What?” Max stumbled over his words and Ash shrugged and approached him.

“Come on Max, just play along. It’s not like it means anything.” Cassy said, giggling.

“Says the fangirl.” Max said as he watched Cassy clapping her hands with glee. He sighed and decided to give in, waiting for Ash to make his way across the circle. “Make it quick and painless, please?” He joked.

Ash then put his lips against Max’s, it only lasted for a second, but it embarrassed Max enough. He went and sat back with Cassy, who hugged him, while Max’s face was crimson.

“Jack.” Ash said, not waiting for anyone to point out it was his turn. He obviously wasn’t phased by what he had just done.

“Dare.” Jack responded, grinning.

“I dare you wear one of Cassy’s tops for the remainder of the night.” Ash said, smiling.

“Are you sure Cassy is okay with that?” Jack asked.

“Yep! I brought too many anyway! There are a few I’m not going to be wearing.” Cassy said, heading into the tent and bringing out what seemed to be the most feminine thing she owned. A pink tube-top.

“Okay.” Jack said, taking his shirt off there and then and replacing it with the top. “Cassy.”

“Dare.” She said, almost immediately.

“I dare you to kiss Ryan.” He said, no emotion whatsoever.

“Whyyyyy?” Ryan moaned at him. “To your own boyfriend!” He said, completely overacting, but it was funny nonetheless.

“Come here Ryan.” Cassy cooed, making kissing noises with her lips.

Eventually, after some chasing, a tackle and some fighting, Cassy managed to kiss Ryan, resulting in him cursing Jack.

“Okay. Ryan. Truth or dare?” Cassy asked.

“Truth.” Ryan said, too scarred from Cassy’s kiss to want to do any more dares.

“Am I a good kisser?” She asked, smiling.

“I can’t really judge that.” Ryan said, shrugging. “And I don’t really want to.”

“Aww… Shame.” Cassy said, shrugging. “Oh well.”

“Max.” Ryan said.

“Fine. Dare.” Max said, shrugging.

“I dare you to… Kiss Jack.” Ryan said, shrugging. “What? I couldn’t think of anything.” He defended, when Jack looked at him with a raised eyebrow.

“Are you sure you don’t want to try and think of something else?” Max asked, silently pleading that he would.

“Nah. It’s fine.” Ryan said, smiling brightly.

Max sighed and moved over to where Jack was sitting. Jack looked at him, and Max looked back, the nervousness was reflected between them. Realising that everyone was watching them, Max quickly pecked Jack on the cheek, and then moved away quickly.

“What was that?” Cassy asked. “He’s not your grandma!”

“Hey, Ryan said a kiss, not a full on makeout session” Jack defended.

“True, but it was a total grandma kiss.” Ryan agreed. “But let’s move on. Max, I believe its your turn.”

It went on like that for a few hours, there were quite a few kisses shared, mainly quick, non-committal, closed-mouth kisses, that one would give a family member. Then that got boring for everyone, and things slowly declined from there until they stopped playing truth or dare because of how dull it was becoming.

The sun slowly sank over the horizon, and Max and the others began working on the fire as it did so, to stop them being plunged into darkness. Just as the sun was about to set, the fire took, and began crackling away.

“So. What shall we do now?” Cassy asked, looking for suggestions.

“I think we agreed on chatting and jokes.” Max pointed out. “By the way, the worse the jokes are, the better.” He said, smiling.

After a few hours of chatting about the town nearby, and who they had bought things for, some terrible jokes, and a load of smores, they all decided to call it a night. The next day they would have to pack the stuff up and make the drive back, but they would be exploring the town first.

“Morning sleepyheads.” Max said as Ash and Cassy climbed out of their tent.

“Oh. We didn’t realise everyone else was awake.” Cassy said, looking around the Jack, Ryan and Max.

“We’ve been awake for a couple of hours.” Max said, shrugging. He was sat at the small table they had. “Want some breakfast?” He asked.

“Not yet.” Cassy said, shaking her head. “I don’t eat as soon as I wake up.”

“Well we’re getting ready to pack the stuff away. So this is the last chance. We’re going into the town today though, so you can get something there.” Max said, smiling.

“Okay, fair enough.” Cassy agreed. “Let me just get changed and things.” She said, heading back into the tent.

“She seems a little out of it. Did you guys not sleep last night?” Max asked Ash.

“She wasn’t in the best mood. It just hit her that you’re leaving. She was quite upset.” Ash said, quietly.

“Oh…” Max didn’t know how to respond to that, he didn’t want Cassy to be upset, but there was nothing that he could really say, other than that he’d come back and visit, which she already knew.

“Don’t worry about it. We’ll make sure she’s okay when you’re gone.” Ash told him, smiling. “She’ll be fine.”

Max nodded, suddenly feeling guilty. He was leaving these guys behind, and most of what he’d been thinking about is how it affected him, or that he’d be getting to stay with Leo. He hadn’t really thought of how it affected them.

“I’ll take some breakfast, if it’s on offer.” Ash said, smiling.

Max nodded and headed over the stove, suddenly lost in thought.

Ryan headed over and put an arm around Max. “We’ll be fine. You need to do what’s best for you. And it’s not like we can’t visit each other.” He told Max, smiling a little.

“I guess you’re right. I just… Nevermind.”

“Come on, let’s go have a talk.” Ryan said, steering Max away from the stove. He gestured to the other 2 boys to cook as he and Max went to have a talk. Jack nodded as they left.

“What’s up?” Ryan asked, once they were out of earshot of the campsite. They were walking around, without a specific destination, something Max liked to do to clear his head.

“I just feel guilty. The entire time I’ve been thinking about how this affects me, and what I get out of it. I didn’t even think about you guys, and what you might be feeling about me leaving. I just assumed you were fine with it.” Max said, sighing.

“Max, we’re going to miss you. That’s true. But we’ll be fine. We’re not going to drop off the face of the earth as soon as you get on the plane. We have each other, and, like I said, we’ll be visiting each other all the time. In fact, I’ve applied to Illinois university.” Ryan said. “If I get in, we might end up at the same uni.” He said, chuckling.

“I didn’t realise you’d done that. What about Jack?” He asked.

“Well, don’t tell anyone I told you this, but Jack kinda wants to leave his current uni anyway. He doesn’t like the professors. He’s thinking of transferring, if he can manage it, but if not, he graduates next year anyway, so it shouldn’t be an issue.” Ryan explained.

“Wow… I didn’t realise he was having such a problem with it.” Max said.

“Well it’s not a huge issue, but transferring would make things easier, in his opinion anyway.”

“Well, I guess I might see you guys there then.” Max said, chuckling.

“Yeah, and as for Ash and Cassy, I’m almost certain they both applied there as well, but again, we don’t know if we got in yet, so don’t get your hopes up.” Ryan told him.

“Thanks.” Max said, smiling.

“For what?” Ryan asked.

“Calming me down, making me feel better. Not just this once. You’ve been great, this past year.” Max said, before pulling Ryan into a hug. “You’re an amazing friend.”

Ryan smiled and squeezed Max. “Hey, it’s what friends are for. And I have a feeling you really needed it. I know Cassy can be a bit self-involved, and Jack isn’t around all that much. I’m happy to help. Especially for you. Because I know we’re not just friends because I can help, but I help because we’re friends.”

“Yep. I just wish there was a way for me to repay you for everything you’ve done for me.” Max said, shrugging. “If you ever need anything, just ask.”

“Are you kidding? You’re the reason I met Jack, you’re also the reason Ash and Cassy got together, you give us amazing advice, and you don’t even realise it.” Ryan said, smiling.

“Well, I’m glad I helped, but you’ve had a year of putting up with my issues. One night of speeches is no match for that.” Max replied.

“Ah but it’s more than just one night. You’ve been giving sage advice for the last year, you just haven’t realised it. Plus you helped organise Christmas, and you organised the entire load of meet-ups we had, and this weekend, you’ve kept this group together, and it’s thanks to you that we’ve became such good friends.” Ryan said. “You’ve done far more for us than you think. Don’t let yourself believe otherwise.” Ryan said, smiling.

Max smiled. “You always know what to say.” He said, chuckling.

“As do you.” Ryan responded, laughing a little. “Now. Let’s head back to camp.”

“Sure.” Max agreed, turning around and heading back towards the camp site.

When they got back, half of the camp stuff was already packed away.

“Guys. Why didn’t you come get me? I’d have helped pack away!” Max complained.

“You expect us to come and get you to help us pack away? You organised all this, the least we could do is pack away.” Cassy said, laughing. “Come on, you don’t think we don’t realise how much we owe you?”

“I’ve just been telling him the same thing.” Ryan said, laughing.

“Ryan, could you help me with this?” Jack said, as he tried to pick up the camp stove to put it away in one of the cars.

“Sure.” Ryan nodded, heading towards Jack to help him pick it up.

“What can I do?” Max asked.

“You can sort out your tent and what’s in it. None of us went in, we all agreed it would be best to let you organise your stuff.” Ash told him.

“Oh, okay. Thanks. I’ll go do that.” Max said, heading towards his tent. He went inside and packed his clothes and his sleeping bag away, taking them out of the tent and putting them in his car, before taking his tent down, with the help of Ash, who had already finished with his and Cassy’s stuff.

“Thanks.” Max told Ash as they put the packed up tent in the back of Max’s car.

“Any time.” Ash said, smiling. “Anyway, shall we all head into town before we head back?”

“That was the plan.” Max said, smiling. “Plus, Cassy needs to eat.”

“Yeah, I’m starving.” Cassy grumbled.

“Right everyone. Get in your cars, we need to do some driving.” Max said, chuckling.

Everyone got in their respective cars, and Max led the way to the town, finding a parking lot. Once they had all successfully parked, they got out and, as a group, went around the town, looking for somewhere that they could get a drink, and Cassy could get some food. They ended up in a small café, so small that they had to put 2 tables together for the 5 of them to sit together.

“Five coffees and a club sandwich please.” Max ordered for them.

“Coming right up.” Said the waitress, smiling at Max as she noted down their order and left.

“Hmmm…” Jack said, looking at the waitress’ retreating figure, then at Max.

“What?” Max asked.

“Anyone else think she was being a little flirty?” Jack asked.

“She smiled at me. She’s paid to do that.” Max said, scoffing.

“I’m pretty sure she was eyeing you up as she wrote down that order.” Ash agreed.

“What does it matter? I’m spoken for.”

“Yeah, but she doesn’t know that.” Cassy said, chuckling. “She sees you alone, with 2 couples, puts 2 and 2 together…” She added.

“And gets 94.” Max finished. “What do I need? A wedding ring?”

“That depends.” Cassy said.

“On what?” Max asked, sighing.

“If you’re ever going to get one.” She said, smiling.

“I don’t know. Cassy, I’m 18. I’m not going to rush into marriage.” Max said, sighing.

“Well, if you do, you know it’s legalised in Illinois now, so you can.” She told him.

“You’ve been looking this up haven’t you?” Max asked.

“Yep.” She sang, completely unashamed.

“Well, at the moment, I don’t need a wedding planner. But if the time comes, you’ll be the first to know.” He said, chuckling.

“How can you be sure Leo won’t ask you when you get back?” Cassy asked.

“I can’t. But I don’t think it’ll happen. Leo is as reserved about rushing things as I am. That’s why we’re not moving in together. He’s going to stay with his parents while I move into my own place.” Max explained.

“Okay. But can you picture it happening ever? I mean, surely you want that?” Cassy prompted.

“Maybe… One day… In the future. I wouldn’t be opposed to getting married. But I don’t plan on popping the question to Leo, and I’m sure he doesn’t plan on asking me any time soon.” Max stated.

“Five coffees and a club sandwich.” Came a voice from behind Max. And that’s when he realised that the waitress had heard what he had said about Leo. She looked a little saddened when she placed the tray down, and put the orders in front of each person. She walked away quicker than last time, and Max facepalmed.

“Well that was blunt.” Max said, sighing.

“Hey, she knew you for like 2 seconds. It’s just disappointment. My guess is if she knew your story, she’d be really happy for you guys.” Cassy reassured him.

“Yeah, I mean, she can’t get that attached just by taking your order.” Ash agreed, which was followed by Jack and Ryan nodding in agreement.

“Well, anyway, what’s the plan for when we get back? Are you guys going home, or do you wanna stay at mine?” Max asked.

“I guess we could stay at yours.” Cassy nodded. “That’s if it’s okay with your mum.”

“It’ll be fine.” Max said, smiling.

After a while of chatting, and couple more rounds of coffee, they left the café, and decided to head straight back, as it was getting late, and they had a few hours drive. Plus, Max’s flight was the next day, but it wasn’t until the afternoon. Half of his stuff at home was already packed, he planned to finish the next morning, and, with any luck, he hoped to recruit a couple of his friends, who happened to be staying the night.

Around 7pm, Max walked in the door to his home for the last time, when he heard a shout.

“SURPRISE!” Max’s mum, his friend’s parents, other than Jack’s, some school friends and a couple of neighbours were stood in the living room. A large sign on the wall read ‘Goodbye Max: We’ll Miss You’. Max smiled sadly as he approached his mum and gave her a hug.

“Thank you.” He whispered in her ear.

“You’re welcome.” She whispered back.

Once Max let her go, his mum smiled at him. “I’ve finished all your packing, I recruited a couple of the neighbours to help with the party, they’re all happy for you, and they want to see you off. I know how you hate being the center of attention, but I thought, this once, you really needed it.”

“I guess I did.” Max agreed. “Thanks mum.”

“So, want something to eat? I know you guys have been driving for hours.”

“That’d be great, thanks.” Ash said, smiling as he approached the table which was full of food of various types. From sandwiches to pizza to cheeses and so on. This party made Max realised how much his mum was doing for him, and he felt a warmth spreading through his heart.

After a few hours of chatting, a cake, and a lot of wishes for good luck and a safe trip, Max and the gang were left alone. They had decided to sleep in the basement again, where they had been every time they stayed over.

They decided to watch a single movie before they all fell asleep, and Cassy and Ryan fell asleep during that movie. Max, Ash and Jack stayed awake, chatting a little before they fell asleep.

That night Max’s stomach was in knots. He was nervous, excited, sad and happy, all at the same time. He wasn’t sure what emotions were going to be portrayed. He felt like crying, while grinning, shaking and laughing all at once.

The next morning, Max woke up for the 15th time. He headed upstairs and checked the time. 5am. His flight was in 4 hours. He decided to have a long shower and relax, if that was possible.

As he climbed into the shower, the hot water released the tension in his muscles, and the lid off the bottle of emotions he had been holding onto popped off. Tears began streaming down his face, while he broke into laughter. Wave after wave of emotions washed over him, before he finally sighed. 20 minutes of craziness later and his emotional range was spent. He had finally released it all. He finished washing his hair and stepped out of the shower, drying himself off before walking towards his room to get some fresh clothes. His mum had laid out his last unpacked set of clothes on his bed, evidently assuming he would need them. He got dressed quickly, and then grabbed his hairdryer, which was resting on the top of one of his cases, waiting to be packed. He dried his hair quickly, trying to finish before waking anyone up. After his hair was dry, he unplugged the hairdryer, and placed it in the case it was sitting on top of.

After taking his cases downstairs, Max decided to sit and watch TV for a little, attempting to distract himself from the imminent departure. It was 6am by this point, so there wasn’t really much on, but he flicked through the channels anyway, trying to find something to hold his interest. He desperately needed it.

After flicking through the channels for what felt like forever, the clock ticked over to 6:30, and Max’s mum came down the stairs.

“Oh… You’re awake.” She noticed.

“Couldn’t really sleep well. I woke up at 5am.” Max explained.

“Ahh. Understandable. Well, if you need to, you can sleep on the plane.”

“We’ll see.” He muttered. He had never been able to sleep well on public transport, no matter what it was. He could only ever fall asleep if it was a long trip, particularly an overnight trip.

“Well, since you’re up, do you want some breakfast?”

“Not really. I feel a bit sick, to be honest.” Max admitted, placing a hand on his stomach.

“Well you have a lot of emotions running through you. But you have to eat, to keep your strength up.” His mum replied. “I’ll make you some toast. It’ll help settle your stomach.”

“Fair enough…” Max agreed. He’d try to eat, just to keep her happy. He knew she’d done a lot for him, and he wanted to keep her in a good mood, and, if possible, stop her from worrying too much.

Ash came into the living room at that point in time. “How long have you been awake?” He asked Max.

“About an hour and a half.” Max replied, still trying to settle on a channel.

“Wow… I thought I got up early.” Ash chuckled, scratching the back of his head.

“Why are you awake so early?” Max asked, turning to look at Ash, ignoring the TV for a little while.

“I don’t know. I just woke up and couldn’t get back to sleep.” Ash said, shrugging. “It happens sometimes.”

“Fair enough.” Max nodded, turning back to the TV.

“You been flicking through the channels the entire time?” Ash asked, laughing a little.

“Only for the last half hour.” Max said, shrugging. “There’s nothing good on this early in the morning.”

“Yeah, true.” Ash agreed. “Why are you so intent on the TV anyway?”

“I need a distraction.” Max said, bluntly.

“Oh… What?” Ash was confused.

“I don’t want to think about leaving. I want to put it off as much as possible, because if I think about it too much, it’s gonna cause issues. My emotions are a wreck, and I need to distract myself.” Max explained, or at least tried to.

“Oh… I guess that makes sense.” Ash nodded, despite still only half-understanding the need for a distraction.

“So are the others still asleep?” Max asked.

“Yeah, I think so.” Ash nodded, sitting next to Max.

“Here you go, honey.” Max’s mum came in, carrying a plate with a few slices of toast on it. “Oh. Morning Ash. Do you want any breakfast?” She asked.

“Not just yet, but thanks.” Ash said, smiling.

“Okay, well just shout if you want anything.” She said, heading upstairs. “I’m just going to get changed.”

“Morning guys.” Came the groggy voice of Cassy from the doorway. “What time is it?” She asked, rubbing her eyes.

“Just before 7.” Ash told her.

“So it’s still early then?” Cassy asked.

“Yeah. You can go back to sleep if you want.” Max told her.

“Nah. I’m awake now.” Cassy said, shrugging. “What are you guys up to?”

“Just talking.” Ash said, shrugging.

“Looking for something to watch.” Max added.

“Fair enough.” Cassy said, sitting down with them. “Anything decent on?”

“Not yet. Looks like it’s too early.” Max said, sighing. He left it on a single channel, and decided to watch whatever was on it. He really didn’t care at this point, he just needed to watch something to keep him from his emotions for a little while. In an hour he would be getting ready to leave, and he didn’t want to think about that too much.

Not long after, Jack and Ryan headed up the stairs and walked into the living room, and for the last half hour, Max and the gang chatted about things that didn’t really matter.

“Time to get ready, Max.” His mum said as she walked down the stairs. “We need to head to the airport.”

“Yeah, sure.” Max nodded, getting up, grabbing his jacket, and proceeding to put his cases in the car.

“Remember that the car is going to be transported next week.” She told him.

“Yeah. Okay.” He turned to the group and they all smiled and waved. “See you soon.” Ryan said, smiling.

“Call me when you land.” Cassy commanded him.

“Don’t forget to eat and sleep.” Ash added.

“And don’t forget about us.” Jack chuckled. “Have a good trip.”

“Thanks guys. See you soon.” He waved, getting into his mums car as she started the engine. He put his seatbelt on and then they were off.

His mind was racing with different thoughts. He couldn’t wait to see Leo and the twins, but he was also sad, leaving the gang behind was going to take it’s toll. He hoped they did get into college near him, it would be amazing to have everyone together, but he had a feeling it wouldn’t happen. Life doesn’t work like that. It’s normally harsher, and things don’t tend to go as you want them to.

As they parked, Max’s mum got out of the car, and grabbed one of Max’s cases. He shouldered a backpack, and got the other case. They walked into the airport and approached the desk to check in.

Once checked in, Max went through the various security checks, before he was allowed to wait for his flight. He sat down, knowing that it wouldn’t be long.

Half an hour later, a voice came over the speakers, announcing that his flight was boarding. He hugged his mum goodbye and headed to the gate. He stood in line for a short while before being able to get on the plane. He boarded and sat down. He was at the window, which he had always preferred. He noticed a girl around his age sat next to him, and a woman, he assumed her mother, sat on the end. He wondered if they were visiting someone, or if they lived in Illinois.

The flight would take him to Chicago airport, then he’d be getting a taxi to his new place, where Leo would meet him. It wasn’t too far from the airport. It was a small apartment near where he used to live. He had a feeling it’d made things easier if he was in the same area, but he obviously needed something much smaller than the house they had previously.

Within 4 hours, he’d be at home…

“Hey.” Came the voice of the girl beside him. “Traveling alone?” She asked.

“Yeah. I’m actually moving.” Max told her. “Long story.” He warned.

“Well, we have 3 and a half hours, a crappy movie, and not much else to do, feel like talking?” She asked, chuckling.

“You really want to know?” Max asked her, raising an eyebrow.

She nodded. “My name’s Lisa. What’s yours?” She asked him.

“Max.” He replied, shaking her hand, that seemed to suddenly appear from nowhere, waiting for him to shake it.

“Okay Max, what’s your story?”

He decided to skip the childhood abuse, and jump straight to the part where his mum decided they were going to move. He explained that she had moved them from Chicago over to Carson City, in Nevada, and that he was moving back now.

“Oh… Well, I guess you’ll be seeing some people you haven’t seen in a while then, huh?” She asked.

“Yeah. It’s been a year since I saw most of the people from home. It’s gonna be interesting seeing them all again.” Max agreed, smiling.

“That wasn’t as long as I was expecting.” Lisa admitted, chuckling.

“Well I missed out some bits that weren’t really relevant.” Max explained, laughing a little.

“Ahh, fair enough.” Lisa nodded, understanding.

“So what are you doing in Chicago?” Max asked.

“Well, I’m coming back off holiday. My mum and I decided to holiday in Vegas, and then we visited some family in Carson City, and no we’re heading back to Chicago.”

“Oh, so you live in Chicago?” Max asked, smiling slightly.

“Yeah. Maybe we should meet up sometime.” Lisa suggested.

“That might be fun.” Max agreed.

“Hmmm… Hang on.” She rummaged in her backpack and found a pen and a notebook, she ripped a page out and scrawled down her name and number. “Give me a call sometime.” She said, smiling.

“Will do.” Max nodded. “But I feel obliged to tell you, I am in a happy relationship.”

“Oh, did that sound like I was suggesting a date?” Lisa asked, laughing. “Honestly, no worries. I’m asexual, and I’m pretty happy being single. At least for now.” She told him.

“Ahh. Fair enough.” Max nodded.

“Sorry if that came across as me hitting on you, though. I guess it’s something that happens now. It could be worse, most people think being polite is flirting now.”

“Tell me about it. Hold a door open for someone and they think you’re all over them.” Max laughed.

They spent the next couple of hours chatting and laughing. Max learned that Lisa was 19, and she had family all over the USA, and a little in England as well. Max admitted that he’d always wanted to go to England, but he’d never been.

As the plane descended, Max looked over at Lisa, who smiled at him before they touched the ground and came to a stop. They unbuckled their seatbelts and began to exit the plane. Max waved goodbye to her as his taxi was outside the airport already waiting for him. He headed outside and got inside.

Not much later, Max arrived at his new home. Leo was outside, he ran up to Max as he got out of the taxi and tackled him into a hug.

“I’ve missed you so much!” He said, smiling.

“I’ve missed you, too.” Max said as he hugged Leo back. “Now help me with my cases.” He commanded.

Jade and Jasmine smiled and waved from the doorway where they were stood. Leo’s dad had picked up the keys for Max, and Leo and the twins had been working on fixing the place up a little bit, as it wasn’t in the best condition when Max’s mum signed the lease.

“Hey Max.” Jasmine said, hugging him.

“Hey guys.” Max replied, receiving another hug from Jade.

“I hope you like what we’ve done.” Leo said, opening the door and walking up the stairs to the door of the apartment.

“I’m sure I’ll love it.” Max told him, walking into the apartment and looking around. He had one of his cases and his backpack, Leo had one other case, and Jasmine had grabbed the last one. “It’s amazing.” Max said, after leaving the case in the living room and looking around. “I love it.”

“Really?” Leo asked, looking hopeful.

“Really.” Max promised, pulling him into a hug. “Thank you. All of you.” He said, smiling.

“Now you need to come to mine. We have a whole thing planned for tonight, and you’re not allowed to skip it, we’ve already got you an overnight bag, we bought you some clothes and overnight stuff so you didn’t have to unpack today, and so we could just drag you to mine.” Leo admitted, smiling. “So come on.” He grabbed Max’s hand and pulled him out of the door, locking it behind them. The four of them walked towards Leo’s house. Max had never been more content to go on with plans he knew nothing about before. He trusted them. He knew that, whatever they had planned, it would be great.

“Surprise!”

A welcome home party. Max chuckled as he walked in the door, and noticed the banners and balloons. Then he looked around and gasped.

“Alex!?” He rushed over to his ex-step brother and pulled him into a hug.

“What-? How-? When-?” Max began 3 questions before deciding on one. “Why haven’t you contacted me for the past year!?” He yelled, punching Alex in the arm.

“I’m really, sorry, I lost my phone, so I didn’t have anyone’s number, and I moved too far away to get back, especially with no money. Leo managed to track me down and let me know about this, so I knew I had to come and see you. I managed to get the money and come over.” Alex explained.

“Yeah well… Keep in touch now. You’ve got no excuse.”

“Yes, boss.” Alex said, chuckling.

“Wait. There’s someone else.” Max said, turning around. “James!” He yelled, going and hugging the other male. “I haven’t seen you for even longer than these guys!” He said, smiling. “Where’ve you been hiding?”

“Sorry. I’ll tell you all about my stuff another time. But today, it’s about you, so… Let’s get this party started!” James yelled, and everyone responded with cheers. There were a decent group of people in Leo’s house, parents, school friends, people who lived near him, and anyone who was glad he was back.

The music seemed to start on its own, and everyone got to celebrating. Max was thankful there was no alcohol involved, but people were still having a good time. He smiled at the sight of half of the people he cared about most in the world having fun, and welcoming him home. It made his transition easier. But there was still a ways to go…

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